Showing posts with label kids. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kids. Show all posts

Sunday, August 26, 2018

WITMonth Day 26 | 10 Recommended Kids and YA Books


Literature in translation is, alas, too often associated with stuffy, long, pretentious novels by dead Russian men, and as something uniquely mature. But what most readers don't realize is that many childhood classics from around the world actually do get translated and shared, even in English! Children are not lacking for any literature in translation, whether it's picture books, chapter books, or YA epics. While most of the translated literature by women writers has thus far come out of Europe, there is still plenty from around the world as well. Let's dive in.

  1. Maresi - Maria Turtschaninoff (tr. from Finnish Swedish by A. A. Prime): A dark but ultimately optimistic YA fantasy that marks the beginning of a fiercely feminist series.
  2. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren (tr. from Swedish by Florence Lamborn, among others): The children's classic full of adventure and excitement continues to charm and delight children to this day, without them even realizing its original language isn't English!
  3. Samir and Yonatan - Daniella Carmi (tr. from Hebrew by Yael Lotan): Two boys - Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jewish - in a children's hospital begin to form a friendship in the shadow of Middle Eastern conflicts of the 1990s.
  4. Tomorrow - Nadine Kaadan (tr. from Arabic by the author): The story of how a child sees war around him and live on. (Expected publication: September 1st, 2018)
  5.  The Happiness of Kati - Jane Vejjajiva (tr. from Thai by Prudence Borthwick): A girl comes to terms with her absent mother's advancing illness, while finding her own path to happiness.
  6. Wonderful Feels Like This - Sara Lövestam (tr. from Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg): A music-loving teen befriends an elderly former jazz player, as their stories unfold side-by-side.
  7. Moriboto: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi (tr. from Japanese by Cathy Hirono): A prince, his bodyguard, and a hero's journey, wrapped up in mythology and subversive gender roles.
  8. Inkheart - Cornelia Funke (tr. from German by Anthea Bell): The magic of books literally comes alive in a swashbuckling, fantastical series.
  9. An Elephantasy - María Elena Walsh (tr. from Spanish by Daniel Hahn): No adventure can manage to not be whimsical when an elephant is involved!
  10. Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow - Faïza Guène (tr. from French by Sarah Adams): A cynical teenager comes of age in the suburbs of Paris, struggling to understand her place in the world.
It's important to note that this list was also very difficult to compile, and that for a field allegedly "dominated by women", children's and YA literature in translation remain sadly almost as imbalanced as adult literature when it comes to women writers. Kidlit and YA are critical in normalizing the existence not only of literature in translation as a concept, but also in allowing children and young adults to experience worlds utterly different from their own... but also the same! In the same way that kids "need diverse books", kids also need books that reflect the wonderful range and diversity of the whole world (and not just one language).

I've left off a few of the big ones here (Heidi, the Moomins...), but what else do you think is missing? What are your favorite kidlit or YA books written by women in translation? And if you read in languages other than English as well, what kidlit/YA books from your native language by a woman writer would you like to see translated into different languages?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

WITMonth Day 21 | The Happiness of Kati by Jane Vejjajiva | Review

Jane Vejjajiva's The Happiness of Kati (translated by Prudence Borthwick) is a strange sort of children's book. The simplicity of the storytelling reminded me of several similar books I'd read around middle school (aged 11-12 or so), where heavy topics are handled in an almost deliberately simplified manner alongside surprisingly complex prose. These sorts of in-between books (not quite kid-lit, not yet YA) can often feel like with just a bit of editing they'd work better in either direction: simpler language and vocabulary to serve as pure children's books, or slightly more nuanced storytelling to serve as a YA/adult-friendly novel.

The language in The Happiness of Kati felt a bit overblown at times, with fancy vocab words and elegant sentences. I didn't always feel like it sat so well with the simplicity of the sentence-structures, and the very straightforward way protagonist Kati tells her story.

The plot too is very simplified. This isn't exactly the story of a child dealing with a missing parent, or a disabled parent, or adjusting to a new normal. There's no blatant beginning-to-end narrative that is usually found in children's books. Nor is the book simply a series of Kati's observations. Kati's story remains fixated around her - whatever she's going through, so goes the story. It's a bit messy from a storytelling perspective, but it also makes the ending more thought-provoking. It also means that if you find yourself drawn to Kati - which I did - you'll be able to appreciate anything the book throws your way, because you appreciate Kati and her thought process.

There are a lot of ways in which The Happiness of Kati might challenge a young reader's thinking. First and foremost, the book is not written to explain Thai culture in any explicit manner. Instead, readers can learn that different cultures are the natural order of things without any of the exoticism that many adult-geared novels employ in order to bridge the culture gap. The book is also interesting in its rather bleak focus on ALS. Kati's introduction to ALS (and serious illness in general) may serve the young reader as well, with its frank examination of disability and death. It's not the most sensitive way to talk about such big issues and would likely require further critical examination outside of the narrative itself, but it can serve as a reasonable base for some readers.

