Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure

Have you ever played the game where one person starts a story, and then then next person has to add on, and then then the next.  We used to play it during road trips when I was a child.  Now imagine the game being played by some of the most famous children's authors of our generation; M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbit, Susan Cooper, Kate Di Camillo, Steven Kellogg, at others.  You would think that it would end up being the greatest add-on story ever, but in reality, it is amazingly silly.  I think one of the reasons it turned out so silly is that they let Jon Scieszka start the story.  He took the liberty of predicting, in the first chapter, a whole long list of outrageous elements that would appear in the story.  The other authors must have just shook their heads and rolled their eyes, but they charged on and it became more outrageous with every installment. In the story, a set of twins, Joe and Nancy, have been raised in the circus as orphans.  On their 11th birthday they receive a mysterious card that gives clues to their identity and the fate of their parents.  As the story continues they encounter pirates, talking animals, alien eggy things, time travel, and all manner of crazy plot twists.  A child might think it was funny, but for someone who has read a lot of children's literature, it is interesting for other reasons.  As each new author takes up the story it is fun to see that author's style and personality come through.  Some even add references to their own books in the story.  The craziest of the authors was Lemony Snicket.  His chapters were just bizarre, while Katherine Paterson, and Linda Sue Park struggled to bring the story back to some kind of order when it was their turn.  At one point, one of them, (I think it was Linda Sue Park) had one of the characters say something like, "Well, we could wander around having strange adventures for ever, but then our story would never come to an end," a not-so-veiled hint that the other authors needed to get a move on with the plot.  The most amazing part was that one author, (I think it was M.T. Anderson) actually wrote one chapter that was suddenly so touching I almost teared up.  I thought, wow! now there's a good writer.  The story originally appeared on the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance web site, a chapter at a time.  It is an interesting concept, but, as I said, a very silly book. (276 p)

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Heather Dixon is a Utah author.  I heard her speak last year at a librarian conference.  She was cute and bubbly and as part of the conference fee we each received a copy of Entwined. She not only signed every copy, she made us each a bead book mark to go in our copy. Despite this gracious introduction to the author,  I never got around to reading the book until this week.  This is a novelization of the Twelve Dancing Princesses story.  Of course the big challenge when you write a novel based on a fairy tale, is to resolve all the fantastic details and somehow have them make sense.  There are several issues with the Twelve Dancing Princesses story.  How could there be twelve sisters all old enough to go dancing?  Why do they keep going to dance each night?   What is their relationship with the king, their father?  Do they really want to marry their enchanted partners in the end?  Dixon does a reasonably good job dealing with these problems and making the story coherent. I especially liked the fact that the girls actually get to know their future husbands before they decide to marry them. The ending gets very exciting and there is a happy, if a bit improbable, resolution. I have been trying to decide if I like this one better or not as much as Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, another Utah author. George's story stays more true to the original fairy tale. Still, I think I liked them about the same, though they handled the story very differently. It might be a fun exercise for a family to read both books together, and then discuss their similarities and differences. (472 p.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whelen Turner

