January 29, 2015

TOON THURSDAY: New and Probably Not Improved!

New cartoon today, as promised! I've had the sketch of this one sitting around for at least a week. I couldn't not draw this one. It made me snicker. Um, why, yes, it IS semi-autobiographical... Enjoy.

January 28, 2015


out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down
in that grass, the world
is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even
the phrase
each other
doesn’t make
any sense.
- Rumi

There's a certain kind of hero(ine) which is catnip to a certain kind of (hero)ine. The wounded warrior. The one who has given country, family, liege lord and king his or her best shot, and then life spits them back all cut up. And then the hero(ine)-worshiping protagonist is lured in by the siren sound of their stoic, silent pain... and gets all tangled up in them, and somehow fixes them, and the HEA credits roll.

Catnip, I tell you. Beauty and the Beast is a classic "for instance" of this genre. You have a tale of a ruined man...er...beastie thing, and Belle comes along and he's made whole, literally and figuratively. It is one of the most seductive (and dangerous) tales in all the land of Romance. And it works. Every. single. darned. time.

Summary: Skylar Evans' mother has worked at Taco Bell in the Central Valley for eighteen years. When Skylar was twelve, her father died, driving drunk. After the year her mother spent weeping and drunk, and she spent hungry, scared, and coping, Skylar promised herself she would never, ever, ever drink herself. That's what people do, in Creek View. Drink. Drink some more. Try to forget the world in which they're stuck. Unfortunately, Skylar's female bestie, Dylan, has already succumbed to the siren call of what every other girl does in Creek View - go to high school, get knocked up, stay in the same low-rent, no-skills, no future life that everyone else has. Baby Sean is adorable, but he's no ticket out of the trailer park, that's for sure. Fortunately, the third point in Skylar and Dylan's friend group, Chris, has another future in mind, one where his father doesn't have to break his back in the fields, one where his mother can sit back and not work at a minimum wage job for the rest of her life. Chris has goals, and Skylar is right behind him. She messed up a tiny bit, once, but she believes in The Pact. It's the promise they made to each other - they're getting the hell out of Creek View, and they're not looking back. Once, Josh Mitchell had had a ticket out of Creek View, too. His ticket was punched in Afghanistan, however, and nothing will bring back his friends, the sense of having the world at his fingertips -- or his leg. What's left seems to be Creek View - his nagging mother - and drinking himself blind to blunt the nightmares. He's on leave - has a decision to make about going back to the Marines - or going forward without them. If it wasn't for his job at the Paradise, he'd have nothing to hold him to Creek View, nothing at all... but now there's ...something. Someone. And graduation is over. All that stands between Skylar and getting free forever is one. last. summer. Like she always does, she works the front desk for Marge at the Paradise, checking in clients, cleaning rooms, and trying to stay in the pool long enough for the days to pass by. She makes art, she dreams of San Francisco, and makes friends with Josh Mitchell, a familiar stranger who once was someone she thought she understood pretty well. And then her mother loses her job, and Skylar can see the future that she's worked for and all that she's dreamed of... going up in smoke.

Peaks: As I read this novel, I was reminded forcibly of all the things I like about good realistic fiction, and those authors - Sarah Dessen among them - who are its most talented practitioners. In this novel there is some adept characterization, emotional resonance and an arresting inner mind. I also appreciated the realism of the Central Valley of California. It was eerily like watching all my friends from Lodi to Fresno grow up all over again. All they ever seemed to do was stupid stuff like dirt bike racing in orchards with no headlights, chasing roosters, hanging out in tailgate parties in vineyards partying, drinking - and dying in car accidents, too young.

Demetrios has a particular understanding of the military, and marvels that there are so few YA novels which are written about the teens who enlist. What she doesn't discuss is that there's a reason for that - the overwhelming number of YA novels are written about the lives of wealthy-to-upper-middle class teens, not blue-collar working class teens or working poor or poverty-level teens - and these are the individuals for whom enlisting at seventeen or eighteen is more common. Readers seeking more novels with military characters are finding them, however. (Of those listed, Wonderland can only say we've read JELLICOE ROAD.)

Valleys: This being a fairly polished piece of realistic fiction, the potholes on the road to real are perhaps more spackled over than necessary. Skylar manages to have a Latino best friend, and seems to avoid altogether issues of culture or identity in small town, rural central California. There are no class issues - not that there have to be issues, per se, but the character doesn't even seem to see them or think of them, which seems farfetched to me - but this won't diminish the enjoyment of most readers.

