Thursday, December 13, 2007

Re-thinking Lyra (the movie)

I posted this on Child_lit and thought that it should be here as well. I don't want to prevent people from going to see the movie. So much of it is done right and beautifully. It will be a shame if it doesn't reach a large audience!

After almost a week -- I finally have to come to terms with my own
inability to judge this movie. I plan on seeing it again, putting
aside my pre-conceived notions on what the movie should have been and
just see it as it IS -- a movie based on a book... a book that I have
come to love and treasure more and more, the longer it lives in my

I have posted on my online journal the initial reactions from me and
the group of teens who went to the movie with me. And on Monday, I
had a chance to talk to a group of 6th graders who saw the movie over
the weekend. Here's the link of the school blog recording what they
had to say:

What warms my heart is the level of intensity in the discussion over
this adaptation -- they have a LOT a LOT to say and they say with
conviction and passion -- they know ALL the details in the book and
they want the movie to convey every single important element in the
book -- and the elements they care about are not just action and plot.
They care about the rendition of the characters; the relationships
between the characters; the "hidden" messages; the importance of
minute moments; the pacing and story form; the struggle between the
light and the dark; and the ambiguity of the characters and their
actions. It is truly satisfying to hear these young readers take the
book so seriously and so much to heart. I think it is cause for

Now, if I don't have to read so many new books for my Notables duty,
I'll be re-reading the book! I'll do what Monica's been doing --
listening to it soon.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Seen Lyra

Friday night, thirteen of us, two librarians, a college student, and 10 middle and high school fans of the book, went to see the 10:20 p.m. showing of The Golden Compass. It's an event that had been much anticipated and the excitement level couldn't be higher! We watched as the familiar story unfold on a huge screen with beautifully crafted backdrops and set designs telling a rearranged and much abbreviated story. We agreed wholeheartedly that Lyra and Mrs. Coulter couldn't have been cast better. Dakota Blue Richards is a perfect Lyra with a most fierce and sincere performance. Nicole Kidman is just right for this beautiful and brutal seductress role. The other characters are all adequate with the exception of Eva Green who just doesn't seem to embody her role as described in the book, and of course we absolutely adored the CG creatures: the Daemons and Iorek are superbly rendered. But, then, we got annoyed as well... since we loved the book to pieces, it's simply impossible to please us no matter who writes and produces the film. Here are some of our complaints:

We were really annoyed by the visual representation of Lyra's reading of the Alethiometer. Every time that same design of her going into a "visual" trance through the swirly golden dust to read the truth, you could almost hear us groan and moan. Not only that the special effects are not that impressive, they do not capture what Lyra does with the instrument at all. Lyra reads the Alethiometer with a lot of logical reasoning that has everything to do with interpreting symbols -- almost like using a different language. And yet, on the film, it looks as if she is looking into a crystal ball and seeing imagery with some kind of psychic power. If she can see how things "happen" with images, she wouldn't have taken Roger to the north to see her father at all. (And, of course, the studio decided to end the movie on a happy note where Roger is found, rescued, and going on the adventure with Lyra, rather than the actual ending featuring the ultimate betrayal from Lord Asriel.)

Having Iorek voiced by Ian McKellan is also a little difficult for us to bear since most of us are fans of the Lord of the Rings movies as well and we kept hearing Gandalf's voice. The moment when Lyra is crossing the narrow ice bridge and Iorek screamed, "Run"... looked and sounded so much like where Gandalf yelling at Frodo and the Fellowship when they came out of Moria, chased by the Balrog that we almost all burst out laughing.

We were also puzzled as to why the filmmakers chose to show "Dust like" images when the Daemons die in the movie -- since it is spelled out in the book that the people cannot see Dust and that Lord Asriel's ability to capture Dust on the hologram is incredibly rare. Why couldn't they come up with something different but equally eye-pleasing, conveying the deaths of the Daemons on the battlefield? (Imagine lines of blue smokes or something... There simply is way too much Golden Dust going on, including the swirling of psychic power when Lyra reads the Alethiometer, in this movie!)

We were dismayed by how unsophisticated the CG effects seems when it comes to the witches' flying and fight sequences (they look like from some old fashion Superman movie scenes.) We missed the emphasis of Cloud Pine as their flying transport, we don't think that Eva Green is right for Sarafina Pekkala, or at least the way her character is represented in the script,

Why do the characters have to repeat this information, "It's an Alethiometer. A Golden Compass." so many times in the movie? After the first or second time, the audience must have known that the thing is called an Alethiometer....

As mentioned above, the way the movie ended created the biggest outcry of protest from the group. Since the filmmaker decided that how the book ends is not ideal (not happy and a huge cliffhanger,) the movie ends when Roger is saved and going North with Lyra. Here, Lyra reads the Alethiometer and says that she's bringing something useful for her father. Readers of the book KNOW what that "useful thing" is and we felt terribly terribly saddened by this scene. Other audience, who have not read the book, would have been incredibly shocked if the filmmakers DO put the scene where Asriel betrays Lyra in the second movie. They would not have been prepared because Lord Asriel has not been successfully portrayed as an ambitious and morally ambiguous man (as he is presented in the book) and they would have not believed that Lyra was misinterpreting the Alethiometer because in this movie, Lyra could SEE what's going to happen (whereas in the book, it is always clear that she is just INTERPRETING the symbols and guessing).

