Thursday, January 31, 2013

This train is bound for galley.

Well, there it is: our great big shelf full of 2013 ARCs*.

Look at all the majesty!

It seems like just yesterday that it was home to Three Times Lucky and Splendors and Glooms**. (Not The One and Only Ivan, though - no ARC of that for us! Nor Bomb.)

Time to dive into a new year of reviewing. But not until I finish the decadently enjoyable Seraphina.

*Sam did well at Midwinter! I hope he didn't knock anyone over in the attempt to quench his unholy thirst for pre-publication reading material. 

ETA: He tells me he asked for them very politely. Like this:

**Actually, it was just yesterday. I brought them home last night.

Monday, January 28, 2013

YMA 2013: The Recap

It was pretty much the most awesome thing in quite some time to be able to actually be there for the YMAs. I tweeted as much of it as I could, but I thought I'd try to collate my thoughts in a bit more permanent of a place.

  • Can't argue with The One and Only Ivan as the Newbery winner. It's a beautiful, powerful book that I think will look as good in a decade or five as it does now. Much as I was cheering for Twelve Kinds of Ice, and much as I adored Breathing Room and Wooden Bones, this was an excellent choice.
  • Loved Bomb as an honor book! Glad to see one of the best of this year's excellent nonfiction titles honored.
  • Even though it's not really my cup of tea, Splendors and Glooms was really well-done. With another Honor on her shelf, it also cements Laura Amy Schlitz's position as one of the leading children's authors working today.
  • Sheila Turnage isn't exactly a first-time author (in addition to the picture book, Trout the Magnificent, she's also the author of Compass American Guide: North Carolina, Fifth Edition, and Haunted Inns of the Southeast), but this is her first foray into middle-grade fiction. I know she was already working on a sequel to Three Times Lucky, but now that she's got a Newbery Honor, I'm betting we'll continue to see more middle-grade work from her.
  • Wonder was this year's Okay For Now, wasn't it? Tons of buzz, a huge fan-base, and then a complete shutout. (Actually, an even more complete shutout, given that the audiobook of Okay For Now did take an Odyssey Honor.) I thought it was a lock for the Schneider, but that's one reason I don't gamble.
  • The Geisel awards are another reason. So surprised to see Kevin Henkes not take anything.
  • The Sibert awards made me so happy. I'll have to find a copy of Electric Ben, but the well-deserved win for Bomb and the honors for Moonbird and Titanic brought joy to my heart.
  • Need to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I figured it was a YA title and didn't pick it up, but since the Stonewall, Belpré, and Printz committees thought so highly of it, I'd like to have a look.
  • Speaking of the Printz, the surprise in the room when In Darkness won was palpable. I don't think I talked to a single person who wasn't predicting one of the trio of Seraphina, Code Name: Verity, or The Fault in Our Stars. But, given the award's history, trying to predict it may be the single biggest exercise in futility in any of the ALA medals.
  • Jon Klassen! Winner and an Honor in the Caldecott! First time that's happened since 1947, when Leonard Weisgard pulled it off for The Little Island and Rain Drop Splash.
  • Glad to see that Each Kindness did get some recognition. A well-earned Coretta Scott King Honor!
  • And, as a side note, so nice to meet the awesome Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes, and the legendary Mr. Schu!

Youth Media Awards 2013!

Newbery Medal


Newbery Honors



  • First confluence between the Maryland Mock Newbery and the REAL Newbery since When You Reach Me
  • I think a lot of people are / will be pleased about The One and Only Ivan - I know I am. Beautifully written and moving, but very accessible as well.
  • If you know me at all, you know I'm a huge Laura Amy Schlitz fangirl, and I think Splendors and Glooms was top-notch. It was an honor title for our Mock Newbery as well, which may reflect the fact that it's just a smidgen more difficult to build consensus around than The One and Only Ivan. 
  • I wish we'd put Bomb on our reading list, but neither of us had read it yet at that point. I still haven't read it!  *blush* But I checked it out on Friday and I'll correct that omission soon.
  • I'm not, personally, a fan of Three Times Lucky, but I respect the choice, and I think it will appeal to a wide range of readers. Always nice to see some humor in the list too.
And a tangential Caldecott anecdote:

So, Green, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, won a Caldecott Honor. Flashback to spring 2010: Laura was our visiting author, and I had the honor of driving her around Our Fair Peninsula for a week. Not only is she a terribly gracious and funny guest, she was also in the conceptual stages of creating Green. I remember driving her up hill and down dale as she ran ideas past me for some of the illustrations and rhymes. So it was both weird and wonderful to see it up on the big Youth Media Awards screen this morning. 

Event starts: 0 days 1 Hour 16 Minutes and 12 Seconds

Welp, I'm trying to add our Twitter feed back to this page, but Blogger is being about as helpful as the fancy doctor Lord Grantham brought in from London on last night's Downton Abbey.

If you want to follow us anyway, we're over here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Midwinter is Coming!

...but not for me.

While you lucky ducklings are enjoying the grayer pastures of Seattle, I'll be at home this weekend, trying to cast my eyes upon as many celebrated YA titles as I can. Code Name Verity, Brides of Rollrock Island, Seraphina, Beneath a Meth Moon, I'm coming for you.

If you see Sam out there, tell him hello!

I'll be on Twitter Monday morning, squeeing along to the Youth Media Awards. 

