November 30, 2006

Proud Blogger

Oh, I am SO outing A. Fortis, my fellow blogger. It's her fifteen minutes of fame, but I'm so proud of her that I have to spill it -- she got to read a piece of her work today on her local NPR station!! All of us Mills Girls and your fellow YA writers are excited for you, A.F.! So they closed Cody's on 4th before you could read your future novel there, but they'll never close NPR (we hope. Stay away from public radio, Gubernator!)!

Many happy returns of your public novel reading occasions!

A bullet. A gun. A boy. A choice

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It was all one horrible afternoon: a boy folds aside a much loved rug, sits on the bed, puts a gun to his temple, and...

It was an afternoon when nobody was home. There was a gun. The oily taste of the barrel in his mouth. The cold feel of it against his temple. Then Jersey Hatch's hands...

It was an afternoon...

Wait. Maybe there was no gun. Maybe he drove his car into his parent's house. Jersey can't remember. So he asks.
And he asks again.
And he asks again...
Jersey's dad answers him patiently over and over and over, until Jersey remembers to write it into his book: (House is fine, moron, quit asking.) But what else is Jersey forgetting? Why isn't his best friend speaking to him? Who is Elena? And why is his mother so distant, so cold?

The things Jersey knows for sure are that a.) he shot himself, b.) he has no vision in one eye c.)half of his body doesn't work well d.)he has no control over what he says -- he pretty much speaks his WHOLE mind at all times, and it's worse when he gets nervous. The other thing Jersey knows for sure is that his best friend's little sister, Leza, and their grandmother, Mama Rush, are his only friends right now.

And still the question remains: why? Why would a popular kid try to kill himself? That's what everybody wants to know -- even Jersey. He doesn't remember why he wanted to die. He'll never be the confident golfer or the contented jock again. And people are mad at him -- mad enough to not speak to him, shove him when they see him, and hang up the phone when they hear his voice. Jersey's just not sure what's going on. He was at the top of his game, in the world he looks back upon, so why did he pick up the gun? Why was there a gun in the house?

It works at his nerves, but Jersey doesn't remember anything much that happened before he pulled the Trigger.

There's a lot Jersey has to find out. Author Susan Vaught, herself a neuropsychologist, takes us deep inside the sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching inner life of Jersey Hatch. It's a halting, crippled journey he takes, with his mind broken, his mouth spouting nonsense words, and his body with a mind of its own, but Jersey doesn't quit. An inspiring, painful, life-affirming book about an almost suicide, and the strength it takes to hang on and live and not give up and die.

Piecing Together A Dark Past

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Absorbing, tension-producing and simply written, Waiting for Eugene is a sympathetic look at the scars the Holocaust left behind.

12-year-old Sara's father, Michel, is haunted -- by myriad ghosts. Sometimes he is not really present in the life he leads as a talented architect and wonderfully encouraging husband and father. At other times, his love for his precociously artistic daughter, Sara, is overwhelmed by his fearful memories of the sister he lost by the same name, and he tries to shove her into the closet and under the bed, telling her to hide. He weeps easily, and talks about Eugené, Ivan, Rudi and Lilli, people who may or may not have ever existed.

When Sara's father is in his right mind, he is warm and caring and deeply proud of his daughter and his wife. Sara and her mother are bonded in their fear of his falling apart and regressing to the two years he lived in the blackness beneath a barn floor, hiding from the Nazis in the occupied French countryside. His 'episodes' of going back to that world are happening more and more often. Sara's buddy, Willie Jensen, knows about her Dad's problems, and though she's tried to keep the truth from him, it's becoming obvious to everyone that Sara's father is not okay.

At times, Sara's mother seems unsympathetic to her daughter, telling her sharply that she mustn't talk to her father about certain things, and must not encourage him to tell stories. Her fear keeps her stern and hard. Sara is such an innocent -- she is oddly clueless about her father's differences, though by the age of twelve it is apparent even to her innocence that sometimes her father is clean-shaven and on top of things, and other times, he is rumpled and distant. As old as she is she reacts to him as a trusting child, happily eating up his "stories;" her mind glossing over the odd comments he makes about the "They" who came and "turned out the lights" and "Skewered tous les enfants." Sara somehow makes light of the times that her father doesn't recognize her as his child. Her shock as her mother explains to her that her father's family is dead, that the stories he tells are either made up, or a horrifying mix of reality and make-believe, is painful, and somewhat difficult to understand.

Sara's affection for this amazing man, however, is easy to comprehend. When he is himself, he is exceptional, creative, amazing, and nothing like the other fathers on the block. Sara struggles mightily to do something to help him stay that way.

Though the dialogue in this novel is sometimes choppy and stilted, and additional characters like the class bully, other students, the neighbor's family, and Sara's mother are written two-dimensionally, the central characters of Sara and her father come through in full color. A memorable book dealing compassionately with mental illness, the Holocaust, and the tricks of memory, a real bonus is found in the back of the novel, with illustrations in haunting black and gray by the author herself.

A Huge Book -- Truly Huge -- In Every Sense

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Readers who aren't appalled by the length of Aidan Chamber's 816 page epic, This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn will be entranced by the detail of a life fully lived. The pillow books begin when Cordelia is fifteen and end when she is twenty, and the novel encompasses the creative thoughts, poetry and dreams of one Cordelia Kenn. Chambers' novel is destined to be one of those smuggled into school with the pages dog-eared so that people can read the "good parts;" as Cordelia talks frankly about love and sex and all of the plotting and pondering she did on her one true love, Will Blacklin, and their heartening, heart-wrenching love affair.

While this book is an overlapping of several pillowbook stories (one is told every-other-page and may catch the reader off guard until they figure out what is going on), it is the coming of age, in every way, of Cordelia. Her mental, physical and spiritual growth is charted for all eternity in her poems and prose. Her history and mental state is recorded meticulously, her impressions and digressions and dreams. She is writing this book of her life for her unborn daughter, so that she will know all there is to know about love and life and growing up, so that it won't be so difficult. It is a huge task. It is ultimately a labor of love.

At times the novel is beautiful, at other times, it may be bewildering to the reader, shocking, ugly and painful. Cordelia writes rapturously of her menstruation, details her affair with an older man, and writes painfully of a boy who was obsessed with her to the point of danger. The words ache and breathe vividly on the page, and the writing is intimate and personal. The errata and extemporanea of a young woman's world is put down for all time, and may encourage readers to do their own extensive journaling. Though the length is extreme and the plot sometimes loses the reader with its many turns, this is an amazing effort. Beecause of the explicit nature of the work, there is a little warning on the cover that the novel is not meant for "younger readers." Some may beg the question that this as a young adult book at all, still, it answers a lot of the questions -- in detail -- that many teens want to know.

Friendship & Development at Ashbury High

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Ashbury High is where some of the most interesting things happen in Jaclyn Moriarty's novels, and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie is no exception. If you've read Moriarity's other work, the feeling in this novel is the same -- Bindy - whose real name is Belinda - isn't like the other girls at Ashbury. In fact, she's rather better than all the other girls, if she does say so herself. See, she's the fastest typist, has the best grades and takes myriad classes and electives at which she shines, including debate team, yet she STILL has time to be available to her less brilliant classmates and come up with self-improvement lectures for them. She's only trying to help. Really. But then Ashbury comes up with a class called Friendship and Development (FAD) -- something at which Bindy should shine. Only, she's not shining at it. She's sucking at it. Everybody -- everybody but their sort of sweet and weird teacher, Try, hates Bindy.

The problem is, Bindy kind of also hates herself. She's miserable living with her Uncle and Aunt, with her Mum so far away, and her Dad ... well, being her Dad. He's demanding and a perfectionist, and thinks a lot of his Bindy-girl and her business plans, which is what he requires of her to get him to part with any pocket money -- but he also expects a lot out of her. Maybe too much. Bindy loves her brother, Andrew, who won't play Dad's games, and she's keeping a big secret for him, a secret that is nibbling at her. She turns to her mother, who is unavailable, involved as she in in her own business -- which makes her popular with the kids who hate her own daughter. Bindy's family is fractured and out of sync, and it's just another weight on Bindy's back.