Kati's simple approach to life (and happiness) is warmly appealing, and even alongside some of the structural flaws, The Happiness of Kati is a pleasant and thought-provoking little book. Though I think it might be an awkward fit for some children (in terms of advanced language not always meshing with the simple storytelling style), I enjoyed it reasonably enough and imagine I would have found it very interesting as a child.

Friday, August 12, 2016

WITMonth Day 12 | Comet in Moominland - Tove Jansson | Mini-review

It didn't take me long into Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland (translated by Elizabeth Portch) to figure out that I had perhaps chosen the wrong book. The characters were never introduced, the plot seemed to bounce just a little too quickly, and the vibe was quickly that of... a sequel. Oh dear.

Of course, this being a children's book, the order of the stories doesn't seem to have mattered all that much. Possibly because the plot doesn't really make much sense anyways. Comet in Moominland is more of a silly romp than a complex narrative. I was, however, surprised by how text-heavy the story is. For some odd reason, I'd always assumed the Moomins stories to be mostly in comic form. This being my first foray into their baffling world, I'm still not really sure.

It's always hard to review children's books as adults, but I try to read them through the eyes of childhood me. And I realized pretty quickly that childhood me would have probably rolled her eyes very early. The book didn't make me laugh enough to justify its silliness (a comparison that popped to mind was the absolute absurdity of Penguin's Progress, one of my childhood favorites), but I couldn't help but enjoy its lighthearted tone and the playful drawings. There's a reason this one's a classic of the genre.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

WITMonth Day 16 - What about the kids?

One of the things that's been really important for me in planning WITMonth is that we focus not only on very Serious Grown-Up Literature, but also take a moment to appreciate books in other genres or designations. There's not much children's literature translated from other languages, but of those few books that are translated, quite a few are actually written by women.

First up is Cornelia Funke, who is quite well known as a young adult/middle grade fantasy writer. Inkheart came out just near the end of my fantasy phase in middle school, but I remember really enjoying it at the time. Somehow I managed to never finish the series, but there's no denying that she's one of the premier women in translation of the kid-lit world.

Next is Janne Teller's Nothing, a book I found as frustrating as it was interesting. It's not a perfect book by any means and its weird mix of extremely simple writing with lots of pseudo-philosophizing made me want to throw the book at the wall several times while reading it, yet it remains the only book in translation (that I'm aware of) to have won a Printz Honor. In a younger field, we also have writers like Tove Jansson, best known in literary circles for books like The Summer Book or The True Deceiver, yet known worldwide for her Moomins series.

Breaking away from Central Europe, we also have one of my personal favorites: Daniella Carmi, whose Samir and Yonatan remains the only book translated from Hebrew that I've ever read in English and not in the original (accidentally! I did not realize at the age of nine that this was a translation, and was extremely embarrassed once I identified the original in our family's bookcase). I used to reread Samir and Yonatan a lot when I was a kid - it's a powerful book that always gave me hope.

What are your favorite kids/young adult books by women in translation?

Monday, October 7, 2013

How not to teach kids to love reading

I'll be blunt: Melissa's post at Scuffed Slippers and Wormy Books about children's reading scores and their according recommended books made me furious. It's not just another story of someone doing something predictably stupid when it comes to books. It's not even like book banning, which is ridiculous on a thousand different levels. Melissa's story about teachers assigning books to students only according to a computerized test (this Lexile nonsense, whatever it may be) and refusing to accept books that have lower scores is enraging. And it's set me so utterly over the edge not only because it's stupid, but because I'm convinced that it will have a lasting harm on getting kids to read.

I'm not going to pretend I wasn't lucky when it comes to my love of reading. My parents frequently read with me as a child, and encouraged my reading all throughout my childhood. We were often in bookstores and libraries. My local libraries were very helpful and welcoming, with long lists of recommended books according to genre. My schools always had libraries packed with more books than I could ever read, some of which even went "beyond" the official grade levels. I was encouraged to read and explore from a very early age. Nobody ever tried to stop me, and so I didn't. I found the books I loved, those books led me to others, and from there... the rest is history.

When I was in fourth grade, we had an incentive project to read. If we read books in five different genres and wrote reports about them, we would get a small prize and a big colorful star put up on the wall. By year's end, only two had achieved stars (myself and a good friend of mine), but many others had read many books as well, having just eschewed the writing part or had neglected a certain genre. But the incentive worked, both in an effort to broaden our reading and simply to get us to open a book.

