May 29, 2015


So, when Sir Terry Pratchett died in March, and we descended into the fifty year mourning period, there was the tiniest, infinitesimal twinkle of light in a dark place. All was not lost. There were other authors. One of them was even well versed in drawing wombats, and she was going to take a stab at publishing a novel, in her actual own name this time (instead of writing as T. Kingfisher). When this little novel came out in April, it was a little piece of heaven, just in the nick of time.

Summary: A somewhat run-down manor in a very small village, Castle Hangnail is in dire need of a new Master. Its Minions, who call the Castle home, are deeply worried that if no real Master has come along to take up residence, the authorities will come along and de-magic the place, and they'll be homeless. So, when a wee girl named Molly comes along and announces herself as a Wicked Witch... well, minions need a strong Master, and a Wicked Witch is much nicer than an Evil Sorceress or a dread Vampire Lord, right? It's just... she looks about twelve. And, her magic is... somewhat unimpressive. When she begins to check off the requirements of a Master put out by the Board of Magic, most of the Minions are inclined to be impressed, but one of them longs for a REAL Master to put things to rights. And then one comes. Readers learn that not only should Minions be careful what they wish for, but that Wicked Witches, even ones who have told a tiny lie that has grown beyond them - have to stand up for what they believe, and sometimes say, "No."

Peaks: Molly is an eminently likeable, eminently sensible, perfectly reasonable... Wicked Witch. As opposed to EVIL witch, she just... likes her space, doesn't need pink, glitter, or kittens about, and is partial to the odd magical mole or bone chandelier. She's observant, and works her way through the myriad challenges to her Castle tenure with boots-on good sense. I could read more Molly adventures, any day.

Like the Potter books, this latest Vernon novel is a nice long middle grade fantasy, which makes my inner fifth grader pretty darned happy. There's enough of a story here to get into it, to look forward to coming back to it, and to make for many breathless bedtime readings.

And then there's the illustrations! Myriad Digger and Danny Dragonbreath novels, Ursula Vernon's various art sites and online journals and alllll of the things from Red Wombat Studios have already let her fans know just how well-versed she is with the art - the graphic novels, painting, clay and leather modeling, doodling, etc. The artwork in this book is SO nice a touch - not only can the lady tell a darned good story, but she makes it jump off the page.

I love the Minions, who are mostly the supporting cast, but sometimes have the lead in the story. I love that this book has quirk, but not in exhausting supply. Sure, the cook may have the head of a cow, but she's ...otherwise pretty typical (if you ignore that Q thing). The goofy but endearing group of supporters is what everyone would be lucky to have. I need minions!

Another peak for me is the plot layering - and that's a thing at which Terry Pratchett excelled, and the rest of us can only hope to emulate as well as Vernon. If the child in you is alive and well, you, too, will find much to love in this book, and much to inform you even in your adult state. For very young readers who enjoy fantasy, there are lots of fun beasties and small, magical moments -- for older kids, it crosses really well into tween/teen territory due to its subtly funny bits and its emotional resonance - Molly's eventual realization of the truths of Eudaimonia is one of the "ribs" of the body of the plot, as it were. Like the Tiffany Aching books, which also broadly appealed for a more physical humor/adventure trope, this novel would have been fun without the internal arc of emotional truth, but it would not have stood as tall or appealed to so many.

There are so many positives to this novel, but if I mention them all, I'm going to get into spoilers, so I'll suggest that you just pick it up. Go on, now.

Valleys: No valleys, except that there's no sequel immediately to hand. I need to reread the Digger books and BRYONY AND ROSES (review to follow shortly!). I need this author to keep writing...

Conclusion: RUN, don't walk, to the library and pick up a copy of this book - and then buy yourself a copy, because it's the sort of thing you'll want to keep. This author remains one whose work we'll be enjoying for years to come.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, but you can bet this one is going to be purchased and put into the permanent home library. You can find CASTLE HANGNAIL by Ursula Vernon at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 28, 2015

Lee & Low's Diversity in Publishing Petition

Diversity is one of the issues we really care about at Finding Wonderland, and our eclectic reading list reflects that, we hope. That's why it's thrilling to see publishers Lee & Low really pushing the issue--not only promoting diversity in a basic, "diverse books are great!" kind of way, but urging publishers themselves to take a close look at who they're hiring, to get at the root of the "diverse books don't sell" pseudo-truism.

So they've created their own diversity baseline survey for publishers, and they also created a petition on so that readers and other Concerned Citizens can add their voices to the clamor for more transparency in the publishing industry. Check out the full post here!

May 26, 2015


So, May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month, right? And I'm loving (unintentionally) digging out all of these books which feature Asian characters in unpredictable and non-stereotyped scenarios. Here's another speculative fiction novel I just... happened to pick up from the library. It was published in 2009 and I don't remember being aware of it - or, really, the author - back then. I'm reading my way through the adult Shinn novels, and just having so much fun. Until I picked it up, I hadn't even realized this novel was for young adults! It crosses over nicely, though, for those who like a swoopy, hearts-and-violins love story.

Summary: Daiyu loves St. Louis, loves the iconic Gateway Arch, loves the life she has there, working at her summer internship for her crazy boss, Isabel. She's a little restless, though, a little fish-out-of-water; the adopted Chinese daughter of St. Louis natives, Daiyu is always slightly out of step, wistfully looking to the horizon for something ...else. And then one day, on her lunch break "something else" finds her -- first, in the form of a little old lady talking her into buying a black jade ring -- because her name, daiyu, translates into "black jade" in Chinese. When Daiyu slips that ring on and walks through the Arch to go home -- she finds herself somewhere utterly alien and unfamiliar. Cringing at a fireworks display, screaming at all of the Asian faces in this strange new world, Daiyu's terror is soothed when a Caucasian boy named Kalen takes her hand. Kalen brings her to safety, and in the ensuing days becomes a friend and an anchor and a calm support in the new world in which Daiyu finds herself, and the voice of calm good sense in the adventure that lies before her. Where she is, in this new St. Louis, is just a frozen moment in her own time, but days and months in this other place. Daiyu learns that she has a job to do, and with caution and reluctance, endeavors to do it -- knowing that when she does the job for which she was brought to this Asian-centric St. Louis, she will be pulled back into her own time -- leaving Kalen behind forever.

