Sunday, August 26, 2007

Looking for Alaska by John Green

I’d heard of Looking for Alaska by John Green from my daughter, Ali who was working in a bookstore when it came out. I had it on my must-read-one-of-these-days list long before I heard John Green speak at the SCBWI conference in LA this summer. It was his speech, which blurred the line of truths, lies and fiction which made me move it up to the top of my ever growing pile. I finished it last night, and know that it will stay with me for a long time to come.

The story begins with Miles, a sixteen-year old Florida boy about to leave for boarding school. At his mother’s insistence, Miles endures a going away party where, as he expects, almost no one shows up. Obsessed with last words, this only confirms his need to leave his lonely and uneventful life behind to pursue what Rabelais called “The Great Perhaps.” Of course, Miles is also hoping that he’ll meet friends and even have adventures at Culver Creek Boarding School.

He is as unprepared for the Alabama heat as for what lay in store. First, there is his new roommate, the five-foot nothing Chip Martin. Known as The Colonel, he renames Miles, smokes like a fiend; drinks vodka mixed will milk, and memorizes the names and capitals of countries. A middle of the night brush with another group of boarders called Weekend Warriors firmly establishes a friendship between The Colonel and Miles AKA Pudge. Friendships with Takumi, a Japanese-American who is clever with a rap, but hopeless at pre-calculus and the sweet Romanian-born Lara with whom Pudge has a short-lived romance follow. But, it is Alaska who is the glue that holds them all together. She is equal parts gorgeous, well read, and self-destructive. Of course Pudge is smitten with “her eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor.”

Looking for Alaska is a rich stew of characters brimming with energy intensity. Green serves up their stories with such potency that once you have a taste of these kid’s lives, you’ll want more. I expected great writing. After all, Looking for Alaska won the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. I expected subtle wit and a certain amount of well-drawn teenage angst. What I didn’t expect was to be thrown into the emotional minefield of adolescence. What I didn’t expect was to care so very much about Pudge, The Colonel, and Alaska, the girl they knew, and the one they never could. What I didn’t expect was that a lie could feel, and taste and smell so very real.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

When I attended the annual SCBWI conference in LA recently, by way of a quick introduction, each presenter characterized themselves with a single word. Some of the words were in keeping with what one might expect from coming from children's book writers, illustrators and publishers; words like poetry, inspire stubborn, and possibilities. Others came up with creative solutions to the one word dilemma (torture for writers who love language) by banding together to come up with statements. Still others like Ellen Wittlinger's word, "basement," and Walter Dean Myers "details" simply served to pique our interest for a later session. Myers keynote addressed the idea that the details you include in a story must be the ones that speak the truth about the character, a truth the reader will follow. In her keynote Wittlinger explained the word basement as one's innermost place, and spoke about how a writer must speak from their own inner most place, especially if writing for teens. This is something that Wittlinger does extremely well. Anyone who has read Hard Love, would agree, and it remains one of my all time favourite YA titles.

The word that received the most enthusiastic response though was "scrotum". If you have followed the news over the last few months, you will be correct in suspecting that this word was spoken by Susan Patron, author of The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Medal and one of the most hotly debated titles of recent years. And yes, the censorship debate rests on that one word which appears on the first page of the book and again near it's end.

It is sad to imagine that some could not travel beyond that one word to follow the extraordinary adventures of ten year old Lucky and her quest to find her higher power. They will never have met the spunky and creative Lucky, nor the other 42 people who inhabit Hard Pan, California. They will miss the opportunity to meet Lucky's guardian, Britgitt, who left France temporarily to look after Lucky as a favour to her ex-husband when Lucky's mother dies. They will miss the fear of abandonment Lucky faces each time Bridgitt gets homesick. They will never know Lucky's friend Lincoln, future U.S. president (if his mother has any say in the matter) and a knot obsessed member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. They will not have gotten to know five year old Miles who is addicted to cookies and a book called Are You My Mother? They will have missed eavesdropping on the twelve-step anonymous programs where Lucky first hears about higher powers and where she learns the secrets of many of the towns inhabitants. Worst of all, they will not get to run away with Lucky and her dog HMS Beagle to the old mine shafts in the desert outside of town where she saves Miles, finds her higher power and where Bridgitt and the whole community of Hard Pan show Lucky just how loved and how lucky she truly is.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Not Afraid of Dogs by Susanna Pitzer, illustrated by Larry Day

Not Afraid of Dogs by Susanna Pitzer with Illustrations by Larry Day is a perfect primary and preschool book to help children not just with the fear of dogs, but with fear in general. It's hero, Daniel, is a very brave little boy indeed. He isn't afraid of spiders or snakes or even thunderstorms. But, like all of us, he is afraid of something, and that fear is largely based on the unknown. Dogs are scary to Daniel. However much he refuses to own up to his fear, it continues to plague him. Usually, Daniel avoids dogs (often in hilarious ways). His dog phobia begins to pose serious constraints when his family offers to look after his Aunt's sweet little dog, Bandit. Fortunately for Daniel, the dog isn't shy about his own fear of thunderstorms. Once Daniel realizes that Bandit is even more afraid than he is, he forgets his own fears and comforts the terrified dog during a late night thunderstorm. By forgetting his fears to comfort another, he soon realizes how groundless they were. The is a gem of a picture book that would be perfect both at home and in schools and preschools. The text is simple yet rich in the emotional landscape it evokes. Dialogue effectively moves the story along reducing the need for extensive narrative. As well, the illustrations truly enrich the text making for a perfect marriage between text and illustrations. For example, Daniel's chair at the dinner table is empty while he is still insisting (from off the page) that he isn't afraid. The empty chair with Bandit sitting next to it says it all. And this is not just my opinion. This delightful book took home the Golden Kite Book Award this year for best illustrated picture book published.

Stuart's Cape and Stuart Goes to School by Sara Pennypacker

I love Stuart. I can't believe that Sara Pennypacker's cape-creating, glasses-wearing, cutest ever worry-wart of a kid got nixed after only two books. Stuart, who began his short life is Stuart's Cape, was partly base on one of Pennypacker's nephews. Pennypacker's imagination filled in the blanks and what wonderful and wacky adventures she created. Stuart is as insecure as any kid who has just moved and whose best stuff got accidentally mistaken for a box of garbage. No wonder Stuart is a worrier. School is still weeks away, he has no friends, and he is bored. A superhero cape, he decides, is just the thing. He staples together his father's tossed off ties and adds a secret pocket made out of sock and and he has it, the perfect cape. How could it not be magical! Dinosaurs jumping on his bed, eating lighter than air sponge cake that floats him up up up, and growing giant toast are a few of the weird and wonderful adventures Stuart has when he's wearing his cape. Of course, magical capes can get you into trouble if you're the least bit careless. But I don't want to give it all away. Pick up a either Stuart's Cape or Stuart Goes to School, and I'll bet you'll be writing to publishers writing demanding more of Stuart's adventures.