27 January 2010

10-10-10 Reading Challenge: The Cay by Theodore Taylor

I read The Cay as part of the 10-10-10 Reading Challenge, in the category of Children's Books I'm Ashamed to Admit I've Never Read. I mean, even my brother, who avoided books at all costs as a child, read this book. And loved it! He even got my mom to read it! Whereas I, the brainiac who spent her afternoons at the library after school, and looked at the cover of this book many times as it looked down at me from the shelf........Never. Ever. Read it. Until now :)

The premise of the story is fairly straightforward: young Phillip Enright lives on Curaco with his mom and dad. His father works for Shell Oil and is needed on the island to aid in the war effort (the book takes place in 1942.) When Phillip and his mother attempt to leave the island, the ship they are on is torpedoed by a German U-boat and sinks. During the attack Phillip is knocked unconscious. When he comes to he is adrift on a raft with a large West Indian man, Timothy, and Stew Cat, the ship's cook's cat. They take refuge on a small, insignificant cay, which is unfortunately situated in a treacherous cove known to Timothy as Devil's Mouth. Marooned and eventually blind from a blow to his head sustained during the attack, Phillip is completely dependent on a man he was been raised to disdain.

There is a lot going on in this book besides the general imperative to survive in unfavorable conditions. While Phillip is not one of those 'horrible-kids-turned-good-through-adversity' characters (I think of the boy in Empire of the Sun,) he has preconceptions about Timothy, based mainly on what his mother has said. Phillip views Timothy as an old, ugly, uneducated black man who under normal circumstances would be subservient to him. And in fact, at the start of the story, Timothy addresses Phillip as "young bahss," maintaining what seems to be an accepted pecking order. But in reality, Timothy is a seasoned sailor with years of experience, and from the moment he rescues Phillip from the sea he devotes himself to protecting Phillip. His teaching method combines tough-love and practical know-how. Yet, while Phillip thinks he is becoming more and more dependent on Timothy because of his blindness, Timothy is in fact weaning the boy from his care, in the unthinkable event that he should ever have to survive on the cay alone.

This book could have been subtitled, "E is for Epihany" for most of the action takes place within Phillip's heart and mind, and is Timothy's greatest service to the boy, no matter how unintentional. Compact, compelling, and infused with a Calypso tang, I'm glad I finally read The Cay.

26 January 2010

Scholastic goes goth

For tweenie readers who might be more inclined to combat boots than Uggs, Scholastic has introduced a new range of middle grade chicklit. We've seen the sparkly Candy Apple books. Now readers can sink their teeth into the Poison Apple books! I have to admit, my heart sang when I saw this in a recent publisher's catalog. I don't object to books like the Candy Apple books; they are popular for a reason. Their coloful covers, the ubiquitous subjects of boys and popularity and summer fun--and don't forget the glitter. What's not to love? They fly off our shelves. However......

Publishers feed girls a diet of princesses and pink from the moment they can reach for a book from their pushchairs. Maybe the Poison Apple series is just a cynical ploy to steer girls towards "alternative" books while still coralling them within the brand; Goosebumps meets the Beacon Street Girls. I don't know--I've yet to read one. Judging from the first title, this looks to be a series headed for horror. I suppose vampires are inevitable. But even if the Poison Apple books are just a waiting room for readers not yet ready for Lois Duncan or Caroline Cooney, I'm holding out the hope that it evolves into something slightly subversive and totally without glitter.

24 January 2010

Anticipated ARCS: The Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry

I finally got a chance to tackle the mountains of ARCS I brought home last weekend from ALA, and started with the upcoming book by Lois Lowry. Due for release in April 2010, The Birthday Ball tells the story of Princess Patricia Priscilla, who, a mere five days before her sixteenth birthday, can bear the boredom of privilege no longer. Hoping to live a little before she is required to choose a suitor at her birthday ball, Patricia Priscilla changes clothes with her chambermaid in order to visit the village incognito. There she starts to attend the local school, where her eyes are opened not just to the inequalities within her own domain, but to the choices available to her as an intelligent princess.

This is a very funny book, with enough over the top characterization and mistaken identity to please Shakespeare. The slightly maniacal illustrations by the great Jules Feiffer heighten the comedic effect of the story, as does the narrator's convivial tone. Buffoonery abounds, from the stone-deaf Queen, who lost her hearing because she was too vain to wear a hat on an extremely cold day; to the incessantly bickering Conjoint Counts who can agree on nothing except toilet humor; to the professional Splashers, who's sole duty is to make waves in bodies of water so that their odious master may never see how ugly he is. The Princess herself is not initially a sympathetic character by virtue of her condescending attitude about "peasants". She is a quick learner, however, and her natural compassion, born as much from a quick mind as a kind heart, breaks through.