Peaks: The premise of this novel is dead simple - go to this Other Place in this Other Time, do this one thing, and be allowed to go home. The choices are clear: do it, and leave the friends and loved ones she's made in this place behind, forever, or don't do it, and leave unfinished her life in her proper place and time. Sometimes the simplest plots have the most impact.

One of the strongest pieces of this story for me is that though she is a young adult taken in and instructed by older people, Daiyu does not accept anything on faith -- not their good intentions, not their opinions on what she should be doing -- no one but Kalen does she instinctively trust (and more on that later). While her job is to help topple an unfair regime in order to go home, she does not immediately leap into this action. She ...thinks about it. She questions. She gets to know the opposition. She wonders over and over again if what she's being asked to do, in return for her ticket back to her own time, is right. She shows how integrity and self-actualization is formed in an individual, while never getting preachy or weird about it.

Valleys: This isn't an actual "valley" per se in this novel -- but it's very definitely a romance, and in many ways, the romance supersedes other concerns. As I mentioned previously, Daiyu and Kalen's friendship is fairly instantaneous, and her trust in him took the novel in different directions than I would have expected. Daiyu lands in this place and she just trusts this boy -- because. That he is too thin and gangly but sweetly earnest helps -- he's not a hunk or anything, so it's not a stereotyped "instalove" scenario, but his sweetness allows her to just shrug and be okay with trusting him, and thus the novel is able to downplay and reduce the jarring cultural dissociation and feelings of isolation and terror that would normally be part of being sucked into another universe. I felt that the novel was lacking sometimes in emotional resonance, making Daiyu as a character less easily empathetic.

From modern St. Louis to this somewhat steampunk, somewhat backwards caste-centric and largely Asian world in which Daiyu finds herself, I would have expected the novel to explore how it might have felt to part of a transracial adoption - to be Chinese in a non-Asian family, living in a largely non-Asian community - and suddenly to find herself as Han, in the majority, instead of an ethnic minority -- and also to find herself somewhat magical. Why did she trust Kalen? Because he was white? Because he reached out to her? What does she think of the people with whom he lives - a black man and a white woman? Is she more or less comfortable, being with other members of the Han caste? Yet, Daiyu is so entirely well-adjusted that she never really even refers to how she became that way, or if she has Asian friends or if she even thinks about her identity as anything other than her father's daughter. As a matter of fact, her friends and school and usual "teen" concerns are notably absent from this book, as the plot settles on this moment in time, the adults she's dealing with this summer, the new place she discovers, and the immediate concerns of where she is, and what she's supposed to be doing. We're told a little more than shown that Daiyu has a life back in St. Louis that's deeply important that she get back to -- we never see much more than a glimpse of it, and I think readers might have appreciated a bit more.

Conclusion: A little parallel universe-hopping, an improbably but engaging plot and ultimately a satisfying and surprising read for a sunny afternoon.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find GATEWAY by Sharon Shinn at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 22, 2015

5&Dime Friday

Hello! I have lost time this week - I've been a day behind for the entire time, and I'm like, "It's Friday? Really?" This is the sad, sad result of going to meetings all week for various wonderful institutions - somehow this is the year of the Board. Next year WILL NOT BE. Trust me on this. Anyway! This is a really, really, REALLY quick five and dime -- the number of things I'm seeing on the web are adding up, and I've not spilled them in a long time! So, without further ado:

Jo Gratz remains the coolest girl on earth. That is all.

Didja notice Leila guesting away on Book Riot this past week? Also on Book Riot, much amusement due to the additional shenanigans of our old bud, Minh, with the Celebrity Selfie Book Club. I love that idea a WHOLE lot and need to re-imagine a whole lot of selfies now.

Hat tip to Emm Roy, cartoonist.
In addition to being Asian American Heritage Month, May is National Mental Health Month, FYI for 2016.

And on the same topic, you won't want to miss Kelly talking depression at Disability in KidLit. She's solo for her first piece, and then part of a panel in the next. I appreciate the booklist(s), a great deal.

Just to take a quick sec to plug Disability in Kidlit -- as a reader and as a writer, I find this site really, really valuable. Sometimes a perception check can help - and having someone with a particular real life experience with a particular issue articulate their opinion on a book which deals with that particular issue can help me assess what I thought I knew, and see more clearly how assumptions and stereotypes fall short. Check it out.

The Forever Girls - more than the sum of their parts. Poor Ariel and Rapunzel may be my favorite characters thus far.

“She could wear it in her corset, where it would be a constant reminder of his love—probably because it was uncomfortable.” Oh, ladies. You know you want his whalebone in your stays. (Wow, that sounded bad.) Don't worry, you've just got a busk in your corset.

Running in circles never looked so fun. I need to go to this Kindergarten. Stat. What is it, with all of the cool pedal desks and encouragement to fidget and twitch that kids get nowadays? I am flat out jealous, and still mad I don't have my hovercar. Pfft.

And again, on the same topic, Tech Boy ran across this piece on 19th-and-early-20th century writers who had VERY DEFINITE opinions on sitting or standing whilst writing. Interesting that Virginia Woolf wrote with her typewriter on a dresser, so she could stand, and Roald Dahl... sat in a sleeping bag in a wing-backed chair with his feet propped on a suitcase full of ...logs? Because, reasons. (In my always-cold-even-in-August basement office here, I'm all about that sleeping bag idea, however. Tech Boy is already researching ways to make my dining-table-turned-desk into a Japanese-style kotatsu. Conversely, we can turn my elliptical machine into a desk. Options, people.)

