29 March 2011

We have a Final Four!

The School Library Journal Battle of the Kids' Books is headed for the finish line. The four semifinalists are now in place and ready to start duking it out towards the Big Kahuna Round on Monday. If you haven't been following at home, here is how the semis will play out:

Louis Sachar's The Cardturner vs Kathi Appelt's Keeper
Jonathan Stroud's Ring of Solomon vs Andy Mulligan's Trash

I'm kind of back where I started in the first round--I've only read one of these books. One I have ignored because I don't think I will like it based on what I have read (and this competition has not changed my mind about it,) and the other two are on my TBR pile, having to be put aside while I turn my attention to actual work (dammit!) And after watching others brackets crash and burn, I am making no predictions till I see which title returns from the dead on Friday.

24 March 2011

Stop the madness!

I don't read many "grown-up" books, partially through choice and partially through career necessity. But when I do pick up a book for an audience older than 12, I have been lucky in reading some real winners. One such book was The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, which is definitely one of my favorite books of the last five years--for any age. Today I saw in a publisher's catalog that a kids adaptation of the novel is coming out in May. Publisher's catalog--meet the bottom of my shoe as I stomp upon you in frustration.

I am already on record griping about children's books for older readers that are adapted for kids that are still too young to read them. And I'm not particularly keen about the Great Illustrated Classics series, either, although I understand that they have worth for adult ESL readers, for example. But this trend of taking best-selling books written for adults and manhandling them somehow so that kids can read them has GOT TO STOP! To me it's no different then dressing kids like mini-adults. Three Cups of Tea was not only converted into a middle-grade book, but a picture book as well. What's wrong with leaving it as a book for adults that kids can read when they are ready to?

With the exception of Dewey, which actually benefited from the conversion for younger audiences (the publishers removed references to all the problems in author Myron's personal life and focused on the cat, which surely is all anyone was interested in anyway,) I can't think of a single title where this trend seems motivated by anything other than filthy lucre. The Art of Racing in the Rain seems particularly ill suited for the jump to middle grade readers for a number of reasons. First: it's sad. Second: the plot hinges on a wrongful sexual harassment suit against the protagonist. Third: the subtitle of the children's version is "my life as a dog," yet the whole point of the book is Enzo--the dog's--quest for humanity. Who thought this was necessary or a good idea? This was such a rewarding book to read as it was originally written, and I can't imagine that anyone who truly loved it would want to give their child a bastardized version so that they can get a "feel" for it. An unsuspecting reader who picks up the kiddie version will think it's just a sweet story about a dog and his family, and that does such a disservice to the original. Enzo was never striving for this.

17 March 2011

School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids Books: the first week

Technically, not quite the first week, since it is only Thursday. But after the first two days, where I really did not have a vested interest, yesterday and today saw books that I actually read take to the arena. And they both lost! Booo! Tomorrow is the only round where I have read both contenders, a scenario that I am rectifying for Round Two. Let me go on record with a vote for One Crazy Summer.

I think this year's judges are feeling the pressure of measuring up to the stellar critiques of the previous two competitions. Because let's be honest--the BoBs are just as much about the judging as the judged. This is an opportunity to look into the minds of esteemed writers and see what they have to say about writing which is not their own. Not to mention, it is an opportunity for them to lay down a fine piece of writing themselves.  After only four days there has been one judgment handed down via a one-act play in which the books eventually decided the winner between themselves (super-original to say the least,) a wrestling match between an inner librarian and an inner writer, and an awful lot of hand wringing about having to make a decision at all. It might be crude of me, but I'm kind of hoping that one of these Matches the judge writes, "How the heck did Book A ever end up in this competition?! No comparison--Book B by a mile!" I don't suppose that's realistic (the judges may very well know each other,) but I feel that way sometimes, and reading some of the comments, many members of the audience certainly do not feel the need for delicate and equal-opportunity responses.

15 March 2011

School Library Journal's Battle of the Kids Books: the story so far

Last year I missed out on the BoB Round 1 action because I was on holiday in Barbados (go on--feel sorry for me.) This year I'm hanging at home and able to follow the action day by day. Because I have read so few of the contenders this year (at present count: four) I am using the preliminary eliminations to try and ready myself for Round 2 which starts 24 March. I had to make some educated gambles as to which books I would start reading, and so far it's paid off. Match 1 saw the emergence of Louis Sachar's The Cardturner as the winner, and that is currently sitting atop my TBR pile. As for the Match 2 winner, Deborah Wiles' Countdown, I was also betting on that one, based solely on the fact that Conspiracy of Kings is a series book, and I've not read the rest of the series. Wise move, because that factored into the judge's decision, too. Countdown is already waiting for me at the library.

Now we come to day three, where I have actually read one of the contenders. The highly acclaimed The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sis, a fantastical fictionlized account of the early years of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda takes on The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie: a doll's history and her impact on us by Tanya Lee Stone. I have a soft spot for non-fiction, but I've already read The Dreamer. So in the interest of time, I'm pulling for the poet.

13 March 2011

Feline fun: Binky the Space Cat

For any cat lover who has suspected that their cat has a rich inner life--this is the series for you. Binky is a domestic shorthair who is a certified member of F.U.R.S.T. That's 'Felines of the Universe Ready for Space Travel' for the uninitiated--which is all of humanity, by the way. Living in his space station with Big Human, Little Human, and his mousie toy, Ted, Binky has a solemn duty to protect his humans from a constant onslaught of alien activity. Also known as too many insects in the house. But as a member of F.U.R.S.T, Binky also has an intense desire to travel the stars, despite the fact that he has never left the house. Can he possibly do both?

