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Looking Ahead to 2013 December 31, 2012

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As we open a new year in just a little while, here are some YA titles that I am looking forward to in 2013:

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

Dessen is one of my favorite ‘light read’ authors–books with relatively simple stories, quirky side characters and protagonists who always get a happy ending.

Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce

We finally get the story that Pierce has been hinting about since The Will of the Empress was published at the end of 2005. Now my brother Danny’s favorite character Briar gets a book devoted to his adventures and experiences fighting a tyrannical emperor.

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

More romance! More cute boys! Hopefully another fantastic city setting! If her last book is anything to go by, Perkins will be including many of her other former protagonists as side characters in this new tale. Because the title character was referenced (barely) in her first book, I am insanely curious about the plot and setting for this one.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

This should need no recommendation beyond the name of the author. When a book by Cooper is announced, all I can think is. Thank God. We get at least one more. 

Sequels! Raven Boys, Diviners, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

So many characters to catch up with! One of the pleasures of this year’s reading was meeting many fictional people (Evie O’Neill, Blue Sargent, Karou and Zuzana) who I can’t wait to read about again.

Review: Jepp, Who Defied The Stars December 28, 2012

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Jepp, who defied the StarsJust when I thought that the year was so close to being over that there were no really fantastic new books to discover, a title came along to surprise me! Perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised. The author is Katherine Marsh who wrote The Night Tourist, one of my favorite Greek mythology influenced mysteries. In Jepp, she also begins by looking back in time, to Europe in the 1500’s.

Jepp is a little person living with his mother in a inn in Astraveld, part of the Spanish Netherlands in the sixteenth century. He narrates the first third of the book as an exercise in looking back and considering the choice he made (or is it a choice?) to leave his home and become a court dwarf, an amusement for the Spanish Infanta at Coudenberg Palace. Although he thought it was going to be a step up in the world, the humiliations for both him and a new friend became too much to bear and he masterminded an escape. Now he has been caught, his friend is gone, and he is on his way to an unknown fate. The second and third parts of the book are narrated by Jepp in the present, as he becomes part of the household of Tycho Brahe, a most unusual astronomer and master, and later when he leaves to truly solve the mystery of who he is.

Marsh builds a fascinating world in both the Infanta’s palace and Tycho’s unconventional household at Uraniborg in Denmark. Jepp’s memories and observations of rooms, clothing, food and the skits the dwarves are made to perform are precisely drawn and add up to something in between a paradise and a prison. While some of the supporting characters could have been given more depth, the other dwarves and courtiers, as well as Tycho’s daughter Magdalene jump off the page as real individuals. The one place the book fell a little flat for me was in the ending, where everything was wrapped up just a little too easily for my taste. This is a relatively minor flaw, however. Jepp is a wonderful book for readers who like historical fiction and outsider protagonists. Jepp may be little, but his dilemma is timeless, as everyone has struggled with the desire to control his or her own life and the fear that much of what happens to us is foreordained. Marsh has no easy answers for us, just a great story to keep us thinking about the world and our place in it.

Review: Will Sparrow’s Road December 26, 2012

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Will Sparrow's RoadIt sounds fun, in theory: Travel on your own! No adults telling you when to go to bed or to do your chores! But the road in Elizabethan England is a dangerous place when you are a boy on your own. Yes, it’s better than taking abuse from the innkeeper your father sold you to, or suffering chest illness as a chimney sweep. But the nights are cold, meals are few and far between and almost no one can be trusted.

Still, Will Sparrow soldiers on in Karen Cushman’s latest charming historical middle grade novel. Cushman, who added spunky medieval girls to the Newbery canon with her books Catherine, called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice, has moved forward  to the time of the Virgin queen with last year’s Alchemy and Meggy Swan and now Will Sparrow’s Road. Will is looking for a new life and after several mishaps, joins a group of ‘oddities’–a little person named Fitz and a cat-girl named Grace who are shown off along with other strange creatures by Master Tidball. Together they travel from fair to fair, along with magicians, animal trainers and jugglers. Some travel for the fun of it and the excitement of the crowds, while others are in search of a home and a place of safety. Will learns that even those who seem most different from him at first have similar needs and aspirations.

The theme of ‘Don’t judge others by how they look’ is perhaps a little too obvious, but Cushman has created a strong, believable character in Will, who displays all the bravado and swagger of a pre-teen boy and he doesn’t change easily. Readers will enjoy the period details, especially the many descriptions of food and cheer Will on as he finally comes to realize who his true friends and supporters are.

Nutcrackers Galore December 24, 2012

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Tis the season for The Nutcracker ballet! As a former dancer (I performed at the Kennedy Center as a snow tree angel in The Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker at age 9) I have a lot of love for this story, both in the original somewhat creepy short story, the colorful romantic ballet, and as a vehicle for expressing dreams of dance stardom for many, many girls. Here are a few of the Nutcracker books in my collection.