Bindy, like many other of Moriarty's characters, journals, she writes lists to herself, and what she is writing shows the reader that she is slowly coming unhinged. She hates, hates, HATES the other kids in her FAD group. See, they're just not her type of people. She's been miserable in this FAD group, and her hate feeds on itself until she finds it's causing her to say things. She just... blurts things out, things that are hurtful or untrue. She draws ugly pictures of her classmates and posts them on the walls. Sometimes she can't understand what's coming over her. She's been talked to by the principal, by the debate team coach, and by her FAD leader. Even her best bud, Ernst thinks she's gone to far. What's worse, Bindy is always tired, lately, or dizzy, or feeling slightly ill. Her absent mother emails her that she must go to the doctor -- but to seek a doctor's help is to admit that something is going wrong. Bindy's truly not used to herself this way, and it scares her. She's just tried to help people, but some people are so WEIRD! Once, she even saw a teacher who slapped another teacher, and offered to be a witness for the incident, but the teacher called her a filthy name. Why? Why would anybody be so crass? And why do all the kids HATE her? How can they be so mean?

But people outside of Bindy's world are watching her. She's not herself, and though she doesn't think so, people notice. Even the quiet, enigmatic Finnegan Blonde (what a name!) notices. And, people -- even Finnegan, it turns out -- care. With a bit of luck and some quick thinking, it seems that the FAD class Bindy so loathes just might save her life.

Rabid Felines, Rhinestones & Murder

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Jas Callihan is seventeen, and she believes that everyone has a super power. Really. Her 25-year-old stepmother's (that's right - STEPmother) has a super power for not making people mad -- which is miraculous, since most people would in fact be pretty steamed to have a stepmother only nine years older than they are. Unfortunately, Jasmine's superpower is for being in the totally wrong place at the totally, TOTALLY wrong time. She can't believe it -- even though she's on VACATION in Las Vegas, doing nothing more exciting than sunning herself on a lounge and eyeing a hot guy named Jack across from her at the pool, she totally ruins a wedding, gets attacked by a mad, three-legged cat, and gets arrested by hotel security while in her bikini. For basically doing nothing!

Okay, so she sort of kidnaps the cat. But the little kid said.... Oh, wait. Right. It's not all that bright to do what little kids say. I mean, who knows what they're talking about, right? It's better to sleuth out the facts yourself.

A Fabio-esque guy in Speedos -- with a gun, crazy best buds Polly, Roxy and Tom, an evil (and ditzy) cousin, and one Bad Kitty take Jasmine's Las Vegas vacation over the top. This is a silly, fun, fast-paced fluff read with fast-paced, sardonic dialogue and amusing footnotes. And a BeDazzler. Because you've got to understand, no mystery is complete without rhinestoned disguises. Even if your vacations never include murder mysteries, this is a reasonable "beach book bag" read. Though at times in this wacky, surreal, lightweight mystery it's hard to believe or take seriously the idea that someone has died, it is still as uncomplicated and enjoyable as cotton candy.

Dark Obsession

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

How much do we really know about the life of Mary Shelley? Well, most people know that she wrote the classic tale of horror, Frankenstein. From there, our cinematic imagination intrudes, continuing instead onto that most dark and ghastly fiction about mad scientists and rising, pasty-pale half-men with bolts sticking out of their badly stitched foreheads. But movies aside, Mary Shelley was a person... a sort of sad, delusional person. She was seduced and forgotten, dragged about as the arm candy of an ambitious dreamer, and never fully emerges as anybody independent of her famous spouse until now.

AngelMonster takes us into the life of Mary Godwin, a dreamy young girl with a head full of romance in the face of a stern stepmother who wants her to be demure and chaste, and an indulgent father, who simply wants peace in his household. When Mary meets Percy, the silvertongued poet -- and liar -- he appears to her like the brightest star on the horizon. She imagines him as more than human, more than perfect, more than a man. An angel, perhaps, he will make all of her dreams of passion and life burst into true life and sweep away the mundane existence of the podgy, boring town she lives in. But as she runs away with him -- dragging her hapless and flirtatious stepsister along with her for security -- she learns that he is both more than and less than she thought. He seems to need her, for she is his Muse. He seems to love her, but he has a wife -- and she is pregnant, and already has another young child. She also was seduced from her parents at the same age Mary was. To Mary, this is hardly significant, though her parents are enraged and grieved, and Mary's social standing is ruined. Mary stubbornly clings to the hope that Percy's wife will die, or divorce him, and that she will be his one and only -- because what else can she wish for? She is ruined. Meanwhile, bad fortune dogs them at every turn; Percy social climbs, then bed climbs and finds inspiration and a muse in another house, and Mary is left to hang on tightly to the dream that she had. But darker dreams are filling her mind. What happened to the life she had dreamed of with her angel? And why can she now only see monsters everywhere she looks?

While not a 'fun' novel, this is a riveting account of life in the early 1800's, with glimpses of the outside-the-textbook views of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and other poets of the time. This is the type of book that can help bring English classes to life!

A Mystery Wrapped in a Scientist

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It's not every day that a house gets broken into by a master thief... and the master thief is asked to stay on as part of the household. In Victorian England, during the Industrial Revolution, there were places for thieves... workhouses, poor houses, and gaols. However, in the world of Horatio Lyle, a Special Constable to the queen and an avid scientist, people are seen as opportunities. Lyle needs an assistant, and he agrees to work with the sleight-handed thief, Tess, for a week. The week, as it turns out, runs a bit longer, and a bit more dangerously than either of them expect. First, Her Majesty's aides come to call, and Horatio has to turn aside from his own experiments with acids and tubes to track down something missing from the vaults of the Bank. Then, it turns out that the something comes with other complications. "Bigwigs," as Tess refers to them snidely. People of wealth and importance who are dead set against Horatio Lyle having anything to do with the case. When a mild-mannered woman turns into a gibbering madwoman and tries to end Horatio's life at knifepoint, Tess and Horatio know they're on the tail of an incredibly fast-paced, dense and hair-raising mystery. They grow closer as friends as they try to keep at least a step ahead of all of The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle.

I won't spoil the ending, but this is a book which grows in momentum as you go on. The first few chapters might seem a bit dense, and readers may struggle to keep track of names and characters, but the setting is superb, and Tess is a kick. An enjoyable, thoroughly engrossing read from start to finish, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel.

*Note: This book may not yet be available in the United States. Hang in there -- it'll make its way across the pond soon!

The Wildness Inside

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Singer/songwriter Ally Kennen took a detour from music to write a novel that simply roars with life. Beast is a subtle thriller, weighing the darkness of what lies beneath society's polite veneer against the need the reality of what and who we sometimes are inside.

The novel begins with a list of the horrors protagonist Stephen has done. Admittedly, he's not a great kid. He's... done stuff. Bad stuff. And pretty soon he's pretty sure he'll be able to add murder to his list of petty theft and grand larceny. Stephen's been in foster care for ages. His Mom's messed up and his Dad... wow, his Dad's a complete drunken nutter. Maybe. Sometimes he's violent. Sometimes he's giving. And once, he gave Stephen something... something that is threatening to pull his life up by the roots.

It's out there, and it's hungry. It's the Beast that needs feeding. And Stephen is bound to feed it, bound to care for it. If not, that rusty little cage... won't hold him back for long.

Nobody gets it. Stephen's foster parents try, but they're just as wary as him as if he were the beast himself. And Carol, his foster sister is up to no good. She's a conniver, and she just uses her beauty to play the world like a fiddle. Only Robert, his foster brother, cares about him, and that's almost worse. Robert reminds Stephen too much of Selby, the brother he worshipped and lost. And then, when the secret is out, Stephen finds he has to trust somebody. When that somebody turns out to be Carol, they both take risks to trust each other, and to do what's best without doing too much damage - they hope.

The Beast is real, yet the Beast is also a metaphor for Stephen's inner life. Will he burst out of control and do damage? Or will he be cornered, captured, and subdued? Will it all be for his own good? A quick, suspensful novel about survival, loss, trust and self-control.

Alas for the Drowned Ophelia... who lived.

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Shakespeare purists may be testy at the temerity of a writer to rewrite part of Hamlet, but Lisa Klein's new novel, Ophelia, accomplishes something the Bard forgot to do -- create a believable female character in Ophelia. Without detracting from the play, Klein fills in the outlines of Ophelia's life -- beyond what was portrayed as her madness, she is given the existence of any other medieval girl, and richly imbued with personality. Ophelia worships, works and wonders at life around her -- the politics in the palace, the faithlessness of her father and brother, the follies of romance. As she moves in secret as Hamlet's beloved, then as his secret wife, we are allowed a more complete view of the story the Bard only hinted at within the play. In grave danger, Ophelia does the only thing she can to save herself -- she goes mad.