The best novels are the ones which show characters evolving as the book unfolds. Josh Mitchell was a bigoted, intolerant, sleeping-with-it-if-it-moves, hard-drinking, school blowing off loser who went into the military. He came home, and because he's injured, it seems that we're supposed to accept him slinging slurs like "faggot" around unapologetically or saying that things are "so gay" as acceptable because ...injury. Nobility. Former military. SPOILER ALERT: For my part, I don't buy that. Skylar is supposed to be his more evolved foil, and yet she just stands there when Josh calls Chris - her other best friend, the person who understands her the best on earth - a faggot. Um, what? And, she conveniently gets together with Josh when Chris has already left for college. That Skylar was able to turn on a dime and just jettison her loyalty to her soulmate seemed REALLY out of character for me. She never required Josh to apologize or to check himself - or grow up.

Another element of the novel which gave me pause was its treatment of PTSD. Those like the author with real life experience of a person with PTSD knows that surviving it and having a romantic relationship with someone who has it, is a crapshoot. You never know when it's all going to go to hell. That's really downplayed in this novel, and may give readers the idea that there's someone out there who they could ride in and rescue. However, this a romance, straight up, and so that's a little par for the course, maybe; the author gives a nod to the problems ahead, but with the golden sun shining blindingly on the horizon while everyone prepares to ride off into the sunset, it's hard to actually hear that little voice that says, "this HEA is a little premature." There's a lot of "forever" in this novel which seems equally premature, but again: romance.

Conclusion: While I might wish the reader had had more time and evidences of Skylar's commitment to her art and her personal growth as an individual instead of as part of a "we," I know that readers will fall hard for this story. Deft characterization and a realistic landscape peopled with sympathetic characters will make this novel a keeper for a lot of people. Readers after a sweeping romance and a starry-eyed "happily ever after" after intensely identifying with the loneliness and pain of Skylar and Josh will lap up the ending and hug this book when they go to sleep.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After February 3, you can get yourself I'LL MEET YOU THERE by Heather Demetrios as a little early Valentine's gift at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 26, 2015

Monday Morass: Beyond the B.I.C.

I'm curious about how others deal with the problem of having trouble getting started. I don't necessarily mean getting started with a NEW writing project, but getting going in general, when your mind feels sluggish, or the project is frustrating you, or you feel blocked for one reason or another.

Obviously, BUTT IN CHAIR is a basic requirement. B.I.C.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” ― Stephen King

However, that only addresses the physical environment of writing. What about the mental part? What if you don't know where or how to start when it comes to the actual work itself?

Do you just pick an arbitrary point and just GO? Like, let's say you know X, Y, and Z need work, but they're all equally frustrating, so you just decide, "Fine, today I'm working on Y and I'm just going to SIT DOWN AND DO IT DAMMIT."

Sometimes I use that method. Sometimes, once I start and really dig in and overcome that initial resistance, that fear and perfectionism, then I'm fine.

"There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write." -- Terry Pratchett

But I can't get past the idea that I want to muster some sort of enthusiasm, or at least sense of DIRECTION, before I begin, and there are times when that's very difficult. I feel like I want to find an answer to my writing problems, The Answer, somewhere in a writing how-to book or online on somebody's blog. Even after years of writing, I want a Magic Answer.

Unfortunately, the only magic answer I've found so far is this: That book ain't gonna write itself.

"I'm writing a book. I've got the page numbers done." -- Steven Wright

January 23, 2015

5&Dime Friday: Looking for Goats!

Publishing and the kidlitosphere tends to slow down around Thanksgiving, and it tends to take awhile to get back up to speed... it seems like we slowed down a little at the Wonderland treehouse as well. There will be a little more slowing from my neck of the woods, as Tech Boy has a little surgery next Friday and I'm going to be pretending that the sight of blood doesn't make me queasy. (It would be worse if I was doing the surgery, though, I guess.) I'll be reading then as I've been reading now -- but hopefully I won't be throwing as many books as I have been. You know how that goes... you get into a BookFunk(TM) and nothing seems right - all the protagonists are stupid, all the antagonists are paper villains, all the plots are pointless or preachy, and you wonder why the book is so this, so that, so the other, and you can't finish it. I've been having a few bad weeks of that (interspersed with Cybils reading, which is, of course, ALL EXTRAORDINARILY GOOD), and I've actually been driven to read - *gasp* - books marketed to adults!!! But, since quite a few good speculative fiction books for adults have come to my attention (MCA Hogarth's EARTHRISE trilogy was good fun, as well as Jaye Wells PROSPERO'S WAR series and a few more), all is well.