Someone said that there should be THREE movies for this one book alone! Yes... we want nine movies out of this trilogy!!! And we want the scenes that show characters' human sides: we want to see how Lyra charms the Gyptians by being one of the crew (a montage of her working side-by-side with Ma Costa or Lord Faa, maybe? instead of long panned shots of the ship going down the big river?)

Here's the list of people from school who went to the movie together: Joe Quain, Roxanne Feldman, Josh Revesz, Daniel Liss, Celena Kopinski, Genevieve Oxman, Russell Meredith, Allison Flamberg, Parker Zhao, Max Weinreich, and Gabe Levine, Zack Pintchik.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems)

Author: Park, Linda Sue
Reading Level: 3rd to 6th grade

Pages: 48
Publisher: Clarion
Edition: Hardcover

I am absolutely delighted and pleased by the collection of Sijo poetry (a traditional Korean form of short poems) paired with playful and often surprising illustrations. It will be fun to see children and grownups trying their hands on creating this kind of poems!

Passion and Poison: Tales of Shape-shifters, Ghosts, and Spirited Women

Author: De Negro, Janice
Reading Level: 4th - 6th grade

Pages: 64
Publisher: Marshal Cavendish
Edition: Hardcover

I really enjoyed the tone of these narratives but found the seven mostly familiar (or with familiar motifs) tales in this slim volume not scary or eerie enough. There exists always a promising build-up but the readers are left short of truly gruesome, horrific, or surprising endings. The cover design is quite effective, with raised blood-red title print, but the interior illustrations are uneven and less than accomplished in many cases. The very good cover art is done by Vincent Natale, but the illustration copyright is attributed to Marshall Cavendish, the publisher -- and the quality of the illustrations definitely feel like work-for-hire jobs.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Drink, Talk, Be Merry, and Eat Cookies!

Last night, a dozen or so child_lit contributors gathered at long-time list member Monica Edinger's apartment -- one floor above the festivities of a New York City "neighborhood" Halloween Party (read: in the lobby for the kids in the huge apartment building on West 111th Street.)

Philip Pullman and wife Jude were the honored guests for the night. We chatted about the "lineage" of our child_lit involvement.. from the creation of the list by Michael Joseph, who was there with Constance Vidor, his lovely partner, and Head Librarian at Friends' Seminary. We thanked Michael for creating a space in the cyber world for us to exchange ideas and forge otherwise unlikely friendship. GraceAnne DiCandido, Kirkus reviewer and my Library School teacher, was responsible for the two reviews of His Dark Materials' 2nd and 3rd installments. Other child_lit pals who came to help celebrate the occasion were Waller Hastings, English/Children's Lit. professor from South Dakota, now visiting professor at Rutgers this year, Pooja Makhijani, writer at Children's Television Workshop/Sesame Street International, Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur Levine Books/Scholastic, John Peters, Supervising Librarian of NYPL's Donnell children's library, past Newbery Chair, and prolific reviewer, Uli Knoepflmacher, English Professor at Princeton University and expert on Victorian and children's literature who just recently joined child_lit, and Kerry Mockler, 4th-year PhD student and teacher of children's literature and baker of a host of His Dark Materials inspired butter cookies. They were incredibly yummy. My students in the sci-fi/fantasy club thanked her for this gift (the next day, while sharing the story Mimsy Were the Borogoves)!

Our dinner was 3 pizzas from, some salad, wine and champagne -- but the main ingredient was the non-stop conversation around the room: all about children's books and once in a while some weird child_lit history surfaced.

Here are just three pictures to mark the evening for me:

This is me talking to Philip. (I didn't quite wash off all my zombie make-up from the day and had to do a little photoshop-doctoring before posting it on the Journal. Haha.)

This is the tray of cookies waiting to be revealed...

This is a picture of Kerry and Philip. We were all so pleased with this perfect ending for a perfect evening. Yeah for Kerry!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Full Circle and Then Some

I found an entry on my pre-blog reading notes, on the day of finishing reading The Golden Compass for the first time, eleven years ago. The date was 9/11/96...

I wrote,

"I was Devastated.

How could the book end such way? I was all hoping for a completion, a happy reunion, a resolutioin.. and was thrown the cliff-hanger for BOOK II -- which is NOT available yet. Oh.. what agony.

/complaint mode off!

What a treat. What a complicated and yet simple, deep and yet playful, violent and yet gentle, and moving and yet chilling book!

One thing that is so charming and yet so unsettling about Lyra is that, even though she has a truth-reader, and she is a truth-teller -- she also masters the art of lying. She knows the truth about the people (or creatures) that she confronts, and then uses that knowledge to manipulate them and gain upperhand. Even though, since she is pure at heart and means only well, she does not apply that skill to harm people (just to kill the bad ones!) She is indeed the same as her mother, who is also a master in the art of deceit.

Pullman's portrayal of a parrallel world to 19th century earth (Oxford, London, The Arctic, etc.) is almost hypnotic. The fascinating description of Daemons (substantial representations of humans' souls that live and die with their humans and share all pain and joy with them) and the strong BOND between them and the humans is what draws me to the book in the first place and still is what works for me all the way til the end.

This is the 1996 Andersen award winner and rightly so."

