Tuesday, May 30, 2006

You Can't Rush a Cat by Karleen Bradford

So it has been a while since I've blogged mainly because other things having been keeping me busy: house renovations, my youngest home from university and in need of pampering, celebrating my oldest daughter's 25th birthday (searching for the perfect purple, girly bike big enough to fit my six foot tall baby), and yes, even a bit of work. And...believe it or not, I have just finished an adult book, In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant. I enjoyed it immensely (but now I'll have to rush through my bookclub title or I won't finish it). In the Company... has real appeal for young adults with an interst in historical fiction, although prostitution is the subject so be warned. Still, I love historical fiction, and I know it has real appeal for teens as well. Actually, my daughter (the bookseller one) was bemoaning the lack of Canadian historical fiction for teens, and the Dear Cananada series just doesn't count as it is for way younger kids.

In a totally different vein you may want to look for You Can't Rush a Cat by Karleen Bradford. Bradford is best known for her young adult novels, my favourite being The Nine Day Queen and fabulous juvenile novels such as With Nothing But Courage. She has also dabbled in non-fiction but the one I like and often suggest to keen young writers is Write Now. This may be her first picture book, I'm not really sure on that) but with a wealth of writing experience behind her, the result isn't surprising. You Can't Rush a Cat is one of those lovely quiet books that is perfect for curling up with. The simple sentence structure and periodic repetition make it suitable for young independent readers. but it's real charm lies in reading it as a duo. It is, for example, the perfect bedtime book and will especially appeal to grandparents who enjoy reading to their grandchildren. I particularly enjoyed Leslie Elizabeth Watts' illustrations, which are apparently egg yold and water mixed with dry pigments. I love it when this sort of information is included by the publisher, which is Orca Books by the way. But, back to Watt's illustrations. They are superb as much for what is painted as is what is merely hinted at. So if you are looking for a story little story to share with someone special, this is it. Mind you, it would help if you love cats, but then I loved it and I hate cats, so there you are.

So, now back to work, or at least I will try, but the window installers are hammering away, so I may be forced to give up and head out to the garden to weed.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryant

A rainy holiday Monday, but not a bad thing as I don't have to water all those new transplants I put in a few days ago and I spent the day drinking tea and reading an incredibly poignant wonderful new book called Pieces of Georgia by Jen Bryan. As my last post was about covers, I’d give this one an A+, but here it is so you can judge for yourself.

Interestingly, the text is a free verse poem; along the same vein of another book I reviewed recently, The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter. It seems to me that the poetic structure of this story, like in the case of Porter’s novel is not essential, although not a bad thing. I recall Porter saying at a talk that she felt the structure made it easier for non-readers, and that may well be true. Both novels are very accessible, and easy to pick up. Another thing they share is that they are not so easy to put down.

Georgia is an unpopular tongue-tied ‘At Risk’ almost thirteen year old. Her mother has died and her father works long hours. She is often found in the school nurse’s room recovering from a stomach ache. Mrs. Yocum, her school councilor gives her a red leather diary and suggests that Georgia “…write down what you might tell, or what you might ask your mother, if she were here.” As Georgia fills the pages of her diary, she worries that the similarities between she and her mother will only make her father sadder. Until one day, a gift comes to her anonymously in the mail. It is a membership to the Brandywine River Museum which house three generations of Wyeth artists. Soon, Georgia’s artistic side is seeping out, and she knows that even if her father forbids her, she couldn’t stop going to the museum. Fortunately she has an art teacher who nurtures her talents, slipping her supplies, and encouraging her to enter the district’s art competition which she does without her father’s knowledge.

Pieces of Georgia is far from a one dimensional. The small humiliations of poverty, and the pettiness of popularity are the backdrop to Georgia’s world. Fortunately, she has an artist’s natural tendency toward careful observation, and her insights into her own physical and emotional frailties extend to those of her father and others around her. When her one friend, Tiffany falls into the drug trap, it is Georgia, who notices and who worries for her. Still, she is in the dark about who has sent her the gift that firmly plants her feet on the road to a career in art. In fact, the reader will be as surprised as Georgia when she finally discovers the identity of her benefactor.

