Archives for the month of: October, 2012

Fantasy has certainly experienced a resurgence lately, but most YA novels are known — and challenged — for their realism, their stark depictions of the darker side of life, their raw representations of drugs, sexuality, abuse, pain, depression, strong language, and violence. The two sides most often pitted against each other are those who want to protect teenagers and those who think that teens ‘know’ all about these things anyway so what’s the point in trying to hide it from them. I suppose I fall somewhere in the middle. Books can be powerful, but they aren’t all-powerful. They are one aspect of a teen’s overall experience. And while books can offer a safe space for exploration, I sometimes wonder if books (along with movies and tv and music, etc) can start to normalize an experience that may or may not be common. Fortunately YA novels are so vastly different that they can’t possibly be considered a collective and in my experience teens are pretty good at finding the books they want to read, with or without the permission of the adults around them. What I most appreciate is how many YA authors clearly respect teens; they offer questions and complicated concepts rather than trying to preach, or teach.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, $9.99) has been out for a while, but it’s one of those books that I recommend over and over because it so clearly captures the high school experience in a way that is both hilarious and poignant. Melinda, who has stopped speaking due to a traumatic event that happened at a party over the summer, carefully observes her peers, teachers, parents, and community. Her wry commentary on the hypocrisy and chaos around her aptly expresses her own internal chaos and struggles with identity.

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Yesterday kicked off Yalsa‘s Teen Read Week so I thought it would be a great time to highlight YA books. There are so many phenomenal YA writers now and I’ve really enjoyed seeing people take the genre increasingly seriously over the past few years. Did you see the NPR list from this summer?

For teens who do a lot of reading, I’ll start by recommending Kerstin Geir’s Ruby Red (Henry Holt, $9.99), which is the first in a trilogy followed by Sapphire Blue and Emerald Green. The books are translated from the German and the pacing of the first volume is very different than many American YA books. The narrative is methodical — slowly establishing the character and building up the intricate context — and it incorporates time travel, secret societies, romance, and history. The hardcover flap jacket is stunning and I first picked up the book because it was so attractive. Unfortunately, the paperback cover is kind of trashy and I’m having a harder time selling it. The second volume is available this October. Ruby Red ends right when the action really started picking up and I’m anxious to read Sapphire Blue. I plan to buy it in hardcover as that paper back cover is terrible and doesn’t do justice to the quality of the story! Even teens who are widely read might have missed this highly-recommended series.

I’ve decided to finish out this week on Fantasy with one of my all-time favorite books, with the promise that next time I revisit this genre I’ll include books that are a little more recent (yes, there are some amazing ones). Madeleine L’Engle is best-known for her sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time, but she has written numerous other books that are all worth reading, especially A Ring of Endless Light (Square Fish, $7.99).

A Ring of Endless Light is one of the later books in what is now marketed as The Austin Chronicles. Readers, however, do not need to have read the previous books in this series. Vicky Austin, a teenager and a poet, meets Adam Eddington, a marine biology student, and assists with his summer research about dolphins. The book has science, music, literature, family, and romance, but mostly it is about death and grief. And yet this is one of the most inspirational books I read as a kid: a book I read and reread. L’Engle weaves science, religion, and love together so expertly, it’s almost impossible to determine whether A Ring of Endless Light is fantasy or simply the reality we’re looking for. As a teenager, her books showed me how amazingly mysterious life could be and as Vicky began to learn how to communicate with the dolphins, I started to learn how to communicate with the intricate world around me.

I never meant for this week to be all about Fantasy, but I’m enjoying it so much I figured I’d finish out the week. According to J. A. Appleyard in Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adult, young children experience the world through fantasy, and that “they live in a magical, numinous world, where the boundaries between the self, the factual, and the imaginary are permeable and fluid” (22). As such, picture books often depict the self, the factual, and the imaginary all mixed-up together (think Where the Wild Things Are). The trend continues into early readers, so some might argue that most early reader books are fantasy, and certainly many of the classics are: Frog and Toad and Little Bear are prime examples.

The book I recommend most often for this age group, regardless of whether customers ask for fantasy specifically, is Tashi, by Anna Fienberg (Allen & Unwin, $5.99). Tashi is an imaginary friend . . . or not? There is a certain ambiguity about whether this book is fantasy — Tashi being a supernatural being — or realism — Tashi being Jack’s imaginary friend. Jack’s parents engage with Tashi, but it is unclear whether or not they actually see him. Like Appleyard’s arguement, Tashi (book and character) blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Kim Gamble’s illustrations depict Tashi’s adventures, but the text remains uncertain. The books (there are several in this series) are perfect for kids who are not *quite* ready for chapter books, but are well-written and will even be enjoyed by kids who are already reading longer stories.

