28 February 2010

Are you ready for baseball yet?

Now that the Olympics are over, it's time to turn my sporting sights to the 2010 Red Sox season. Spring Training is under way, and at the time of this writing, Opening Day is a mere 34 days away. But, if like me, you think 34 days is still a long time to wait for baseball, here are some new titles to hold you over till that first utterance of "Play Ball!"

The Batboy is Mike Lupica's latest offering for his rabid fan base of young readers. It tells the story of Brian Dudley, who gets a summer job at Comerica Park as the batboy for the Detroit Tigers. Even though he is technically too young for the job, he impresses the Tiger's manager with his persuasive letter of application. Being the son of a former big league pitcher doesn't hurt, either. However, Brian's father is working as a scout in Japan, having been unable to leave baseball behind. He left his family instead. Brian spends much of the book trying to come to terms with his dad's inability to be a father. He is also preoccupied with Hank Bishop, his all-time favorite player, who has rejoined the Tigers after having weathered a steroid scandal and wants nothing to do with the anything or anybody. He only cares about hitting his 500th home run and exorcising his own demons.

What Lupica does best is evoke the rapture that baseball fans experience when they are watching a game. In this book, beside the personal drama, there are marathon slug-fests, tense walk-off thrillers, disappointing close losses, and plenty of references to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Hall of Fame greats. And because it is all seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, there is that ageless wonder at the sight of a green diamond and the chance to witness sporting history.

Baseball history--baseball legend--is the subject of two new picture books highlighting heroes from the days long before steroids or ESPN. All Star! Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever is by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Jim Burke. The most famous baseball card ever does not get as much coverage as the life of Honus Wagner, although I should point out that I reviewed the book from its galley, in which an empty page entitled "Author's Note" leads me to believe that the final version will include further information about the Honus Wagner baseball card. Readers of the Dan Gutman Baseball Card Adventures series will already be familiar with Honus Wagner, but for some this book about a bowl-legged coal man who set countless baseball records, will be a revelation. You can see a trailer for the book here.

No Easy Way, by Fred Bowen, with illustrations by Charles S. Pyle, has been on my reading radar for some time now. The subtitle of this one is "The Story of Ted Williams and the last .400 season," and in this case the record really is the focus of the book. In particular, Bowen (a proud member of Red Sox Nation) makes a point of explaining to his readers that Ted Williams' .400 season came at the risk of losing it on the last day; when given the option to sit out a season-ending double header with his average at . 39955, which would have been rounded up to .400, Williams said, "If I can't hit .400 all the way, I don't deserve it." He played both games, and the rest, as they say, is history.

As an aside, I for one am hoping for a follow-up book in which Bowen explores Williams' piloting career in World War II. It gets a mention, as does the fact that plenty of other big league players interrupted their careers to fight for their country. The fact that Williams' career is so distinguished emphasizes the theme of this book--there's no easy way to do something right and well. I think the discussion of star athletes who risked their lives to fight in a war would be just as much of a revelation for young readers as the discussion of their baseball records are.

So, until we can play ball, we can read ball!

23 February 2010

Cybil, meet Bob

Despite the fact that the world of Children's Literature already has The Newbery and Caldecott, the O'Dell and the King, the Andersen and the Wilder, there are always new ways to recognize and reward outstanding books for kids and young adults. Two of the most recent efforts--and certainly the most permissive of audience participation-- are the Cybils and the School Library Journal Battle of the (Kid's) Books.

This year marked the fourth year of the Cybils (Childrens and YA Bloggers Literary Award,) in which the best literature for children and young adults, across a wide range of categories and ages, is recognized. The books are nominated by the public during a two week period in October, and then whittled down by a dedicated group of bloggers, with the winners announced on February 14th, which conveniently enough is Valentine's Day (sweethearts and sweet books--a happy combination!) Regular readers of this blog know that I served as a panelist for the Non-fiction/Informational Picture Book category, which involved my colleagues and I reading over 70 titles, which we then narrowed down to 6 for consideration by a second round of judges. It's a fabulous experience and one I highly recommend to bloggers who care about great books for kids.  This year's winners include titles which have already been recognized by top awards, books which flew under some radars, and books which will get a chance for a second victory lap in the SLJ Battle of the Book tournament.

The Battle of the Books (can I just call 'em 'Bob'?) was instituted last year and was an absolute hoot. School Library Journal enlisted the service of top authors and experts in the field to read two books, select one winner, and then send it along to the next round. The final winner was determined by non-other than two time Newbery Medalist winner Lois Lowry. Elizabeth Bird, in her ever impressive Fuse #8 blog filmed a highly amusing--and equally informative--video to announce the titles and participants involved in this year's tournament. Watch it here. This year's battle has initiated a new element--the audience participation element--called the Zombie Round (gee, topical much?) In this new facet of the tournament, a favorite title which was knocked out in an earlier round has a chance at renewal through the magic of readership voting.