The real strength of this book though is its thoughtful rather than dramatic portray of love, loss, family, friendship, and mentorship. I guarantee that it will put a lump in your throat and bring tears to your eyes, or in my case, down right bawling.

Reviewed from advanced reader’s galley.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Book Covers

I was catching up on my reading this weekend and noticed a really interesting article on book covers by James Grainger in the May issue of Quille & Quire. The article is about designing covers, and features three early cover versions of Me and the Blondes by Teresa Toten which I reviewed a few days ago. I found it so interesting. I have to agree with the designer, that the fourth and last version is the best. Side by side photos make it really easy to compare. The final version really invites the reader to "pick me up". Sadly, Canadian covers are sometimes not the best. I think that this has a lot to do with much smaller budgets than US or British publishing houses. It is so important that teen covers especially, are really appealing. Otherwise, the books just sit on the shelves. This is something that both book sellers and librarians agree on totally. Lately, though, we are really starting to see some interesting stuff here in Canada. Orca Book Publishers, for example, has done some really hot covers with their teen reluctant reading series. The Beckoners by Carie Mac, Zee's Way by Kristen Butcher, Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie, and One More Step by Sheree Fitch are all totally cool and appealing covers. Speaking of Carrie Mac, there is a really interesting interview with her in the June 2006 issue of Quill & Quire which I very much enjoyed. I hadn't realized that she was a paramedic in the down-town-east-side of Vancouver. No wonder her subjects are gritty. She is right up there with Melvin Burgess in my opinion, high realism, with characters that have gut-wrenching experiences. Her books, and she only has a couple, so lots more to look forward to, pulls no punches. No talking down to teen here. It seems she is moving into fantasy, so for those of you who are fantasy buffs, lucky you. I'm not so much, although every now and then an author sucks me in, like the Attolia books that I read all three of in a weekend a month back. I will undoubtedly pick up Mac's new novel too, just because she is such a fine writer. All for now.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee is a fabulous idea. It concerns a grade 8 writing class that has a famous rock star visit them (he's related to the grade 8 writing teacher). He compares writing to painting a bowl of fruit, suggesting that every artist would have a different take, use different forms, lighting, mediums, etc. To him, writing songs isn't much different than other sorts of writing. This makes writing seem relevant to the kids which is really cool. He explains what makes one story stand out over another is what the writer brings to it. Before he leaves, he gives the kids an assignment. They are to use 7 common elements to create a story. The elements are the same for every kid, but what they do with those elements is what will make their story unique.

It is such a neat concept. I started out very hopeful, but the first part of the book is a little too much of a lesson for my taste. Still, I really enjoyed, the last half of the book, which is the stories, poems, raps, screenplays, comic strips, puzzles, etc. that each of the kids in the class comes up with. They are interesting, creative, and very different from each other stylistically. Durkee also managed to create individual pieces that reflect the different abilities and personalities that you would typically find in a classroom. Considering this is Durkee's first novel, I'd say she is worth watching for. I imagine that this is one of those books that adults will like more than kids though. Good intentions but when it comes to the execution, I'd prefer a real story, and I think that most kids will too. The cover is illustrated by David Weisman, who is fabulous as usual.

Reviewed from the advance reader's copy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Melvin Burgess is a fabulous YA author

Oh my god. Just bouncing around the web and checked out one of my favorite YA authors' website Melvin Burgess I love his writing. So gritty. Anyways, I don't know how I could have missed it, but he had a new book out in September, Bloodsong. But, even better news is that on June 1st he has another new book coming called Sara's Face. I will be running out to buy both and will let you know how they are.