Can you even believe that we've been doing this 48 Hour Book Challenge for ten years????? I've had to bow out for one reason or another for the past couple of years, but once, I read competitively, doing without sleep/bathing, for no other reason than it's fun to rock your obsessive gene occasionally. That was fun. Join the fun for twelve hours, June 19th-21st, 2015.

Pictured below, it's the Field Trip Image of the Day: The Army Corps of Engineers Tidal Bay Model we "discovered" (it's been there since 1952 or something) in an out of the way corner of Sausalito, California when we were trying to dig up new places for our Scottish visitors to see (after we'd exhausted climbing Lombard Street, climbing Alcatraz, climbing Nob Hill... are you catching a theme?). This was one of our favorite places, and you haven't lived until you've squeed over a tiny Golden Gate Bridge in a three-acre, working hydraulic model of San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento - San Joaquin River Delta Systems-- tides and all. Had I known that this was here when I was teaching, I *SO* would have dragged my students here, every single year. It's been decommissioned - they do all this sort of tidal modeling on computers now -- but it's amazing. If you're coming to ALA this summer with kids in tow, tack on an extra day for a little sightseeing; this is only a ten-or-fifteen minute drive from the City, and if you call ahead for a docent, the Army Corps people love to answer questions.

San Francisco 273

Happy Weekend, whether you're lazing with books and bbq-ing or dashing about, starting the commencement-ing.

May 21, 2015

Toon Thursday Flashback: Game Shows for Writers

I was watching an episode of Chopped last night while making dinner, so it seems appropriate to revisit this one! And, never fear, I do have plans for actual NEW cartoons in the very near future, by which I mean sometime after this month which point I will also UPDATE THE ARCHIVE I've also been neglecting. Sigh.

May 20, 2015


I'd wanted to read this book for a long time because in my head I'd heard it was historical and was a story about a Chinese girl. Somehow, my mind equated "historical fiction" with an absolutely parallel true-to-life tale of someone back in time. I think a lot of people do that, almost expect a documentary novel, despite the word "fiction" tied up with the "historical," thus their hesitation to read historical fiction. I'm glad Stacey Lee remembered the fictional part.

What's not fictional? That there were Chinese-American people in the U.S. in 1849. That there were African American people who were free in some states and slaves in others, and depending on if someone dragged you across state lines, your existence was tenuous and often depending upon the kindness of strangers, subterfuge, and lawless behavior. That there were young men seeking their fortune on the Oregon Trail, that there were cowboys and miners heading West in a steady stream -- and that sometimes loners found families and the broken found healing along the trail.

Summary: At the mercy of various circumstances, two bright and determined girls end up alone -- Samantha, a fifteen-year-old whose father had been pondering a move West, dies suddenly and tragically, and Annamae, a sixteen-year-old slave whose family has been ripped from her all at once, has finally decided to make a move to find her only remaining family. Disaster follows disaster, and chance throws the two girls together, though Annamae just knows something higher than mere Fate is in the cards for the two of them. Shedding their female appearance, the girls decide to head West as "Sammy" and "Andy." They find their backbones and their grit -- and the limits of their skill -- as they make the dangerous and terrifying journey, but their luck changes when they meet a group of cowboys - boys with skill and strength in numbers, who become, in return for help with the cooking, the fire-building, and a few language lessons - protection and help along the trail. While the girls are safer, nowhere is exactly "safe" for a runaway slave and a fugitive -- and the girls don't dare trust anyone to truly help them. Samantha is terrified of one more loss, and wants to keep Anname close, but Annamae is stubbornly determined to find her family and the heart of her world -- at whatever cost. This tale of losses, chosen family, friendship, and survival may carry few surprises but a lot of enjoyment.

Peaks: The cover of this novel - with silhouetted "cowboys," one of whom is carrying a violin - is just beautiful. I love that this novel is a Western based on the Oregon Trail -- that was a huge thing we studied in school, and the romance of the trail is still a big thing in my head - despite the fact that eating dust for six months, possibly starving, getting bug-bitten and achy from either walking or riding and risking cholera and bandit attacks are hardly romantic.

I love that Sammy and Andy are not Victorians, cringing at every crudity - nor does the novel linger over the assumed messiness or crudeness of males - some guys are neat, some are not, just like girls, and the story fairly reveals this equality. I love that this novel has the girls just embrace their toughness, and not worry about returning to some more "delicate" state. I love that this novel has an Asian girl and a black girl riding a horse and roping things and cowboying up. It's important that we're able to stretch our imagination to include other faces and genders in the pantheon of our Old West images. I love that the novel just ...ambled along. There was dramatic tension, of course, and there were times when it was easier to put the novel down than others -- but once you got hooked/lost, you were in, and the current simply took you away.

That this is also a love story may surprise some readers - while I wasn't necessarily in need of a love story which tied up so tidily in Happily Ever Afterland, I know that its muted dramatic tension will help some readers love a good adventure-Oregon Trail tale that much more. If you find that you don't "get" some of the interactions halfway through the novel, don't let it throw you.

Valleys: I had trouble getting into the novel in part, I think, because the voice didn't really settle until a little ways into the tale. Samantha's "trying to be a boy" voice changed fairly drastically - she used words like "disingenuous" conversationally in the novel's opening, yet was down to "ain't" a few pages on. Yet, Annamae, who used the odd contraction(?) of "you's" to mean both "you is" and the plural "you" nevertheless understood the word "disingenuous" without comment - which jumped out at me as odd -- especially since Annamae is a slave girl who can't read and counts unreliably on her fingers. Neither dialect was comfortably settled until the middle of the book, when the plot made such details less jarring.