Our blog buddy, Lissa Wiley, just started the 2015 party, celebrating ten years in the Bonny Glen. She almost missed it - and fortuitously reminded us that next month, the Wonderland Treehouse will have been in production for ten whole years! Sometimes it's kind of disturbing to think that AF and I have known each other that long, but yep, it's been ten, ridiculously busy years since our MFA's were signed and sealed. We're published, we've read hundreds of books in that time, and we've never stopped talking books, eating and sleeping with them. (Tech Boy shakes his head about the sleeping with them. Someday when I am old, I am going to design a bedroom that only incidentally has a place to sleep... possibly something like this, since I live where earthquakes happen, and I'd rather not get beaned with books falling off the shelf... or the shelves themselves...). We don't know what exactly we're going to do to celebrate, but AF and I are looking forward to another TANDEM READ soon, and I'm eager to read some books that I've had recommended and seen of coming down the pike -- as well as catch up with the new Princess Academy novel by Shannon Hale which has had a massive line at our library forever (what IS IT with you YA people, anyway. It's time to let the adults have it), and a few more. And, I'm looking forward to the real excuse to party next month - goats!

Okay, I know maybe I'm the only one who adores goats, but even you have to admit those little guys are cute... How can you not give love to something with a weirdly slitty little pupil? Yeah, you know you want to get your goat on. ♥

Hat tip - and a curtsey - to the Tu Book tumblr who reposted that intensely amazing piece from DailyKos in 2011 called "Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King, actually did." Quick peek:

"This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.

This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.

I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.

This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended."

PLEASE read the whole thing. Please. Some people may be like, "Eh? beserk behavior, whaaa?" but imagine how bees feel, when human beings go nuts running from them, trying to swat them -- the bee is now traumatized and stinging in self-defense when before, it was merely minding its own business. In the past, history between some African Americans and Caucasian Americans has been that misunderstood and that terror-inducing on both sides. This piece resonates so much with me - looking back and understanding the weirdness of my relatives from childhood and adolescence. Read and understand the people around you. Understanding trumps fear, and without fear, we lose the glue that holds together racism.

WNDB, following their genuine awesomeness of just existing, is keeping their karma-momentum moving with an anthology! According to the press release, "Phoebe Yeh, VP/Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, has acquired publication rights to the Middle Grade WNDB Anthology, working title “Stories For All Of Us.” Ellen Oh, President of WNDB, will edit the anthology, which will have a January 2017 release date. Contributing authors include: Kwame Alexander, Sherman Alexie, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Rachel Renee Russell, and Jacqueline Woodson.

The anthology will be in memory of Walter Dean Myers and it will be inspired by his quote: “Once I began to read, I began to exist.” Every new story contribution to this anthology will be by a diverse author.

WNDB is proud to announce that the anthology will have one story reserved for a previously unpublished diverse author. WNDB will fill that slot via a short story contest. The winner of which will be included in the anthology and will receive a payment of $1,000 US."

Rules and further details on the WNDB tumblr. That anthology has some heavy talent, and I'm a little squeal-y over the inclusion of Our Sherman, especially, since he's kind of my writing crush. So, good luck, diverse and never-before-published authors! I don't want to name names, but some of you need to get out there! Now's your chance!

We in the Wonderland treehouse don't read much in terms of MG or picture books, but every once in awhile, we get word of something from our correspondents in the field, and have to give you the goods. Tasha at Waking Brain Cells has just reviewed a darling little book titled MY THREE BEST FRIENDS, AND ME, ZULAY, by Cari Best, with art by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. I'm so interested how this little book will be received, because the "me," Zulay, is blind. The artwork is really bright and vivid, and I like that there are few "only" kids - the only brown girl, the only white girl - no, there seem to be multiples of everyone, except, of course, for Zulay. Real life is much more like this than not.

Soooo, yesterday James Patterson's latest ...hmmmm, let's call it a attention-attracting media move was the Mission Impossible-style self-destructing book - a thousand free digital copies, a single $294,038 hard copy. Which, apparently, will explode, while the SWAT team lands on it. Because, we all have big money to spend on things which then promptly incinerate... and, apparently we also have access to SWAT teams, and can make them do our bidding - which seems a trifle odd, on second thought, since we're none of us the police, nor the military, but whatevs, right? It's James Patterson! He wrote a book, and it's THE MOST THRILLING READING EXPERIENCE A HUMAN BEING COULD EVER ENCOUNTER! No hyperbole there, no. Fortunately Book Riot has also sensed the inherent... issue-ness of this issue, and has answered the unanswerable... or at least asked a few more hilarious questions, including, "J.Pat, what the WHAAAA???" Honestly? Enquiring minds want to know...

A lot of us heard about Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith’s new novel Stranger before their novel was sold. These are the writers who were asked in -- gosh, 2013? -- to change the gender preference of the characters in their novel so that this agent would represent them. To which the writers said, "Uh, not." And asked some questions of their community, and found out that this has been a common experience for many writers. They hit the blogging and interview circuit to to talk a bit about how totally wrong that was. Well, the novel has sold, and is out this very minute -- and the sequel will be out later this very minute, since they've taken that into their own hands as well - and it's a rare bird indeed, you guys: HOPEFUL. DYSTOPIA. I am so there. Read all about it @Scalzi's Big Idea, then pop over to i09 to sample a excerpt, if you dare. I don't want an excerpt, I want the entire book! Now! And, possibly a Welsh rarebit...