I couldn't find an even earlier note about how by that time, I was losing heart at the state of Fantasy fiction for children and how I seemed to have lost my appreciation of this genre but The Golden Compass saved me and rekindled my love and faith in this genre.

Then... 11 years and 1 month and 20 days later -- I sat in a friend's apartment, at a small gathering of children's lit. lovers, eating pizza and sharing stories and toasting the upcoming movies, the online community of child_lit listserv, and the friendship we forged through discussing children's books -- with Philip Pullman! I told him in person how I felt when the first book ended. He asked my opinions over which Harry Potter to read (The Third, of course) and also whether I liked Jonathan Stroud's work and Megan Whalen Turner's books and genuinely valued what I had to say about them. We talked about the bench and he related the tender story of discovering a wooden heart left on THE BENCH, with the carving dedicating it to Lyra and Will.

I still couldn't quite believe that this night had happened, but I do have this to prove to myself:

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Escape Pod, my new found love

So. Here's a plug for something I have found and enjoyed in the past month -- a weekly Podcast site of Science Fiction short stories. Here's a sample tale that many might enjoy: Save Me, Plz (EP124) by David Barr Kirtley. I listen to a story every night when I do the dishes on my iPod. Just the right length and the right kind of surreality to turn this time of the mundane into highly enjoyable and weird moments.

Monday, October 8, 2007

What I Have Been Learning

With the help of my Notable Books for Children Committee friends who have read and nominated for many nonfiction titles, I have had the chance to learn so many things: from facts about microraptors (pigeon-sized, feathered dinosaurs) to the history of U.S. Investigative Journalism, to how nuclear fusion actually works, among many other topics. I can't wait to read about the history of Underwear!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

More Getty Images Covers

It just so happened that out of the three books I read in the past two days, two of them are with very strikingly designed covers using Getty Images. I have yet to make up my mind as to whether Leap of Faith conveys all the turmoil Abby experiences in her 6th grade year and whether the wire-art skeleton is not a poor substitute of Fats (the carefully and elaborately - and probably messily labeled - skeleton). As cover goes, both are eye-catching, for sure. Did anyone read these and can comment on whether they effectively and artistically reflect the tone/content of each title? (And don't we have enough headless torsos in teen novel covers by now?)

Monday, October 1, 2007

Getty Images / Book Covers

So, I've noticed that more and more children's/YA book covers use photographs from the online image collection Getty Images. Although it is not "wrong" and I should not feel judgmental about it -- I feel "cheated" whenever I see that copyright note at the back jacket flap, stating that the image is not created specifically for or inspired especially by the text of the book.

I DO judge books by their covers, since I am a physical/materialistic book lover and care deeply about every creative aspect of the book, as an object of art. And I must admit that even though so many of these covers look quite pretty and pristine and attractive, they lack a depth, or "soul," that speaks to me as a reader -- especially AFTER reading the stories contained within. One recent example is the cover for Miss Spitfire: a blurry child's hand holding a green apple... WHY an Apple? I guess Apple is a "teachery" symbol -- but apple has little connection to Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan's emotional journey... the DOLL (Helen's first word) or the PUMP/WATER (Helen's final breakthrough objects) would have served so much better, or a powerful scene with the two main characters having one of their many conflicts -- and artwork INSPIRED by the story would have been so much more affective than Found Photos.

What gives? Pricing alone? Lack of hired talent? Anyone can shed some light on this?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Literary Device Noted

It's Sunday morning. Lily is reading Naylor's The Girls Get Even, the follow-up title to The Boys Start the War. She stopped reading for a minute to share with me this observation, "Mom, it's like you can see inside Caroline's head and inside Wally's head. But they can only guess at other characters' thoughts. So Caroline and Wally are like the main characters." I was tempted to explain the third person limited omniscient point of view and then move on to how even if they are the "narrative minds," they are not necessarily the main characters. (Although often they would be.) Then I stopped myself. She has turned back to the story. Let her read. The literary vocabulary can come later.

What gave me the tingles of delight was the fact that she noticed the narrative voices and device all by herself. I wonder if it makes her happy to make this one discovery...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Materialistic and Physical

There seems to be a general perception that readers are non-materialistic and care more about the intellectual and the spiritual world, since we tend to be lost in stories and thoughts once the words start playing in our heads. But, it is not so, at least not for this reader. I am a lover of BOOKS -- the entire physicality of these beautiful objects. When done right, or done brilliantly, all of these elements please me: the colors and designs of the covers, the thickness (or thinness) of the volumes, the various trim sizes, the choices of paper (glossy or pseudo-antique, smooth or coarse,) the smell of the new ink, the interior designs: the balanced amount of white space, the size and style of the font, decorative drawings, illustrations, and any other design elements.

Of course, if it doesn't matter what the book LOOKS or FEELS like to you, what matters to you is only the content that lies in between the covers, then, you won't understand my relationship with books. You will not understand why I will NEVER ever pick up the paperback edition of Dealing with Dragons and was so sad when the hardcover edition went out of stock for a while. You also wouldn't understand the sense of ecstasy coursing through me when looking at pages with the pleasing text to margin ratio and the non-annoying or distracting font choice. You also probably won't believe the degree of annoyance when I encounter a poorly designed book with the "wrong" font choices, terrible interior decorations, low quality paper, sloppy illustrations, etc.