I struggled a little bit with the character of Annamae. It's hard for me to sometimes see novels where the African American character is just... so... wise. While both girls were full of aphorisms and proverbs, Samantha's seemed to appear more organically than did Annamae's - and they were just IN Sammy's head. Annamae seemed to dream them up for the specific purpose of enlightening Samantha -- arguably, she was accustomed to doing that for her little brother, who had a hard time with the drudgery of slavery, as her older brother had done for her, but her convenient wisdom still didn't always come across as "non-magical" for me.

Conclusion: Thought the tiniest bit unsure of its voice in the beginning, this was a fun and ultimately very satisfying debut novel from the author - and I'm excited to be drawn into a new way to imagine early America, and look forward to more tales from her keyboard.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 19, 2015


Honestly? I did not see this one coming.

Some of us in the kidlitosphere who have grown up in a faith have frequently bemoaned the scarcity of accurately, positively and creatively depicted faith in children's fiction. (Please note I said "faith" and not "Christianity.") I had just had a conversation with a fellow blogger about this very thing when I was approached by a small press to review their book. For some reason, I thought this was a poetic book, but soon discovered it's not quite poetry, nor, despite the artwork, is it quite a graphic novel. It's a cross between a parable and a history, an earnestly told folk tale and a really, really long pun. In the weird tradition of Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll and Frank L. Baum, we have... The Exodus. With Cats. It's ...amazing, actually.

The Cat Code of Conduct

A cat must be loyal to family
And do his best to keep folk free
A cat my kill spiders, mice and rats
But never, ever other cats
A cat shouldn't steal, curse or lie
Or poke his neighbor in the eye
A cat should take care not to bite
The hand that feeds, and not to fight
To do good deeds with all his might
And champion what's fair and right
Above all else, a cat must see
It's best to live in harmony
With creatures both alike and not
In form, in fact, in heart, in thought.

Summary: Wu Zhua - whose name means Five Claw - saved her people from the Monkey Dynasty, where they had been slaves for so long. But, what happens after freedom? Mostly a lot of complaining, aimlessness, and confusion. Kittens were growing up without any knowledge of Kung Fu, or the years in service to the monkeys, and without any gratitude or understanding of what their ancestors had gone through - or of what the Water God Zhi Shui Zhi Shen had done for them. Now President of Catland, Wu Zhua worries that the newly formed society she longed for is hollow and doomed to fail.

Every good leader takes help from all sources. For Wu Zhua, this involved a pilgrimage to the Milky Way where The Water God showed her that help was available from a tribe of cats who had freed themselves long before the Catlanders, and had come up with the Cat Code of Conduct. Convinced that these cats were a vital part of her people's history and could save their future, Wu Zhua returns to Catland to prepare her kin the eventual reunion between the Wavians and the Catlanders, bringing back a silk scroll with the Wavian cats' Code written down. Sadly, their President returns to find Catland in disarray. Her people had changed the society she had formed, done away with the reminders of the past she had left them, and come up with their own world. Wu Zhua, stung by their neglect, decides that she, too, can give up on her people. But the Water God has other plans, which include a giant carp, a Phoenix, and some lovely jade eggs...

Peaks: This is one of the quirkiest, most original and fresh retellings of the Exodus I've ever read. Using Chinese-style mythology, with its myriad gods and sometimes obscure logic, the story reveals new insights to an old story. It's unexpected, on a number of levels, occasionally funny, and largely sticks to the original Biblical tale in Exodus... with the brilliant addition of cats.

Valleys: In such a short, short book (only 72 pages) there is SO MUCH story that it's information-saturated and super-packed. Readers have to pay attention, or they can be overwhelmed and overloaded - or irretrievably lost. For me, the book could have used a bit more of a linear plot and reshuffling to organize bits of the story which, while interesting or punny, didn't necessarily lend themselves to a clear narrative.

Conclusion: For readers who like history, mythology, and the odd pun, this short and creative retelling of the Exodus is packed full of quirk and character, and will produce an enjoyable, if slightly surreal, treat over coffee.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Abaton Book Company. You can find KUNG FU KITTY, Laying Down the Law by Lauri Bortz at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 18, 2015

Quick Monday Review: TANDEM by Anna Jarzab

I'll admit two things first: 1) I put off reading this one for far too long, and 2) the first time I opened it and read the first few pages, I just wasn't immediately drawn in. There was a princess, and I had not assumed that there would be princesses in this book.

THEN, the second time I picked it up, I kept reading, and realized that the princess in question was not simply a fairy-tale princess from some fantastical land, but in fact an alternate-universe version of the story's protagonist: Sasha Lawson, from Chicago, USA, Earth. Her analog is Princess Juliana of Columbia City, UCC, Aurora. And the UCC is no fairy-tale world, but one very much like our own except for the fact that the past 200 years of their history has unfolded a bit differently from ours.

Why should Sasha care? Well, at first, she doesn't even know Aurora exists. She lives with her gruff but loving grandfather, and is fairly content with her life, and then things get even better when her longtime crush Grant suddenly and surprisingly...asks her to prom. Prom night is awesome.

And then things get WEIRD. One minute Sasha's on the beach having the night of her life, and the next minute she's waking up in totally foreign surroundings. Oh, and Grant's not Grant, but his Aurora analog, Thomas. Sasha, dead ringer for the Princess, is immediately plunged into the deep end of a potential political firestorm.

IMPORTANT LESSON, KIDS: Getting whisked off to a mysterious land where you're suddenly the princess is not all it's cracked up to be.

I ended up really enjoying this book; I do like alternate-universe scenarios and while I am still having trouble with the idea that you could have a near-perfect analog in another universe but NOT have the same parents, if you can suspend that niggle of disbelief, it's a suspenseful story of intrigue, complicated relationships, and the importance of upholding your personal integrity. And there's a Book 2, Tether, which is out now.