Nutcracker NoelNutcracker Noel by Kate McMullan

Noel has visions of stardom in The Nutcracker, but ends up stuck with a role as a tree, while show-off Mia has a solo as a cookie doll. Some wise words from her dance teacher remind her that what matters is performing with your best effort, no matter the role, and on the performance night she is able to reach out and tell Mia the same thing. The simple text and well-chosen details make this a great read-aloud and of course I love that Noel has the same role that I once danced.

The NutcrackerThe Nutcracker retold by Geraldine McCaughrean

Many authors have retold the story of the ballet, with varying levels of complexity, but I like this slightly simplified version, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Nicki Palin. McCaughrean adds some points that are not generally part of the traditional ballet story, such as Drosselmeyer’s nephew, but they are unobtrusive. The snow scene is eliminated and the Kingdom of the Sweets is shortened, but the period costume details are very pretty and the night scene with the Mouse King has lots of drama.

Becoming a BallerinaBecoming a Ballerina: a Nutcracker Story by Lise Friedman & Mary Dowdle

Many chapter books about girls and ballet feature the show The Nutcracker and it’s routine for the protagonist to wish and wish to be Clara. In this new non-fiction title, the protagonist is Fiona, a real girl who studies with the Boston Ballet and she has been cast as Clara in the ballet’s annual Nutcracker production. The book follows Fiona through auditions, rehearsals, costume fittings and final dress as she works to learn her steps and movements and build the show with the rest of the company. A great choice for dancers!

Noelle of the NutcrackerNoelle of the Nutcracker by Pamela Jane, illustrated by Jan Brett

In this slightly dated, but still charming 80’s story, Ilyana longs for the ballerina doll that she sees on her class trip to the toy shop. Her hopes are dashed though, first by the mean rich classmate who declares that she’ll make her father buy it, and then by the news that the doll has been purchased by a ballet company to be used in The Nutcracker. But Ilyana’s imagination has been fired, and in the end it is her creativity in a school Christmas pageant that eventually helps her get her heart’s desire. This is a good one for younger chapter book readers, and though the Jan Brett illustrations are in black and white, they are as detailed and beautiful as her later holiday books.

NutcrackerNutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

In the original Hoffman story, the little girl is called Marie (Clara is the name of her new doll), and her adventures last longer than a single night. After an encounter with the Mouse King, Marie falls ill, and to cheer her up, Godfather Drosselmeier tells her the story of Princess Pirlipat. Only after hearing the full story of the Princess and Drosselmeier’s young nephew can Marie take action to save her prince and journey to Candytown and the land of dolls. Sendak designed sets and costumes for a production by the Pacific Northwest Ballet and this edition includes many full spreads of the backdrops as well as detailed costumes of all the ballet characters and many more. This is a must have for any fan of either the ballet or of Sendak.

Merry Christmas!

Books I Don’t Need December 23, 2012

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But I really want them. Isn’t Christmas about needless presents? I probably won’t buy any of these titles. As a collector though, it would be nice to have them on the shelves to gloat over.

A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Quentin Blake

I already have a very nice copy of this book, but it is a tale that I think of mostly in images (and songs sung by Muppets). I love seeing how different illustrators interpret the familiar scenes and characters. Blake’s use of line and spiky angular style is so different from the usual rounded, lush Victorian images associated with the story that I just want to have it on my shelf to browse through occasionally. I also wouldn’t mind getting my hands on a copy of the edition illustrated by Irish illustrator P. J. Lynch…

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (50th Anniversary Edition)

I know. There is NO REASON for me to have yet another copy of this book–I already have the 35th edition paperback with an appreciation by Maurice Sendak and the Annotated edition by Leonard Marcus. But this one has colored endpapers! And essays from Philip Pullman, Jeanne Birdsall AND Mo Willems! I mean, really…

Nikolenka’s Childhood, by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

After discovering Sendak’s amazing illustrations for I Saw Esau,  a collection of schoolyard rhymes, I’m on a bit of a kick finding obscure Sendak. Especially the quirky small kid illustrations, closer to A Hole is to Dig than Outside Over There. This looks lovely!

Anything illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

There are only a few authors who I collect seriously and even fewer illustrators. Hyman is one of them. There are always new details for me to discover in her paintings and I love seeing how she interprets scenes from fairy tales, realistic fiction and just about every other genre out there. One of these days I’ll have to add some illustrators to my ‘Top 5 Things I Love” series and she will probably be the first person I write about.