Two excellent fantasy series that are often overlooked now are The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander, and The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper. Volumes in both series won Newbery Awards and while individual books of the two series can stand on their own, readers will get more out of both of them by reading the series in order.

The Prydain Chronicles (Henry Holt, $6.99) starts with The Book of Three is based on Welsh myths and legends and contains one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in children’s literature. This book sets up the remaining series and is vital to understanding the character of Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper. The Black Cauldron won a Newbery Honor Award in 1966 and is probably the best-known book in the series because it was made into a movie in 1985. Again, it is possible to read this volume as a stand alone, but the series is worth starting from the beginning. The third and fourth volumes are The Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer respectively. Many readers might see these two volumes as filler, but I thoroughly enjoyed both of them and felt like they offered a tremendous amount of adventure and character development, although the final volume, The High King (Newbery Winner in 1969), does contain the final showdown. Although this series is close to 50 years old, there is enough adventure, excitement, and mystery to appeal to modern readers. The books are also excellently written and occasionally funny. They would be good read-alouds for early/mid elementary children, but warning: the end of The Book of Three really really is deliciously creepy.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (Simon Pulse, $8.99) is the first volume the series by the same name and also incorporates elements of Welsh mythology. It won the Newbery Honor in 1974. Over Sea, Under Stone is the second volume and adds further elements of Welsh Aruthurian legends. The Grey King, the third volume, won the Newbery in 1976. I started the series with this volume and did enjoy it, but I admit it took me a while to really understand what was happening and who the characters were. Cooper is an excellent writer and this series is nuanced and intricate: give it the respect that it deserves by starting with volume one. Greenwitch and Silver on the Tree are the two concluding volumes.

The big problem I have with Cooper’s series is the publisher’s formatting. The text is small and close together, which I find alienates some readers. These books deserve to be read and I continue to recommend them, especially when someone insists that their child is “a good reader”. Like Diana Wynne Jones’s books, Alexander’s and Cooper’s series demand active engagement and I would never recommend them to a child who is struggling or doesn’t like to read. The books assume that the reader is familiar with and can recognize certain narrative tropes. For example, Taran, in The Prydain Chronicles, struggles to be a hero and his character must be understood in the context of classic literary heroes. To make the readers struggle with something so basic as small font is ridiculous. I would like to see Cooper’s series re-typed so that a new generation of readers could re-discover this amazing fantasy series.

Rick Riordan is starting to become a household name. His book, The Lightning Thief, was made into a movie and most of our customers are at least familiar with his books. Of his series for middle-grade readers, The Kane Chronicles are my favorite. The two primary characters, Sadie and Carter, are brother and sister, but Carter has grown up traveling with their father, and Sadie lives in London with their mother’s parents. They have met over the years, but don’t really know each other until the beginning of their adventures in The Red Pyramid (Hyperion Books, $9.99). They have such a quirky and genuine dynamic. They bicker and save each other and bicker while saving each other. I laughed out loud several times during their conversations. Unlike Riordan’s other series’, The Kane Chronicles focuses on Egyptian Mythology. Sure sure, he’s taking some artistic license in these books, but it’s obvious that he’s done a tremendous amount of research and I honestly felt like I was learning something new along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the two strong female and male narrators and also really appreciated the subtle issue of growing up in a mixed-race family that occasionally surfaces in the narrative.

The series is currently in progress; the third volume, The Serpent’s Shadow, is in hardcover. Be careful, though! The covers of this series are almost indistinguishable from Riordan’s Lost Heroes of Olympus series, which is also in progress. Most readers will enjoy both series, but might be confused if they end up with the wrong book!

A common request in our store is for fantasy books for a child who “loved Harry Potter”. Now the Harry Potter series is a great read, and while there are people who loved it more than me (they made websites and wrote fan fiction), I’ll readily boast that I was the first in line, dressed as a Ravenclaw prefect, in a bookstore in London for the release of the 6th book. My friends and I were interviewed by CNN International and BBC Spain (thank you, thank you). The point is that I enjoyed HP immensely and it is still great fun to discuss the series with people. But there are a lot of fantasy books out there that are even better and I love having a chance to introduce these books to readers.

For any one who wants to ready quality, British fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones should be at the top of the list. She has an enormous following in her own right, especially in the UK, but has never gained the reputation that Rowling has. However, Jones’s books are incredibly well-written, smart, and engaging. Her books are also challenging. Readers have to work, and work hard, when reading her stories, but the results are well worth the effort. Jones has written for a range of readers and I won’t even try to cover everything here.