Another view is given of Ophelia's brother, Laertes, and her social-climbing, proverb-spouting father, Polonious. Even Horatio, Hamlet's faithful friend, is granted a reprieve from simply being the last one standing to being a whole person. Ophelia gets herself to a nunnery, as suggested, and her life there is told simply and beautifully. With an eye to the religiosity of the age, Ophelia's life amongst the nuns has to it an air of simplicity yet historical truth, as the cloister was often the place of most freedom for medieval women during this time. As Ophelia learns to blossom in this severe place, she finds her grown-up self to be stronger than she first believed.

This is a romance without pretending to be anything less than an homage to Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Ophelia as a struggling young woman. Recommended for those who love Shakespeare, and those who wish a better understanding of his work.

Romance in pre-Solidarity Movement Poland

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Eva hates her dad right now.
For one thing, he's all the parent she has left. Her mother just died of cancer.
For another thing, he's taken her from the comfortable 'burbs in Chicago where she's just made the swim team and is dating the hottest guy in the whole school, and is taking her to ... Poland?! To help with some kind of underground education movement? Is he KIDDING!?

It's terrifying. It's about 1978 and in Poland, the Communist government is still in power. People's lives are in danger, and whatever you say might be listened to and reported. People are beaten, jailed, vanished.

Unfortunately, all Eva can think about is how the stores don't have meat, how gross it is to eat LARD as a treat, and how she just wants to escape from boredom and loneliness and return to her records, her comfortably warm house, her boyfriend and her life in the U.S... in her saddest daydreams, Eva also wishes she could have her mother back. Would Dad be doing all this... craziness if Mom had survived? Would this Poland be as important to her, too? Will it ever be important to Eva?

Life behind the Iron Curtain before the Solidarity Movement contrasts sharply with life in the United States in the late 1970's. As she lets herself become interested in Tomek, a young and handsome leader of the underground, Eva opens herself to the people of Poland, and allows their struggle to become hers.

Readers will take a little of the history of a people and place away from Eva Underground, and may be interested in learning more about them both. As Eva's understanding of the people surrounding her changes, the characters change from brooding, moody, incomprehensible people to flesh and blood friends whose needs are simple yet whose lives, because of their refusal to be silenced by their government, are horrifically dangerous.

In the Spotlight: Popular

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Stephanie Landry is DYING to be something other than what she is, that is, the dust at the bottom of the heap.

She hates being unpopular, and has been grossly unpopular, ever since that unfortunate incident in middle school with the Super Big Gulp and an obscenely popular girl's white skirt. Since that was, like, five years ago, Steph sees no reason for her apparent unpopularity to further cloud her life. She's got a secret weapon -- an old 1930's book called How to be Popular that she found in her best friend Jason's grandma's attic.

It's a step-by-step DIY manual that's got to work. Even though Becca and Jason are her two dearest friends, Steph wants her life to be more than people-watching and star-gazing with the pair of them. When's it going to be her turn to shine?

So, Steph reads the book, and contrary to the disbelieving stares of Becca and Jasons... it .... works.

For a minute.

Sort of.

But the thing about being top of the heap? It takes a bit of work to stay there.

This was a quick, fun, fluffy read, taking the big-picture of high school politics and paring it down to a week in one life. Some of the novel seemed a bit implausible to me -- I find it difficult to swallow that an entire town would still be taking to task a girl for a single mistake; I can't imagine adults saying "Well, you pulled a Steph Landry!" and not questioning the roots of the statement. Nor do I really believe that an entire school would be Borg enough to follow one girl's lead for so long. Surely there were people who couldn't care less about Lauren and her crowd, and were popular enough in their own. Also, popularity is set out as a hugely negative, shallow, flippant, deceitful and worthless thing though in truth popularity, and the people who are popular, are not always that way. It was quite predictable that these negative characteristics would never have been to what the main character aspired, so it was obvious she would end up un-popular. I would have been interested in seeing at least one or two nice popular people who weren't bimbettes like Darlene! However, the book is told from Stephanie's point of view, so her narration -- like her character -- isn't entirely balanced or trustworthy.

Meg Cabot is the queen of the quick wish-fulfillment YA fantasy-fiction read, and here she's done her stuff again.

November 29, 2006

Midweek Madness

Happy First Frost Day to You!
It's lovely, blue and crispy cold, the perfect time for fleece and great books. The books for the YA panel keep flying in, and each day brings another trio or quartet... I'm behind in writing my reviews, not to mention housework (ugh) and ironing... but I shall soldier on!

Oops -- I just got around to looking at this month's Edge of the Forest but it was well worth the wait, as Little Willow interviews YA author Lisa Yee, we hear the first SOUNDS from the Forest via Podcast (Yay! Live book discussions! This is quite cool.) and Scholar's Blog (with the correct link now!) takes on the Tiffany Aching stories from Pratchett. Reviewed in YA Fiction are three great reads -- I was especially interested to read another take on Justin Case. Do check it out.

Oy! An Amazon rip-off! Sheesh, people, it happens, I guess, but between librarians!? Our blogger bud at Fuse #8's been , er, quoted. Only without the quotes. I've begun to believe that the blogosphere is as big as a living room... the person who did it should've figured out how much we bloggers read other blogs and bookish magazines... other bloggers were bound to find out...!

Also via Scholar's Blog, an interesting discussion aimed at writers... as we write, do we find that we remove adult characters? Are your YA novels just about young adults? I recall a film course I took as an undergrad where my prof systematically ruined all of my favorite movies by pointing out how unrealistic they were. My favorite Robin Williams movie? Tosh, because all of the teachers at the school where the movie took place were beastly except for the one played by the Williams character. All of the Molly Ringwald/Brat Pack movies? Useless. Adults EXIST, and screenwriters -- and young adults -- don't exist in a vacuum without them. You'll want to check out the article and put in your two cents on the discussion.

As we begin discussion on our books for the Cybils, all kinds of questions are coming into my mind. First, how did I get into this? What makes me "qualified" to discuss books? (Our group Chair actually mentioned someone wanted to know our "credentials.") How can we be sure to make this short list we're supposed to have completed by January 1 is the "best" we can do?? So many questions... so many great books! I'm privileged to be a part of this, but at the same time, I am very, very nervous. Here's hoping I don't end up in wrestling matches with my other panelists.

Stay tuned!

November 28, 2006

A Gaggle of Graphic Novels

I just wanted to check in, say hello, and leave you with my solemn promise that, as soon as NaNoWriMo is over--or as soon as I've totally given up all hope of completion, which is also highly possible--I will post some tidbits of information I've collected and comment on TadMack's post below about graphic novels. I assure you, I have much to say on the subject (even more than usual because of being on the Cybils Graphic Novels Nominating Committee). Today I got a passel of packages (well, two) containing five more nominees, so I have my reading for the week waiting for me on the end table next to the couch (right next to the ones I've already read which are eagerly waiting for me to write reviews of them). Now to brew my cup of tea and get pounding on my keyboard...I could write 11,000 words in three days, right?? Okay, maybe not.

November 27, 2006

Post Holiday, Pre Hype

The morning paper is bulky with slippery ads. Toys and myriad electric shavers shriek for attention from blaring commercials and a horrifyingly fat man dragged by animatronic reindeer hangs from the neighbor's bewildering rooftop Disney nativity (Frosty? Mickey? Baby, Shepherds, & Santa?). The season of EidChriskwanzukkah is upon us.

I am ignoring it all in favor of the continued balmy autumn days, and really could have taken another few days down in Monterey. But, alas, the rain was coming, and aside from that, I had to get back to my reading, my novel, and my blog... but hope you all had a lovely grateful weekend.

I suppose everyone has heard by now that there is going to be a Buffy graphic novel series. Okay, let's just all say it -- Comic Book. If someone (ahem, a. fortis!) can explain to me the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book, I'd love to hear it. At any rate, untold millions are blissed out that Buffy's back. Season 8: The Graphic Novel. Sadly, no word yet of a musical within a comic book...

