Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sleeper

Mark,

I wanted to get down some thoughts about a book I just read while it’s still fresh in my mind. The book is The Opposite of Hallelujah, by Anna Jarzab. I’m not quite willing to say it is the best book of the year or anything, but it does so many things so well that I just want to do my bit to make sure that more people know about it and it doesn’t get lost in the end-of-the-year shuffle.

First of all, there’s the premise, which has to be unique in YA literature: a cloistered nun returns home, to the consternation of her family. The main character is 16-year-old Caro, who has pretty much a perfect life. She gets good grades (she especially likes science and math), she has good friends, she has a cute boyfriend (although he has been away all summer as a camp counselor), and she has doting parents. She also has a much older sister, Hannah, but Hannah hasn’t lived with the family since Caro was 8, and Caro hasn’t even seen her since she was twelve. At that point, she started telling people at school that Hannah was dead, because it seemed the easiest explanation. “You’d think the phrase ‘contemplative nun’ would mean something to kids who’d been attending Catholic school their entire lives, but it really didn’t. . . .To them . . . nuns were practically pre-historic, and it didn’t make any sense for my then twenty-three-year-old sister–tall, thin, blond as Barbie–to be working on her fourth year at the Sisters of Grace convent in Middleton, Indiana.” Continue reading

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Reading Covers

Mark,

Sorry for my absence from the blog. Between the World Series and my trip to Chicago for ALA Fall Exec, time just got away from me.

But covers: yes, absolutely covers make a difference–in more ways than one.

I think your weeding examples are good ones. There’s no point in a book taking up valuable real estate if no one is looking at it. There can be lots of reasons for that, and dull covers can be a major contributor. Outdated covers can also kill a book’s circulation. Those paperbacks from the 80s, where the kids have big hair, are an example. Also, these 80s paperback covers were almost always drawings, not photographs. Today the trend seems to be  photographs of real people (or, frequently, parts of people–feet, parts of faces, headless bodies) or something stylistic but essentially non-representational.

So obviously, there are trends in cover art, and publishers are constantly updating the covers of some of these books, to keep up with the times. Look at two newer versions of the Judy Blume book pictured on the left: Continue reading

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Judging a Book By Its Cover

Mom,

This is an issue we’ve discussed IRL many times, but I was just thinking about it as I did some weeding and I thought I’d bring it to our readers.  Basically, the point that I want to make (and I know you agree) is that despite the oft heard exhortation, we librarians and reader do judge books by their covers, and what’s more, if we do it correctly, we are right to do so.  Let me give you an example:

Stem Cells: Opposing Viewpoints. Ed. Jacqueline Langwith. Greenhaven. 2007.

This is a book that came up on my dusty books list, so I already know that it hasn’t circulated in two years, but I could have guessed that anyway.  Why?  Well – let’s look at the cover:  now, I’m sure these books have a lot of amazing information in them, but the only reason that a teen would ever pick one up is if they were assigned a project on it, and even then it’s a tough call.  The cover is bland, the title is bland, there is no information about what is within the covers.  Why would teen waste their time.  The only thing they know is that it is part of the ubiquitous “Opposing Viewpoints” series from Greenhaven, which means that they’d really probably have to be assigned a project specifically on the “controversial” nature of the topic, not on the facts, because this series doesn’t give you a lot of facts.  Now, I don’t know what’s happening in other schools, but here in Vallejo, I haven’t heard of a teacher assigning one of those Controversial Issues research papers in years.  Out of the collection this one goes.

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Debuts too

Mom,

Let’s see, looking over my notes, it appears I’ve read eight YA or MG debuts this year:

  • Wonder
  • Seraphina
  • Amelia Anne
  • The Wicked and the Just
  • Otherkin
  • Crow
  • Remarkable
  • Three Times Lucky

And another eight adult debuts (all for the Adult Books 4 Teens blog):

We’ve talked about five of these to varying degrees on this blog already: Wonder, Seraphina, The Yellow Birds, Song of Achilles, Amelia Anne, Deck Z.  And I really have no desire to say much about the atrocity that is Otherkin, or for that matter Demi-Monde, which I passed on for Adult Books 4 Teens, so I’ll confine my thoughts to the remaining titles.