The Chrestomanci series is for later elementary readers (at least 4th grade) and includes The Lives of Christopher Chant, Witch Week, Charmed Life, and The Magicians of Caprona. Some of the newest additions to this series, such as Conrad’s Fate and The Pinhoe Egg are probably more appropriate for 5th or 6th grade. All titles are also included in The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volumes I, II, and III (HarperCollins, $9.95).

Her single volume stories are even better and are more appropriate for older readers in junior high and high school mostly because the narratives are complicated and require sophistication and critical thinking, as well as the ability to tease out the significant aspects of the books and then reassemble them into a cohesive story. Again, Jones demands that her readers actively engage with her narratives and it is this respect for kid — the belief that they are capable of such active engagement — that make reading her books such an amazing experience. These books appear to be currently out of print, so rush to your local library for a copy.

My favorite of her books is Fire & Hemlock. When you’re done reading, go do some research on the Scottish ballads Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. The Power of Three, Hexwood, and The Merlin Conspiracy are also excellent, but warning: reading Fire & Hemlock and Hexwood is like running a marathon. You have to train and pace yourself, but, and I can’t stress this enough, you will be so proud of yourself when you get to the finish line.

Today is my final post on non-fiction for the week, and I must admit this topic was much harder than I expected, probably because I don’t read a lot of non-fiction myself. I know there are some great series out there, but I am starting to agree with the Guardian article that non-fiction just doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Today’s recommended series is thanks to a tip I received from a customer. A boy, about 11 years old, came into our store one day asking about books on physics, technology, the periodic table. I had no idea what he was talking about, but finally discovered the Basher series. The books are written by various authors but illustrated by Simon Basher (Kingfisher, $8.99). This particular young customer had bought a few of these books the day before and wanted to know what else we had from the series. I’ve never seen a kid so enthusiastic about books on grammar, music, chemistry, math, or punctuation, but as I gathered the series from around the store, he got increasingly excited and had a really hard time deciding which one to take home. I started to see the appeal. Simon Basher is an internationally recognized artist, and this series contains delightful, vibrant illustrations. Each book is narrated by relevant characters; according to the website description of Astronomy: Out of this World!, “The universe is an enormous place. Imagine it as the home of a crowd of cool cosmic characters, each with their own personality. This book is your essential guide to these out-of-this-world beings who make the universe tick.” The books are quirky, humorous, and informative and the website is engaging and interactive, with games, activities, and further information on the series’ topics. I was a little sad that the customer didn’t choose the grammar book, but his parents did remind him several times that they could come back for more books later. Mollified, he selected two: Physics and The Periodic Table. What an endorsement for this excellent series!

Today’s category is rather general, because this recommended series covers a lot of topics. Turtleback Books, of HarperCollins, publishes a series of books entitled Let’s Read and Find Out – Science ($5.99), which are edited according to levels. The levels are as much about cognitive development as reading level. Level 1 includes titles such as Clouds, From Seed to Pumpkin, Fireflies in the Night, My Five Senses, What Lives in a Shell, and A Nest Full of Eggs.

Level 2 contains significantly more books and is more conceptual than Level 1. Examples of titles in Level 2 are Why Do Leaves Change Color?, Fossils: Tell of Long Ago, What Happens to Our Trash?, How Do Birds Find Their Way?Follow the Water from Brook to Ocean, Volcanoes, How Do Apples Grow?, Forces Make Things Move, What Will the Weather Be?, and the latest title, Almost Gone: The World’s Rarest Animals.

Crabtree Publishing Company has an excellent series, by Bobbie Kalman, about various countries, including China. The series contains three books for each country on The PeopleThe Land, and The Culture ($8.95). Comprised of quality research and images, this series is a valuable resource for teachers and any late-elementary or middle-school enthusiast starting to be interested in China. Younger readers will enjoy China ABC’s (Picture Willow Books, $7.95), which is beautifully illustrated and edited for ages 4-6.

Ed Young, author/illustrator of Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China and The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale, has written and illustrated an auto-biographical picture book entitled, The House that Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China (Little, Brown, $17.99), which describes the encroaching war in China through the lens of a child and artist. Marco Polo, by Demi, is a lavishly illustrated history book (Marshall Cavendish, $19.99) and discusses Marco Polo’s explorations, including his two years in China.

For older readers, there are two poignant autobiographies that illuminate very different interpretations of childhood in China. In Chinese Cinderella: The True Story of an Unwanted Daughter (Delacorte, $8.99), Adeline Yen Mah describes her childhood in Hong Kong and tells of the psychological abuse she endured at the hands of her step-mother. Conversely, Jean Fritz, in Homesick: My Own Story, describes her childhood experiences growing up as an American expatriate in China. Homesick (Paperstar Book, $5.99) was a Newbery Honor book in 1983.

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