Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Last Princess or Beware of Fruit

I stole The Last Princess by Galaxy Craze from my fake boss at her birthday party last night. I read it in one sitting, so there is obviously a lot going right in the novel. But that's less interesting than talking about the niggling issues I have about it that sully the fact that it was obviously a unique approach to the post-apocalyptic trend and very well paced.

Catastrophic events led to every natural disaster you can think of battering the Earth. After the Seventeen Days, the British Royalty emerged from their bomb shelter beneath Buckingham Palace. All communication was down, so they sent a ship to contact someone, anyone, outside of England. That ship never returned. For all any of the English know, they are the last people in alive in the world. With the environment ravaged, and the sun dropping flaming bits of itself for further destruction, most of the country is starving. Badly enough that in some quarters cannibals roam what remains of forrests. There is civil unrest, and it's going to kill the king and queen -Eliza's parents.

I would say that my biggest issue starts with the fact that it is made very clear on page 13 that Eliza isn't supposed to be a helpless girl:

"After the Seventeen Days, without phones or computers or television, Mary [elder sister] and I amused ourselves play-fighting with the Royal Swords. The Master of Arms gave us lessons, teaching us to slash, stab, and parry. Mary and I would fence against each other, betting on the little luxuries that were still left over from before: a square of Cadbury chocolate, a piece of spearmint gum. Later, when the government food rations were gone, we would take spears and throwing knives to the woods around Balmoral, hunting the snakes and pigeons and few other creatures that remained. I was surprised to find that I had quite good aim, unlike Mary, who never could get the hang of throwing a knife."

Despite her obvious natural skills that were trained over the course of several years with, presumably, one of the best teachers one would find in England, Eliza, at practically every turn, gets saved by the boy. This is not to say that she doesn't fight, or even have modest success at hand-to-hand combat, but that 9 out of 10 times, when she's in dire straights, the love interest, Wesley, suddenly appears to get her out of the situation.

My second issue gets spoilery. So, massive civil unrest leads to a coup. Eliza barely escapes alive, her parents are dead, her brother and sister have been captured but are inexplicably being kept alive. For months. The leader of the insurection has made no secret of his intention to crown himself king. Why keep two heirs around to threaten your legitimacy? Futhermore, and more importantly, as we near the end, the populace, needing only an inspirational heroine they obviously find in Eliza, rise up against the over-the-top evil of the insurection. They conquer Newcastle by surprise and suffer little to no loss despite their inferior numbers, training, and weaponry. Getting to this fighting back stage happens all to quickly and cleanly, and unlike real war, no one close to Eliza is ever seriously wounded, let alone killed. Except her poor expendable parents whose deaths more or less start everything off.

Also, horses seem to travel preternaturally fast in this book. I can't say for certain as time passage was vague, but as Eliza flees London on her stolen warhorse she sees a sign saying "Scotland 380 miles" (p 189). Two short chapters, a nap, and a couple of dispatched cannibals later, she's made it to Balmoral Castle, which, according to Google Maps is 510 miles away from the Tower of London. I had to look it up, but a good day's travel on horseback is about 30 miles. No big.

Few teens are going to care about the speed a horse travels, or that battle goes too easily, nor that there is no depth or dimention given to the villians. Only some will care that the princess gets saved. A LOT. None of these things will keep me from recommending the book. Neither does it stop the obnoxious "BUTs" that ricochet around my brain.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Don't Accept Sexism or Today in Don't Piss Off Twitter:

I really, really didn't think much about yesterday's post about the blatant sexism in Scholastic's Survive Anything books. I opened my committee box from Scholastic, and there they were. I couldn't not look at them, and I couldn't help but notice how it played into gender stereotypes in a shockingly obvious and stupidly offensive way. So I dusted off this blog and wrote a fairly minimalist entry, trusting that in typing out the table of contents the books would speak for themselves. They did.