Happy weekend! May it be filled with goats, unanswerable questions, good books, great meals, and small change!

January 22, 2015

Catching Up: Book Blurbs of Fall/Winter, Pt. 1

I've gotten incredibly far behind on my reviewing, so it's that time again: time to cut to the chase and offer quick, no-nonsense book reviews before I completely forget everything about these stories. This past fall was a real bear as far as staying caught up on ANYTHING, so I read a lot of books (for relaxation/escape) but lacked either the time or energy for my reviewing to keep up with my reading. I tried to temper this by reading some adult books here and there, but I nevertheless got very behind, and some of these books date back to about mid-September in terms of when I added them to my Goodreads. Anyway, some quick impressions:

All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry. This one held a lot of surprises. From the cover--both artwork and blurb--I had assumed it was a contemporary YA, but it turned out to be a sort of unspecified historical setting (could be anywhere colonial/pioneer-ish). That was my first shock, but it was a positive thing for this story. The tension created by the gritty, bare setting makes narrator Judith's situation all the more horrific as the mystery unfolds. After Judith's return from a two-year abduction, her tongue cut out, her own mother forbids her to expose her shame to their small, judgmental village by speaking. But Judith still has allies as well as enemies, and soon, the twin forces--equally powerful--of love and war force the village to recognize the inevitable changes that are already occurring in their midst. This one held a surprising amount of suspense, along with plenty of redemption to balance the terrible wrongs that pile up in the earlier parts of the story. Quite a powerful book, all in all.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find ALL THE TRUTH THAT'S IN ME by Julie Berry at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

The Iron Trial (Magisterium, Book 1) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. This is one that will surely satisfy and entertain anyone going through Harry Potter withdrawal. Of course, the story is rollicking and fun and much more than simply "Harry Potter American style." It's full of interesting and diverse characters, including narrator Callum Hunt, who has been warned away from magic at all costs by his father. Unfortunately, Call is summoned to take the entrance exams for the magical Magisterium, and despite his attempts to deliberately botch it up, he is admitted as an apprentice to the great (and enigmatic, and sometimes infuriating) Master Rufus. Along with two fellow apprentices, Call is plunged into the fantastical and dangerous underground lair of the magical school, which is peopled with wildly imaginative creatures and intriguing forms of magic that are quite distinct from Harry Potter. Master Rufus tasks them with seemingly endless zen-monk-like challenges to hone their magical skill, which of course makes his students desperately impatient and drives them out to explore on their own--and get into trouble. I don't read a ton of middle grade fiction, but this was a wonderful first book in a new series, and I'm eager to read more.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE IRON TRIAL by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes. This was another surprise title for me, and a fun, funny take on the whole "Battle of the Bands" idea. The band Lemonade Mouth forms, Breakfast-Club style, in detention, when five completely unlikely bandmates are stuck together and end up in an impromptu jam-out with a radio commercial. When supervising teacher Mrs. Reznik (who is, in fact, the music teacher) encourages them to actually meet up and try playing some music, at first it seems like a ridiculous, horrible, doomed plan. Five losers? New kid, nerd, social outcast, fat guy, daughter of a convict? Until they decide to have a little fun, and they end up becoming the voice for all the misfits of the school. Music just might change their lives for the better...but can they challenge Mudslide Crush, the school's current most popular student band? And can they succeed in bringing back the basement lemonade machine? There's a wonderful combination of the ludicrous and serious in this book, and that rings true. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of each of the five characters, and each one is a unique individual with a fascinating backstory who brings something different and entirely themselves to the band. I didn't realize until partway through this book that the Disney Channel made a movie out of this one, and I still haven't seen the movie, but I can see why it was chosen--it has that heartwarming/funny/caper/success-against-impossible-odds feel, and has fun with many of the tropes of teen movies without taking itself too seriously--yet the characters, again, are three-dimensional and feel real. This ended up being one of those "gee, I wish I'd written that" titles.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find LEMONADE MOUTH by Mark Peter Hughes at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 21, 2015


A year ago last week, my sister was the recipient of a renal transplant - that's a kidney, for those who don't do doctorspeak - and it was from a person who had passed away, someone older than she, and male. As grateful as she was for the help, there was an element of weird around the whole thing, for all of us. We humans have advanced scientifically enough so we can swap organs? If those organs could talk, the stories they could tell, about where they'd been before... we don't want them to talk, of course, but leave it to the creatively creepy Nicole Maggi to envision a parallel reality where a girl has a new heart... that remembers where its been...and beats for who it used to be, not for who it is now...