Two years later, again I found myself in a classroom that incentivized reading - here, if our parents signed off that we had read over a certain number of hours throughout the year, we would receive a bookstore gift card. Many of us won this prize, filling our lists with the books we wanted to read. Page count didn't matter. Speed didn't matter. Even the book itself, though written down, wasn't the point. What mattered was the fact that we spent time reading. So I, who read much faster than everyone else in the class, ended up having to read twice as many books to reach the same threshold. Did it matter? No. I enjoyed every minute of it. The incentive was major enough to be worth achieving, but minor enough that I read because I wanted to read, not because anyone was forcing me to.

When a teacher (or a parent, or a librarian, or whatever) tells a kid to read, there's a weight and meaning that comes attached with it. I remember that wonderful Arthur episode where the kids have to write book reports. Buster admits to his friends that he's never completed a book in his life. Everyone is shocked, and their response is to throw at him easier and easier books. But Buster's unable to finish any of them. In the end (the night before the report is due) we see him reading a tiny picture book ("The sky is blue. The ocean is blue."), but he abandons this as well. Instead, he starts to read some version of Robin Hood, which Arthur had lent him saying it's for when you're a real reader. When Buster hands in his incomplete report, he realizes what the problem was - he was trying to read books that didn't interest him. And honestly, that's one of the best messages I've ever seen on television. Don't try to read what you don't like. Not as a kid. Not when you're supposed to be cultivating a love of reading.

Teachers who look only at numbers are failing their students. Plain and simple. Teachers who assign books based on a computerized analysis of the reading level without taking into account whatever other books this kid may have read and enjoyed are failing their students. Educators (and to a more minor degree parents) have a responsibility to their kids. Forcing children to read won't get you readers. Finding something they'll love and want to continue with themselves just might.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A few words about images

I read the absolutely amazing A Monster Calls a few short weeks ago. Within a day of reading it, I had already gone back to it, reading it again and again. I have bestowed upon the book all manner of flattery; I will continue to sing its praises for years to come. Luckily, I can now do more - I can now hand my own copy to read. Having read A Monster Calls in eBook format, as checked out from my local library, I proceeded to purchase the original hardcover. It was, without a doubt, the right decision.

Flipping through this elegant little book revealed to me gems I had been entirely unaware of. Not only did the full-spread black and white images look significantly better when printed on glossy pages, it turned out that many other pages have elaborately drawn borders and images that twist around the text. The effect is altogether impressive, and adds a lot to the general mood of this very special story.

It goes to show: images matter. A Monster Calls was a beautiful book with just its words going for it. It is, somehow, an even more beautiful book when presented in its natural form, with the haunting, somewhat bewildering, enchanting artwork by Jim Kay. The glossy paper, the rough paper dust cover, the beautiful design of the hardcover itself... These do not change the powerful story within the book's pages. But they certainly change the reading experience, and for that I am once again deeply in awe of this book.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Emotions

If not for fear of sounding too subjective, I would describe A Monster Calls as a perfect book. Maybe there's the technical issue as well, that would define "perfect" as something very far from this short, somewhat simplistic book. But there is something here that touches the reader. This reader in particular.

There is a certain level on which I have to justify my reaction to A Monster Calls. As I neared the halfway mark of the book, I began to see clear parallels between main character Conor's situation and that of a good friend of mine. The moment this happened - the moment I went from simply empathizing with the characters and instead seeing them as real people I know in my real world - there was nothing left to do. A Monster Calls horrified me. It latched itself onto me. It dug a hole straight into my emotional core and left me shuddering. At the book's end, I found myself completely emotionally compromised.

Someone who saw me in this state - literally shaking with grief - commented half-joking that this is why he doesn't read books. But this is exactly why I read books. A Monster Calls may have deeply disturbed me, but it did so in an absolutely astonishing way. With simple language and a simple setting, Patrick Ness created a story that enraptured me for three straight hours. I could not set the book aside. I literally ached from reading it. It is literature at its finest - perfect.

And here's what I think sets A Monster Calls apart from the vast majority of sad kids books. Most sad stories are "heart-wrenching" because they're constructed to be that way. The author sets the stage to make you feel for the tragic heroes. A Monster Calls is something different. It's about more than death. It's about more than grief. It's about so, so much more that I am scared to divulge for fear of ruining the book's power. It's just something special.

Recommending a book as painful as A Monster Calls is not easy. How can I wish this upon anyone else? How can I tell any other reader to experience such sorrow?

I recommend it because it's essential. A Monster Calls is a perfect book. The writing style may be simple and childish, but this is powerful stuff. This a book that I've revisited every night since first reading it, trying to go back and pinpoint where I fell completely under its spell. Each time I reach the end, I am drained. The story does not lose its power upon reread. And I suspect that it never will.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SAFL #13: Gunnerkrigg Court

Early art style, chapter 1
My labeling of Gunnerkrigg Court as SAFL breaks two "rules" I set myself when beginning this project. The first was to avoid books belonging to ongoing series. It didn't seem fair to readers (or to myself) to include incomplete stories in this account. The second (far more important) decision I reached was to avoid including any books that readers would find inaccessible for some reason or other (the point of the project being, after all, to encourage readers who normally ignore sci-fi and fantasy to give these particular gems a shot). This has often meant excluding kids books (due to the fact that many adults will not read kids books, or young adult books on principle), and would certainly mean excluding most graphic novels.