The Fruit Bowl Project by Sarah Durkee

I thought I'd finish The Fruit Bowl Project by Srah Durkee last night, but it will have to wait until tonight. Not my fault. Don't blame me. It's all House's fault. It's one of those addictive TV shows that I schedule my Tuesday evenings around. I know, it sounds lame. But, I'm betting I'm not the only one. And yes, it's only an hour, but then comes Law and Order, and then the news and pretty soon it's midnight, at which point I am reading the same paragraph, actually, the same sentence, over and over and couldn't tell you what I read if my life depended on it, which fortunately it doesn't. Later.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Check out School Library Journal for this interesting article

Every time I visit School Library Journal, I find something interesting. Yesterday I found an article about cross-over books. Librarians, especially those with limited budgets have real challenges regarding books that could go either into the teen or the children's section. Of course if a librarian has enough money, they can buy two copies and put one in each section, but if they don't...what to do? I have had this discussion with my daughter as well as other booksellers too. Kids often read up, but teens don't like to read down. The article talks about Criss Cross, an award -winning cross-over book among others. As an author, makes you stop and think about how your books get handled after the fact. Have a look at the article. It's definately worth it. http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6330769.html.

Me and the Blonds by Teresa Toten

To the detriment of this blog, procrastination in spring is about the garden rather than about books. The light lasts long into the evening, and while I may start out with a book and a cup of tea in a nice comfy chair, it isn't long before moving the sprinker turns into dividing this and pruning that...

Still, I did manage to read at least one fabulous kid’s book recently. Me and the Blondes by Teresa Toten, published by Puffin Canada. It is a must read for YA fans. It’s attractive hot pink cover signals 'chick lit', but it is oh so much more.

Sophie, who is wildly funny in a self-deprecating sort of way, is about to change schools yet again. Tired of rejection and changing schools to run from it, she comes up with a double barrel strategy to make this school work. First--she will rewrite her past by killing off her alcoholic poet father, currently doing time for murder. Second-- she will ingratiate herself with ‘the blonds’, the cliques that have made her life hell at past schools. To start, her and her charming Eastern European mother, Magda concoct a likely death for Dad so that Sophie can start fresh.

On her first day at the new school, four blondes turn up in Sophie’s homeroom. She immediately knows that she has “hit the motherlode.” Sophie reels them with a skill that speaks of desperation that only high school can bring out. Interestingly, basketball ends up being the key to the inner sanctum of the blond clique. Meanwhile, an overly sympathetic teacher, ensures that attention is drawn to Sophie's lie. The trouble is, she and her mother haven't really agreed on the details of the death, keeping the reader as on edge as Sophie. A game of Truth or Dare ups the ante.

At home, Sophie can’t pretend. Her father’s regular phone calls from prison send her mother on an emotional roller coaster that has her mother either weeping or cleaning obsessively. Either the sobbing or the smell of bleach pervades their tiny apartment, and Sophie is never sure just which it will be. A job at diner/soda fountain is a partial escape, and the owner’s family connection ensures that the secret of Sophie’s father is safe. Her growing friendship with Madison is risky though, especially when they invite her and her mother for dinner. Will they be able to keep their lies straight?

Sophie is one of those characters that will stay with you. Each time she throws a letter to her father in the trash, you feel like retrieving it smoothing it, and sending it off to him. When The Aunties descend on Sophie with food, and laughter, and the suggestion of a ‘practice boyfriend,’ you can’t help but thinking that they are as over-the-top wonderful as they are exasperating, just as Sophie does. When Sophie takes the bus to Kingston to see her father, and leaves again without even getting to the penitentiary, your heart aches for her. When she is found out in the biggest lie of all, you want to flee along with her.

What could have been a piece of nostalgia is a funny, poignant, and achingly real window into the high school world. The blonds could easily be cliché, but in Toten’s experienced hands each comes alive with individual personalities as Sophie gets to know them. Each has their own personality. And like Sophie, each has her own problems. I especially enjoyed the way that Toten handled the relationship between the girls, and the fact that the love interest doesn’t railroad the story. Sophie may have started out looking for ‘the blonds’, but what she finds in the end is real friendship. And to top it all off, I have heard rumours of more Sophie adventures to come. I hope so, and so will you.