I purchased my copy of this book as a Kindle ebook. You can find TANDEM (Many-Worlds) by Anna Jarzab at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 15, 2015


Reader, after you finished Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assasains series and powered through Julie Berry's The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place and frothed through the lighter Finishing School novels by Gail Carringer and plowed through Charlie N. Holmberg's Paper Magician novels, did you, perchance, have a yen for something more? Already finished with the Ally Carter Spy novels, you are now ready for some alternate history -- and some more devious, bright, recalcitrant and slightly cutthroat flowers of gentle young womanhood. Long may they reign.

Summary: Stranje House even sounds strange. It's a reform school for girls, and Georgiana Fitzwilliam most ardently does not wish to be reformed. She does not want to learn to take tea, dance properly, or curtsey beautifully. She does not wish to compose pastels and watercolors and sit with her spine properly rigid, as a successfully unexceptional and marriageable miss of the beau monde must do in 1814. All she would LIKE to do is finish her experiment. All she was trying to do was perfect a recipe for invisible ink - the sort of recipe which might have passed invisible orders across enemy lines and saved the life of her brother, who died fighting Napoleon. She had no intention of setting her father's stables on fire, taking out half the neighbor's orchards, nor nearly killing all of her father's hounds and horses. Nevertheless... she has done so, and now the piper must be paid. Stranje House has an iron maiden. A rack. And a handful of possibly dangerous, odd, nosy, pushy girls who have also been abandoned to Ms. Stranje's tender mercies. Georgiana is terrified - furious - and determined to finish that ink. Fortunately, her determination is well-supported. Ms. Stranje wants that ink -- desperately -- and so do two gentleman called Captain Grey and Lord Wyatt. If those fighting to keep Napoleon from regaining power don't have a way to get messages to each other, he may make another try at being emperor of Europe... and that simply won't do.

Peaks: I'm not always fond of alternate history novels because my understanding of Actual History (TM) is muddled enough, but this is a fun and fast-paced "what if" that focuses mostly on individuals and less on the big events. The back of the novel gives a quick update on Actual History vs. Stuff The Author Made Up, which is helpful.

I love school stories to an unbelievable extent. The ensemble cast gives the author lots of time to explore individual girls' stories, and to give more life and shape to some of them who aren't very clear to the reader at this point. They each have mysterious skills, and this being a SERIES just tickles me to death, as there will be plenty of time to find out all we could desire about this school.

I think that the Headmistress having her own romantic leanings is awfully sweet as well, though the school and its students seem to exist in a bubble outside of Polite Society. Aside from a Beautiful Villainness (think Disney Wicked Queen), no one seems to care what any of them at Stranje House do - and I wonder if that will change... Time will tell.

Valleys: The author has previously been known for writing Regency romance - and this book is described as such - so perhaps the heroine be forgiven for a fairly fevered and immediate crush on Sebastian, Lord Wyatt. What surprised me was that it became so serious so quickly - because their interactions were for me not very developed. Kirkus compares their "dazzling wits and flashing eyes" to Darcy and Lizzie, and there's some of that, yes, but I felt their relationship needed quite a bit more time to mature into the "I'd die for you" stage, but what do I know? At any rate, while I personally found it a little ridiculous, I know that I am Old and Crotchety and that myriads of the young romantics will enjoy the heck out of the romance.

I will admit disappointment in Madame Cho, however, one of two non-white British characters in the novel. Because everyone has somewhat of an air of mystery to the blindered Georgiana, and because it takes her forever to twig to the fact that This Is Not Your Mother's Reform School (TM) she is slow on the uptake and doesn't realize Madame Cho character and importance to the school. Unfortunately, really, neither do we.

Madame Cho's first physical description, after "Chinese" and Ms. Stranje explaining that she teaches Asian history and "helps" in the discipline room is "crafty as a black cat." Immediately plunged so far into the cliché of the Mysterious Dragon Lady of the Orient, it doesn't appear that Madame Cho will easily get out. It's a shame that she had virtually no speaking parts in the book and no character development, because, with her only action smacking the girls with her cane, threatening, barking orders at them, or lurking silently around the edges of the room, she simply exists as ...well, a stereotype. I kept searching the story for her -- surely she had more to give to the plot -- but sadly, she disappears 3/4 of the way through the book.

Conclusion: Despite a few flaws and unevenness plaguing this first book in the Stranje House series, there's nevertheless a lot to recommend this quick-paced, romance-saturated romp, filled with quick-thinking, devious girls and their adventuresome exploits. Take a couple of hours to yourself and grab your bag of caramel corn - this book is just as super-sweet and compulsively readable.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor Teen, via NetGalley. After May 19th, you can find THE SCHOOL FOR UNUSUAL GIRLS by Kathleeen Baldwin at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 14, 2015

In Case You Missed It...

...the Call for Session Proposals for this fall's Kidlitosphere Conference is open! From the original post:
This year’s KidLitCon will be held in Baltimore, MD on October 9th and 10th. This year’s theme is Celebrating Young People’s Literature
We hope to examine what makes a good children’s book, hear from judges who have participated in various award programs, and celebrate any authors or illustrators present at the conference.
And, of course, anything on diversity is always topical and always welcome. I'm just really wishing I could go...but this is one of those weekends when multiple commitments collide, and instead I'll be presenting at the Great Valley Bookfest, which is happening here locally.

May 12, 2015

TURNING PAGES: 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

The cover of this novel is striking and colorful, signalling a South Asian tale. Readers may be surprised to discover that it's both dystopian -- and, in part, a verse novel. The detail is absorbing and the political landscape surprising, and the conclusion is just enigmatic enough to be hopeful -- scary -- and perfect. I found this to be a beautiful book.