Summary: The first thing 18-year-old Georgie notices is that her heart doesn't beat... right. Like, in sync with the way her old heart beat. And the weird craving for strawberries? The way her own bedroom is unfamiliar and revolting? Suddenly her life -- which even her best friends know has been planned, planned, planned forever -- loses its familiar shape. Julliard doesn't seem like an overwhelming obsession anymore, even though she's been preparing to go there since she was ten. Everything that Georgie loved begins to lose its luster, and her memories are foggy and missing. Finding out what's driving her to be someone who she's not is easy -- it's the new heart, obviously. But, figuring out what to do about it is what takes everything Georgie's got.

Peaks: The premise to this novel is excellent - we've had all sorts of novels about people becoming cyborg for having mechanical parts inside of them - why not a novel about becoming part of someone else with a transplanted organ? This is original and unique, and because, by all accounts, horror is making a comeback, the timing for the novel is great and it could have done well as a horror novel. Figuring things out, which is what Georgie longs to do, is kept front and center throughout most of the narrative.

Valleys: If the author had chosen to write horror, it would have worked, but part realistic fiction, part speculative fiction with a foundation of crusading regarding the evils of sex-trafficking didn't hang together smoothly for me, though others may disagree. The beginning of the novel, which set up the loss of Georgie's memories and the negotiation with The Catch, was something which was sort of handed to the reader over a convenient few pages; if it had happened more slowly, so that the reader could feel and experience it, it would have felt more organic. I got the feeling that the novel was written from a ...soapbox, onto which the characters were manipulated around to make the theme work. I found the authorial voice was a little intrusive, with some fairly dense groupings of facts coming conveniently out through the mouths of the characters, who at times no longer sounded like young adults.

The novel includes a transperson, which is a positive; unfortunately, Georgie's world seems largely empty of diversity except if the diverse are prostitutes, pimps, cab drivers, or drug users. The transperson is "troubled" and so is someone who Georgie can help - which isn't so bad in itself, but... meh.

One of the goals for a main character is that they figure out their story on their own - so it's their story - however, if the characters had communicated better - or in some cases, at all, several unnecessarily fraught interactions could have been simply avoided. I found it odd that with the plethora of texting, phoning, email, and just being together in person options afforded to Georgie, she often acted on her own clues within her own mind, never telling anyone anything - and then wondering why they were furious.

I found Georgiana's level of activity after a heart transplant unbelievable in the extreme; though she was terrified of returning to the hospital, only a few weeks post-surgery, she was constantly running around and trying to investigate, getting pushed around, beat up, and otherwise threatening her health. (We can only wish a body post-transplant was that buoyantly resilient!) Finally, her romance seemed to happen very quickly - despite her heart "knowing" Nate, it still seemed fairly rushed and instantaneous.

Conclusion: This novel isn't anything like what I thought it would be - I thought it would be straightforward horror, with few subtleties. Instead, it's a novel full of unexpected twists. It's a fairly terrifying concept to have your body hijacked by a rogue organ -- and the author makes the case for it being equally terrifying for your life to be hijacked by sex-trafficking. Those readers who appreciate a dramatic, ripped-from-the-headlines, After School Special type of novel which gently lectures them and reminds them how lucky they are and how they should feel something for those not so lucky will enjoy this.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After February 3rd, you can find THE FORGETTING by Nicole Maggi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 19, 2015

Cybils 2014: A (Spoiler-Free) Peek Behind the Scenes

We are now well into the Round 2 judging period for the Cybils Awards, and this year I'm on the committee for Graphic Novels (both YA and Elementary/Middle Grade), which is always wonderfully fun for me. Without going into detail on the actual books themselves or my opinions (which are MUM for the time being), I did want to post a bit on the topic of how I try to evaluate the shortlisted finalists and what goes on behind the scenes when the judges deliberate. It's been interesting to me, because I was new to the whole book-award thing before getting involved with Cybils way back in 2006. I always felt like the awards judging process for books was a bit of a black hole. Who makes these decisions? How do they happen? What if people don't agree?

Because Cybils is a two-round process, the Round 2 judges are working from the shortlists that the Round 1 judges have settled upon, so that's the first cut. And, obviously, because it's a different set of judges that decide the finalists, it's always interesting and occasionally surprising (hopefully in a good way) to see what books we'll be judging in Round 2. This ensures that we get a variety of opinions in on the judging process.