As with last year's BoB, I have already read a handful of the books up for contention, so I feel I can follow the proceedings with a certain amount of prior competency. If I had to pick a winner now--I couldn't possibly! Last year I was so impressed with the analysis of the books, how seriously the judges took their duties, and just how gosh-darn fun the whole thing was, and I can't wait for this year's BoB to begin! Mark your calendars: March 1st is when it all starts. Folks on Twitter will be able to follow the progress at @SLJsBoB. Be prepeared to discover some new and exciting titles for your To Be Read pile.

And finally, for anyone who is not already following The Top 100 Children's Poll, again, on the Fuse #8 blog, then you really want to get on over and see how your favorites are doing. As she did with last year's Top 100 Picture Book Poll, Elizabeth Bird has put together a blogging tour-de fource. She isn't just listing the books but providing critical and cultural analysis of the titles. She's up to 46, and none of my top ten has yet to make an appearance. Either I picked some real winners, or my odd-ball reading tastes have named me for the nerd I am.

13 February 2010

Jonesing for some library stats?

What do these three books have in common? If you've been to a library in the UK in the past decade, you just might know. Kiddielit--rock on!

02 February 2010

Anticipated Arcs: This Means War! by Ellen Wittlinger

In Ellen Wittlinger's upcoming middle school novel (due for release in April, 2010,) the subject of "boys against the girls" is played out in front of a dramatic historical backdrop. With the United States and Cuba locked in a nuclear stare-down, 4 girls and 4 boys in Wisdom Hill, a Southern Air Force town bearing the eerie markings of a military build-up, challenge each other to a series of "tests" to prove, once and for all, who is the best--boys or girls. Children's literature is no stranger to the battle of the sexes: Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's multi-volume "Boys against Girls" series is full of fun and pranks, and Andrew Clements' No Talking elevates a stubborn battle of wills into a constructive social exercise. In This Means War! however, there is no doubt that the stakes in this battle are high, as the children's game becomes complicated by a maelstrom of pre-teen disorientation, confused loyalties, and the escalating anxiety concerning the Cuban missile crisis.

There were times when this was a stressful book to read. I know how the Cuban Missile Crisis was eventually resolved, so the stress did not originate from the historical context of the book. Instead, the activity of the children, seen through the eyes of protagonist Juliet Klostermeyer, is fraught with peril. Each team is goaded on by a leader who simply cannot be seen to be weak or less than the best: Bruce Wagner is a juvenile delinquent in the making who is reduced to hanging out with children much younger than himself because he has been forced to repeat grades in school. He is a loud-mouthed bully that the younger boys don't know how to rid themselves of, despite the fact that he upsets and scares them. Patsy Osborne is a bold and confident girl whose fiercely competitive streak is antagonized by contemporary attitudes about girls. Bruce is the obvious villain, but Patsy is the danger you suddenly realize has been present all along and is consequently harder to contain.

This is a thought-provoking book about the fears of children, and the lengths to which they will go to face, combat, or mask those fears. If Juliet were not already distressed about a domestic situation in which her mother is too busy to spend time with her, her father's business is threatened by larger competition, her older sister thinks she is a nuisance, and her best friend (who happens to be a boy) is suddenly ignoring her,  the news about the missle crisis might have remained just that--news. But as Juliet sees chinks in her localized support system, there is space for larger concerns to creep in and threaten her. One of the most touching moments in the book is when Juliet cries because Mr. Ed has been preempted by the news about the missile crisis. Having been gifted a rare chance to sit and watch TV with her mother, the loss of that opportunity is indicative to her of an unsafe world that can reach her at any moment.

Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis dictates the fear factor in this story, so does its end project a sense a optimism on the book's finale. After an intense week that has seen both the larger and the local world teeter on the brink of disaster, Juliet and her friends are afforded respite, redemption and the luxury to reflect on their experience. The war, as it were, is over, and it is time to start the reconstruction. This is a book which will resonate with its core audience--preteens living in an uncertain world, where the meanings of bravery, fear, and loyalty are questioned everyday.

01 February 2010

Tesco takes on Hollywood?

I've always thought that the supermarkets in England were, in fact, more super than the ones here in the States--or at least, in the Boston area. And I think this proves it. Ubiquitous supermarket chain Tesco (of the annoying "Every little helps" slogan,) is, according to the Guardian, moving into the film business. They are starting with direct to DVD, and there are plans to finance film adaptations of well known books, including YA classics Tiger Eyes by Judy Bloom and the Sally Lockhart books by Phillip Pullman (will Billie Piper be reprising the role, one wonders?)

It seems to me that this venture is possible because of the role supermarkets play in the United Kingdom as sellers of books. To quote the Guardian piece:

"The shift into film production is part of Tesco's effort to make the most of its growing influence as a retailer of mainstream books and home entertainment."

Perhaps this says more about my shopping habits than it does about retail potential in the United States, but it would never, ever occur to me to go to the supermarket to buy a book (just as, to be honest, I never think to shop for groceries at Walmart.) And yet, in Britain this is common. In fact, so great is the power of supermarkets as booksellers, that mega-chain Asda (which is owned by Walmart) were able to get former UK children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson to edit her book, My Sister Jodie, specifically for sale in their markets. Clearly, the power of one-stop shopping in the UK has led to what seems an unlikely partnership between produce and film production, but one which has proven successful and will no doubt be imitated if Tesco proves triumphant.

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