Okay. So this is a series written for children making the leap from early readers and early chapters to more advanced graphic novel storytelling. That being said, there is so much in these two books to delight, confound, and generally amuse, why restrict the fun to the 6-10 demographic?
It's not always clear if Binky is actually living these grand adventures or simply spicing up his day-to-day activities with a lively dose of imagination. For instance, Binky has a covered litter box which is clearly "bigger on the inside." And the ability of a cat to build a space ship is always up for debate. But younger readers won't sweat the details, and older readers will recognize how humorously odd cats can be in general, even if they are Earth bound. Binky's understated expressions and occasional bouts of gas (euphemistically referred to as "space gas") add much to the visual appeal of this book.

I wish I had read these books when I made my list of favorite kiddielit (should that be "kittylit"?) cat series. With a combination of silly humor, tender moments, and a hero that can not only travel through space but clean under his legs as well, this is a series to watch.

01 March 2011

Best of February

Lots of picture book reading in February. These were among my favorites.

Monsters Eat Whiny Children (Kaplan, Bruce Eric)

This qualifies as the best book about complaining since Emily Jenkins' I Love You When You Whine.  The indecisiveness of a group of monsters as to the best way to serve up whiny children is at the heart of this humorous book. Kudos for mentioning curry: "They all tried to figure out if they were in the mood for Indian food. Sometimes it's so hard to figure out if you're in the mood for Indian food." Not at our house--where it is a food group!

The Cat's Pajamas (Edwards, Wallace)

I love picture books about word play and grammar because they are inevitably creative. This book about idioms is more fun than a barrel of monkeys (and if you have ever wondered just how much fun IS a barrel of monkeys--check page 15.) Idioms make sense when you know what they mean, but have you ever tried to visualize one? Edward Wallace obliges with his ornate illustrations. And as a bonus--look for the hidden cat in each picture.

Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin (Barretta, Gene)

The premise of this picture book is so simple, Benjamin Franklin himself might have devised it. By playing on the phrase "Now and Then", author and illustrator Baretta does a comparison between the modern devices, conveniences  and institutions we have now, and how they were created or discovered by Franklin. My favorite: the Library, of course! Runner up: the Long Arm.

 Willie and the All-Stars (Cooper, Floyd)

Floyd Cooper made an appearance in last month's list, which makes me wonder how I've missed this fine writer and illustrator before. Not to mention--this is a book about baseball! Where was my head at in 2008 that I didn't catch this fantastic book the first time around? Willie is a young boy who lives on the North Side of Chicago in 1942. He lives on a diet of baseball and dreams of the day when he will be a Major Leaguer like his idols. Then he learns about the great players of the Negro Leagues, and with that discovery makes another, thoroughly unpleasant one; they don't play in the Major Leagues because they are the "wrong color." As is Willie himself. Floyd Cooper combines a thoughtful story with a history lesson in this book about the color divide in American baseball before Jackie Robinson. Fortunately, it ends on a hopeful note at none other than Wrigley Field.

Clemente! (Perdomo, Willie; ills. Bryan Collier)

Keeping with the baseball theme, this is a fine story about a little boy who is named Clemente after the baseball Hall of Famer who died in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. The baseball player's life and career is detailed quickly, allowing the book to focus on how he inspired and encouraged those who admired him (like this little boy's parents.) I really liked the illustrations in this book, which are a mixture of watercolors and collage that work to bring out the realistic detail of the figures against the various backgrounds. A timeline of Clemente's life, Author's and Illustrator's notes, and bibliography give this book non-fiction cred.

Socksquatch (Dormer, Frank W.)

This is a LOL worthy book which tells a story while really not having one. The eponymous Socksquatch can't find a sock. And he wants one. So he goes to look. Then he finds one and is happy. The end! However, the visual appeal of this book, not to mention the sheer silliness of the premise and interaction between Socksquatch and the other monsters he encounters (makes this a winner. Got sock?

Hot Rod Hamster (Lord, Cynthia; ills. Derek Anderson)

This could be the perfect cross-over book between girlie-girls and active-boys: a cute, cuddly rodent with the need for speed ("HOT ROD HAMSTER COMING THROUGH!") There are a couple of different storytelling levels here; the narrator trucks along with rhyming couplets which set-up the story of the hamster's journey from junkyard to finishing line, and asks the continuing refrain, "Which would you choose?" when presenting different types of cars, wheels, flame decals, and eventually trophies. Then there is the dialog between the hamster and the mechanic at the junkyard as they soup up a little car, expressed in voice bubbles with lots of !!!! and ALL CAPS. Then there is the actual race, which is adorably funny as the tiny hamster car takes on the larger racers. I hope Hot Rod Hamster races again soon. Or at least takes up an equally exciting hobby.

Orlando on a Thursday (Magenta, Emma)

Thursday is a bitter-sweet day for Orlando, because it is the day that his Mami goes to work, and he can't see her all day. The up-side is that his Papi stays home on Thursdays. Orlando doesn't seem to be aware of what Mami does all day (presumably she is at work--he just describes it as "busy in town".) Nor does he wonder what Papi does on the other days of the week when he doesn't stay home. All he understands is that for one day a week his world is turned around. The story borders on precious at times, but the distinctive illustrations manage to convey immense emotion and a real sense of security as Orlando works through his problematic day.

Clever Jack Takes the Cake (Fleming, Candace; ills. G. Brian Karas)

The power of storytelling prevails in this slightly predictable yet highly humorous Jack tale about a poor boy who tries to bring a gift worthy of a princess to her birthday party. Mind the crows, Jack!

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