Whether I'm reading for Round 1 or Round 2, my personal evaluation process is pretty similar when it comes to each individual book. Because the Cybils' two main criteria are KID APPEAL and LITERARY MERIT, during and/or soon after I've read the book, I write down my impressions on both of these measures and assign a score out of 10 for each one. What would kids or teen readers think about the story and/or subject matter? Is the story timeless, or important, or particularly well-written? For graphic novels, I also include a score out of 10 for graphic storytelling. How effective are the visual elements, and how well do they work with the text? (If I have anything additional to say, I write more notes, which often end up in future blog posts when the mandatory judging-period silence has been lifted.)

At this point, rather prosaically, I select my personal top choice or choices based on the total out of 20 (or 30, for GNs). If titles are within a point or two of one another, factors other than pure numbers may come into play, but the numbers give me a good starting point, especially if I'm reading a long-ish list and want to make sure I remember each one well enough to consider it fairly. [Please note that these numbers and stuff are just me and my personal method of keeping track of what I read as I read it. This is by no means anything definitive or official.]

Then come the group deliberations. Those might be a bit different on every panel, but generally speaking, sometimes there's a clear favorite common to many judges, while other times there's a bit more discussion and weighing of relative merits before coming to agreement. Sometimes it's a vote; sometimes it's more of an informal consensus.

So, yep--that's kind of how it goes. Right now I'm still reading and reflecting, and pretty soon we'll be discussing and deliberating. And then, on St. Valentine's Day, the secrecy lifts!

I wonder how it is in other book awards, though. I'll have to grill my librarian friends who have served on Caldecott committees and such...

January 15, 2015

Toon Thursday Blast From the Past: Here's to Miracles

I actually do have a new cartoon in the works, but it's currently...a sketch on a miscellaneous scrap of paper. I posted this toon in honor of the fact that my novel-in-progress is still slogging through the quagmire of many pieces of paper, both large and small, and here's me hoping for a miracle!

January 14, 2015

Oh, say, have you seen...

*... Zetta-E's list for African American authored books published by mainstream press in 2014? On one hand, it's good to see so many I missed. On the other... hm. Wrack your brains for more with me.

* ...the"It's Possible" pieces on Walter Dean Meyers from CBC Diversity this week? Some good stuff there.

* ...this prose poem from Red Blood, Black Ink? In fairytales, names have power. ...and shouldn't be, prefaced with the word, "Sorry." Been there, have the T-shirt, so this one resonates with me.

* ...that our Jules is getting to hang with Sharon Draper at Parnassus Books in Tennessee? Envy!!! (Also, hope you saw the very funny Bad Kitty/Nick Bruel interview -- I want that note to Sanrio as a poster, for serious.)

... our Betsy in make-up on a recent episode of KidLit TV? One word: shiny.

...have you seen some posts go up - and come down? That was me, screwing up the post-Cybils scheduling for finalists nominees; those will reappear after Feb. 14. Mea culpa!

Happy Wednesday, it's all downhill from here!


There are tons of people who talk back to movies. I'm probably the only person you know who talks back to books. This book is a page-turner, a scary, dark, shudder-inducing and twisted thriller with a deeply satisfying conclusion - the right person wins. You may do a lot of screaming, "No, no, no!!! Call the police!!!" and you may flinch and gasp a lot, but this I swear: the book ends in a place which allows you to finally exhale. Promise.

Summary: Piper has had a lot of crap go down with her -- more than she shows you, at first. But, every wince, reflexive duck and hyperventilating gasp, every nightmare and mumbled conversation with her invisible brother, Sam, it comes clear: she's been hurt, badly. Someone left her injured, bleeding, traumatized -- permanently -- and Sam -- is gone forever. Piper will never be the same ... but, that's not the point, really. Piper doesn't want to think about any of that. What she wants to do is start over.

Which she's trying to do. She's got a lot of cash, and her Nana helped her, long ago, to make the plans. She's got an idea of what has to be done, to make sure she stays safe, maybe no way to know how to get what she needs, but she's found someone to help her. Cam is big and tall and handsome -- and utterly terrifying. But, he has the information and the means to make her new life a permanent venture. Piper becomes Charlotte; blonde becomes brunette. New ID card, new age, new apartment, new job. It all looks like this new life is going to work out. Too bad she sees something - another injured, traumatized and wounded soul - that reminds her of how close she still is to the old. Is it right to move forward into the light, and leave someone in darkness? Piper couldn't save her little brother, Sam. But, she can save another life, maybe.

Trying to save a life puts Charlotte in the worst danger she's ever encountered. Notes appearing out of thin air in her apartment, addressed to her old name. Someone knows her secrets -- and if she's not careful, her brave new world will be a bigger, darker prison like the old.