The child friendly webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court which seems far from ending certainly breaks a lot of rules. But it is absolutely worth your time.

I can spend hours discussing the gradual improvements in the striking artwork. I can talk endlessly about the use of mythology and fairy tales throughout the series. I can ramble about all that I've learned from Tom Siddell's management of the site in regards to eBooks, how to support authors, and my views on internet availability. All these points would probably make you say, "Huh, yeah, I should look into that" but then you'd forget eventually. No. That won't do.

Recent Annie: Chapter 34
The reason you should be reading Gunnerkrigg Court - the reason you should start reading it now - is because Tom Siddell is hands down the best storyteller I've come across in years.

This is a high bar to cross, and Gunnerkrigg Court has leapt over it easily. And when I say "the best storyteller", I mean the best. This is including Bartimaeus, this is including Wolf Hall, this is including the beginning of "Battlestar Galactica" (the end is pretty easy to surpass...). I'm not just saying that Siddell has written (and drawn) a good comic (though he has), I'm saying that he has written an excellent story, and in such a way that I am constantly in awe of his writing abilities.

Robot humor
Gunnerkrigg Court has everything. There's science fiction, there's fantasy, there are strong heroines, there's humor, there are gods and mythological creatures, there are robots and laser cows, and there's a bigger, looming story behind everything. Unlike many ongoing stories, Siddell manages to keep his readers confident in his ability to get the story to its conclusion. I've never wondered if Siddell has gotten lost on his way to solve mysteries introduced in the comic's earliest pages; I've never been concerned that Siddell is unsure of the story's future. Siddell seems to understand his characters through and through, and their development is both realistic and natural.

But it all comes back to storytelling, written or drawn. Siddell employs subtlety in a way that repeatedly astounds me. His characters feel alive. One wordless panel tells the reader more than twenty pages of standard exposition.

Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is my favorite webcomic is easy. Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is one of my favorite stories overall will, hopefully, encourage you to take the "plunge" and click on over to the archives (or read the lovely print books). This is a beautiful, fascinating, wonderfully entertaining story for adults and kids alike. Well worth the "rule" breaking.

Gunnerkrigg Court's Annie and Kat, chapter 6

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Greatest girl characters | The Atlantic, Tor, and myself

I came across this post by Jen Doll at The Atlantic about the greatest girl characters of young adult literature through Tor.com (my number one stop for procrastination when writing papers...), where Mari Ness criticized The Atlantic's article, pointing out the fact that the majority of books on the list aren't even technically designated for a young adult audience. But setting aside the technical problems Ness is so troubled by (which truly are worth considering), the premise of the list is deeply flawed.

Doll's article is built on the premise that Katniss (of The Hunger Games fame) may be a revolutionary character in American film, but not in literature. It's a noble (if altogether warped) premise, but the execution is clumsy at best. What I'm bothered by is the fact that Doll's list is almost exclusively comprised of very old characters, with only The Book Thief as a remotely modern book. Not that these choices are necessarily void because they're old, but this is certainly not the list that I would ever come up with.

At Tor, meanwhile, Ness unsurprisingly comes up with a different list entirely and opens the floor up to nominations. As I read through the list (and subsequent comments), I was struck by how different the two approaches are. Half of Doll's heroines live in a society of young women who seem forced to exceed society's expectations, while the other half are simply well-characterized girls. It's all very reality-grounded. Ness' choices and the majority of the choices listed in comments, meanwhile, predictably lean in the direction of fantasy. Many comments name one of my personal favorite characters Lyra Belacqua (of His Dark Materials), and Ness specifically addresses another unacceptable omission in the form of Hermione Granger, who despite not being the main character of Harry Potter is definitely a main enough character to justify appearing on any list of this kind.

These omissions - among many others - make Doll's original list very puzzling. While I don't deny that these are remarkable characters, these young women share very little with Katniss, who sparked the whole debate. Beverly Cleary's Ramona is a wonderful little girl, but she is no way the predecessor to Katniss. The whole matter is quite frankly bizarre.