Despite the fact that a princess appears on the cover on the book, complete with sparkles and a girl-friendly purple background, boys will find the three dreadful suitors (four, if you count the Conjoint Counts as two) appealing with their nasty habits and unsociable manners. For instance:

"[The Conjoint Counts] had a particular annoying prank that they played on each other. One would wait until his brother's face was turned toward his own, and then belch loudly at it and cry, "Gotcha!"
The belched-at one would invariably respond with a full-scale wedgie."

Wedgies and princesses? In the same book? Hard to resist, especially as a read-aloud.

Just as Princess Patricia Priscilla finds a way to control her fate, so does The Birthday Ball find a way to buck the conventions of the fairy tale. The ingredients are all in place, but Lowry deftly redefines 'Happily Ever After'. This one is a crowd pleaser all round.

16 January 2010

Meeting M. T. Anderson, and other thrills from ALA Midwinter

Well, it's been an exciting couple of days at the American Library Association's Midwinter Meeting. What have I done? Only rubbed shoulders with librarians, writers, publishers, and bloggers. Only collected  about 3 dozen ARCS by the likes of Mitali Perkins, Karen Cushman, Neil Shusterman, Jarrett Krosoczka, Melissa Marr, Kathryn Laskey, Alice Hoffman, and M.T. Anderson. Oh, and did I mention that I met Mr. Anderson and talked Pals in Peril with him? (insert fangirl *squee!* here.) Not only did we talk Pals in Peril, but when I compared Jasper Dash to Tristram Shandy, he didn't look at me like I had two heads.

I got to hear Al Gore deliver a breakdown of his newest book, and was he ever impressive. I sat in on the Notable Books Committee, which was akin to sitting in on a seminar wrap-up of the best books of the year for children. I bought an Unshelved t-shirt. And I got my picture taken with this guy, who goes by the name of Andrew Clements.

It's been a great weekend so far. And it's not over yet! There's still the YMA award announcements to look forward to on Monday, and the opportunity to meet my editor from School Library Journal. It will be so nice to put a face to the emails. Rock on!

13 January 2010

Just wondering........

Anyone know if this book works?

05 January 2010

My Favorite Rant: The Church Mouse

As I'm catching up on the pile of professional periodicals in my in-tray (a quicker task than it might sound, since I've already read half of each issue on-line,) I came across this article from Publisher's Weekly about the rising cache in Hollywood of picture books as vehicles for full-length motion pictures. Both Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and Where the Wild Things Are did well enough in 2009 to ensure that more picture books will find their way to the big screen. And as filmmakers try to strike the right balance between name recognition and adaptable storytelling, can I please put forward my hobby-horse, as it were, for consideration: Graham Oakley's The Church Mouse. I've written before about my complete and utter amazement that this book, and the corresponding series, has gone out of print. And although I'm not always a fan of film adaptations of beloved books, this is a situation where the exposure afforded by Hollywood might be just the thing this book needs to get it back in the public eye.

And for a filmmaker, what's not to love? It is a more sophisticated story than your average picture book aimed at the 4-8 age bracket, so there is no need to fluff it up for a 90 minute time-frame. There are loads of characters--perfect for attracting an A-list of celebrity voices--which eliminates the need of creating additional characters for the screen. The numerous sequels lend themselves to franchise building. The all-animal cast will appeal to everyone, as will the story of the Church Mouse and his friend, the cat Samson, who has listened to so many sermons about brotherly love that he cannot eat the mice living in the church. The hijinks! The bucolic English setting! The CGI possabilities abound! If there are any interns trawling the cybersphere for cinematic inspiration, look no further than The Church Mouse. And if there are any publishers thinking to bring back a classic, PLEASE bring these books back! I can't mend my copies any more than I already have, and the secondary market is prophibitive.

02 January 2010

Starting the New Year right! The Cybils Finalists are in Order

We start 2010 with some left-over business from 2009. After reading their way through over 900 books for children and young adults, in a variety of categories, the Cybils Round One Panelists have presented their lists of finalists for the consideration of the Round Two Judges. A full recap can be found at the Cybils blog, including some impressive statistics in terms of the hours and hours of work and attention put in by the panelists. And of course, some rather fine reading lists. This is a good opportunity to check and make sure there's not something awesome missing from your To Be Read pile.

As a member of the Non-Fiction Picture Book Panel, I would like to take this opportunity to recognize and thank my colleagues on the NFPB panel for a fabulous experience. Being involved with the Cybils isn't just about reading and blogging. There is bona fide committee work involved--often across time zones and despite technical glitches! I'm very proud of the list we presented. It was a real collaborative effort, hammered out through much discussion and defending, and represents as fine a collection of non-fiction writing for children as you will see all year. We were so impressed with the quality of the nominations we had to choose from. Really, if you could see the list of books we had to leave behind.......

Congratulations to all the finalists. Now it's time to sit back and wait for the winners to be announced. I don't envy the judges the task of selecting the best; coming up with seven nominees was difficult enough! But I know they'll do a great job, because if I've learned nothing else from my Cybils involvement, it's that there are a lot of committed individuals who care deeply about getting great books into the hands of young readers.

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