Peaks: If you're looking for a novel which is a fast read with a lot of danger and high stakes, this is it. Plot-driven, this reads like a ticking time bomb, with a psycho on the loose. (Think Stephen King's INSOMNIA.) While Piper/Charlotte is a sympathetic character, there is necessarily a lot of disconnect between her narrative voice and the reader. She is traumatized, damaged, and dark. She fears everything. Yet, she's a fighter, trying to pull through.

Valleys: While readers feel for Charlotte, it's still difficult to love her -- and more difficult still to discover what her love interest sees in her. She is a mess, and even the most Knight-in-Shining-Armor wouldn't want to go there with someone who had been jailed in an attic and physically abused for years. That's just pretty real, and the book didn't delve into Charlotte's mental state and reactions and other details in a way that felt genuine to me. Ditto the younger survivor; while I can understand the book not wanting to be graphic, the violence was fairly graphic, so graphic recovery, with things like vomiting and bedwetting seems like it should have been included. If you're going to write a novel where stuff gets real, be real.

I have a hard time with novels wherein the action is all predicated on no one talking to an adult or going to the police. I am the first to understand (oh, so deeply these days) that sometimes the police are WAY more trouble than you want to invite into your situation, but in this case, it seems like myriad situations could have been avoided with a simple phone call and a HELP, PLEASE.

There were few appearances of culture or ethnicity in the novel, as Philadelphia is made up almost entirely of people of the dominant culture. Cam's family is Italian, and of course, there's the inevitable mafia mention, because obviously ALL Italians have mob connections. That was disappointing.

Conclusion: This is a fast-paced entertaining novel, perfect for wiling away a couple of dull hours in an airport. You'll be perfectly distracted, and things wrap up satisfyingly at the end. Fans of mild horror novels will enjoy this.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After January 27, you can find CUT ME FREE by J.R. Johansson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 07, 2015

TURNING PAGES: GONE TOO FAR, by Natalie Richards

"In third grade, it was spies vs. ninjas. What started as a pick-your-side game became an invitation-only club. In fourth grade, it was the seats on the back of the bus. By fifth, it was lunch tables. Year after year, the same kids found their way to the top of our small-town social stratosphere, while the rest of us wondered where we'd made a wrong turn."
- Gone Too Far, by Natlie Richards

Summary:Very early on in this YA novel, I found the above paragraph and thought... "Yep. That's high school." This was a very comfortable novel because it felt familiar in a lot of ways. A teen girl named Piper with a fairly strong voice and self-awareness finds what basically can only be termed a gossip book - a list of snoopy little notes someone has kept on others. Who broke what rule, who cheated on whom, who turned up late or drunk or otherwise in a mess. These items are supposed to be "truths" about the popular kids in school -- and at first, Piper doesn't really know what to do with it, other than look and marvel. Sure, she knows the popular crowd - Piper sees them through the viewfinder of the camera she's always got plastered to her face, but there's a distance... a remove from them. She sees how they treat people, and does... basically... nothing but what everyone else does: cringe and be thankful it's not her. And then a catalytic incident spurs Piper to DO something, to CHANGE something, to make some kind of sense out of a senseless world. Human nature, when putting tools (or weapons) into our hands seems to urge us to use them. And so, Piper does... only, once she gets to know someone from the popular crowd, she realizes that her little league of justice? It's just not as straightforward as it once seemed it was going to be.

Peaks: This book was really difficult to characterize... I can't say that I liked it as much as I admired it in pieces. I love a self-aware character who is articulate and has a hobby. That's always a plus for me. I love people who are truth-seekers, and who come away from a book with a greater understanding of what truth is, and their grasp on it.

Valleys: I struggled with some of the stereotypes in this book - that's one of the things that made it an uncomfortable and non-challenging read in some respects, because we were in familiar territory with Mean Girls and Hot Guys. In one scene, a Mean Girl got up to talk about a fashion club and inferred strongly that others dressed badly, which was hard to see happening in real life, but was very cinematic (prepare the buckets of blood, it's Carrie). I was also disappointed at the lack of representative diversity - even if there were was "wallpaper" diversity, as in, some kids just walking in the background or through a scene, the main characters were very typically non-diverse YA fodder.

Conclusion: This story plumbs the depths of human high school behavior. It's kind of a suspenseful Lord of the Flies with lockers and fewer pig's heads. It's an intensely thriller-esque bullying vengeance tale, which for some readers will feel deeply satisfying (for the most part). You may not like this book, but it will get your pulse pounding and freak you out a bit. Readers interested in a well-written, not-too-deep, slice of high-school life diversion, look no further!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find GONE TOO FAR by Natalie Richards at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 05, 2015

Monday Review: MS. MARVEL VOL. 1: NO NORMAL by Wilson and Alphona

Summary: I was excited, intrigued, and a little wary when I heard that the new reboot of Ms. Marvel was going to be a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenage girl. I cheered because young women of South Asian descent would finally be represented in the pages of a mainstream comic book, and while I have never been a huge fan of the Marvel universe (I generally prefer DC, Vertigo, and indies) or superhero comics (I tend to prefer antiheroes), there's no WRONG venue for the world of comics to reflect our diverse world.