I am confessing here: I have sinned! I am a materialistic and physical book lover.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat

Author: Lynne Jonell
Reading Level: 4th - 6th grade

Pages: 352
Publisher: Henry Holt
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

It's impressive how Jonell manages to inform the readers of all characters' personalities, feelings, and actions without ever straying away from Emmy's perspective: readers only know what she sees, hears, and thinks. The outlandish circumstances with all the super(magical?)-powers of the rodents are accompanied by a gentle tale of friendship, longing for parental love, and the essence of stable families. I mentally applauded the several jabs at the absurdity of the over-scheduling of our children.

The illustration with the flip-book margin of Rat falling and Emmy catching him ceases being a gimmick when it visually sums up the spirit of the story: "Don't worry. We're friends. I will catch you if you fall."

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Thin Line

According to some scholars, there had, for a long time, a gender bias in children's books. Traditionally, boys were portrayed as "strong, adventurous, independent, and capable," while girls tended to be "sweet, naive, conforming, and dependent." Girls in books tended to be more passive and "acted upon" rather than the active seeker of solution and adventures. However, I could recall many female protagonists who possess all the positive and active characteristics: Charlotte (Charlotte's Web,) Claudia (From the Mixed-up of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,) Meg (A Wrinkle in Time,) Cimorene (Dealing with Dragons,) Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia,), India Opal (Because of Winn-Dixie,) and Lyra (The Golden Compass.) This is just a start of a long list of names. I doubt not that young readers "need" these strong girls in their readings to form part of their world view without the traditional gender bias. Many newly published books for children continue this trend. (Lucky in The Higher Power of Lucky comes to mind.)

For a long time now, there has also been a group of girl protagonists that I might term "misunderstood." The famous ones are Ramona (Ramona the Pest and other titles,) Gilly Hopkins (The Great Gilly Hopkins,) Harriet (Harriet the Spy). These girls are head-strong, actively seeking adventures, and (on the surface) do not care how others perceive them. (But as readers soon find out, they are all insecure and desire to be noticed, admired, and loved.) Out of this vine, there grew the current bunch of girls who are not only strong and adventuresome, but also couldn't care less what others perceive them and how others might feel and react to their words and actions.

More and more female protagonists act rudely and selfishly and have been praised for their "pluckiness" and nonconformity. We see a mild case of witty snippishness in Mia (Princess Diaries,) and then there are the younger cast such as Junie B. Jones whose antics, unlike those of Ramona's, are a lot more intentional and whose sarcastic descriptions of the others (children and adults alike) are beyond just a show of pluckiness or humor. Last year we saw a group of amazingly talented outcast girls in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. They sure are adventuresome and resourceful. No guys ever helped them with their mission. They are bonded over life-and-death situations, saving each other from great perils, and sharing secrets no one else could know. And yet, when they are with each other, sarcastic put-downs are uttered and thrown at each other relentlessly. These are not merely nonconforming, plucky girls: they are downright rude and nasty.

And, yet, it seems, the world celebrates them. "Kiki Strike celebrates the courage and daring of seemingly ordinary girls, and it will thrill those who long for adventure and excitement." --School Library Journal and "This is a rallying cry for the ‘curious’ and an effective anthem of geek-girl power . . . All in all, an absurdly satisfying romp for disaffected smart girls." --Kirkus Reviews

When did so many girl protagonists cross the line and went from being admirably courageous and confident to being mean-spirited and self-congratulatory in their total disregard of others? I always believe that literature does not exist to cultivate readers' manners or to provide role models. A good storyteller should always aim at achieving a good story. It is true that these girls exist in real life (flinging insults at each other as a way to show intimacy and quick wit, much like their male counterparts) and that the world of stories should be wide-open and encompass all kinds. However, it is crucial that children's book creators and their teams do not simply make up these characters to follow a trend since these are what children see and hear on a daily basis, both in their real life and on TV/in movies and seem to fit the market place.

I wish that more critics and readers are aware of this somewhat subtle but insidious shift in children's literature heroines and continue to appreciate the "traditional" "strong, adventurous, independent, and capable" literary girls whom we admire and would love to be friends with after reading the last sentence of a tale.

More on this later.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Pulled Pork Theory

My daughter commented at dinner the other night after I enthusiastically devoured a superb Pulled Pork Sandwich, that, "Because you like pulled-pork so much, you're NEVER going to say that it's not good!" I looked at her, thinking, yup, she's probably right. Since I love love love this particular food, it's more likely that I would enjoy it as a meal option than some other choices (such as pickled herrings over a green salad.) However, thinking further, I replied, "Hmmm, just because I love pulled pork doesn't mean that I can't tell a good pulled pork from a badly done one, or from an excellent one. In fact, because I AM a pulled pork expert (consuming, not making) I probably am more sensitive to tiny differences in quality from one pulled pork to the next."

Then we went on and talked about my taste and ability to tell a good fantasy novel from a poorly constructed one. And, how, reading is like eating: to a more practiced and sensitive palate, small alterations in ingredients and textures could make a huge difference in my level of enjoyment. Spaghetti must be cooked al dente in my household -- slightly firmer or one degree limper both result in less enjoyment. That's why we guard the pot and test the noodle and quickly drain the water and serve when it's "just right." I know, it's a curse! But, a bliss as well, when everything is "just right" or when something exceeds expectation. Like the superb pulled pork from a grocery delivery service: all prepared and ready to serve (after a couple of minutes in the microwave!)