Reviewed from advanced reader's copy. Look for it soon at your local bookstore.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Patricia Polacco & Censorship

You've probably already heard about the whole censorship issue that's been heating up around Patricia Polacco, and the cancellation of an invitation to speak at the an IRA (International Reading Association) conference in Chicago this year. Polacco has been highly critical of the 'No Child Left Behind' Bush initiative, and was told to stay away from the subject in her speech. One of the major problems as I see it is that private companies such as SRA-McGraw/Hill play such an important role in funding such educational conferences. The fact that the publisher was footing the bill for her speech meant that they felt that they could dictate the content. If educational policy isn't addressed at conferences like these, where will it be addressed? Check out the article in Publishers Weekly at http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6334219.html One of the things that surprises me even less than the question of censorship, is Polacco's dedication. She may have been silenced at the conference, but she continues to stand her ground in her continued criticism of the band aid school of medicine to heal our bleeding education system. Polacco says it much more elegantly than I though. Check out her website at www.patriciapolacco.com

Reviews by author added to index

My wonderful daughter, Ali has helped me to create an author index for reviews, which I hope makes my blog easier to use. This may seem like a small accomplishment to the younger crowd, but for us 50+ html challenged types, this is a 'big' deal. Many pats on the back for me. More reviews to come soon...

Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award

The winner of the 2006 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award in the category of young adult/middle reader goes to Kenneth Oppel for Skybreaker published by HarperCollins Canada while Marie-Louise Gay won the picture-book category for Caramba published by Groundwood Books.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Books for Boys / Guy's Write for Guys Read edited by Jon Scieszka

This is not a procrastination post! I have spent the better part of the day editing two different picture book texts, and hence this is a well deserved break! Honest!

Since I do a lot of school visits, I asked my bookseller daughter (check her bog out www.cantstopreading.blogspot.com) and she recomended Guys Write for GuyGuys Read. Edited by the infamous and almost always funny Jon Scieszka, this is a fabulous collection of stories, poems, comic strips, memoires, and advice for guys by guys.

Checking the index, this collection is a whose who in the world of writing and ilustrting and I don't just mean guys from the kids' book world, although they're here too. The creator of the long time TV series, The Simpsons, Matt Groening weighs in with a copic strip as well as a hilarious selection of 'truths'. David Bauer, Deputy Managing Editor of Sports Illustrated reveals the reason behind his love of baseball in a very funny sports piece that will have the athletically challenged guffawing, while Stephen King is less than fear-inspiring in a selection that features farting babysitters.

Guys will love learning some of the personal trivia included. For example, James Howe of Bunnicula fame wanted to be a jocky, but his hopes were dashed when he grew (he's 6' 2''). Rick Telander, author of String Music and Heading Home didn't eat green vegetables except celery until the age of 25.

There is so much in this much crammed into this collection that it is a bargain at $10.99 U.S./$15.00Canadian. And there is something that will appeal to everyone. The selections range from humorous to serious, with everything inbetween. Quirky personalities, embarassing moments in childhood, disappointments and aspirations are all laid out with unabashed frankness. The pieces range in length, but most are only a few pages; perfect for a quick dip or for short attention spans. Another reason to go out and buy this book (rather than get it from the library) is that the royalties will go to support the Guys Read Web site at www.guysread.com. If you happen to be of the opposite gender, you may want to sneak a peek too. You won't regret it, be sure to hide it from your brothers or spouses. Otherwise you'll have it whisked out from under your nose. Enjoy.

Eagle chicks

Sadly, the bald eagle eggs on Hornby Island didn't hatch, but you can view hatched baby eagle chicks at the same address, which for those of you too lazy to go to my archives to look is at www.infotecbusinesssystems.com/wildlife/. A Vancouver Island eagle researcher has reset the camcorder up to view a nest near Victoria, and the two chicks are active and demanding. Lots of fun to watch. You may want to check out Hancock's website. He has written quite a few eagle books, which would be great for kids doing research on eagles. His site is at www.hancockwildlife.org/

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bruce Whatley

I am a huge fan of the down under author/illustrator Bruce Whatley who has written and illustrated my all time favourite dog book, That Magnetic Dog, among others. This time he teams up with the award-winning fellow Ausie, Jackie French in Diary of a Wombat. This book is hilarious, and appeals to adults as much as it appeals to kids. Diary of a Wombat is a journal of sorts. Nothing deep and dark in this daily record though. Here's a sample

Tuesday. Morning: slept./Afternoon: Slept./Evening: Ate grass./
Night: Decided grass is boring.Scratched. Hard to reach itchy bits./ Slept.