I wonder if this Buffy thing is part of the push to get girls involved in reading graphic novels. DC Comics has joined with Alloy Entertainment (eek, remember them from the Kaavya Viswanathan episode?) to come up with something just for girls called Minx Books. *Exciting Genre Crossover Alert!* Minx's first graphic novel is called The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, and is written by Cecil Castellucci... and illustrated by Jim Rugg, who has his own comic creds firmly intact. This will be released in May of next year. Exciting, as it is said that this is DC's biggest push in the last 30 years! Though this is all very cool, Minx is still a ways behind my girl Pancha who has been doing the girl+graphics thing since I met her in grad school in 2002. At any rate, happy graphic novels to all the girls -- anything that encourages readers and artists is great.

Via Jen Robinson's Book Page, a very interesting piece on Linda Sue Park's time on the National Book Award committee. And yes, they read Every Single Book that is nominated for the award. So I shall no longer look around, bug-eyed, over the mere eighty I am called to read for the Cybils... Speaking of which, we were Review of the Day on the Cybils board on Friday. Yay! I think it's a neat idea to showcase all of the reading and critiquing and blogging that's gone on from all of us. This is a huge team effort, and it's going to be fun to see it all pulled together... Meanwhile, over at Chasing Ray, we discuss adults reviewing YA books -- are adult readers/reviewers really too old to think like teens and do we review books about YA sexuality fairly, given our not being the age of the author's intended audience? I'm giving that some serious thought, especially in reference to the Cybils. Hmm.

The buzz on Cathy's Book is pretty good, surprisingly. Despite the high degree of product placements that make it read like an ad, the plot as reviewed by The Chronicle is reportedly mostly okay. This is a book that I've wanted to read since I heard about it, because of the neat Web connections, etc. that were intended to deepen the mystery. It's on my ever-lengthening to-be-read list...

Now, here's something interesting. The Book Standard has book video awards for teen novels. Starting this week, they'll begin the judging. It's an interesting idea to get readers acquainted with books; I'll be interested as the whole book video thing gets off the ground to see how successful it is for YA. (Via Bookshelves of Doom.)

Back to the books for now!

November 20, 2006

The Cybil Nomination is ....OVAH!

Midnight, Eastern Standard Time was the hour that the Cybils closed, and can I just say first a serious thank-you to everyone who participated? You rock! Our team has ...drum roll, please... EIGHTY TWO books (at last, bleary-eyed count) to consider for our part of the award. Eighty-two! And now can I just say an exasperated "thank GOD the list is closed!" There are five of us. There are eighty-two books. We are reading as fast as we can...

This continues to be good fun.

As I've been reading for the Cybils, I've sometimes had a little moment of surprise and/or a "Yeah, it's good we're talking about this" moment at some of what I've read. When dealing with YA literature, there's always been the school of thought that it must be edgy, must be hip and 'now,' and that what "now" is, is quite mature in ways many of us were not, at least in our 13 - 17 year old days (and possibly in ways some of us still aren't now!). I've been pleased to find that our nominations span both ends of the spectrum -- the relatively tame, and the completely... lively; the relatively shallow, and the comparatively deep. Since it's my feeling that there are just as many shades of young adulthood as there are themes in literature, it's great that our nominations run the gamut.

I'm not sure how I'd feel about some of the 'gaumuting' in Middle Grade or Picture Books, though. I'm glad I have nothing to do with stuff for younger readers, it seems like someone is always throwing down a challenge and stalking school board members when it comes to literature for younger kids. Sometimes it must seem to parents that writers of children's books write them solely to talk about the things that they, the parents, don't want to talk about -- and don't want anybody ELSE talking about to their kids... For instance, a book in literal black-and-white by Dutch author Dolf Verroen received the Gustav Heinemann Peace Prize in Germany this week for talking openly to children about ...racism. The story is told from the point of view of a white slave-owner's daughter, who receives a slave for her birthday. He is dumb, she thinks, and is almost instantly bored with him. Verroen sets up the slave owner's daughter not as a "bad guy," but as a person for whom there is no other lifestyle - she acts the way she does because she doesn't know any better. The very banal description of the inhumanity in the way she treats her slave makes for discussion and social commentary in and of itself. At the close of the controversial book, the slave is sold, and the girl goes away to boarding school, and while it's less likely that UK parents are going to go to war with the school board, there are a whole lot of confused and unhappy parents there. Oh, and the title of the book? "Wie schön weiß ich bin" ("How Nice and White I Am"). Wow. Can't wait for the reviews.

On American shores, ABC News reported just last week on writer and activist Zekita Tucker's controversial children's book dealing with the n-word. I was surprised that I haven't heard much else about this book, so it must not yet be widely circulated, as it has been out since March of this year. Some people see it as a godsend, while others are bewildered that this topic has to be discussed with children in the 6-8 year old range at all.

This sentiment of 'why are we discussing this' also came to the fore this week at Shiloh Elementary School in Illinois, where parents requested that a picture book on the true story of two male penguins who adopt an egg at a New York Zoo, be restricted to a section for mature issues, and maybe even require parental permission before their child can check it out. Parents requested this because the story stated that the penguins "were in love," and felt that the picture book introduced homosexual themes that their children were too young to understand. (Although if the kids were too young to understand those themes, why, then, could they not just read a story about penguins adopting? Never mind.) (I surmise the same parents who vociferously protest this story also don't know that the so-called "gay" penguin "couple" has "broken up". And yes, we will anthropomorphize everything in our path!). Although the challenge has not succeeded in Illinois so far, parents in other schools in nearby states are bewildered and frustrated by the book's presence in their elementary school library.

As a writer, I know that sometimes there are stories I want to tell - that I feel need to be told. I am careful about things that other writers aren't as careful about, mainly because I'm still leery of my mother reading something of mine and having a stroke, or my teachers coming after me with the soap. But seriously, while a writer doesn't want to censor themselves, I think a lot of us do think about what we include in our work. How racy is too racy? How intimately do you want to depict... well, intimacy, or how graphically do you want to portray violence? People are always asking Chris Crutcher about language, and why he "makes" his characters swear. Is authenticity in literature only possible when the character uses multi-syllabic profanity? Maybe... Maybe not. The thing is, as a writer, it's impossible to know where to draw the line for how far one will go based on one's readers... because there are as many readers and as many lines as there are books ... and you will never please everybody.

That's somewhat of an awful thought, as well as a freeing thought: you, writer-whomever-you-are, wherever you are, you cannot make everybody happy with your work.

So, just do what you're going to do.

I continue to laugh at myself for presenting this as The Big Thought, and I'm sure I've written about it before, but it's a compelling truth, one that I have to rediscover repeatedly: I cannot make everyone happy with my writing. I can't make anybody like what I've done, or what I do. I have to be true to my of whatever. And go with it.

So, I'll do what I'm going to do my way (and my agent will moan, "For God's sakes, let your characters swear!" which is the single funniest line I've ever heard anyone utter inadvertently), and you do what you're going to do your way.

And that's all.

Oh, and good luck with the school board.

Livin' on the Edge

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It was supposedly just a social studies project. Adora Benet is going to change her status at her school -- for an assignment.
It has nothing to do with the fact that she wishes dearly that she was popular, that someone would pay attention to her, and make her one of the Ruling Class in the junior class. Nope, nothing to do with that. Dora's not all that big on being honest with herself. 'Cause if she was honest, she'd admit that she hates being at the lower end of the pecking order. She hates being not quite It-Girl enough to count. She's pretty, but not gorgeous. Her family is 'comfortable,' but there's no way they're as rich as Sondra Fortune, whose mother is a designer, and whose father is some kind of corporate guru. Dora's tired of being way out on the fringes of things, so when Sondra's snipes hit a little close to the bone, Dora decides it's time to take a chance and overthrow the school -- in the name of social science, of course.

With the help of her best friends Elizabeth (Eli) and Elizabeth (Liza), Dora starts kicking butt and taking names. Dora's movements are tracked in the school newspaper, her comments repeated in the hallways, and in the lower school. Jaya, Dora's little sister, is hero-worshipping on a major scale, and suddenly Dora realizes that SHE is the new king of the school -- I mean, yeah, thanks to Liza and Eli, but they're kind of getting up her nose lately anyway. Sondra Fortune is a total nobody now, and her little syncophant, Noel, has no one to come to his jazz gigs anymore. Even the "evil twins" who were Sondra's best friends no longer have the Golden Life. Dora doesn't have time to worry about it, though. She's finally got her crush, Vin, to spend some major quality time with her, and after her crusading for justice lands her in detention, she meets another gorgeous guy who seems to only have eyes for her. Is Dora's life finally coming together? Or is she just cruising for the hardest fall of all?