So, this is my pulled pork theory: just because I like a particular kind of books doesn't make me blind to the differences in quality from one offering to the next (the opposite probably applies.) And, it is important, for my professional life, to widely sample different kinds of writings and styles, all sorts of genres and formulas, so when it comes to discerning the poorly done, the mundane, and the divine, I can make well-informed and balanced judgments.

Hitler's Canary

Author: Sandi Toksvis
Reading Level: 5th - 7th

Pages: 191
Publisher: Roaring Brook (originally Randomhouse, UK, 2005)
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

What a feat... a tender, courageous, and often wryly humorous tale about the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. (Even if it's just a small corner of the world the Nazi's had a hold on.) Because of the courage and ingenuity and the strong belief in human equality of the Danish people, most of the 8000+ Jews were sheltered, transported to safety, and survived. This story from pre-and-early-teen Basme's (Teddy Bear) view point should be introduced to as many young readers as we can! It does not have extremely gruesome depictions that will upset young readers who have yet to know this part of our history, but it has plenty of nerve-wrecking moments and conflicts to hold one's attention and interest. There is great sacrifice and a few upsetting events (at least two quite irrevocable sufferings) toward the end of the tale, justifiably depicted. I cried, laughed, and gasped with terror, during the great theatrical scene that Mama staged to save their neighbors. Knowing that the story is inspired by family histories and relatives of the author I bought the story even more.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Serving on the Notables

So. Some of you might know that this year (and next and who knows...) I have been reading as a Member of the ALSC Notable Children's Books Committee, along with ten other VERY diligent and VERY intelligent and extremely knowledgeable and generous members!

So, the question I have been asked most is: How could you possibly read these many books? (Yup, we've each received already around 1000 titles and that's just the first half of the year's submission.) The short and quick answer is, "I can't!" So, I read as much as my slow pace allows, and then rely heavily on other members who read faster and have better radars to best books for recommendations. Without them, and without the current responsibility, I wouldn't have read the excellent survival story/mystery Leepike Ridge or what I am currently reading and definitely enjoying, Does My Head Look Big In This?

I am totally enjoying this experience, although of course, overwhelmed, as well. More to report another day.

Grumpy Bird

Author:Jeremy Tankard (illustrator)
Reading Level: Pre-k to 2nd

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

I LOVE the grumpiness of Bird and his host of 4-legged friends who totally are so clueless to his mood. The Wahaha-WOW ending is so unexpected and satisfying. There is a great momentum building through this seemingly simplistic picture book. Tankard's thick-black-outlined endearing group of animals and brush-painting trees, accompanied by bleached photo background is dexterously done. There is just so much to look at and such a joy to read aloud and to share!

Leepike Ridge

Author: N.D. Wilson
Reading Level: 4th to 7th

Pages: 224
Publisher: Random House
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

A great survival story, a thrilling adventure, an intriguing mystery, and a tall tale. It reminds me of Paulsen's survival stories but seems to have even more layers and with incredibly enjoyable wry humor: "It was a face deciding what to say and how to say it, and the truth didn't look as if it was a factor in the decision making."

"The bottom of the trash bag was full of boiled crawdad dead. Those remaining in the pool wandered about, confused by the sudden spaciousness."

"Jeffrey was dragged out by his shoulders and then propped up with his back against the couch. The bag was still blood-glued to the back of his head and stood out around it like a white plastic halo."

Yup, a few gruesome scenes: for example: dealing with and collecting useful things from a dead body. I loved those scenes.

Atherton: The House of Power

Author: Patrick Carman
Reading Level:

Pages: 330
Publisher: Little, Brown
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

This grabbed me and wouldn't let me go the entire time! Instantly, I was intrigued by the Frankeinstein quote and the strange conversation between the two disembodied voices. Edgar's tale then unfolds with lots of fast paced action and suspenseful plot twists, a cast of well-delineated major and minor characters, and wonderful illustrations (I'd like just a few more... um... maybe a dozen more, of Squire Broel's pencil drawings, actually!) I know that there is quite a bit of environmental message attached and all the science might not be accurately scientific and border on magical elements, but I bought it all: the world, the characters, the events, and wasn't even that distraught to find no ending to this particular portion of the tale.

I was reluctant to start reading the book, since there is a half-wrap dust jacket and a Bonus CD-ROM -- gimmicks that made me skeptical: the book must not be that great if they need to include special cover design and extra materials to draw readers! Glad that I did read it, really glad!

Monday, August 6, 2007

It's definitely an addiction

Reading, that is. I have been reading nonstop due to my responsibility on ALSC's Notable Children's Books Committee. Although so many books so far have been disappointing or just bleh, my passion for reading has only increased. So, this reading thing must be an addiction: I am constantly looking for the next book that will grab me, get me lost in a different and dexterously constructed world (and it doesn't even have to be a fantasy land or a futuristic one) and keep me in a dizzying haze when daily routines seem less real than the characters or relationships in a story. How else could I categorize this constant search for the next Big Experience?

This desire is so strong, it's often physical!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Am I evil in demanding high standards?