I didn't expect it to spread through Twitter like WILDFIRE. I figured a few of my friends would find it as obnoxious as I, but I didn't expect the great Ryan North (incidentally, my husband's IDOL, no joke) to pick it up (with a fat cut & paste no less) and run with it all over the place. I spent the day talking to 700 middle school students about books, reading, and the library, so what happened next is really all your story. You spread the issue thousands upon thousands of times on Twitter. You linked to it on Facebook, on Tumblr, and Reddit. It was picked up by BuzzFeed and Jezebel (Jezebel, in a failed example of journalism, didn't credit me, but whatevs).

And Scholastic? They heard you. In a terse post, they announced that no further copies will be made available." Whatever that means. No additional printings would be my guess.

Which puts me in sort of a strange mind. On one hand, VICTORY! We have stood up for our children and refused gender boxes! On the other, there wasn't really anything wrong with most (definitely not all - some of the girl language was downright patronizing) of the content, just that it assigned specific gender roles in a nonsensical out-dated, way. Objections would not have been had if Boys Only! and Girls Only! hadn't appeared on the cover. Make them gender neutral, and it's possible I would have talked these up to the couple thousand students I see this time of year. So, now that these books are no more, my little librarian mind is confused: Did I just instigate some sort of progressive-minded censorship? Regardless, let's hope that Scholastic will keep this in mind the next time they think creating gendered books is spiffy keen.

For some lols, check out the apology North wanted to get from Scholastic.

John Green is Mostly Wrong

At BEA Children's Book and Author Breakfast:

"There's a lot of talk about enhanced e-books," Green said. "What we do best does not need or benefit from what we call enhancement. We are good at giving people rich and immersive experiences. I believe story trumps everything." After a round of applause, he continued, "To be fair, it's like being in a room full of elephants, talking to elephants about how great elephants are." -via Shelf Awareness

And that's what happens when you speak in a vacuum. You say things that have a pesky tendency to be impossible absolutes. Story does trump everything. It trumps mediocre writing, and it's why Stephanie Meyer and Rick Riordan are wealthy. But words are not the only way to tell a story.

I have to confess here that I have a somewhat vested interest in this topic. Not financial or anything, but I'm going to be speaking at YALSA's 2012 YA Literature Symposium about transmedia,* an element of which lately, is often manifesting as "enhanced e-books." I've been thinking about them for a long time. Green might exist in a world full of really good, eager readers, who don't desire anything more than the world they create in their mind. However, to say that story can not benefit from additional media shortchanges the potential of an art form. You might not care for watercolor, but it doesn't make it intrinsically of less value artistically than oil paint. Nor does it make that painting as a whole of less value, or the story that it tells less rich. It's just a different media. Stories don't need a printing press.

John Green may not feel that his novels will benefit from any "enhancements." I feel that Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt and the Leviathan series by Westerfeld benefited from illustrations. I feel that the audio version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret benefited from sound effects. I feel that Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral benefited from the embedded youtube clips in the e-book version, rather than just the link text in the print format. I believe that John Green should spend some time with Patrick Carmen.

Imagine reading an ebook where the author triggers specifically chosen or created music based on the page you're on. Imagine if Don Calame's Call the Shots (out in Sept) included video clips of the horror movie the characters are making. What if Erebos let you join in on one of the MMORP quests? If Ready Player One showed clips of the movie references, or played the songs, or let you play one of the video games? Is it needed? Nah. But I won't claim that it wouldn't benefit.

Nor would I claim that the integration of such enhancements doesn't appeal to those who look at a page full of text and walk away. Based on his books, I doubt that Green has much contact with truly reluctant readers, so maybe he doesn't see how transmedia (telling a story across formats) might appeal to those readers. It can break up text. It can help bridge comprehension barriers. It can provide an online forum full of resources for additional engagement (something Green knows a bit about).

Green's "what we do best" refers to writing, and writing alone. Enhanced ebooks won't succeed if the story isn't good enough. But neither will theater. Or art. Or music. Or video games. Or anything else that creates a "rich and immersive experience." Saying, believing, otherwise just tells me you aren't as creative as you maybe think you are.