Fast paced, amusing, and just slightly improbable, Fringe Girl takes on high school cliques and clichés and turns them around. I was mildly disappointed that a prime opportunity to talk about race (hapas, and the one-drop rule) was glossed over quickly, but the focus of the novel wasn't perhaps deep enough for this. Still, a quick, entertaining read.

Anne Hathaway in Love

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Poor Anne Hathaway. It's high time a girl her age were married, but her first suitor is a nasty, forward boy she wants nothing to do with, her next was caught and imprisoned for poaching, and has had to flee, her next suitor has died, and the latest one her awful stepmother sets her up with to get her out of the house is worse than having no husband at all. And really, it's not that Anne's not comely or pretty like all of the other girls in Stratford-Upon-Avon. It's just that she's really not sure she wants the kind of life that so many others of her friends have. She wants a marriage with all the trimmings. Anne doesn't just want to marry for duty. She wants to marry for love.

Anne and her family have been friends with Mary and John Shakespeare since Anne's mother was alive, and her father was ever a true and steadfast friend of the family, despite his new wife, Joan's constant carping on their circumstances and pride. Though she grew up thinking of the boy Will as her brother, despite the fact that he is seven years her junior, he has always been a close, bright, sprightly friend, and before she knows how to chase away the thought, Will has lodged himself securely in Anne's heart. But what if Loving Will Shakespeare means that Anne will be forever left on her own? Is it still worth it to marry for love?

A thoughtful piece of historical fiction from a veteran in the field.

Not What He'd Wished For

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It's 1976, and fifteen-year-old Richard is on yet another scorching hot summer vacation in Wales, where his mother has her head in a novel, and his father spends his days fishing. Richard's best friend from the vacation village, Dylan, has dropped out of school, and Richard's at a loose end... he's still a boy in Dylan's eyes, and not yet man enough to do what he wants.

Richard goes back to what he and Dylan called The Wish House, the abandoned mansion where he and the two of them spent fun afternoons imagining themselves as pirates and buccaneers. To his surprise, he finds it refurbished, cleaned up, and occupied -- by a naked woman, lying in the front garden, sunning her voluptuous self. From upstairs, Richard sees a girl, dressed only in a saraong, who comes down and escorts him outside. He has now met the Daltons - Jethro Dalton, a world-famous painter, his wife, Lucia, who seems to have slept with the whole town, their amiable son, Joe, and their gorgeous daughter, Clio. The Daltons, who fascinate and shock Richard, casually smoke dope and strip naked on the beach. Their easy, bohemian ways intrigue and interest Richard, who, even as he is somewhat afraid of them, is fascinated. He wants nothing more to be a part of the crowd. It seems that fate hands him Clio Dalton, a girl who also loves to play in the woods, imagining scenes from long ago. Jethro and Lucia seem happy to have Richard around, and his and Clio's summer love is as idyllic as the sun-drenched days. When Richard is initiated into the family by becoming a model for Jethro, it seems he has all he could ever want. But when it all ends, Richard begins to understand that his time at the Wish House wasn't fate at all...

A dark, disturbing novel about joy and lust, obsession and betrayal.

An Astonishing Life

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Octavian is a prince, and he lives the life of a prince, in a large home, dressed in silks and satins, taught his Latin and Greek by a host of scholars who flock around him. Octavian is so importan that even his poop is weighed, as the scholars keep track of what he takes in, and what he puts out. The only thing Octavian has to worry about is learning his lessons, adding his sums, and staying out of the one locked room in the house. It's just life as Octavian understands it... but it's not the life of everyone in the 18th century, as Octavian finds out. One day he opens the door to a room he is forbidden to enter, and he finds out that the life he has knowns is frankly, not at all what he thought. Now the future yawns as a terrifying void, and he's not sure just what will happen. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I, The Pox Party is sometimes a difficult book to read, sometimes gross, sometimes gorgeous, and sometimes really scary. Readers who like dark, gothic work will enjoy this, as will people who like to read another viewpoint of American history. It's a bit challenging, but at the end, as the pace quickens, you will be anxious to know what happens in Volume II.

November 17, 2006

Warning: Keep Out! This Means You!...Okay, Fine, Read It. See If I Care.

I can tell by some of the references to The Smiths and Morrissey that Lauren R. Weinstein's Girl Stories is inspired by the author's own past experiences as a teenager (evidently back around the time I was a teenager). However, this set of comic vignettes is told in a voice so authentic that if it didn't have that little twinge of knowing hindsight, I'd willingly believe it was written by someone going through those difficult years.

Being a girl gets really difficult and confusing (well, more confusing) from about age twelve onward, and the stories and snippets Weinstein relates in Girl Stories are like illustrated diary entries that bring that thorny time period to raw and colorful life: from "I Am So Cool" and "I Am So Cool II" to "Morrissey & Me," "Death by Volleyball," and "The Egging," we get a glimpse of the trials and tribulations of the fictionalized Lauren.

And so many of them are familiar trials and tribulations—the urge to try to fit in warring with the need to maintain your individuality, trying to hide your weird leftover childish habits from your friends, trying to figure out how the world works and where you sit in the grand scheme of things…by looking for a boyfriend and getting your belly button pierced. Well, okay, maybe those last two aren’t indicative of how everyone copes with the big imponderables of teenage life, but there’s always the gleeful schadenfreude of laughing at somebody else’s misfortunes.

The art style is as appropriate as it gets—active, at times jarring, and always hilarious, with the feel of something that's been doodled illicitly in the margins of class notes. It's not always great artwork—at times it gets a little sloppy—but that fits the style and intent of the book, I think, and often added something to the overall hilarity of the ongoing story of teenaged Lauren. And it was very funny, very cynical, and above all, very true. Nearly every snippet made me remember something I'd thought or done during school, or at least made me cringe with sympathetic embarrassment.

This one stands out because I haven't seen anything quite like it—it's got a Mad-magazine-meets-R. Crumb sort of feel to it, but it's most definitely written for girls, and probably wouldn't be as appealing to boys (although, who knows? They'd certainly learn something about the way girls think). Not every girl will relate—Lauren’s teenage self is brash, colorful, headstrong, and often acts out of insecurity—but even if you don’t see much of yourself in here, it’s easy to recognize others, to remember that you probably exhibited your own unique brand of stupid behavior, and to feel the catharsis of laughing about that time period that you spent so many years trying to forget completely.

This graphic novel has been nominated for a 2006 Cybils Award.

And, on a separate note, this is the second nominee I've read in the graphic novels category that was created by someone who is also a printmaker. This is very creepy but also heartening, because my husband and I keep talking about collaborating on a graphic novel, and we're both printmakers, too. Hooray for mass-produced, affordable serial art forms!!

November 16, 2006

A Quick Note While the Week Flies By

I'm in the middle of reading a winner! Cheers to the astonishing, talented M.T. Anderson!

Just yesterday I discovered Nancy Werlin's daily blogging about the National Book Awards, and was disappointed on her behalf when M.T. Anderson's novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. One: The Pox Party won last night. Not that Anderson's book is anything that didn't deserve to win! No way! I'm in the middle of it, and it's intensely ...different. I'm deeply intrigued by Anderson, his talent, and his flexibility. Still, this was a hard, hard, hard choice amongst some really great books, so I'm also a little disappointed that American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang didn't win. I have big hopes for the future of graphic novels, not only because it encourages more writers/artists, but because it creates a new audience of readers. So, tough choices all around, but I'm excited that this is the FIRST volume in Anderson's work on Octavian. I can't wait to finish it and write up a review on our sister site.

Meanwhile, Competizione has more whacked out contests going on - don't forget to check them out to win fun stuff from the blogosphere that you completely don't need, but what the heck. Also don't forget our book awards -- the clock is ticking on the Cybils, guys, and nominations close the 20th!

On my own writing front, a note from S.A.M. informs me that my editor is still catching up on her post-wedding work, but my contract is coming down the pipe to me soon, and that my editorial letter and a read-through on my second novel is in the works. If I think I'm busy NOW, after Thanksgiving I have a feeling that things are going to really and truly kick into high gear, as we work to conclude this final edit so that my release date -- tentatively scheduled for Winter 2007-08 -- can stay on track. This is a good, if antsy feeling... one which I feel better not thinking about at all, which is why I'm just as cheerful to dive back into my Cybils novels once again. And can I just say it's a huge dive? Yesterday I just received my review copy of Aidan Chambers' newly released book... all 816 pages of it. I'd better get back to work!!