This is the sequel to  The Thief, which I read a little while ago.  The book starts with Gen captured once again by the Queen of Attolia.  She at first wants to execute him, but then decided to do the more traditional punishment for thieves; she cuts off his hand...herself.  His dismemberment throws him into months of depression and mourning, but it throws his country into war with Attolia. After he gets over his slump, Gen hatches his most daring heist yet.  He decides to steal the queen.  Turner is not the greatest writer at language and word craft, but man can she do characters.  All of the main characters, Gen, the Queen of Attolia, the Queen of Edis, Gen's father, they are all fascinating, and the interplay between the characters kept me turning page after page, wondering how it is all going to work out.  I have the third one on hold and can hardly wait.  I think I need to put this series on my list of kid's books that are great for adults.(362 p)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hound Dog True by Linda Urban Urban has an amazing view into a young girl's inner thoughts.  In both her first novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, which won several awards, and this one, we see the main characters' little emotional waves and tides--what they hope and think will happen, and how they feel when it does or doesn't.  In this book 11 year old Mattie lives with her mother, and has moved a lot. She is a shy girl and making friends is agonizing for her.  She and her mother come to live one summer in her mother's family home with her uncle who is a janitor at the local grade school.  Mattie decides that if she can become her uncle's special janitor's helper, she can hang around with him before and after school, and during lunch and she won't have to face the other kids at her new school. She is a sweet and intelligent girl, but is so insecure that any other child would actually like her, especially her new next door neighbor who is older than her and looks like a teenager.  I really liked this book.  It deals with bullying and its aftermath, but that is in the background.  It is really about learning and daring to hope again that someone actually might be willing to be your friend. (152 p)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alchemy and Maggy Swann by Karen Cushman have liked some of Cushman's books and not others.  I liked her Newbery winner, The Midwife's Apprentice, but I didn't like Catherine, Called Birdy.  Both of those books, and this one are about girls trying to make their way in Medieval/Renaissance Europe.  Cushman is really good with the medieval setting and has clearly done her research. She never misses a chance to explain how nasty and filthy London was, with rivers of sewage running down the streets.  She is also good with the language.  While I was reading this one, I kept wanting to say things like "fie," and "naught" in my daily speech. In this story Maggy is sent from the quiet town where she grew up, to London to live with the father she has never known.  Maggy was born lame, and the hustle and bustle of Elizabethan London first overwhelms her. Her cold, uncaring father is an Alchemist and as the story progresses, Maggy begins to suspect he is selling poisons to finance his alchemical research. She must decide if she will attempt to stop an evil plot and risk losing her father to the hangman's noose.  This ended up being one of Cushman's I liked because Maggy is at the same time vulnerable and feisty. The story was believable and Maggy's personality is appropriate to the time period (unlike Catherine, called Birdy, who acts like a modern teen instead of a medieval girl). Most of all I enjoyed the setting and wonderful language. (167 p.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry Lowry shows the lighter side of her talent in this funny satire.  The Willoughby children want to be just like the kids in old fashion books.  The only problem is that all the kids in old fashion books are orphans, and the Willoughby’s have two, fairly unpleasant, parents.  The parents feel about the same as the children, so the challenge for the children is to get rid of their parents, before their parents get rid of them.  There is so much in this book to laugh at and Lowry makes fun of a bunch of stereotypes.  At one point they find a baby on the doorstep.  They take it inside, and show it to their mother.  She doesn't want to keep it, but the one daughter talks about how cute its little curls are.  So the mother takes scissors cuts off all the curls.  Then they all agree that it isn't very cute and take to another house and leave it on their doorstep.  The story is full of funny and clever references to some of the old classics like Anne of Green Gables, and the Bobsy Twins. In the back there is a bibliography of all the references, and a hilarious glossary. (178 p)

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner read this book for the first time several years ago.  I remembered I liked it, but I never read the sequels.  My kids really liked the whole series so I decided to go back and read the first one again and then read the others.  Gen is a thief, who starts the book in the King's prison.  The king's Magus comes to the prison to recruit Gen to steel something in exchange for his freedom.  Gen goes along with the Magus, his two apprentices, and a body guard, not even knowing what he is to steel. Most of the story is the interaction between the five main characters as they travel to the place where the mystical object is hidden. Turner adds in snatches of folk tale and mythology tie neatly into the main story. This is one of the books where the main character isn't very likeable in the beginning.  He is arrogant, self centered and annoying. As the book goes on the reader gets to like some of the characters more, and some less. The book has a delightful twist at the end, that left me with a big smile.  I love it when an author can make a surprise ending, but after I am finished I can look back and see all the clues that hinted at it, but that I missed. I am eager to read the next one in the series, and have it on hold. (236 p)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gossamer by Lois Lowry

This is a book that answers the question, "Where do dreams come from." In this story dreams come from little beings who flit around your room at night and gather fragments of your memories that they then "bestow" on you as a dream. The enemies of the dream givers are the terrible Sinisteeds, the wild horse like creatures that bring nightmares. Littlest One is a dream giver in training, and with the help of Tall Elderly, she tries to help a boy who has been the victim of abuse overcome his anger and learn to love his gentle foster grandmother.  This is really two stories.  The story of the dream givers is all about mentoring and coming of age.  The story of John and his mother is about dealing with and overcoming the scars of abuse. Lowry weaves the two stories together gently and beautifully.  This would be a good story for a even a young child who is either dealing with abuse themselves, or has a friend who is dealing with those problems. I think the book has an unfortunate cover.  I think the cover is a little creepy and makes it look like a book for teens or tweens. In reality, even with its difficult theme, it is appropriate for children as young as 7 or 8 years old. (140 p)