I have my own lists of great characters (girls or boys). I've already discussed Leslie Burke, and I can certainly discuss Hermione or Lyra for hours at an end. And I have to admit that I was thrilled to see one commenter add Antimony Carver of Gunnerkrigg Court to the list, though she's only one of many wonderful girls in the story. Others: Ella from Ella Enchanted, Cimorene of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, obviously Meg from A Wrinkle in Time (thankfully included in Doll's original list), Coraline from Coraline, Tamar from Someone to Run With (my own addition), and many, many, many others. This seems like a field worth delving into further.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Childhood discoveries too late | Chrestomanci

In the space of a few short months, I've gone from having read nothing by Diana Wynne Jones to wanting to read everything she's written. The fault lies squarely with DWJ's Chrestomanci series, which is an undoubtedly entertaining and amusing series. And, to a certain degree, with the character of Chrestomanci himself, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Best of the bunch
The wonderful thing about the Chrestomanci series is how perfectly it occupies a personal, treasured niche in my reading history while remaining entirely new and fresh. I purchased the combined edition of Charmed Life and The Lives of Christopher Chant half by accident - it was available for only a couple of dollars at the Border's going-out-of-business sale, and as the only title by DWJ available, I figured it would have to do as my introduction to her writing (despite having previously concluded that it was perhaps better to start with something a bit more mature). I read it almost out of necessity - I was craving a kids fantasy, and Charmed Life fit that bill perfectly. It also happens to be a delightful book and is immediately followed by The Lives of Christopher Chant, which is an even better book (and still one of the best books I've read in recent months).

The only problem I can find with the Chrestomanci books is that I came to them too late. These are silly, witty fantasies involving young children engaging in silly and often even downright weird activities and experiencing magic in different and strange ways. It's a good deal of fun, and all I can think about is how I would have enjoyed these books as a young bookworm. The writing is unabashedly childish and fun, indeed charming. These are books to be read and enjoyed, books that remain as entertaining today as they must have been twenty-thirty-plus years ago when they were first published.

And then there's Chrestomanci himself. That is, Christopher Chant, who features as Chrestomanci in three of the four books that I've read in the series, and in the fourth is outright the main child character. Chrestomanci is one of the best characters of kids fantasy literature, period. His affinity for good clothing, his seemingly ambivalent outward demeanor, his unique sense of humor, his childhood passions and quirks, and a myriad of other original traits make him a strong character in The Lives of Christopher Chant (and the reason that that novel is the best of the bunch, by a long shot), and a delightful guest star (or even featured guest star) in the other books. Witch Week, which features perhaps the broadest cast of characters, shines brightest once Chrestomanci enters the picture and ties the story (and characters) together. The Magicians of Caprona, meanwhile, falls in part because of Chrestomanci's minimal involvement (though is rescued by an absolutely thrilling second half).

Whether or not the next DWJ book I read will be a Chrestomanci book, I cannot say. But I am certain by this point that there will be a next DWJ book, and that I will eventually want to finish reading all the Chrestomanci stories. And even more certainly, I know that when I recommend good fantasies for kids, the Chrestomanci books will be high on my list.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Controversy on a fantasy frontier

I consider Patricia C. Wrede's The Enchanted Forest Chronicles to be one of the funniest kids fantasy series I've ever had the pleasure of reading, so when I came across her recent young adult fantasy book Thirteenth Child at the library, I checked it out. The book itself is pleasant and rather unique in its approach - Wrede's sets her story in the American frontier and builds magic systems that play on older fantasy tropes as well as creating newer ones. A major theme in the book is the importance of different magic styles and traditions - while the majority of magic is European, main character Eff finds herself applying different magics and thus saving the day.

But when I went online to read a bit more about the book (a habit I really ought to be breaking), I learned that there was significant controversy surrounding this simple book when it was published. Apparently, many readers took fault with the fact that at no point in the story does Wrede mention American Indians; in fact, it seems as though she has consciously removed them from her fictionalized world. It was only after reading about the drama that it even occurred to me that Thirteenth Child had lacked mention of American Indians - the omission seems to fit (in my mind) with many other not-so-subtle changes Wrede makes in her world.

It does beg the question: is it okay? Many, many readers have expressed outrage at this "racism", have dubbed Wrede's choice as inexcusable, and have attempted to minimize the book's exposure. But is it justified? Coming straight out of the book, I'm not sure the criticism fair. Wrede has written an alternate history fantasy, meaning it's all made-up. Yes, there are a few references to American Founding Fathers and Lewis and Clarke and others, but the names of the regions, the timing of major historical events (like wars, for example), animals, the presence of magic and many other cultural differences make it very obvious that Thirteenth Child is fantasy fiction. It is not meant to reflect our real world to the letter. And with the nice way Wrede touches on racism and the exclusion of non-European traditions in "modern" society, I find myself less and less inclined to charging Wrede with inappropriate world-building. I'm curious as to what others think of this matter.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Putting John Green into context | The Fault in Our Stars

I've waited a few days to write about The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It hasn't been very easy to collect my thoughts. For starters, it's the most recent book by an immensely popular author, a book that many, many people have been eagerly anticipating (anticipating far more than I have, to be honest). But more to the point is the fact that Green's latest novel is a bit perplexing in a way I've grown to associate with his works.