Summary: It's 2054, and portable ultrasounds, a low-cost and useful medical innovation from our time, have had an unexpected and negative effect on the sprawling population of India that's already beginning in our time. Parents, carefully looking at the cloudy images for a child who will fill their coffers, protect them in their old age and bring honor to their families have chosen boys, boys, boys, boys, boys -- for too long. The obvious and natural effect of illegally abandoning girls in parks and aborting them with risky home procedures is a decades later 5:1 ration of boys to girls. Suddenly girls are precious and wanted, no -- demanded, and an endangered commodity. Sold to the highest bidder, competed for, abducted -- the world is dangerous for women in all ways. From an honest desire to turn their nation around, the women of Koyanagar take power into their own hands politically. They then wall their State and community, and create Tests to give five boys from anywhere in their region and throughout the city a solid chance to marry one of the few girls in the community -- and to allow girls choices again -- so long as their choice is to marry and bear daughters and support the system.

It quickly becomes obvious that not all is acceptable to the young people of the city. Boys have futures as limited as girls once were -- marry, protect Koyanagar's wall as a guard or be a manservant, fetching and carrying in a house - or be ground under the heels of society, if you're not worthy of supporting it. Those, according to Five, are false choices, one and all. In Sudasa's life, choices have been twisted out of all bearing. Women make all the decisions in her society, and the older the woman, the more influence. Sudasa's dragon-lady Nani is old and steeped in guile, and has cowed Sudasa's mother -- and her father -- and even her eldest sister -- for all of her life. Sudasa discovers to her horror that she is definitely a commodity, only this time, unlike the Koyangar girls in history, she is being offered up on the altar of her Nani's ambition.

Still, life and death choices have a way of presenting themselves, but does everyone have the courage to

Peaks: In this carefully paced narrative, told in alternating blank verse from Sudasa and prose from a boy she calls "Five," a picture of a future India is sketched, then filled in with precise detail. It's exciting that it's actually India -- how often does it get to star in a dystopian novel? Gender disparities, identity, gender politics, choice and freedom are great, meaty topics that a reader can sink their teeth into, even in blank verse. Five is a thoughtful, worthy -- angry character, rightly protesting a completely ridiculous system which has cast him as a competitor -- despite that not being his choice. His inability to quiet his conscience makes him a very realistic, believable character. Sudasa is obedient and compliant on the surface, but soaked in grief and a terrified resignation that this is all there is to life. Despite the calmly presented verse, her mind beats against the bars of her prison like a panicked bird. The phrase "quiet desperation" really fits.

Another strong positive for me, along with the political is that there is no romance in this novel. None. No 11th hour insta-love between strangers. No sneakily planted seeds of passion. Nothing but terrifying uncertainty about an endlessly hideous or uncertain future -- as it should be, in a society which forces arranged marriages.

The author is not Indian, but her acknowledgements list friends and associates who helped her with cultural accuracy. Huzzah.

Valleys: Readers who don't appreciate quiet, thoughtful books may need to select something else, but for many of us, the premise of the dystopian plot is clear and the promise of the story is fulfilled in a fresh and original way.

Conclusion: A strong debut from Holly Bodger with a relevant, original dystopian premise digging into issues of gender and politics and choices in an unusual way.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Knopf Books via NetGalley. After May 15th, 2015, can find 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 11, 2015

Kids Comics Q&A Blog Tour: Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Children's Book Week was just last week, and thanks to First Second we're still celebrating--throughout April and May, MacTeenBooks has organized a massive multi-blog tour featuring Five Questions with a wide range of amazing cartoonists for kids and teens, with all interviews conducted by by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, the authors of Dragons Beware! If you check out the list (RIGHT HERE!), you'll see familiar names like Cece Bell and Mariko Tamaki and Cecil Castellucci and tons of other great graphic novelists. It really is a wonderful virtual event, and it's co-sponsored by the Children’s Book Council, Every Child a Reader, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Without further ado, but WITH an awesome imaginary drum roll I'd never be able to pull off in real life, here are Five Questions with one of our favorite (and local) graphic novelists, Gene Luen Yang. He's the author or co-author of so many GNs we've really loved here on Finding Wonderland: American Born Chinese (reviewed here), Level Up (reviewed here), The Eternal Smile (reviewed here), Boxers & Saints (previewed here), Prime Baby (reviewed here) and Shadow Hero (reviewed here). We've also interviewed him before, way back in 2007 (gulp). We're stoked to welcome him back again!

RAFAEL/JORGE: Gene, when our first book came out, you let us interview you, and now that our second book is coming out, you are allowing us to bombard you with questions yet again.  You're a good man, Gene!  Thanks, again!
GENE:  Thank you guys for getting in touch again!  I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume of Giants Beware!  Can’t wait to find out what Claudette and her friends are up to next!

QUESTION:  The last time we interviewed you, we asked you about something we’re still struggling with:  how do you balance a day job with creative endeavors. You recently discussed your work as a High School Science Teacher.  Has the balance of day job and comics gotten tougher or easier for you since we last spoke?  Have you learned any tips that you can share with us and others? 
GENE: It’s funny you should ask about this.  I recently made the decision to leave my day job.  For the past seventeen years, I’ve worked at a high school in Oakland, California.  I started as a full-time teacher.  These days, I’m down to just one class, plus some database work.

Leaving will be hard.  I love the community.  I feel like I’ve learned so much from my students.  But recently, DC Comics offered me the opportunity to write Superman and I couldn’t pass it up.

I know some folks hate their day jobs, but I loved being a teacher.  Still do.  Teaching and making comics provided a great balance for me.  Teaching’s incredibly extroverted, making comics is the exact opposite.  Being around people all day often gave me the source material I needed to write and draw stories.  Though I’m concentrating on my cartooning career for now, I hope to end my working life as a teacher.

Balancing a day job with creative work can be difficult.  For a few years, I would wake up early and go to sleep late to get my comics done.  I think you have to find the right day job, one that leaves you with enough energy to finish your own stuff.  For me, teaching and comics drew from different “energy buckets” – they wouldn’t exhaust me in the same way, so it worked!