But then, writing the same characters in four unrelated books maybe already told me that.**

What many authors do best certainly is writing, and that's why illustrators are hired. That's why collaboration exists - to create outside of a vacuum. Enhanced e-books and transmedia simply mean that collaboration can now include more people committed to that story. What authors are really good at is having a vision; making up a world where possibilities are endless. Why, John Green, limit yourself merely to words?

*When a Book is More Than Paper: Transmedia Trends in YA Literature
**Ok, that was mean. Pot shots are cheap. But, outside of the personal aspersion, a completely valid critique of his work. I suspect that JG can handle it.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Sexist Much?

Boys Only: How to Survive Anything!
Table of Contents:
  1. How to Survive a shark attack
  2. How to Survive in a Forest
  3. How to Survive Frostbite
  4. How to Survive a Plane Crash
  5. How to Survive in the Desert
  6. How to Survive a Polar Bear Attack
  7. How to Survive a Flash Flood
  8. How to Survive a Broken Leg
  9. How to Survive an Earthquake
  10. How to Survive a Forest Fire
  11. How to Survive in a Whiteout
  12. How to Survive a Zombie Invasion
  13. How to Survive a Snakebite
  14. How to Survive if Your Parachute Fails
  15. How to Survive a Croc Attack
  16. How to Survive a Lightning Strike
  17. How to Survive a T-Rex
  18. How to Survive Whitewater Rapids
  19. How to Survive a Sinking Ship
  20. How to Survive a Vampire Attack
  21. How to Survive an Avalanche
  22. How to Survive a Tornado
  23. How to Survive Quicksand
  24. How to Survive a Fall
  25. How to Survive a Swarm of Bees
  26. How to Survive in Space
It's full of practical information in comic format. Don't try to cut a snakebite and suck out the venom, even though you see it on TV. Use warm, not hot, water for frostbite. Here's how to make a solar still to gather water in the desert. Surrounded by forrest fire? Dig a ditch and curl up in it facedown. Cover yourself with a wet blanket. Etc.
Girls Only: How to Survive Anything!
Table of Contents:
  1. How to survive a BFF Fight
  2. How to Survive Soccer Tryouts
  3. How to Survive a Breakout
  4. How to Show You're Sorry
  5. (and chapter 3 is where we no longer care about "survival")
  6. How to Have the Best Sleepover Ever
  7. How to Take the Perfect School Photo
  8. How to Survive Brothers
  9. Scary Survival Dos and Don'ts
  10. ("don't throw things or yell at your ghost. it may react badly.")
  11. How to Handle Becoming Rich
  12. How to Keep Stuff Secret
  13. How to Survive Tests
  14. How to Survive Shyness
  15. How to Handle Sudden Stardom
  16. More Stardom Survival Tips
  17. How to Survive a Camping Trip
  18. ("fresh air is excellent for the skin")
  19. How to Survive a Fashion Disaster
  20. How to Teach Your Cat to Sit
  21. (are you #$&^%*@ kidding me?)
  22. How to Turn a No Into a Yes
  23. Top Tips for Speechmaking
  24. How to Survive Embarrassment
  25. How to Be a Mind Reader
  26. How to Survive a Crush
  27. Seaside Survival
  28. (don't wear heels. tie your hair back. sunglasses add glamour.)
  29. How to Soothe Sunburn
  30. How to Pick Perfect Sunglasses
  31. Surviving a Zombie Attack
  32. How to Spot a Frenemy
  33. Brilliant Boredom Busters
  34. How to Survive Truth or Dare
  35. How to Beat Bullies
  36. How to be an Amazing Babysitter
If any of you are planning to go back in time, note that this girl would have preferred (and still does) the boy version of survival. I just don't think "How to Handle Sudden Stardom" quite counts.