The reason I've stuck with John Green over the years is because I like his style as an author. Back when I first read Looking for Alaska (and was thoroughly underwhelmed), I was struck by how easy-to-read his writing was. Green writes like he talks - a bit pretentiously, a bit unrealistically, but intelligently and with a lot of wit. Though I didn't really like the plot or characters in Green's debut, I stayed up until two in the morning to finish reading it, concluding that it just wasn't my style. And so the following year, I read Green's second novel, An Abundance of Katherines, which I quite enjoyed. In my growing, adolescent mind, the differing approaches of the two books made John Green an author worth reading, even if aspects of his writing were bothersome.

I only read Paper Towns, Green's third novel for young adults, after becoming well acquainted with Green's prolific online persona, as I reached the end of adolescence. The fact is that he truly writes like he talks - within the context of his personality, the way his male protagonists behave and the way things happen make it easier to forgive him for common young-adult novel transgressions (like the fact that all of his characters are unreasonably clever and witty and often sound very similar to each other).

Green Green signature
Which leads me back to The Fault in Our Stars, which is both very similar to every other John Green book I've read until now, and markedly different from all others. Like everything Green writes, the characters in The Fault in Our Stars are pretentious and clever and witty and thoroughly self-aware. It should be annoying, but unlike Paper Towns (where I did ultimately feel annoyed but managed to ignore it...), I wasn't even bothered. Maybe it's because The Fault in Our Stars is narrated by a girl (a first for Green), maybe it's the fact that it's such an emotionally charged book, and maybe it's just that it's better written. On a technical level, I knew I could be bothered... but I wasn't.

The Fault in Our Stars does a very good job of breaking free of its expected realm. It may be a love story, but it works as well for young men as it might for women. It may be about teenagers, but adults will find as much to relate to as their younger counterparts. It may be a bit too clever, but anyone can feel the powerful emotional punches this book throws. It may seem like a simple story, but the simplicity is deceptive - The Fault in Our Stars runs a lot deeper than would appear.

The Fault in Our Stars is the first book by John Green I've purchased, having checked out all others from the library. I'm glad this is the one I bought. This is his best book so far and though my thoughts are still formulating, I suspect that I'll be coming back to reread it sometime soon.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Victory!, or, A Story of Remembrance

My memory isn't perfect. There are many books I read as a kid that I don't fully remember, and then there are those I remember vividly but can't quite recall their names. I often find myself browsing book sites and bookstores and libraries and stumbling upon a kids book that will raise a red flag: "Yeah, I read that one!" This is particularly common when I browse Goodreads, as I attempt to map out my history of reading.

But for the past few years, there has been one book I've been unable to recall (or rather two - book plus sequel). I've tried in vain to remember the book's name, but there was nothing there. I remembered only a few small pieces: boy named Will, a girl escapes from a castle (in winter), something with a rabbit, the girl becomes the focus of the sequel, widowed with a dead baby, the sequel is a crusade, and that these were good medieval books. I've tried a couple of times in the past to locate these books, but always unsuccessfully. Book lists typically called up the same results again and again. I gradually gave up, even as my desire to find (and re-read) the books grew and grew.

And then... this morning.

I was hanging out on Goodreads, finding all sorts of old historical fiction books from my childhood and it struck me - internet search engines are much better these days. Why not run another search? "medieval historical fiction kids" - let;s try. But though I found other lost treasures, the so-desired set remained elusive. So I tossed in two other keywords - "widowed" and "crusades". Option number two: Medieval YA. Search for widow, and...

VICTORY!


The Winter Hare and Peregrine, without a doubt. And now I can't wait to get my hands on these books to find out how they'll hold next to my memories of them...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bad cover of the week

I read Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn years ago, swallowing the book in one go at the library one summer afternoon. The book surprised me for taking the side of the boyfriend in this boyfriend-hits-girlfriend story. It's a good book about violence and anger*, one that breaks out of the typical victim cliche and successfully conveys the inner turmoil the book's main character Nick is faced with. This was the cover I knew:


Shows the turmoil, right? A rather appropriate cover, if somewhat weird and also clearly more geared towards young men than women (and indeed, the content is also more guy-oriented that girl-oriented, what with the male narration and the male frame of mind repeatedly on display). It's a strong cover, one that stuck with me for many months after I'd finished reading Breathing Underwater, particularly the crudely drawn monster who shares a head with Nick.

And then I accidentally (unfortunately) came across this reissued cover:


If I knew nothing about this book, my guess would be teen romance. Heck, even knowing the story, my assumption is that this a book told from the girl's perspective (though this may be my own generalization... in my experience, when there's a girl on the cover, she's the centerpiece). Even the tagline is somewhat misleading: "He promised he wouldn't hurt her. Was his anger bigger than his word?" It again paints the picture that the focus is on the victim, the girlfriend.