QUESTION:  We can't wait to read your Superman! Was that a goal of yours to write for the Man of Steel?  How did that come about? Any chance for a Superman - Green Turtle team up?
GENE: I’m definitely excited to be a part of Team Superman!  Because he’s such a popular character, Superman is the star of four different titles from DC Comics.  I’m working with the other writers to build something new for the Man of Steel, something that will hopefully be a springboard for some good stories.  I’ve learned so much from seeing how those other guys work.

I’d love to do a Superman-Green Turtle team up!  Not sure it’ll ever happen, though!

I do want to mention that Sonny Liew, my partner on The Shadow Hero, is drawing the Dr. Fate comic for DC.  I’m super-excited about it.  Sonny, of course, is one of my favorite artists, and Dr. Fate is one of my favorite superheroes!  I got really into him when I was in high school, during J.M. DeMatteis' run on the character.  Can’t wait to see what Sonny and writer Paul Levitz do with him.

QUESTION: Speaking of the Green Turtle, "The Shadow Hero" only whetted our appetite for his adventures.  Can we hope to see a sequel or two or three?
Thank you!  Sonny and I have talked about doing two more Green Turtle stories.  I want to do one that’s set right before America enters World War II, and one right after the war ends.  Hopefully we’ll be able to actually do it someday.  Right now, though, we’re both busy with other projects.

QUESTION:  Who are you reading these days or who are your current influences? 
These days, most of my reading is research.  I’m almost done with Glen Weldon’s excellent Superman: An Unauthorized Biography.  I’m also reading a couple of books about basketball because I’m working on a graphic novel about the subject.

In terms of comics, Jason Shiga’s Demon is brilliant.  Not for kids, not even for some adults, but brilliant.  Jason is one of the most innovative – and bizarre – cartoonists to have ever walked the planet.  Mind-blowing stuff.

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer has won a bajillion awards, and if you read the book you’ll understand why.  Absolutely masterful comics-making.

The comic I most recently read is Superman #23.4, written and drawn by Aaron Kuder. Aaron’s another member of Team Superman.  He’s most well-known as an artist, but he’s an excellent writer as well.  The issue focuses on Parasite, who is arguably the best purple-skinned supervillain ever.

QUESTION: Is Superman the next thing you're working on or are there other things on your plate you're working on these days?
Cartoonist Mike Holmes and I are busy with Secret Coders, a middle-grade graphic novel series all about computer programming.  I’m really, really excited about it.  I finally get to combine my two careers – cartooning and teaching computer science – into a single project.  I’m doing the writing, Mike’s doing the art.  Mike’s stuff has this Saturday morning energy to it that’s perfect for the story—you’ll see what I’m talking about when it comes out in September.

Thanks so much to First Second and the generous book-loving sponsors who made this blog tour possible! We're excited, too, about the upcoming Secret Coders, and can't wait to add it to our TBR pile. Thanks to Gene for taking the time to answer Jorge and Rafael's questions, thanks to the interviewers, and thanks to the amazing Gina Gagliano. Don't forget to go check out the other stops on the blog tour!

May 07, 2015


click to embiggen

A surfeit of conflicts sisterical
Makes this graphic novel hysterical -
And a journey by car
Makes it all worse by far
A truce would be some sort of miracle!

Other Noteworthy Info: This incredibly fun graphic novel, published last year, is the companion to Smile and continues Raina's autobiographical childhood/tween adventures. Anyone who has siblings, or stepsiblings, or even aggravating cousins, will laugh and relate, and the author's engaging, friendly, funny drawing style is sure to appeal to a wide reading audience. Honestly? It made me REALLY GLAD I did not grow up with sisters... 

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of last year's KidLitCon, after which it promptly got mislaid for several months. Oops! Hopefully the poetry makes up for it.

You can find SISTERS by Raina Telgemeier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 05, 2015


"No, seriously, this is the LAST post-apocalyptic dystopian book I'm going to review."

I say that frequently, don't I? And yet, I keep finding stories that, for me, at least, add to the sub-genre. Few are the novels which move past the end-of-days pyrotechnics and delve into "and then what happens?" Short of Meg Rosoff's HOW I LIVE NOW, most post-apocalyptic novels deal strictly with the apocalypse... and give no clues on how to live within one's boundaries. Is it a coincidence that the writers with the books best detailing the sheer drudgery of living post-apocalypse are writers like Saci Lloyd and Meg Rosoff -- British? I don't think so. That J.E. Anckorn is a British transport to Boston fits my theory as well. It must be something genetic for those whose ancestors survived the Blitz.

Summary: Gracie's a fourteen-year-old from a well-to-do family in the suburbs who has household help and all the tech gadgetry, sci-fi books and movies that she could wish. What she doesn't have is her parent's attention when she wants it - she most often garners her mother's critical attention, accusing her of being anti-social and weird, and her father's chuck-under-her-chin pleasantries. Nowadays, she mostly spends her time with Gilda and checks online forums for news and conjecture about the Space Men. Since the weird sci-fi silver orbs started levitating in the sky, everyone's been scared, the wifi has been wonky and her parents have forbidden her to go outside. It was bad when the orbs - the ships - were just hovering... but when they landed, everything got exponentially worse.

Across town, fifteen-year-old Brandon is worrying about his father, who has been building up a good head of steam since he was suspended from his job at the Post Office, who hasn't taken the pills meant to curb his aggression, and who has allegedly gone "fishing" with his Uncle Bob... and left behind his pole, but taken his guns. While his father has many friends on the police force, it's off-season for deer, and Brandon knows there will be trouble. When his father uses his chainsaw to carve up a big, bleeding buck in the front yard, just to freak out the neighbors, Brandon, as usual, tries to keep the peace and keep his father out of trouble - and gets a black eye for his pains. It's not just the ships hovering in the sky that make things tense at his place. It's the power bill that hasn't been paid, the knee-high front lawn, and the bottomless stash of Dad's bottles. When the ships finally land, things look up - because a man who would've served in the Army except he had to raise his kid -- that type of man is made for challenges such as aliens. But, hiding in a boarded-up house doesn't entirely work, and when they try and take Brandon's father, he holds on -- and on. After all, his father is all he has left, and has given up the dangerous, glamorous life of an Army man that he could have had to raise him. And what is he, without his father?