*secret agent man

November 13, 2006

War, History and Books We Hate

A late Armistice Day to you (One doesn't wish one a "happy" armistice, does one? Since the "war to end all wars" has now been labeled WWI, that's an unbearable bit of irony, I should think...). I hope you read one of Wilfred Owens' poems, and at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month gave brief thanks that no one was shooting at you, and braved a wish that soon no one would be shooting anyone at all.

This week seems a bit short on book news for young adults, but I want to point out an insightful adult book that someday may inform how history is taught in classrooms. What Was Asked of Us: An Oral History of the Iraq War by the Soldiers Who Fought It, by Trish Wood is a collection of interviews of current and returned soldiers that is shattering and painful to read. Our paper carried only an excerpt this weekend, but it was enough to know that this is going to be an important piece of posterity.

No matter how quickly adult books seem to be able to pounce on breaking news and make it into a bestseller, children's lit moves at a much slower pace. I'd like to think that's because young adult writers have the sensitivity to know that multiple points of view and mixed emotions mean that books for young readers have to be carefully crafted, unlike adult books which seem to land heavily on one side or another of a question without taking sensitivities into context, but that may be overly optimistic. For whatever reason, I have found very few books on the current situation of war, and those that I have found have been reviewed so poorly that I have hesitated to mention them. Colleen (corrected 11/19 from Colette - sorry Colleen, brain fog!) over at Bookslut (in Training) has done a whole bunch of reviews on this topic this month, so do check them out! And I'd like to share the two young adult books I am looking forward to reading as well. One is an early reader book called The Librarian of Basra, and another graphic novel called Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq.

Published in December of 2004 and January of 2005, these books single out the heroism of one woman, a librarian from the city of Basra named Alia Muhammad Baker who singlehanded moved 30,000 books from the Basra library, six days before the liberation of her city in Iraq burned the library to the ground. Speaking of a single person's heroism sidesteps prickly political issues and allows young readers a feel-good story they can get into. In this small way, the deprivations of war are apparent -- people trying to save people will inadvertently burn down libraries and destroy homes and lives in the process: that is war. However, these books also allow a glimpse inside the stereotypes of perhaps what readers see on the news, and allows them to see that people everywhere are somewhat the same, and that there are people everywhere who will do almost anything to save a good book.

This month has simply exploded into busy-ness. I think the NaNoWriMo thing is going to have to take a back seat to the Cybils, that fantabulous award whose reading list is happily growing longer and longer (And if you haven't nominated anything yet -- move quickly! November 20th approaches at a remarkable clip!). My quick-write novel is also taking a back seat to the Thanksgiving Pageant into which I somehow got embroiled (no turkey costumes, thankfully, but we've got presidents! Costume ideas for Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, anyone?), unexpected in-law visits (oh, dark day!!!!!) my last edit and then holiday travel plans to the aquarium with the Little Sibs (I love that so many things are open Thanksgiving Day!).

I'm still popping into cyberspace between book reviews, and I've been reading some great blog posts. I have especially snickered at Fuse #8's contentious little discussion on "classic books" that we've all hated -- books like The Giving Tree and Love You Forever and other weirdly guilt-producing favorites of people who like to say which book is "classic." I am SO glad other people think that mother/son duo had some serious psychological hang-ups... It's true that many people hate Little Women and loathe Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Wizard of Oz, Pollyanna, and many of the Anne books past the original Green Gables, but I'm actually embarrassed to name my own truly most un-favorite picture book... but I'm going to take this opportunity to do so anyway: it's Tiki Tiki Tembo.

Okay, stop with the hissing!

Even as a child, I not only wondered what the heck was wrong with the mother for very obviously loving ONE son more than the other, I was annoyed that she'd given them such dumb names!

Look, stop throwing things, okay? I know people look back on this one with nostalgia, and a whole lot of people can recite it whole. But I find this to be less a children's book, and more a long joke with a racist punch line. Yeah, I know - sour grapes to me. Kids love to say that long, silly name, and I don't blame them. But there are simply better chant-along books. I'm just sayin.

November is really here -- complete with schizophrenic weather patterns of balmy blue sunny days followed by steel gray damp and cold. I'm starting my thankfuls already, and just now, I'm thankful for fleece blankets, good lighting, and more Cybils books to read.


The Exceptional Gallagher Girls

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Cammie Morgan is nobody's wimpy sophomore -- she can kick butt with the best of the Gallagher Girls. No, really. She can kick butt. She could probably kick your butt with her right boot after kicking, with her left boot, your teeth down your throat. Or she could do it concurrently. Cammie Morgan could drop down on your from the ceiling, immobilize you hand and foot, and slap a knock-out patch on you in about fifteen seconds, and you'd never know what hit you. Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women isn't your average ordinary girl's school... it's a school for spies.

If you're not NSA, FBI, or M15 or CIA, though, Cammie sort of has to keep part of her life away from you. And, when you've met a boy outside the school gates, um... how does that work out?

It doesn't. Well, mostly it doesn't. There's a lot of stuff Cammie and her friends Bex, Liz and Macey can do -- go through a guy's trash, hack into his phone line, stake out his house -- but none of those are particularly romantic, nor particularly what a NORMAL girl would do with a NORMAL guy in a NORMAL relationship. Cammie has to figure out if NORMAL is ever going to work for her.

And it might not.

Told breathlessly, I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You details the dramatic lifestyles of the larger than life Gallagher Girls. If it feels like it's a series that's just getting started, you're probably right - after all, the novel has been movie optioned, and it has that 'Jr. Bond series' feel to it. However, readers who truly love spy thrillers will hope that more worthy escapades are planned for the girls which don't revolve around them using almost every skill they have just to get close to a BOY. Also, the angle of a missing father without a body to be sure he's dead is fairly typical soap-opera fare which allows for said dead dad to pop up miraculously alive in a few books, perhaps, but this is still a reasonably entertaining and fun start to the Gallagher series; here's hoping they get even better.

Hiding from Fate, Just in Case

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Sometimes life itself is just... blinding. David Case has one such blinding moment when he sees his small brother teetering on the edge of a window sill. Suddenly possible futures collide: what if his brother had fallen? What if he walked into a truck today -- tomorrow? What if he's hit by a plane, trips and breaks his neck on a sidewalk, falls asleep and never awakens? It's as if lightning has ripped through David's mind. Suddenly he's awake -- all too awake -- and he's terrified. Convinced that something evil is waiting right around the corner, David becomes obsessed with his mortality. He changes his name to Justin, he changes his wardrobe, and he changes his whole identity in order to hide -- from Fate. But in hiding and running away, David misses some of the unexpected gifts from a life in this world -- new friends, hidden surprises, the relief and joy of survival, and the love of those around us.

Told in a darkly comic style that may baffle some younger readers, Meg Rosoff's novel leaves unspoken the labels by which we name the mental ailments which paralyze us with a fear of fate. David's parents are portrayed as hopelessly clueless about not only his mental state, but his life, and the other young adults in the novel are portrayed as clearly wiser than any adult, which adds to the surreal, allegorical feel of the piece. Readers will come away bemused and thoughtful (and possibly carefully eyeing toddlers who can't yet speak for deep philosophical ideologies), and perhaps not quite sure what the novel is about. Older readers will enjoy Justin Case as a comically serious look at living in our fear-mongering culture, and will take it as a reminder that it won't do anyone any good to try to hang on to contingencies -- we have to live as fully as if it were all going to end today - just in case it does.

Surviving To Tell the Tale

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

When his little sister Emmy looks back over her life, big brother Matt wants her to understand a few things. First, that nothing in the world can prepare you to live with fear unless you realize that it's not something that can rule you -- only you can do that. Second, that sometimes it's the people who love you who cause you to fear the most. It's one of The Rules of Survival Matt has listed in his head. Matt knows how to survive -- after all, he survived living with his and Emmy's mother.