This reissue highlights one of the most frustrating trends in young adult fiction today, and that's the constant need to make everything a teen romance. Because publishers see little purpose in marketing towards young men (who, according to various studies, read far less than young women...), they try to market books as effectively as possible to girls. I guess they must think romance sells. A book with such strong messages about violence and rage like Breathing Underwater gets a bland, romance-oriented makeover. With a pretty bad cover photo, no less.

* To be fair... in my 15-year old review I wrote that the book was "too short, with not enough information and feeling". I think this was during my classics phase, when I expected every book to be like War and Peace. Whoops...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Earthsea early thoughts

A few months ago, when the idea of reading Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea cycle seemed distant and unrealistic, I came across a colleague reading the books. Flipping through a few pages, I noted the fairytale-like writing - it felt like Le Guin was sitting next to me and telling me a story in the most simple and straight-forward fashion. At the time, I concluded that the Earthsea books must be the kind that were best read in childhood. Despite loving Le Guin's writing and wondrous imagination, I felt that I had missed my opportunity.

This past Thursday, an old, clearly read copy of the Earthsea Quartet (the first four books, through Tehanu) was given to me as a stepping stone into the wider world of fantasy. On Friday I began to read, and by Saturday afternoon, I had completed the first two books and was ready to start the third.

The weird and wonderful thing about this specific edition of the Earthsea books is that it's a compilation. Normally, I dislike reading sequels one after the other (to avoid the stories blending), but with the Earthsea books, the time periods jump so drastically between books that there was no problem. I finished A Wizard of Earthsea, ate lunch, and immediately began to read The Tombs of Atuan. A few hours later I was done... and itching to read more.

My original assessment stands - I probably would have loved the Earthsea books as a kid. And yet even now as a relatively young adult, I'm completely into the story, appreciative of the characters, and enthralled by Le Guin's method of presenting it. I'm eager to find out what happens, excited and entertained. Yes, there's something childish, or child-geared to the writing, but this doesn't detract from my adult-mind appreciation.  It's just good storytelling.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

It ended, but it will never end

I've been reading too many blog posts and articles recently about Harry Potter. And seeing the giant posters everywhere. "It all ends" - this is the claim the final movie posters are trying to sell, this is Rowling's own point, this is the feeling going 'round Harry Potter fans' minds. Except mine.

Because guys, Harry Potter ended in 2007.

Back when the movies first started coming out, it felt almost premature. I remember wondering how they could be making movies of a series that wasn't even complete yet (the same feeling I get, by the way, when thinking about A Song of Ice and Fire). It felt rushed, it felt passionate, it felt... exciting. There was an excitement because I wanted to see how it lived up to my expectations. I wanted to see the actors and the sets and the exciting scenes (as well as the cool stuff, like the characters figuring things out for themselves).

But they were separate. Though the movies became a thing I cared about, I never let them take over my reading experience. I continued to imagine the characters as I had before, never for a moment thinking of them as the actors. These were two worlds I cared about that were tied together at their core, but split so clearly in my head.

"It's the end of the franchise," people tell me, but I'm unconvinced. I recently read the first few pages of Harry Potter to my young cousin and it looks as though I might even convince him to read further. Though he has grown up in a world that has always had Harry Potter - though he is clearly not of my own generation, that which was completely enchanted and won over by the whole phenomenon - he wants to read the books because they tell a good story. That will never end.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trying too hard to be the successful second

The back of Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls touts it as "her most powerfully moving novel since Speak". Fans of young adult fiction will immediately recognize one of the cornerstones in the genre, a book that I often view as revolutionary in the context of young adult literature and an all-around excellent book.

To say that Anderson did not reach the same level of success with her later books as she did with Speak is an understatement. Not because she's an unsuccessful writer - not at all - but because in a lot of senses, her marketing team insists on attempting to equate her books to that first success. On Goodreads, Wintergirls is the second most popular of her novels, and I have to wonder why. Was it the aggressive marketing or is it true that Wintergirls has something about it that makes it reminiscent of Speak?

Both. Most of Anderson's prior books dealt with similar angst-ridden themes, each book looking at different subject matters and in a different way. Until Wintergirls. There Anderson chose a writing style remarkably similar to that in Speak, as well as a narrator whose struggles echoed in tone those of Speak's Melinda. The two girls tell two painful and, yes, even moving stories but they do so in far too similar ways.

It seems to me that the publishers have "marketed" themselves into a corner. By trying so hard to make Wintergirls into the next Speak, they have given it an almost-impossible challenge - to outdo an excellent book, a classic of its genre. By proposing this comparison, I'm almost expected to note the parallels, to the note the stylistic similarities. These don't make the book as good as Speak, though. It makes the book into a wannabe. It's trying too hard. A shame, too, because it's actually not that bad a book...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Other Mother and other mothers

I want to link to this series of Mother's Day posts over at Books, Personally before it disappears into the obscurity of the archives. The most recent post is about Mrs. Coulter from The Golden Compass, one of my favorite books and is a thoughtful and different take on a character we tend to vilify. Previous posts include a lovely hat-tip to Mrs. Weasley and a look at Coraline's Other Mother. Wonderful posts, cool literary mothers.