Five-year-old Jake was sitting in the booster seat in the car when his family was taken. Too little to run and hide, he never had a chance. Found by Gracie and Brandon, in time he begins to believe that he can have a new family. But he has a foot in both worlds now -- and his divided self doesn't just feel like it's breaking.

Three perspectives of holding together and coming apart weave into one story of survival.

Peaks: This is a long book, which in some ways is a positive, as there's time for real plot development, and the ebbs and flows of action and emotional nuance. One of the strongest positives for me is that it explored class difference in America as a secondary plot arc, as well as the whole "aliens emptied the world" thing.

The book's detailed characterization is one of its strengths. It takes a long, long time for Brandon and Gracie to see each other as people -- then as individuals in a class of people, then as allies and friends, and finally as family. Brandon resents Gracie's opportunities and privilege, and what he feels as her sneering at him for not wanting to use books or computers for survival information, and Gracie finds Brandon's reliance on the idea of the Army techniques - which she does not believe he knows - and Army know-how ultimately coming to the rescue - to be juvenile and purposefully blind. Jake, with all of his issues, is both unwitting connection between the two of them, and unwitting wedge. He becomes the prize in a tug of war in multiple directions, and ultimately one of the pivotal characters in the book, despite his age.

Valleys: This is a long book, which for readers who wants a short, sharp exciting ride all the way won't be as satisfying. There are some points, between the high body count, where the narrative drags as the dailiness of bickering and drudging along - without baths or clean clothes, or through a long Maine winter with limited fuel - take their toll, and a reader can easily set the book aside for something else. There is a lack of racial and ethnic or sexual diversity - but the world is mostly emptied and so this is somewhat understandable. Neither the world nor the national governments at all times come out looking entirely positive, which may also be upsetting for some readers.

Conclusion: The 999th post-apocalyptic dystopian I've read in the last few years, but I can honestly say this one has more depth than many, and I look forward to seeing the writer tackle other genres.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, via NetGalley. You can find THIS BOOK by J.E. ANCKORN at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 01, 2015


After being seriously blown away by Tina Connolly's alternate history as depicted in her Ironskin trilogy, I was a bit surprised to see this lighthearted-looking book in my mailbox. Stripey tights and a magic book? Huh. I shouldn't have been surprised that the author used lighter fare to still explore issues of self-discovery and choice. I picked the novel up during lunch, and finished it in just under a couple of hours. The protagonist in this novel is fifteen, which makes this a perfect novel for older junior high readers. Those who loved Justine Larbalestier's HOW TO DITCH YOUR FAIRY and enjoyed the SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES but who aren't quite yet old enough for Terry Pratchett's WINTERSMITH (though the previous Aching novels aren't quite as gritty) or Rachel Hawkins' HEX HALL will get a kick out of the lighter fare in this novel.

Summary: Camellia is pissed. The Witch is at it again, with another impossibly long list of stupid chores to do - and with a new and completely deranged plan to rule the city. I mean, seriously: they have a mayor, they don't need the Witch. But, if your name is as witchy as "Saramine Scarambouche, apparently magically-related chores are what you demand. Sadly, if your name is Cam - or your initials are CASH, which is an awful, terrible "joke" The Witch played on Camellia's real parents when she stole Camellia from them -- you're stuck mucking out dragon cages, walking and feeding werewolf pups, sourcing goats blood and pig's ears, and trying desperately to stop the witch from wreaking the seriously high-level havoc that's going to end with someone's soul being eaten and a phoenix exploding at the Halloween Dance. Camellia is definitively NOT a witch - Not. Even. Close. But, when the stakes get high enough, she's willing to crack a spell book. Because sometimes even ordinary mortal girls have to fight fire with fire.

Peaks: In two words: normalized inclusivity. Even among the seriously wicked, the world isn't all one culture, ethnicity or background, which is lovely and right.

Power struggles between adults and teens aren't written about creatively often enough in YA lit, especially power dynamics among females. Cam's detailed observations of people - her best friend, the girl she loathes, the high school choir teacher, herself and - and her "aunt," all provide a lot of amusement and food for thought. There are truths that are clear in the novel which don't come across as lessons; primarily that true friends always have your back, no matter how entirely bizarre things get; real affection is true to itself; and you can choose to be yourself, no matter who - or what - your parents are. Choice and identity are key in this novel, though with a somewhat frothy and fast-paced plot, readers will be amused and not necessarily realize they're taking in that message with everything else. They'll just rejoice that Cam comes to her own conclusions in the end.

Valleys: Though marketed as YA, this novel will appeal to 7th grade readers - so it might be disappointing to older readers. Some readers may find the "work" portion of the novel slows the pacing, while others may not notice it -- once I was interested in the characters, it was easy to keep going.

Conclusion: A complete departure from her earlier work, this novel may surprise Connolly fans, but it's a nice introduction to her for younger readers who will hopefully find her other books later. It's light and charming, and there's a pet dragon and a boy band. Yes. A boy band AND a dragon. You know you need to read it now.

Know any magic fans who live in Oregon? If you're in the Beaverton area, you can attend the book-launch for this very fun book at the Cedar Hill Crossing Powell's bookstore on May 5th. Wear your stripey socks and -- seriously, Tina Connolly is going to teach a spell... Be there, or be a solar panel salesperson, which has to be the worst punishment, ever.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Tor Teen publicity assistant Desirae Friesen. After 5th May, you can find SERIOUSLY WICKED by Tina Connolly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!