I've been teaching an online graduate course on fairy tales as children's literature these past few weeks. Recently, we debated heatedly about picture book fakelores and whether they should remain on library shelves and classrooms. Some of my students were puzzled by my passionate stance, believing that as long as the books are in high quality, with good stories and great illustrations, created by well-intentioned and reputable authors/illustrators, what's the big deal if they might be misleading. One student stated that if she was to choose between a beautifully made story, with some misrepresentation of the culture, but entertaining to the young readers, and a boring but accurate book, she would definitely choose the former. I completely understand how she feels. But, a big question remains:

Why would we even need to "choose"? Why couldn't we demand that books created for children and purchased by libraries and schools always be both accurate and entertaining? Why would anyone want to just settle for the lesser evil?

(I've been called the mean step-sister by a student already, so I imagine that I'm probably an evil step-mother now that I want these teachers and librarians to never settle for second best and always demand the best for our kids and for ourselves.)

So, the wind has changed

I have now decided that -- my simple reading log is no longer a "simple" journal recording specifically books and what I think about them. So, I guess, once in a while, someone visiting this blog might stumble upon my musings ABOUT reading and the general field of children's literature. I hope no one objects.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Author: J.K. Rowling
Reading Level: 5th and up

Publisher: Scholastic
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

I got the book shortly after midnight on Saturday morning, July 21..., at "The Harry Potter Place" party hosted by Scholastic. Spent 2 hours reading it (1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.) -- thought, "Now, this is quite good. I'm not annoyed by redundant adjectives or adverbs or repetitive verbs... And I'm really sucked back into this world again. How wonderful this feels!" Then, most of the day and evening of July 21 was spent reading/dozing off/reading/dozing off on the comfy chair in the living room. Dozing off, not because the story wasn't exciting but simply due to exhaustion. So, these early chapter and adventure took on a dreamy quality -- I wonder if it's the text or just because I was dreaming ... and Harry was doing a lot of dreaming and seeing through another's eye. His was nightmares, mine was a reader's trance. Being a slow reader, I couldn't finish it on Saturday. And I dared not get online to visit any book places, in fear of knowing what comes next. Not that it would have spoiled my experience... but, in a book full of deliberately hidden clues and mysteries, it was more fun to not know anything and slowly discover the "truth." Sunday saw me busy entertaining house guests and stealing moments to dip back into the tale. By bedtime, I was so deep into the world and so engrossed with the plot threads that I knew today (Monday) couldn't be spent in any other way but finishing it.

And finishing it I did, with much shedding of tears, much satisfaction with certain of my "predictions" came true, delighted in the reappearance of certain characters and elements from previous books, and inevitably slightly annoyed by a couple of threads and characters left underdeveloped. But, over all... it was a truly satisfying conclusion to a long journey. The many many pages in this case are not wasteful or draggy, but fitting for the exhausting and arduous journey that Harry and the Gang undertook. I'm just, really, pleased.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Game

Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Reading Level: 5th to 7th

Pages: 192
Publisher: Firebird (Penguin Putnam)
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

I find this short fantasy highly entertaining and extremely delightful. Diana Wynne Jones has such a strong sense of language to convey humor, mystery, the fantastic world and its richly drawn characters. For example, when Haley first met Tollie, and was taunted by him, her thoughts were, to “pull pieces off him -- ears, nose, fingers... so long as they came away with lots of blood--" (p. 4, p.5) This extreme thought both illustrates Haley's feisty personality and also establishes the tone of the story early on. That it is going to be full of strong emotions and funny bits. And throughout the book, this tone is consistent.

There are vivid scenes that have stayed with me for months: the raw pork chop stuck in the drain, Flute and Fiddle standing by the street corners walking through walls, performing magic, Aunt Aster being carried in Orion's arms racing down the street, the various beautiful and dangerous strands and encounters in the Mythosphere. I am impressed by the author's ability to weave a very rich story within a slim volume.

Many other light observations that are both humorous and acute such as this, “Nodding and smiling turned out to be a habit with Marthya. She used it instead of understanding English. She used it particularly when Grandma told her to clean the silver or sweep the stairs.” (p. 31)

I also really enjoyed how the readers are as puzzled, confused, and baffled as Haley at the beginning of the story, and, how, there are clues that the readers start to piece together to get the whole picture, while Haley still is unaware of the situation... but eventually, there is enough of a surprise toward the end that it won't bore the readers who have somewhat figured out these characters. Jones' ability to weave tales together ambiguously and then slowly revealing the inter-dependent details is once again so masterfully done. Each character is drawn so vividly and every danger is breath taking. What a treat!

Duck at the Door

Author: Jackie Urbanovic (also the illustrator)
Reading Level: pre-k to 2nd

Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

This is an absolute WINNER! The text is sparing and just right to convey the situations from page to page -- I enjoyed the individual thoughts from the animals mixed in with the straightforward text.

Each animal in the house is distinctly designed and incredibly adorable/attractive/expressive. Their body language speaks volumes!

The surprising second-to-last spread made me *GASP* with horrified delight.