Of the younger novels, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats is certainly the one that stands out (aside from Seraphina).  It is a historical novel set in Wales just before and during the uprising of Madog ap Llywelyn.  It’s told from the perspective of the daughter of the English lord installed by Edward I to oversee Caernarfon the town and castle where the uprising was eventually put down.  Among the many things I love about this book is the fascinating piece of history it turns up.  I said someone else (perhaps on Heavy Medal) that I am so tired of all the historical novels being set in the American Revolution, Civil War, World War II, Civil Rights Era, etc. — so it was really refreshing to get a historical novel in a totally new period.  What’s more–it is a completely fascinating period.  Many people have at least seen Braveheart and so know something of the struggle and resentment between the English and the Scottish.  Practically everyone with a little bit of world knowledge knows about the continuing struggle between the English and the Irish.  But very few people realize the similar struggles that went on between England and Wales (and which stretches back, mythically, to Arthurian times–ironically, of course, Arthur was on the Welsh side).  In any case, the history is fascinating and Coats brings it to incredibly vivid life, and gives full due to both sides, even as her sympathies lie (correctly, in my opinion) with the oppressed Welsh.

Younger still are Crow, Three Times Lucky, and Remarkable.  They’re talking about Three Times Lucky right now over on Heavy Medal, and I don’t have much to add. I thought it was a nice little novel, but it didn’t move me much.  I thought better of Crow, which also addresses a somewhat neglected historical period – the period between the Reconstruction and the full onslaught of Jim Crow, when Southern Blacks still had a bit of power.  For Those About to Mock has some good thoughts on this one.  Unsurprisingly (to me), my favorite of this trio is Remarkable by Lizzie K. Foley.  This is a completely ridiculous novel about a town (like Lake Wobegon) where absolutely everyone is “remarkable” except for our heroine, Jane Doe.  The town is even called Remarkable.  This is a book that lives or dies on the reader’s appreciation for quirky, absurdist humor, and as you know, I love quirky, absurdist humor.  I found it hilarious and sometimes quite moving.

As for what to make of these debut novels, I (like you) haven’t read enough of them to have a good read on them this year.  I very much look forward to the Morris announcement, so I can see where some more of the good stuff is.

– Mark

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Debuts

Mark,

So we’ve talked a lot about Printz-worthy fiction and nonfiction for 2012, and also about the Excellence in Nonfiction Award, but today I was thinking about the Morris Award, and young adult debuts. Considering that it is only about six or seven weeks until the Morris shortlist is announced, I decided to look around and see how many YA debuts I had actually read this year.

And the answer is . . . apparently, not many. I did a not-exhaustive search and found the following sources: Kelly Jensen has a series of posts on The Hub listing debut novels. Goodreads is maintaining a list of debut authors for young adult and middle grade here. And RT Book Reviews had a list from BEA here.

Again, as I say, I don’t pretend these lists are exhaustive, or even correct, but here is a list of debuts that I have read:

The Catastrophic History of You and Me, by Jess Rothenberg

Grave Mercy, by Robin LeFevers

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

The Princesses of Iowa, by Molly Backes

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, by Kat Rosenfield

Long Lankin, by Lindsey Barraclough

Kissing Shakespeare, by Pamela Mingle

Three that I haven’t read but that I have on hold at the library or sitting on my nightstand are The Wicked and the Just, by J. Anderson Coats, When the Sea is Rising Red, by Cat Hellisen, and Personal Effects, by E.M. Kokie. Continue reading

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Elsewhere

Hi Mom,

I don’t have much to say this morning, so I thought I’d send you and our readers to some stuff I’ve written elsewhere:

1) An interview with Kevin Powers: http://www.slj.com/2012/10/books-media/author-interview/the-debut-the-yellow-birds-kevin-powers/

Powers wrote The Yellow Birds, one of my favorite adult books of the year and a National Book Award finalist.  I gave it a starred review for SLJ, and then got the chance to talk to Powers via email about the book.  The Yellow Birds is in some ways a pretty standard “coming home from war” novel, in structure.  But what sets it apart is Powers’s terrific command of language.  I strongly recommend it – and check out the interview, because Powers is a really articulate guy.

2) The Edwards Award in numbers: http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2012/10/21/the-edwards-award-the-once-and-future-thing/

Over at The Hub we’ve been doing a series of posts on “The Next Big Thing”, a concept which I find kind of suspect.  In any case, I took the opportunity to look at winners of the Edwards Award and see how often they have continued to be “The Next Big Thing” and not just “The Last Big Thing.”  I found out a lot of interesting things, most obviously: Laurie Halse Anderson is amazing.