Matt and his sisters Callie and Emmy have learned how to deal with their mother's ups and downs. Matt remembers the time she held a knife to his throat and cut him, just a little, for stealing an Oreo for a midnight snack. Callie knows to grab baby Emmy and stay near a door every time their mother, Nikki, raises her voice. She tells her kids she loves them all the time, but she's just as apt to pinch them, twist their arms behind their backs, or haul off and knock them across the face with a bag of frozen food. Emmy hasn't yet learned not to push Mom's buttons. She's getting older now... and she's moving herself into the line of fire.

Nikki's kids don't always bleed. They don't always get hit.
Sometimes, Nikki is lovely and peaceful, reading to them, playing with them, whipping up scrumptious meals that they had better the hell EAT. Right now.

As you can see, even those peaceful times are fraught.

So, Matt is always alert, always on the look-out for mood swings and dark clouds on the horizon. So when he sees Murdoch, an adult who stands up to an awful parent in a grocery store, he just knows he has to find out who he is... someone that strong, that fearless, he has to know him. But Matt's interest in Murdoch draws the attention of Nikki, and though they have a summer of heaven, soon begins the final spiral of Nikki's out-of-control plunge into hell.

Nancy Werlin deals with a tough subject using terse sentences and short chapters to keep the story moving. A dark and nerve-wracking exploration into a disturbed family, this somehow still manages to be a hopeful story, as there is a light at the end of the tunnel for anybody who has the will to survive.

Because the survivor always gets to tell the story.

For Sale: One goddess

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.


It is the name of a goddess.
It is the name of someone with power.
It is the name of millions of beloved little girls in Nepal.
It is the name of a girl who is sold.

Her eyes will haunt you, as will her small and flawless forehead; too young for the scarring of acne. She has a modestly covered mouth, indicating that she has been raised well by a mother who loved her enough to teacher her the rules of her culture. Lakshmi is one girl and a million girls, living in poverty in a small Himalayan village, met by a flashy, wealthy stranger, sold by a stepfather for a new coat, a hat, and more money for gambling at the village tea house. She is only thirteen.

Lakshmi doesn't want to leave home, but a dutiful daughter does what she is told. She believes her leaving is helping her family. She imagines that she will be sending home maid's wages to pay for a new tin roof to keep the baby healthy, to support her mother's bent back, and maybe even provide a few affordable luxuries for her undeserving and feckless stepfather. Instead of the world of work for which she is prepared, Lakshmi is taken to India, to a brothel run by a cunning and vicious woman named Mumtaz, who starves and chokes and beats Lakshmi to enforce her will. She will work, Mumtaz is sure. But she does not, so she is, instead, drugged into submission to a living nightmare.

In beautifully clear blank verse, Lakshmi's story is told with painful honesty, but without sentimentality. Each day, each hour, is a vingnette which stands starkly against the reality of the life of a young girl who has been enslaved. Lakshmi was the number one girl in her school. She knows how to add and subtract, how much each of the rupees that Mumtaz gains for her service should be broken down into paying off the debt she owes -- the debt she has earned all unknowing by eating food and wearing clothes and shoes in that deceptive household. Every illness, every aspirin, every shot from the filthy doctor -- these things add up, and Lakshmi knows she will never leave.

"Simply to endure is to triumph," is what Lakshmi's Ama has taught her. But is a will to endure enough when you have been Sold?

A link to Sephardic History

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Estrella is just a girl like any other girl in her Spanish village with stars in her eyes, secret crushes, and loving but sometimes stern adults looking over her shoulder.

Estrella is also unlike any other girl in her village because her name isn't only Estrella... it's Esther, and she's known as a "Marrano", or "pig" in Spanish, which is a pejorative term for a Jew taken from the Arabic word, muharram, meaning 'ritually forbidden.' (This references Kosher Jews' aversion to pork.) Estrella doesn't know that she is a Sephardic Jew living under an assumed identity around 1500, but suddenly things change. Books are burned in the village square. Villagers are dragged away, and neighbors are looking at each other with suspicious faces. Estrella's eyes are opened, and nothing in her world will ever be the same.

Estrella's story is a tale of pain and loss -- but of survival is at its core. Only months after discovering who she truly is, Estrella loses her surgeon grandfather, her seminarian brother, and her brilliant and educated mother to brutal persecution -- stoning, and burning at stake. Estrella's life shatters into a billion pieces not only because is she betrayed, but because her betrayer is someone she once loved -- her best friend Catalina. Once she thought she had everything. Now Estrella has nothing but memories, but hope, but an unshakeable inheritance in her heart that means everything.

Told intensely yet dreamily, as if it is all a nightmare happening to someone else, Incantation is a compelling and painful piece of historical fiction chronicling the long persecution of the Jewish people.

Under the Big Montana Sky

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

New from Kirby Larson comes Hattie Here-And-There. That's how she thinks of herself, as just someone who fits in where she can. But Hattie Brooks, orphaned early and passed around to relatives almost since she can remember, really, really, really wants to be more than that. And, at sixteen, she is given the gift of home, from an uncle she's never met, to leave Iowa, and go to a place she's never been. And Hattie, seeing the chance to be someone new, someone grounded and rooted and land-owning, says yes to the Montana Big Sky country, and yes to proving up a claim that her Uncle left behind. No matter that she's young - she's determined, and she's worked twice as hard as girls twice her age. And neither snow nor sleet, influenza nor the Urban Defense League can change her mind.

The country is at war. Hattie knows she's not the only one suffering privations. As she ekes out a subsistence on the Montana soil, her letters to her pal Charlie overflow with descriptions of her battles with the landscape, but she is careful to keep from complaining. Her letters back to her Uncle Hal in Iowa gain her a loyal following an a little extra income from the newspaper, but is it enough? Will Hattie Here-and-There ever be Hattie Big Sky, and be able to keep what's been given to her, against all odds? And if she can't... will she ever have a home?

Ruby Oliver rides again!

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Ruby Oliver is back! In this second installment of life within the Tate Universe, Ruby is a newly licensed driver, a junior, and she has a pretty cool job! But life still isn't perfect. Because, well, boys. They still exist. They still cause problems. And Ruby still wants one of her own.

Ruby's trying so hard to get back on track that she's even ditched Dr. Z, figuring that she's much better now. After all, she knows what to do! Just be a good friend, right? Just... sort of ignore boys, since they're the ones causing all the problems anyway. But, then, Nora's hooters need rescue, and Kim's back from Tokyo, and everything is sort of unraveling. And is Noel or isn't he maybe trying to tell her something? And if Nora saw him first, what's a girl trying to be good and follow the Code supposed to do? It's time to check out The Boy Book: A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them. The answers are in there, somewhere ... or maybe they're still in Ruby's head. That's why maybe it's time to write a Girl Book, because sometimes... it's just not about the boys.

Another sad, sweet, funny piece of Ruby's puzzle; you won't be able to can't wait for the next installment. If you haven't yet read The Boyfriend List, do!

Goodbye Reality... Hello Show Biz

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Ali Montero's taken a big, big risk in dragging her best friend, Sosi, with her into signing up for Oye Mi Canto , the Latin language version of American Idol. It's not just that Sosi's done a Class A job of forging Ali's Dad's signature -- she did that, and boy is she paying for it. I

It's also not just that they cut school and snuck to the audition -- from the way their parent's tell it, they've done worse. It's that Ali's... won. And suddenly, it's goodbye to Ali ever being on her Daddy's good side again, it seems.

It's not that he doesn't believe in her talent -- he does. HE taught her to love the guitar, to play with him, side by side. He's a music professor, after all. Ali inherited her voice and skills from him. But a stage career? At the tender age of seventeen? What would her mother say, God rest her? No! No!

Well, maybe.

Elaine, her father's best friend, comes to the rescue and promises to chaperone. Shaking his head, Ali's father lets her go, and suddenly Ali's flying to the top of the fastest ride of her life. Oye Mi Canto is a hoot -- mean girls, cute boys, and a really hot production assistant who seems to be more than just gravitating Ali's way. But what's it's all mean? Is this life of rumors, lights, cameras, and rabid fansites what Ali really wants? Is Ali, like Sosi fears, going to change into some dubious Diva because she's famous?

Win or lose, it's Adios to My Old Life a cracklingly fast-paced, hilarious and absurd look at show biz -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Readers will also come away hip to a few great Spanish phrases and with a new appreciation for the guitar, as well as maybe with a little more -- or a little less -- of a desire to be the next contestant on a talent reality show. A less-rosy look behind the scenes of the music, this novel is definitely recommended, and here's to more from author Caridad Ferrer!