UPDATE: So that happened.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rotters or Let's All Just Get Cremated

Rotters. Oh Rotters. You were disgusting. Just as I thought it was as gross as it could get, there'd be something else more appalling, repulsive, and desecrating.

Joey Crouch's mom is dead. He's in nowhere Iowa where people hate him just because of his strange and very smelly dad, who locals refer to as The Garbage Man. What his dad actually does is far more disgusting than waste management - he's a grave robber and the scent of rotting corpses clings to him. Soon, the grime and stink of his father's illegal trade will cling to Joey, too. This will bring him more difficulties than adjusting to a new town and getting over his mother's death. It will bring with it a familiarity of death and decay and danger.

The opening is magnificent. Joey catalogues all the ways his mother could die, but doesn't, ending with her actual death. The rest of the novel is propelled from that point, both in how his life changes, and how the past brought about his mother's death, and his future.

However, after that there's almost 200 pages of set-up. It's not unnecessary, and it's vital to Joey's character development, but between the gorgeous prologue and page 195, (where we're treated to a rousing and detailed explanation on how to escape being buried alive - and yes, I've committed this to memory, Lord save me. One must be prepared for anything), there is little to truly advance the plot, and is, therefore, the weakest portion of the story. Daniel Kraus' language is strong, but the school bullies, especially Woody and Celeste, are generic, lack depth, and could be transplanted to any book where bullies are required and fit right in. The first 200 pages is primarily devoted to making Joey miserable enough that he's able to descend low enough for the rest of the book to happen.

Science teacher Gottschalk was extreme, but not overboard, until the reproduction lesson on pages 142-3. Here he crosses over into sexual harassment of Joey, which seemed too much, given the character was cruel, but didn't seem stupid, and there's no real way to know that someone wouldn't rat him out to someone else who would make a stir. Gottschalk by action and even previous speech clearly felt he was a law upon himself in that school, and based on the behavior of the principal and vice-principal, I can see why - but those two did respond to incidents that could result in bad press, and this was surly one of those. Although it did not.

Continuing with first half character issues, is Boris and his family. They were so close to Joey that they shared his grief, and took him in until his father could be found, but Boris more of less immediately drops him? His parents never inquire after him? Make any overtures? When my reading of the situation was that had his father not been reached, it was likely that he'd just stay with them permanently? I know that this was done to further isolate Joey, but why even have the family in the story? Why not just throw him in temporary foster care after his mom dies? It'd be much easier for me to believe that some sketch foster family didn't care about him after he left, than Boris' family. But then, without friends, Joey had less to lose.

The grief and alienation of the first half of the book, leads to a desperation so strong that once Joey is brought into the "digger" clan, and is bestowed a nickname, "Son", he muses, "I felt an unexpected rush: If I were given one of these names, I would be part of a club. I would no longer be alone" p225. It's all he has, it's his only option, and, as he did with his academics, he throws himself all in. Into grave robbing.

Enter Boggs, who is a fantastic, believable, horror villain in his invincibility, psychosis, and grotesqueness. He he seriously one of the best villains I've encountered in ages, and it is his mania, unpredictability, and, er, villainy that propels the last fourth (plus) of the book. Unfortunately, it takes him far too long to enter the story. I would have liked, at the very least, more build-up or foreshadowing regarding him, to work us up to a good lather, since, let's be honest, yeah, there's the whole self-discovery, bildungsroman thing going on, but it's Boggs who gets the plot moving, and Boggs who drives Joey into the rocks at the bottom.

The details of grave robbing are fascinating, as are the rather disgusting details of decomposition. These are largely what keep the reader going during the first portion of the book. I should have pulled some of the really disgusting quotes for you, but I didn't think of it at the time, oh, wait, that's what Amazon's Search Inside is for. Let's just enter a rather unique phrase I remember, "coffin liquor." Yes, that'll do.

If you happen to be eating, I'd skip this next quote. Don't say I didn't warn you.