3) Medusa’s Gaze: http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/adult4teen/2012/10/22/medusas-gaze-and-vampires-bite/

Here’s my SLJ review of Matt Kaplan’s Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters. I already mentioned this book last week when I talked about mythic monsters and new ways of approaching them.  I also strongly recommend this one to anyone interested in monsters.

– Mark

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Two Kinds of Ambiguity

Mom,

Can we talk about ambiguity? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t.  OK, I think that’s out of my system. 

So, when I read your post, I started to do some googling around to look for other examples of children’s books with ambiguous endings.  Turns out: people hate ambiguous endings. Or at least, internet goers who made the top of my google search do.  Which is not necessarily surprising to me, but still strange–I myself love ambiguous endings, and have never read any of the sequels to The Giver for specifically that reason.  So no, I haven’t read Son.  It has been getting a lot of buzz, so I suppose I may read it at some point, but not for now.  Instead, I’ll talk about a few other books with ambiguous endings.

The first one that came to mind for me was Terry Trueman’s Stuck In Neutral, which as you know is about Shawn, a boy with severe cerebral palsy and ends just before his father may or may not kill him to “put him out of his misery.”  I read Stuck in Neutral for the first time in the early part of this year and absolutely loved it, right down to the ambiguous ending, which I thought was 1) necessary, since Shawn is the narrator and 2) completely appropriate, because it forced the reader to think more deeply about what we think about Shawn’s father and how that impression would change depending on what he decides.  And then, lo and behold, just a few months ago, Trueman came out with a sequel, called Life Happens Next*.  I haven’t read it yet, but I know from the publisher’s copy that Shawn is still alive, so that pretty much answers that. 

Continue reading

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Ambiguity

Mark,

Can we talk about ambiguity? I just read Lois Lowry’s new book, Son, which is the final book in what is now apparently being referred to as the “Giver quartet.” I have mixed feelings about the book, and they have to do with the question of ambiguity.

I loved The Giver. It (rightly, in my opinion) won the 1994 Newbery Medal, and was the one book cited when Lowry won the 2007 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lasting contribution to literature for young adults. One of the things I really appreciated about The Giver was its ambiguous ending. What were Jonas and Gabe approaching in the last lines of the book? Was it really another civilization–an Elsewhere with music and colors–or were they dying, and the music and colors were all in Jonas’s imagination?

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In Praise of Versatility

Mom,

I was doing a toddler story time on Tuesday, reading dinosaur books in honor of International Dinosaur Month (did you know such a thing existed? I sure didn’t), and had to include one of my dinosaur favorites, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague.  After the story time I was chatting with a parent who was mentioning how much she loved Jane Yolen’s picture books and I mentioned to her that the great thing about Yolen is that you can read her books at every phase of literary development: she’s written picture books, early chapter books, middle grade novels, YA novels, and adult novels, not to mention a generous helping of poetry and short stories.  Of course, this wouldn’t mean much if she weren’t talented at all of these levels, but, incredibly, she is.  Owl Moon is her most decorated picture book, with a Caldecott for illustrator John Schoenherr (and it made #30 on Betsy Bird’s picture book poll).  Meanwhile, she has gobs of ALA Notable Books for Children, Best Books for Young Adults, Nebula awards, and more, for the older books. Continue reading

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Mythic Monsters

Mark,

What a great concept! I love the idea of reinvigorating the mythical monsters by reimagining them in a more realistic setting. Another recent YA book that does this well is Necromancing the Stone, Lish McBride’s sequel to Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. While I don’t see this book as a serious Printz contender, it is a great, fun read. In this case, it’s werewolves and were-bears who are the mythical monsters placed in a realistic setting, along with some witches, and, of course, necromancers.

But back to Seraphina for a moment: it occurred to me after I wrote my last post that despite what I said there, Seraphina really is a straight-up fantasy. The world is a medievalish world, which in the fantasy genre mainly means little or no “technology” as we think of it, although there are occasional fantasy elements that seem technological to us (like Orma’s ability to talk with Seraphina through the frolicking kitten on her harpsichord). So why did I think of it as realistic? Well, for one thing, as I said before, the world-building doesn’t get in the way of the story. For another, there are the Vulcanish dragons, who seem more modern, somehow than ordinary fantasy dragons (despite retaining some classic dragon characteristics, like fire-breathing and concern for the hoard). Also, the characters–dragon, human, and half-human–have a modern sensibility to them. Continue reading

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