This whole package just WORKS!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County

Author: Janice Harrington
Illustrator: Shelley Jackson
Reading Level: Pre-K - 3rd

Publisher: FSG
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

I would have to say that this is one of the most joyful picture books I've read this year. I adore everything about it. It's incredibly fun to read the text out loud and to hear it read. It is colorful and energetic, full of poetic inventions:

"wash away the dreaming and brush my teeth whiter than a biscuit"
"fast as a mosquito buzzing and quick as a fleabite"
and listen to the cadence and joy of these glorious lines:
"I think of all kinds of chicken thoughts so they won't know I'm up to something.
Corn, I think, bright, shiny knuckles of yellow corn.
Eggs! Eggs! Eggs! Goldy-brown eggs all warm, warm warm.
Corn bread, corn bread! Crumb and crumble bread.
Worms, Slurms, swishy, swishy-mishy, ickly-tickly worms"

Oh... I'm having so much fun just looking at these words and lines.

And then, of course, there are these glorious illustrations -- where the energy, the colorfulness, and sunshiny fun is captured and further expanded. The mixed media with real object collage illustrations convey the carefree high spirit of our heroine. The most effective compositions are the ones that explode outward:

The page with Pah-Quawkkkkk! and Quawkkkkkk exploding in the center of the spread.

And there are pages more subdued but no less pleasing. There is a great pacing of action verses internal thoughtfulness both in the text, and especially in the illustrations. This is just GLORIOUS! I said it a third time now :)

Why the long silence

I've been reading... and writing, and thinking about what I've been reading. But, I have been jotting down notes on a private database since I am on the 2008 Notable Children's Books Committee and must read quicker and write more notes about them -- so I have not had time to craft more coherent reading journal entries. But, they will be coming soon. I have quite a bit to say about quite a few books published in 2007!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Scanner Darkly

Author: Philip Dick
Reading Level: Adult

Publisher: Random House Audio
Edition: Text: 1977; Audio Book, read by Paul Giamatti, 2006

Loved the enigmatic plot line and shared the despair of the main characters in such bleak circumstances. Giamatti's more than competent rendition of the text added to the appeal. I usually only listen to audio books when washing dishes or doing chores, but this one I had to listen on my iPod in bed and on the bus... couldn't stop, especially during the latter half of the story. There are also many moments of absurdity that are both laughable and pitifully so. Really glad that I got to know this story -- and now am wondering, "How on EARTH could they make this fairly introspective novel into a movie?" But, then, Blade Runner (based on Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) was made and successfully so, although it is true that the book and the movie are quite different, both powerful in their own ways.

It was nice to finally understand the meaning of the title, too!

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Secret History of Tom Trueheart

Author: Ian Beck
Reading Level: 4th-6th

Publisher: Greenwillow (HarperCollins)
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

Very little works for me in this fairy-tale inspired fantasy. The logic seems largely faulty (such as the limited view on fairy-tale world and that only these 7 brothers - all named Jack - can take on these "quest" assignments.) The "message" is so blatant that the tale holds little depth. It simply did not work for me.

The Last Girls of Pompeii

Author: Kathryn Lasky
Reading Level: 5th-7th

Publisher: Viking
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The imagined story of a group of nobles, slaves, and gladiators during the days leading to the eruption of Vesuvius is a great topic. I enjoyed the historical details but at the same time found that at certain points, the "history lesson" overshadows the momentum of the plotline and thus slows down the pacing of an otherwise very exciting tale.

Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon

Author: Sally M. Keehn
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Publisher: Philomel
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

It is definitely Quirky, with that capital Q! The tall-tale tone and the magical and outlandish plotline are consistent and coherent in their own way. Very strong opening scene and concluding passages.

Emily Windsnap and the Castle in the Mist

Author: Liz Kessler
Reading Level: 3rd - 5th

Publisher: Candlewick
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The third installment of the Emily Windsnap series. I didn't read the first two but would not consider seeking them out and reading them after scanning quickly (not quite worth my time or energy to read carefully) this book. I wonder if mer-people were real, would they be displeased at the general portrayal of their characteristics?

Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree

Author: Lauren Tarshis
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Publisher: Dial
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The tone, matter-of-fact, aloof, observatory, self-aware, emotionally detailed -- is very interesting -- at least at the beginning. It becomes a little boring after a while. The chapters from Colleen's viewpoint are told pretty much in this same tone, which does not quite fit her timid personality. Even though the story is seen through Emma-Jean's eyes and thus are all exaggerated (slightly or largely,) certain events (such as the Queen Been losing her hold on the 7th-grade populace) still need the real-life logic to convince this reader.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Genies, Meanies, and Magic Rings

Author: Stephen Mitchell
Reading Level: 2nd - 4th

Publisher: Walker
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

The retelling is skillfully done -- although I do not see how "new" and "fresh" these versions are from the older version. To gain insight, I must see some of other retellings. There are only three stories and two of them are so familiar so I wasn't getting excited about them. The second, unfamiliar story, however, is definitely interesting and worth reading.


Author: Tom Pow
Reading Level: 7th and up

Publisher: Roaring Brooks
Edition: Hardcover, 2007 (ARC)

I really appreciate the layered perspectives from all parties and the courage Tom Pow exibits as an author to not put forth a more popular view point in condamning the captors. The setting is brought to life vividly and each character and their back story convincingly portrayed.

The switch from Part I to Part II is a little too fast and it took some adjusting to change gear and expectations. To have the second part as an unpolished manuscript that Martin scribbled in one night seems a bit far-fetched, though.