"I concentrated on my father. He was dealing with another ring that wouldn't dislodge from its puffy finger. He let the hand drop and it smacked into two inches of black slime. We call that coffin liquor, my father said as he reached for his wire cutter, and it's the result of bacteria in the casket's vacuum turning the corpse to mud. I watched him take the woman's left hand. Most of the skin sloughed off in a single sheet like a translucent glove - slip skin, my father assure me, nothing more. He let the skin dissolve into the coffin liquor and regripped the moist green hand. I noted with dull astonishment that the woman's nails were painted candy pink" p 110.

lalala. But really, you can't look away from that, right? And imagine your teens' reactions? Oh, I'm almost tempted to read that paragraph aloud during my next book talks... excellent.

I do think, ultimately, despite taking it to task above, that this is an excellent book. And if you can stomach (or revel) in that last quote, you definitely should read it. Or at least know who should.

On bullying: "The noses of the Incorruptibles [the popular bullies] were trained to detect fear, and in my metamorphosis to the Son I had lost that musk. A new target, therefore, had been chosen" p 350.

The question remains of whether or not there are grave robbers among us...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Annual Wild Guesses for the ALA Youth Media Award

I think I'm going to skip the live stream of the announcement this year. Largely because it's not on MLK day, which means I'll have to work, and getting up at 5:30 am on a workday doesn't sound as good as being able to go back to bed after the announcement. But we'll see.


The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf
Honest truth? I was bored out of my mind for the most part - and still flummoxed that anything about the Titanic could ever be boring, but this one managed it. HOWEVER, I can acknowledge that it is very literary. The biggest hurdle Watch will need to overcome is whether or not the committee thinks the enormous cast of characters is hindered by its sheer size. The fact that the reader spends so little time with each voice may result in less passionate arguments - and arguments that some characters are superfluous or under developed (not all, some were palpably wonderful, but they were buried in the avalanche of voices and struggle to be heard through the melee). The appendix is excellent and massively interesting, though, highlighting that the research was thorough. Watch will get bonus points for that.

Life, An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
So I'm a little unsure this is really a book for teens, despite it's publishing status. However, Peet has yet to be recognized by this award, and Life might be the book to do it. The fact that only a very small portion of the narrative is devoted to teen characters may hurt it's chances.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
I think the librarians who buzz about these things will be shocked if this doesn't get recognized. Shocked. I think that if there was gambling on the Printz outcome, this is likely the safe money. It transcends ilk in language, structure, world-building, and originality. It's ultimately a paranormal romance with angels, which you'd think would be kryptonite to adult readers of YA by now, but there's always an epic quality to Taylor's writing, and never moreso than here.

Rotters by Daniel Kraus
This is probably a bit of a dark horse, but I absolutely wouldn't be surprised to see this horror story get a nod. It all comes down to the composition of the committee, and whether they can stomach it (not that they aren't objective, they are, but... Rotters is gross. More on that later [as in I have a post-worth to say about it].).

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Buzz for this seems to have dropped off some, but including it, especially with the Wolf and Peet might be thought to balance out the list, and would represent only the second time a graphic novel has been recognized by the Printz. Anya's art is supurb, and the illustrations speak just as loudly as the words, which is exactly why this is worth looking at.

The Piper's Son by Melina Marchetta
I confess that historically Marchetta and I don't jibe, and I have put off reading Piper because of that. It seems to me that the world of YA readers breaks down into those who love Marchetta, and those who do not. Those who do are rabid, and I'll concede there is a lyrical quality to her language and that her characters are robust, but her plotting dives me batty.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young
I'm not holding my breath for this to be recognized, but it was the Costa winner, and I loves it with all my hearts. Not a big fan of the cover (or title) of the sequel, though it won't stop me from reading it as soon as I can possibly get my hands on it.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
It has a lot of starred reviews, but while I haven't read it (it's next up), I've never warmed to Stiefvater's language. I wouldn't be shocked if it was announced, but... I don't know. My gut instinct doesn't go there. But perhaps I'd change my tune if I had/have enough time to read it before the announcement.


Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
Schmidt is well-loved and this one (which won my system's mock Printz) is definitely adored, despite an over-the-top ending that could seriously hurt its chances. While I believe the ending was a misstep plot-wise, I can't say that I wouldn't be anything but happy if this ends up with a medal. While it would be eligible for the Printz, I think it's chances are better with the Newbery.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I always though that Ness was British, but I guess he just lives there? If he's still a citizen of the US, then this is eligible, and stands a good chance. Would this be more comfortably set in Printz catagory? Probably, and then we wouldn't have to think about citizenship issues, which make my head hurt.

Hidden by Helen Frost
Likewise inhabiting that tough zone in between middle grade and YA, I think Hidden could find a home here. Frost got a Printz honor back in 2004 for Keesha's House, but despite that, I feel that she's largely underrated. She continually shows how verse novels should be done, and force you to take them more seriously than many of the popular free-verse examples would lead you to believe. She is innovative in form and structure. There's nothing wrong, and many thing right, with free verse, but Frost hammers home how much more the verse novel can do than simply be sparse. *ducks*

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
I don't know if this is a real contender, but it's sweet, fun, and clever, and I think it would be lovely to recognize this in the vein of Princess Academy. Regardless, I believe that someday George will get a silver or gold SOMETHING.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
To my recollection there aren't many National Book Award finalists that crossover to the Youth Media Awards, but this would be the one to do it this year.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Selecting Breadcrumbs would be a crowd-pleaser. I haven't read it yet, I'm still on the waiting list, but with at least three starred reviews and an entire community worth of Twitter buzz behind it, you know the committee has read it. I really do think I'm the only one who hasn't read it at this point. This probably has the best odds.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
In direct competition with Okay for Now, will this be an either or? Or will they split the vote and usher in a lesser-known? Of course, we've seen more than one girl-protag historical in one year before, so both would make it an amusing turn-around. But Gantos has more of the gross-out ground covered, and depending on how prim our committee is, Norvelt could take a hit.

I like I Want My Hat Back by J. Klassen and Where's Walrus by Stephen Savage. But let's be obvious here, my picture book cred is random and not to be trusted.

We already know the finalists. My imaginary money is on either Girl of Fire and Thornes or Where Things Come Back. I don't know why but I don't think it'll be Paper Covers Rock or Under the Mesquite. Which leaves Between Shades of Gray as a wildcard. My heart is with Where Things Come Back, as you probably know.

Coretta Scott King
Bronxwood by Coe Booth was good, but had a touch of the middle book syndrome, so look to Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and Heart and Soul by Kadir Nelson to be recognized.

I'm wracking my brain here and having a tough time isolating the titles I'm aware of that would be eligible. Stick by Andrew Smith comes to mind. There's way more in the abuse and other topics that take center stage, and there are ending issues (a common refrain this year), but Stick is noteworthy. I'd love to see Sean Griswold's Head by Lindsey Leavitt recognized, but it's much more about a daughter coping with her own issues that are triggered and magnified by her father's illness than about the dad's disease - which definitely meets criteria, but I think the focus is nevertheless unlikely to match with the Schneider. It is an absolutely delightful read, though. Compulsion by Heidi Ayarbe, is utterly compelling, but the ending isn't as hopeful as these tend to be. And that's what I've got. That I can think of.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Room by Emma Donoghue* are easy targets for inclusion on this list. I wonder if Ready Player One might be, as well, although I don't know if the heavy 80's references are a plus or a minus for its chances. I haven't read any of them, but I'm waiting for RPO's audio book to come in. A collegue enlightened me to the fact that Wil Wheaton narrates and that it is awesome in general and hilarious in specific when Wheaton is forced read aloud about himself.

*For some reason my brain forgot what year it was by the end of this massive post. Room was of course recognized by the Alex in 2011, as DDB pointed out on my Facebook link to this post. *faceplant*