At the same time, I worried: would the representation be excessively stereotypical? Would it be inaccurate? Would it have a hidden agenda? Would it fail miserably to appeal to its desired audience for one reason or another, bad luck or bad marketing or whatever, thereby causing gender, ethnic and religious diversity in comics to suffer a setback? Would it be too preachy or too message-y?

After reading the graphic novelization of the first several issues of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, I'm…well, I'm pleasantly surprised. Yes, there are a few stereotypes, but character types are to be expected in a superhero comic. I mean, it's a superhero comic. There is diversity, and plenty of it--not simply because the main character, Kamala Khan, is Pakistani-American and Muslim, but there is diversity depicted in the variety of beliefs and practices within Islam: Kamala's brother is so devout it drives everyone a little nuts, her best friend Nakia is Turkish and chooses to wear the hijab—against her parents' wishes, and Kamala herself is trying to find a middle road, wanting to do "regular American" teenage things while still loving and respecting her parents, who are strict and want to keep her safe. She's always been a superhero fangirl, and looked up to Ms. Marvel as a strong female role model…and then she ends up with some superpowers of her own. Then things really get complicated.

Click to embiggen.
Peaks: I like it that there are nuances to Kamala's relationship with her family and friends. This isn't just the story of a poor beleaguered Asian-American girl with overly strict parents who can never go out or talk to boys. In fact, one of her best friends is a boy, Bruno, and her parents seem to be just fine with him. Her parents, while strict by American standards, love Kamala and try their best to explain their point of view rather than simply being portrayed as tyrants. As I've already mentioned, the variety and diversity of characters is a positive thing, and the colorful environment of Jersey City is nicely shown in the artwork that provides a backdrop for the story. And, overall, I just think it's a fun, fresh take on the old-school superhero comic. Kamala is a relatable teenage girl, and there's a strong subtext of empowerment (both symbolic and literal) throughout the story.

Valleys: For me, I suspect the valleys here are things that would bug me about most superhero comics: moments of ridiculous dialogue and characters who are exaggerated for comic effect. At least the exaggeration and ridiculousness seems even-handed and no one group (or ethnicity) is targeted more than the others, as far as I could tell. If you don't like superhero comics to begin with, this one probably isn't going to offer you TOO much that breaks the genre mold.

Conclusion: This was fun. I will probably pick up the next installment just to see how Kamala copes with her new powers and new identity—another thing I did think was done well here was her struggle for how to view herself, and how to make something new of herself that wasn't done before by the previous Ms. Marvel. I was prepared to be annoyed that her superpowers, at first, came with a righteous head of blonde hair, but instead, Kamala goes on to reject the classic image of Ms. Marvel and redefine what it means to be all-American, reminding us all that there is no single, all-encompassing definition for it.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my friend Ross, who loaned it to me. You can find Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 01, 2015

They're Here! Some Observations.

The Cybils finalists for 2014, that is. And the diversity tally this year is something to shout about (in a good way, I mean). Some personal highlights from this year's Cybils finalists:
  • One of our most longstanding blog buds, Melissa Wiley, is a finalist in the Easy Readers category for her book Inch and Roly and the Sunny Day Scare. YAY YAY YAY!

  • I'm very excited to start judging Round 2 in the Graphic Novels category--so many amazing finalists for both Young Adults and Elementary & Middle Grades. And I haven't read that many of them prior to this--just In Real Life and The Shadow Hero. I'm eager to read Jimmy Gownley's The Dumbest Idea Ever!, which I read some buzz about when it came out (I love the title), and I've also heard great things about The Harlem Hellfighters...but most of all I'm pleased to see the level of variety: the diversity of authors as well as subject matter and style.

  • There are some awesome-looking middle grade finalists this year. I don't read as much middle grade fiction, but I really want to check out Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (yay for more books by South Asian authors!) and Death by Toilet Paper.

  • I haven't yet managed to review Brown Girl Dreaming, but I'm happy (and not surprised) to see it make the Poetry list. As a rule I don't generally read novels in verse, but somehow I feel differently about the memoir form, and this one is unlike anything else I've read. 

  • I've only read three of the seven YA Spec Fic finalists! My TBR list just grew...

  • I haven't, shockingly, read ANY of the YA Fiction finalists. Not even Pointe by Brandy Colbert, which has been on my radar for a while. MOAR BOOKS.
What do you think of the Big Reveal? What finalist titles are you looking forward to most? Inquiring minds (or, anyway, mind) want to know.