The New Policeman

Author: Kate Thompson
Reading Level: 5th-8th

Pages: 442
Publisher: Greenwillow
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

Hallucinating. Mesmerizing. Tantallizing. Extraordinary.
(Charming, seductive and completely enthralling - as described by Eoin Colfer, which is apt, as well.)

I especially adore the fact that, instead of leaving the identity of The New Policeman subtly hinted and hidden for readers to puzzle over (although it got more and more obvious as the book goes -- perfectly executed, those little hints throughout), there is a resounding confirmation. It makes this a most satisfyig children's book: the readers are not left with a malencholy that hangs over our head -- which it can EASILY go.

The short chapters match so well with the missing Time. As an Irish music fan, I can't help but humming all the tunes after each chapter. How cleverly done those are -- and Thompson even composed a couple herself.

This is a deserving award winner (of both the 2005 Guardian and Whitbread Awards) and should be relentlessly promoted to all worthy young readers!

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick
Reading Level: 4th-6th

Pages: 533
Publisher: Scholastic
Edition: Hardcover, 2007

The superb and impeccable design gives me such pleasure that I feel like hugging this big fact block of a book every time I see it! Selznick's cinamatic illustrations that take up most of the 533 pages, blend seamlessly with the crisp text and enigmatic storyline.

I like how Hugo's plans do not always pan out the same ways he imagined -- often they go wrong, but in a very realistic way. The adults intervene just the right amount so the situation never becomes hopeless without reducing the excitement generated by Hugo's desparation and urgency. Of course, there are a lot of coincidences, following the Dickensian storytelling tradition.

A most wonderful offer!

Saturday, February 3, 2007


Author: Lensey Namioka
Reading Level: 6th-8th grade

Pages: 217
Publisher: Delacorte
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I agree with almost every notion Namioka presents in this book: that no singular experience (no matter one's race or heritage) is truly shared by all and that one has to discover and rediscover one's heritage and relationship with that heritage over and over again: a life long endeavor.

However, these "messages" are so heavy that I felt as if being sat on by a giant troll and had the air squeezed out of my lungs the entire time while reading this book. This is not an organic story, growing out of the young couple's (Japanese and Chinese American teens) love for each other, but a plastic plant with the author's hands manipulating the shapes of the branches and the color of the flowers and all the folds of the leaves. It seems such a shame that a potentially profound story can become so superficial and the "solutions" of the cultural and racial conflicts are unconvincingly simplistic. I cannot bring myself to believe that the grandmother (who is about my own mother's age, with similar experience as a Chinese young girl in Japanese occupied China) would have accepted the Japanese family within a week of her discovery of this dating business. How can someone's life-long bias against an entire orther race be altered overnight? Anyone who does not have this specific "Asian" experience should still know that racial biases do not get resolved like this. This story's all happy endings render all the messages too lightweighted to matter at all.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Last Dragon

Author: Silvana De Mari; translated by Shaun Whiteside
Reading Level: 4th - 6th

Pages: 361
Publisher: Miramax/Disney
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

I have not that much good to say about this book. It annoys me to read the compulsive "listing of stuff" (yes, I realized that it was intended to represent how the Elf and the Dragon would think and organize their inner worlds) page after page: what kind of books there are in the library (many kinds and you're sure to be told a FULL page of the various subjects or how readers should think of anyone or any event (it's never just one descriptor, almost as if the author cannot make up her mind how to describe a character or an emotion, but a "list" of adjectives. I cannot imagine that it is the device of the translator, but a slight possibility remains.

If I hadn't had to read it for a group discussion -- I would have probably dropped the book midstream. Only one out of a few professional review sources agrees with me that this is a very message-heavy tale dressed in a fake fantasy clothing, and the humor is often crude and unfitting for the tragic tone of the underlying tale. Look for the VOYA review on this B&N page.


Author: Cynthia Kadohata
Reading Level: 6th - 8th Grade

Pages: 260
Publisher: Atheneum (S&S)
Edition: Hardcover, 2006

Kadohata's strength lies in her quiet tone and close-up examination of the main characters' thoughts and feelings. Weedflower is a perfect example. The readers are intimately familiar with every strand of emotion in Sumiko's life but the full picture of the time in history is a bit foggy. The fate and experiences of Sumiko's uncle and grandfather (in the prison camp) is also sketchy at the best. This is in keeping with Sumiko's young girl perspective. There is no telling if Kadohata had opted to force other pieces of the historical puzzle into the telling, the result would have been a more diluted or intensified tale.

My personal issue with this book is my indifference to Sumiko. I don't find her particularly inspiring or even likable. Her status as a social outcast seems more self-imposed than forced upon by others and her small triumphs did not stir much admiration in me. I felt impatience and displeasure, rather than empathy, for her. Maybe because she seems way too self-absorbed - which, once again, shows the author's skill at portraying a realistic person without false glorification. But, I need that glorification. I need to see that she opens her eyes and understands more about what is affecting her people, and not just how miserable her own life is or what's going in within her immediate environment.

Report from the field: Several people (of Japanese and general Asian descent are troubled by the cover. Their first reaction has been consistent: "No one at a Japanese-American Internment Camp would have worn a kimono! That is entirely inaccurate!" And besides, Sumiko never once wore a kimono throughout the entire story.