I don't believe that I'd ever thought about mothers in literature until reading those posts. I'd be hard-pressed to think of an interesting mom not included in this list. Once named, I can nod along and agree wholeheartedly: Molly's a wonderful mother, Marisa is a weird character who you love-hate-hate throughout a great series and the Other Mother is the reason I couldn't wear a pair of black pants for a good six months because of the black buttons on the cargo pockets.

But are there more of these mothers? I look through lists of my favorite books and few (if any) memorable ones pop up. Mrs. Murry, perhaps, from A Wrinkle in Time - she was always a stable and curious character. Or even Cathy from East of Eden - a terrible mom (pure, delicious evil), but definitely memorable. Other than these flashes here and there, though, most of the mothers in my favorite books have either been nonexistent (dead/missing) or invisible (almost irrelevant to the story). That's a rather weird realization.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teens, in the library

Click to enlarge (link)

Unshelved offers a humorous but actually rather upsetting take on budget cuts for libraries. This week's strip (which essentially begins here) looks at the possibility of budget cuts to various library programs (originally mistakenly assumed to be storytime). While obviously not delving into the true problems behind budget cuts, today's strip does display the difficulties in cutting programs.

My middle school was located right by one of my public libraries. In the afternoons after school, my friends and I would all head over to the library, park our bikes outside and descend on the stacks. There we would find many of our classmates already situated in their favorite couches and seats. Some would sit at the three tables outside, the low benches and the sliding glass door giving the feeling to those sitting there that they were still within the library but allowing them the luxury of laughing as loud as they wanted to. My friends and I would typically sit at the designated "study" tables inside - round tables by the "New Arrivals" shelves - where we'd pull out our oversized history textbooks, the latest book we were reading (swapping copies, just to see what the other was into these days) and our often messily organized binders.

Sometimes we'd see our friends going into the teen section, sitting down with an adult or high school student, poring over a notebook or textbook. Many of the students took advantage of the library's teen study programs in order to catch up on subjects they struggled with. In the meantime, the rest of us would sit and study together, using the library computers to do research, carting around about fifty different reference books in order to find the answer to a single bonus question on a homework assignment and checking out dozens of books between us (which we'd then have to find some way to carry on our bike rides home).

Last time I visited this library two years ago, a big sign hung next to the entrance. It showed plans for rebuilding the library, including adding a large media center, a specifically for-teens study center, adding another two or three rooms for quiet study and adding significant room to the stacks. Next to this poster, the library had posted a plea to taxpayers, asking them to vote for a city bond that would pay for this project.

Though the measure passed in this one town, I know that in similar situations around the U.S. (and the world), the outcome is very different. It's hard to convince a taxpayer that spending money on a library will actually benefit the entire community. Though it's true, from the youngest children enjoying storytime, to moody teens gaining a wonderful place to learn and study with the help and support of a well-educated and dedicated staff, to the unemployed seeking computers and resources to find a job or write a resume and to the elderly, simply enjoying an afternoon discussing a good book (or getting the opportunity to read again, thanks to audio or large-print books).

So if someone asked me to cut programs from the library, I'd struggle. Local libraries do so very much for the communities around them... it'd be almost impossible to decide which program isn't "worth it". But I know one program I would never cut. Teens may not be the favored demographic when it comes to library budgets, but in the long-run I believe that by putting your money there, you really are putting your money in the future. My classmates and I benefited immensely from our local library - I'm sometimes saddened to think of the fact that most other kids didn't get that opportunity.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

3. The Giver - Choices

"But I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an “only us, only now” world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete."
-From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech

The Giver is the kind of book that I actually read as a kid, as a slightly older kid and as an adult, where the level of admiration for the book did not once diminish. The thing is, The Giver is clearly a kid book. Simplistically written and plotted, it's meant for a child reader. This does not mean, however, that adult readers cannot appreciate and enjoy it.

The Giver is not the first in its genre. In a sense, the dystopia it presents is fairly tame (when compared to some of the more recent, overwrought examples...), but starkly important when one realizes that the matter of choice, of individualism and free thought are all ideas that we - and the generations after us - will need to maintain. It's a story about growing up, about a world that at first seems almost identical to our own and gradually shifts as the reader realizes the differences.

This is dystopian literature in the true sense of the word - to almost every member of Jonas' society it is a utopia. To Jonas and The Giver it isn't. It's a book that inspires thought, continues to speak to readers across the generations, and one that deserves its status as one of the greatest works of children's fiction (or science fiction, or dystopian fiction...) to have been published.
"The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.

It is very risky.

But each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom.
Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."
-From Lois Lowry's Newbery Acceptance Speech