Regarding Gingerbread December 21, 2012

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It has been established that I am a children’s book nerd. However, I don’t think I’ve quite hit this level yet:

Gingerbread Villa Villekulla

Yes, that is a gingerbread Villa Villekulla–complete with Pippi, Mr. Nilsson and her horse. Thanks to Laini Taylor for the picture!

New Christmas Books December 17, 2012

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The holidays are often a time for tried and true favorites. We pull out old poems, familiar illustrators and songs that most people will at least hum along with. But new holiday books are published every year as well. Only time will tell whether any of these titles will become as lasting as The Night Before Christmas or The Polar Express, so find them at a bookstore or library and take a look. Will you keep them in your collection and read them every year?

Who Built the Stable?Who Built the Stable? by Ashley Bryan

Bryan, who won the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement last year, brings his bright colors and bold outlines to this lovely poem set in Bethlehem. A carpenter’s apprentice and shepherd boy builds a stable for his animals and offers it to Mary and Joseph when there is no room for them in a nearby inn. The boy, animals and landscape are all rendered in lush colors with thick outlines that suggest stained glass. The gentle rhythm of the poem, with it’s graceful ending “The boy looked in the infant’s eyes and in his heart he knew: the babe would be a carpenter. He’d be a shepherd too” makes this a perfect read for Christmas Eve.

The Birds of BethlehemThe Birds of Bethlehem by Tomie dePaola

Another look at Bethlehem, this time narrated by birds, comes from celebrated author-illustrator Tomie dePaola. The town birds have gathered to eat corn and gossip, and each has something surprising to share, from angel sightings to lines of people to inns that are full. The spare text matches the flat drawings with their wide expanses of color, speckled or lightly textured. While this title may not have as much child appeal as the others in this post, it’s a nice addition to collections of dePaola’s other Christmas books.

Just Right for ChristmasJust Right for Christmas by Birdie Black & Rosalind Beardshaw

The old story form ‘Something from Nothing’ where a beloved piece of cloth gets used again and again, gets a Christmas remake in this picture book, perfect for the 3-6 year old crowd. This time it’s a piece of red cloth ‘perfect for Christmas!’ that gets turned into a dress, a shawl, a tie. Each time the scraps are put outside and a new animal picks them up, ready to create the perfect present for a loved one. With its themes of kindness and being creative with with what you have, this is a great read aloud for either a family or a classroom holiday celebration.

ChristmastimeChristmastime by Alison Jay

Jay brings her trademark crackle-finish illustrations to the holiday season in this new picture book. Luminous and detailed scenes are paired with spare text–‘mistletoe’ shows a top down view of the front door, while ‘stocking’ is paired with a fireplace and animals toasting treats. The dog and cat show up repeatedly along with a boy and girl who get to ride in Santa’s sleigh over a gorgeous two page spread of a snowy town and share ‘tasty holiday treats’ with Santa and Mrs. Claus. At the end, there is a list of song references in the illustrations for those who like scavenger hunts in their picture books. I hope this gets released in the large board book format of Ms. Jay’s other books, as I can see it being a big hit with our littlest readers.

Medal Mania: Printz Edition December 12, 2012

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The year is rapidly speeding toward December 31 and more to the point, toward January 28 and the ALA Youth Media Awards. There continues to be a robust debate over on Someday My Printz Will Come about the most distinguished YA book of the year, but as I look at my own preferences, I find that they fall into several distinct categories.

Books I Liked But Not Quite Enough: 

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

This take on the selkie legend had beautiful language and interesting shifts between narrators. My one big problem with it was that we never got to hear the voice of the selkie women themselves. Their story was told entirely through the eyes of others, which was probably partly the point, but it still disappointed me.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Ana is going to kill me. And yes, I loved this book, although looking back, I can’t remember if I actually cried while reading it. There was much in Hazel Grace’s thinking, feeling and general approach to life that I could identify with. But in the end Augustus seemed a little too perfect to me. And the plotting felt like it got a little wonky once they got to Amsterdam, which is probably partly why I haven’t re-read it very much.

Just to be clear, I would be perfectly happy to see either of these win a shiny sticker in January. They just aren’t in my personal top five.

Top Five (Supernatural group):

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

No-nonsense heroine from a family of psychics joins a band of private school boys to search for mystical lines of energy and a sleeping Welsh king. Stiefvater explores themes of friendship, choices and privilege in this story, set in the tiny Virginia town of Henrietta. My only real issue with this book was that, as the first in a series, it left too many plot threads hanging for my taste. I don’t think it’s quite as accomplished as The Scorpio Races, which is a stand alone (see my thoughts on that one from last year) but still a fantastic read.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

Psychics were a theme this year, it seems.  Bray leads the reader through a mystery of dreams that foretell disaster and teenagers who can see the past through objects, all set in the frantic, glamorous and often violent world of New York City in the 1920’s. I thought the biggest strength of this book was the variety of characters, and how Bray made each one compelling in a different way. However, that wide scope was also a weakness, as it sometimes felt like the book had a little too much stuffed into it: too much description, too many mystical happenings, too many murders. Still, after last years’s Beauty Queens and then this, there is no doubt that Bray is now an author whose books I look forward to eagerly.