By Wednesday though, the endearing wombat has discovered the perfect place for a dustbath. The fact that the location of the dustbath is a family BBQ is the source of the humour in this scene. But it doesn't stop here. The family's uninvited guest decides to move in after a hilarious battle with a hairy creature (which turns out to be the welcome mat). Our wombat settles into the garden and demands carrots. The current residents are less than enthusiastic, but the wombat 'wins them over' by chewing a hole in their door and later, bashing in the trash can. Again, understated text is superbly complimented by illustrations that hint at far more than they reveal. The family continue with their efforts to great rid of their uninvited guest to no avail and by week's end, our wombat's diary concludes that "humans are easily trained." I've said it several times already, but hilarious is absolutely the best word to describe this this life in the week of...

And don't be put off by the fact that wombats may not be famililar territory to many children in this hemisphere. One read of Diary of a Wombat will make them have them asking for more. Author Jackie French provides a just a nibble of information about the furry creatures at the end of her delightful story, but kids will definately want more.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Goat Lady

On the weekend, I did a reading in Vancouver for the West Coast Families Conference. My publisher had a booth, and Jeff the sales rep, kindly let me take away a few books which I thought looked interesting. One of them was a picture book by Jane Bregoli , whom I had never heard of. The cover of The Goat Lady intrigued me though, so I wanted to sit down with it. I was rewarded with one of those heart-warming stories about a couple of kids who see beyond mismatched clothes into the heart of an old woman.

When two children move into their new home, they can't help but notice an old, run down farm in a neighbourhood of new, freshly painted houses and mowed lawns. The farm house on the corner of Lucy Little Road stands out. Not only is the paint on the house peeling and the door hanging crookly on it's hinges, but there are goats in the front yard, and even on the porch.

A truck load of complaints about the farm and its eccentric owner greet the new family, but the children are curious. Finally, they get a chance to meet Noelie, whose warm smile, rosy cheeks and twinking eyes outshine her odd clothing and accent . Once they see how lovingly the Goat Lady treats her goats, they become fast friends and help her with her chores. The children ask their mother to paint a portrait of Noelie and her goats, and one portrait becomes two, and then three, until there are enough paintings for an exhibiton at the town hall.

The power of art and the intuitive ability of two children to see beyond a fence in need of mending and a coat held together with twine is where this book shines. Noelie's goodness seeps through every painting for her community and for us to see. Help replaces judgement. Fences get mended both literally and figurately.

An afterward in the book explains that Goat Lady is based on a real woman, Noelie Lemire Houle, a French Canadian woman who left her family farm in 1919 for a factory job in the U.S. After marrying, she settled with her husband on a small family farm where she raised goats.

Noelie is the kind of woman you hope your children will meet and learn from. Now they can, through The Goat Lady by Jane Bregoli.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Kate DeCamillo does it again

I don't know how she does it, but Kate DeCamillo has done it again. She has written a book that is even better than her last, and I swore that The Tale of Despereaux was as good a children's book as one could ever write. But, The Miraculous Journey of Edwad Tulane is, if such a thing is possible, even better. To begin with, her publisher, Candlewick Press obviously understands that they are working with someone special. The production values are of the highest quality, with beautiful paper, an elegant and sophisticated design, and illustrations of art gallery quality by Bagram Ibatoulline. Mind you, I am reviewing from the advance reading copy with only one of several colour plates included, and I still say this.

The story itself will move you to tears; quite a feat since the main character is a china rabbit that stands about three feet tall with china legs and arms jointed with wire so that he could move. "His ears were made of real rabbit fur, and beneath the fur, there were strong, bendable wires, which allowed the ears to be arranged into poses that reflected the rabbit's mood--juanty, tired full of ennui...In all, Edward Tulane felt himself to be an exceptional specimen."