Unalienable Rights

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Spending the worst summer of her life dressing up as an 18th century farm girl at the Morrisville Historic Village is actually kind of a relief to Betsy Odell. At least at work, she can forget about her mother's death, her brother's pain, her history professor father's indifference, and the fact that she's lost her best friend, Mary, her boyfriend, Brandon, and any sense that anything is ever going to be right, ever again. This was supposed to be a great summer. Betsy has had a real boyfriend for six months, and this was supposed to be the magical summer when everything went right. Instead, it's anything but. When everything fall apart, the friends she thought were true are nowhere to be found. Betsy decides it's time to ditch everything familiar and assert her right to happiness. Even if it means alienating all of her old crowd and trying to find her place in a new history with James and Liza, her friends from Morrisville, Betsy wants to make her own way. The Pursuit of Happiness is a funny, poignant and memorable look at a life filled with losses, and the possibility that we can take what is lost, and find not replacements, but space in our hearts for something new.

November 09, 2006

Notes from Left Field

My friend J.R. has the most adorable child, who, when she was about three, took to telling the librarians that she was taking books from the library so she could read to dogs. At the time, we all just giggled and chalked it up to another of Gabriella's 'cute-isms,' but I've just seen an ad from Target about kids reading to dogs. Wow! We always knew that G. is future Mensa material!
And here's something else we already knew: reading to kids -- from actual books -- a Good Thing. A report from Temple University reveals that traditional books are the ticket for the parent-child interaction that a child needs to assist them with early childhood literacy. The researchers presented the findings of their study, "Electronic books: Boon or Bust for Interactive Reading?" on Nov. 3rd as part of the Boston University Conference on Language Development. Do check out their findings.

Ladies and gentlemen: we have ARRIVED. Props to Jackie's Mom, another awesome librarian, for pointing this out -- the Cybils have made the Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf Newsletter! You'll need to scroll down a ways to In Brief to find it, but I'm tickled that our group of intrepid readers, writers, teachers, librarians and home schooling parents has made a bigger ripple in the book world than we thought. Yay for us! And thanks to my fellow teammates, and all the others, who are working so hard to make this happen. This is -- even with all the weird questions about double nominations, and deciphering which book belongs on which list -- so much fun.

And now, back to work...

November 08, 2006

Music After Midnight

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

It seemed, Alex Gregory tells us, like a good idea at the time.

It wasn't, of course, but Alex is beyond pissed with his parents. His Dad, who has left he and his Mom for Alex's third grade teacher, is somewhere making it with her and not paying attention to his son. He and Alex's mother are having a knock-down, drag-out, king of messy divorces, and no conversation is safe from all-out screaming and throwing things. To top it off, tonight Alex is all alone, his best friend is working, and his Mom is going out -- on her first date.

Alex's life isn't supposed to be like this, not now that he's sixteen. His life is supposed to be about finally asking out a girl, playing his jazz guitar, enjoying life... Alex is mad, and he's not going to take it quietly. He's going to tell his Dad where to get off, for one thing. So, he drinks another slug of his Dad's vodka, grabs his Mom's car keys, jumps into the car, and... decapitates the neighbor's lawn gnome, wrecks Mom's bumper, and pukes all over the policeman's shoes.


Aside from the concussion, the stitches, the alcohol poisoning, the yelling and screaming and humiliation, Alex is pretty sure his punishment is worse than his crime. He's got 100 hours of community service at the senior center with the gnarliest old man he's ever met. He insults him -- in Yiddish, no less -- and threatens to clop him on the tuchis. Alex isn't sure he's going to survive.

And then, he does better than that.

It's not often that I read a book and laugh out loud by the first page, but when I did with this one, I knew you'd enjoy it too. It's Notes From the Midnight Driver, by Jordan Sonnenblick, and it's witty, energetic, funny, full of great vocabulary and heartfelt moments, and very much recommended. It's a wonderful ride, and I am marking this author as one of those whose work I must find and read! Enjoy!

It All Went By Too Fast

This book is a 2006 Cybil Award Nominee for YA Fiction.

Angel Hansen makes only one mistake -- but it's the one that changes everything. Every girl knows never to drink and go off by herself with a guy, but she's just too drunk to really process it all, and sure enough, Angel gets pregnant. Her choice to have her baby is a life-altering, gut wrenching stand-alone decision, the bravest and possibly the scariest thing that Angel has ever done. By why is her best friend pulling away from her now? And most confusing (and least explored) of all is why is Danny Stanton, the boy who could only ever make up his mind to hang out/make out with her when he was drunk, why is he sticking close, now that Angel is visibly pregnant?

This was a difficult book to enjoy. I found the language and dialogue reasonably believable, and the descriptions and sense of place well-crafted, but I was unable to fully enter into the world of the characters, as some of their actions and reactions to things seemed highly unlikely. This book appears very much to be a novel aimed at educating young adult women on what not to do with boys and pregnancy, and readers may likely come away feeling that they have been instructed instead of entertained. There are myriad problem novels on the "issue" of teen pregnancy; Angel's Choice presents a character going through many of the same challenges we have seen before, with a dubiously sparkly Cinderella prom-type ending.

No More School, No More Books, No More Crabby Teacher's...

My life of crabby hermitude has resumed! I am finally happily ensconced, recovering from the brush with actual employment that was my last bout of substitute teaching. And I can say with joy that today no one has throw up on me, nor have I had to dry out shoes and reassure anyone short that yes, even big kids have accident sometimes.

Substitute teaching: the reason my junior high dream of having twelve kids will never come true.

I'm now catching up with the news that has bypassed me while I was being proactive and bright and smiley and telling everyone Good Morning!, instead of grousing into my morning tea and hacking out my novel -- first, today, an unpublished poem written by Sylvia Plath will be published in an online journal. The discovery of a student, this poem was written while Plath was in college, and looks like it was actually a writing exercise, as they include two versions of the poem. Check it out!

Also news to me is that Garrison Keillor has opened an independent bookstore. I am SO JEALOUS. He is stocking only his favorite books, which, if you're famous and already financially secure, you can do. See I wanted to do this. I wanted a bookstore called Bluestockings. I envisioned shelves carrying slim volumes of Sarah Orne Jewett and random titles from Kate Chopin, Maureen Johnson, Madeleine L'Engle, Ursula LeGuin and Garrett Freymann-Weyr, and others who write compelling, interesting, risky novels. And now Mr. Keillor has stolen my idea. Pffffft.

While I am reading some really great novels for the YA Cybil (and I am LOVING what I call St. Cybils' Day -- the UPS guy dropping off a daily load of review copies of novels from publishing houses), I am a teensy, tiny, tidge bit wistful that I'm not reading for the Sci-Fi books. I love Neil Gaiman, and I'm a bit jealous that someone else is getting to review his newest book. The New York Times reviews Gaiman's latest, and discusses his penchant for adding dreams and dreamscapes to his work. Which makes me smile, especially because dreams, in fiction, can either really work -- or really not work, and my agent has about sixty reasons why they do not. At any rate, Gaiman's dreams definitely work!

Speaking of work...My Cybils novels are calling me, as is my NaNoWriMo story, so it's back to my REAL job! Yay!

The Power of Belief

Pete Hautman, like most writers, is an intrepid explorer of the "what-if" story—what if this or that happened? What if we lived in such-and-such a future—how would it affect an individual's story? In Godless, Hautman explores a very thought-provoking proposition: what would happen if a group of bored small-town teenagers decided to make up their own religion?

Jason Bock, disillusioned with his parents' unrelenting Catholicism and bored with the uneventful summer, is hanging out with a friend at the local water tower one day when an intriguing question pops into his head: if God can be anything and anywhere, what if God is the water tower? After all, without the contents of the water tower, life as they knew it would be completely different. Water was the source of all life, wasn't it?

To Jason, the Church of the Ten-Legged God was somewhat of a joke—albeit a defiant one—something that would help fill the long, boring days of summer with climbing expeditions up the water tower with a couple of friends (his fellow Chutengodians, as they called themselves). However, he soon finds out that it doesn't mean the same thing to everyone else that it does to him. His friends aren't necessarily the people he thought they were, and what started as a philosophical discussion ends up affecting the lives of his friends and his family in drastic and unexpected ways. The resulting story is fascinating, scary, and all too plausible.