Top Five (Personal Journeys):

Personal Effects by E. M. Kokie

This is the dark horse, the one I feel has been overlooked. I picked it up off our ARC shelf, liked the cover summary and then once I started the first page, got completely hooked. Matt is not always a likeable character. He struggles with his family history, the weight of other people’s expectations and his own prejudices. And yes, the (mostly) happy ending was perhaps a bit unrealistic, but I felt it was totally earned. The strong voice is what sets this one apart from nearly everything else I’ve read this year. The Morris committee dropped the ball, but I’ve got my fingers crossed that this book will end up with a sticker on January 28.

Ask the Passengers by A. S. King

Here’s another book with a character struggling with identity and the weight of expectations. Unlike the last title, this didn’t come out of left field. I loved both Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Everybody Sees the Ants, which is partly why I’m so impressed that King has come up with another character I love and another surreal device (this time it involves airplanes) that emphasizes her themes perfectly. If you like stories with humor, friendship and characters dealing with the difficulties of self-knowledge, look for this book.

My #1 Pick: 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

It’s not perfect, by any means. Other readers have brought up its unrealistic aspects and miracle moments that are just too good to be true, and I completely acknowledge those flaws. However, no other book this year has stuck with me like this one, and I definitely haven’t re-read anything else so many times. The central question of the book is terrifyingly simple: Will the two main characters survive? With one shot down behind enemy lines and the other imprisoned, the odds aren’t good. Despite this, Verity and Maddie fight the battle to hold onto hope and their sanity in spite of immense challenges. For its themes of choices, friendship and above all, courage; for its meticulous setting; for the literary references that made me laugh and cry, this one gets my vote as the best YA book of the year. Read it!

Wrapping Books is Fun December 10, 2012

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It is December, which means I get to wrap books! This is hands down my favorite thing about working retail during the holidays (that, and getting to recommend far more books than usual!). Books are such nice things to wrap–they each have a mostly regular shape; you can stack them easily and tie them together. At Imagination Station, the store where I worked in high school, we had very exact methods for wrapping a book and tying a curly ribbon to make a gorgeous bow. Here are some old photos I took back then that show part of the process. Isn’t that row of ribbon beautiful?

Shelf of ribbon

Wrapping the book

Securing the paper

Taping the ends

Finished bow

Review: Twelve Kinds of Ice December 6, 2012

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Twelve Kinds of IceFor the longest time this book was like the unicorn of the year’s new books. I kept getting tantalizing glimpses but could never read it for myself. First, in July, Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production posted this rave review. Then I just waited and wondered (occasionally seeing it referred to in various blog comments) until November, when Jonathan Hunt brought it up on Heavy Medal and Roger Sutton used it as the example in his Nov/Dec editorial for the Horn Book, about how impossible it is to categorize certain books. And STILL, I could not get it at the library! So last week was exciting, when I finally found it waiting for me on the shelf.

Let me be clear from the beginning: I am not a winter person. I do not know how to ice skate, and I’ve only been skiing once. So the fact that the sentences in this little book had me dreaming of walking through frozen woods and sliding over frozen ponds gives you an idea of the mesmerizing quality of the writing. Twelve Kinds of Ice is indeed a hard book to categorize. It has the feel of a memoir, but also sounds entirely contemporary. It’s longer (and has more complicated vocabulary) than an early reader, but at 61 pages, is much shorter that your average middle grade novel. This would be a great book to give a teacher, as the lyrical passages could be used in writing lessons and it also makes a great seasonal read aloud.

Written by Ellen Bryan Obed, Twelve Kinds of Ice takes the reader through a winter season in the life of the Bryan family. Mom, Dad and children of various ages all look forward to the skating and the fun that different kinds of ice bring them. Streams become paths to explore on skates and ponds of black ice are where “We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, raced together. Our blades spit out silver. Our lungs breathed out silver. Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.” The vegetable garden becomes a skating rink on a par with Boston Garden or Maple Leaf Garden and hosts hockey games and skating parties, finally culminating in a homemade ice show, complete with Dad’s clown act. All too soon though, there is a thaw, the ice melts and patches of mud show through, leaving only dream ice to sustain skating dreams until the following winter. This beautiful text is complemented perfectly by Barbara McClintock’s precise and energetic illustrations and I know that  if I had read this as a child I would have pored over them for hours, deciding which character I wanted to be in each different picture. Twelve Kinds of Ice is a wonderful book not just for winter, but for the whole year.