Imagine an arrogant china rabbit so full of himself that he is cabable of feeling only boredom with the little girl who loves him. I can hear your disbelief already. But believe me when I say, that DiCamillo is a magician. Before the first chapter is done, you will be hooked. Edward Tulane will be as real to you as Abilene, his owner. This is how DiCamillo characterizes Edward. "Of all the seasons of the year, the rabbit most preferred winter, for the sun set early then and the dining-room windows became dark and Edward could see his own reflection in the glass. And what a reflection it was! What an elegant fiure he cut! Edward never ceased to be amazed at his own fineness."

Now imagine a grandmother (Abilene's) wise enough to foretell a life of misadventure for one so empty-hearted as Edward. Imagine a sea vogage where Edward is lost overboard, where he is finally found by a fisherman and brought home to his wife, Nellie. This time Edward's arrogance is checked by the stirrings of love. While before, Abilene bored him, now when his new owner speaks, Edward discovers that "...now, the stories Nellie told him struck him as the most important thing in the world and he listened as if his life depended on what she said."

But Edward's journey isn't over yet. He will find and lose love again and again until both he and the reader will wonder if he could ever open his heart again. He is tossed into a garbage heap, accompanies a hobo and his dog on an endess journey that leads nowhere, used as a scarecrow, dances for a dying child, and is smashed in a diner. His head is repaired by a doll mender, but can his broken heart ever be mended? By this point, you will be as touched by the stirrings of love as Edward, and as just as devestated by his losses. It's that DiCamillo magic; simple, elegant prose with as much said between the lines as is said in them. The themes are big, but DiCamillo handles them deftly and simply.

A word of warning though. One of Ibatoulline's illustrations has stirred up a fair bit of controversy. It depicts Edward as a scare crow and reverberates with religious overtones. Although it was not included in the advance reading copy, I have seen the published version and found it quite powerful. Although I did not, some might find this particular image offensive. By the end of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you will be, like Edward, saying, "...yes, yes, yes. This is definately one of those stories that will take you on a journey worth going on.

Monday, May 01, 2006

2006 BC Book Prizes for Kids Books

Just back from Vancouver where I was fortunate enough to attend the BC Book Prize Gala at a swanky downtown hotel. The Christie Harris illustrated Children's Literature Prize went to The Blue Jean: Book The Story Behind the Seams by Tanya Lloyd Kyi, published by Annick Press. It's a non-fiction title that weaves together the history of denim, and sounds like a really interesting book about an aspect of our lives we very much take for granted. Although I haven't read it, with publisher, Colleen MacMillan at the helm, I feel pretty confident that when I do, it will be well worth the read.

I must admit, though, that I am a little disappointed that Diane Silvey's Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, published by Kids Can Press didn't win. It is both groundbreaking and first rate in it's ability to bring traditional Aboriginal ways to the attention of today's young readers. And it is written by a First Nations woman whose contributions as an educator have been widely recognized.

The other prize awarded that relates to children's books was The Sheila Egoff Children's Literature Prize. There were five wonderful books on the list, but again, my favourte, The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter, didn't win. Hannah Waters and the Daughter of Johann Sebastian Bach by Barbara Nickel was the winner. Not surprisingly, Nickel and Porter have been in contention before as both books were short-listed for the Governor Generals Award; and in that case, The Crazy Man came out on top. That means you'll have to read both to see where you weigh in. But, while you're at it, why not read the others. Polly Horvath is a highly regarded author of books with quirky charcters to keep you on your toes. While she isn't my cup of tea, people I highly regard love her stuff. Ian Lawerence is a must for any who love a good adventure yarn and John Wilson has a way of bringing history to life. If you are on the look out for books that appeal to boys, both Wilson and Lawrence are must reads. Neither shy away from blood and gore but theb neither is gatuitous.

Note on The Crazy Man. In an earlier post, I questioned the structure of Porter's award-winning booK. I'm not conceding yet, but I'll have to give that a bit more thought after a discussion last weekend. My host while I was in Vancouver, also an author, totally disagree with me and insisted that the book's success lay in it's poetic structure. It is so cool that two people reading the same book can come to different conclusions and yet both love the book.