(Credit for excellent, excellent meme to

Thursday, January 24, 2013

2013 Contenders: Each Kindness, by Jacqueline Woodson

There is a truism that says that the quality that most clearly differentiates children's literature from other types of books is an inherent sense of hope and optimism. Does it have a happy ending? No? Not a children's book, then. I have used this rubric to defend improbably cheerful endings in any number of books, including, this year, Wonder, The One and Only Ivan, and Splendors and Glooms.

Child readers need happy endings, right?  

It has been a long time since I've come across a book that challenges that rule as thoroughly and beautifully as Each Kindness does. It is a book about bullying, in a year full of bullies (both fictional and depressingly real), told from the viewpoint of the bully.

When new student Maya walks into the classroom one morning, narrator Chloe takes an instant dislike to her and her ragged clothes. Lonely Maya reaches out to Chloe with smiles and invitations to play, but her awkward overtures are met with silent disdain. Chloe and her friends give Maya the kind of subtle and effective shunning that tends to go undetected by adults, and eventually Maya gives up and plays alone. After a poignant classroom lesson on kindness, Chloe resolves to treat Maya differently, but it's too late. Maya has moved away.

Is there hope in the ending? Technically, yes. This has been a profound and painful experience for Chloe - one that will clearly change the way she approaches the world in the future. But it won't change her relationship with Maya. It's too late for that. The last line of the book is terribly, effectively sad: "I watched the water ripple as the sun set through the maples and the chance of a kindness with Maya becoming more and more forever gone."

That kind of sentence-level writing, hard and clear as diamonds, characterizes the whole book. A commenter here recently said that it's easier for short books like this one to be flawless, but I couldn't disagree more. It's insanely hard to pack that kind of punch into a single sentence. The way the imagery of the sunset and the ripples parallels Chloe's feelings of regret while still staying true to her voice totally wows me. Woodson anchors her story with so many of these carefully chosen details - a broken shoe strap, a tiny rubber ball, a jump rope too long for one person to use. It's filled with the quiet poetry of the real world.

It's difficult to discuss this book without mentioning the gorgeous paintings, but I think the text clearly stands on its own. The good people at the Cooperative Children's Book Center agree - they just awarded it the Charlotte Zolotow award for outstanding writing in a picture book.

I feel a bit silly, raving about every book I discover at the eleventh hour, but golly this is a good one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Newbery Stars: Mea Culpa

In case you're wondering where the Newbery winners starred review post went... Well, evidently I made several mistakes in my calculations. I'm going back over my research and retabulating, and I'll put the post back up if/when I'm 100% sure I have it right.

 (Head to desk, face to palm, and various other expressions of personal chagrin.)
Sorry about that! Yet another reason to be grateful for Elizabeth Bluemle and her list.

ETA: I think I'm going to turn this into a larger project. It's more challenging than I anticipated. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2013 Contenders: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich

In order to properly evaluate Chickadee, I have to begin with a confession: I have not read the other books in the series. I recommend them all the time - whenever someone says "Little House," my reflex response is "Birchbark House" - but I had not personally made the acquaintance of Omakayas and family.

So, coming to the book as a Erdrich virgin, I'm left with two conclusions:

1. You don't need to have read the rest of the series to enjoy it. Total standalone.

2. If you haven't, you'll want to.

Quick plot summary: Omakayas, who readers met as a child in The Birchbark House, is now the mother of twin boys, Chickadee and Makoon. When Chickadee is kidnapped, the family must leave the woods of northern Minnesota and venture onto the Great Plains to retrieve him. In the process, their way of life changes forever.

For some reason Chickadee wasn't getting a lot of Newbery buzz early in the season, but it has certainly been lauded. It just won the Scott O'Dell award, and it's been starred in, I believe, six journals (though it only made Horn Book's "best of the year" list). Come to think of it, I have no idea why the initial buzz passed it by.

The hype (is it still hype if it's all very dignified and literary?) is well deserved: Erdrich writes masterfully for children. Her prose has a cozy, timeless quality that's immediately appealing. It's very clear and straightforward, while still packing in lots of evocative descriptions of the natural world. The novel is also deftly structured, interweaving the family's story with the larger narrative of the Anishinabe/Ojibwe. It has both emotional weight and moments of levity (the bumbling kidnappers are some of my favorite comic villains of the year).

Comparing it to some of the other Newbery hopefuls, I think it matches them in several categories. Setting and style are clearly distinguished, as is theme. Some of the characters are more developed than others - I think Splendors and Glooms may surpass it there. Splendors may be more distinguished in plot as well, especially as I found myself slightly confused about the timeline of events in Chickadee at times.

Will the committee agree? Are we totally off base? Is it going to be another Moon Over Manifest year? We'll know in less than a week! In the meantime, I'm going to go track down a copy of The Birchbark House for my daughter and make it our next bedtime read-aloud.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

(Deliberately not using a Field of Dreams reference to title this post.)

So Cen Campbell of Little eLit and I were playing on Facebook professionally networking, and the subject of BWI's recent demise came up. Now, every children's librarian I know pretty much loved BWI, particularly their TitleTales ordering tool. Cen and friends were wondering if it would be coming back, and I said I didn't think so. Boo.

"Alrighty then," said Cen. "We need to build something to replace it, only awesomer."

"I'm all over that," I replied. "You know what would be great? A children's book search engine that included all the review sources, plus tags, blog reviews, and user reviews. Like some kind of Goodreads + TitleTales genetic hybrid monster."

(Except it wouldn't include all of that weird YA author drama that lurks in the dark crevasses of Goodreads. It should include apps, though.)

Seriously, this needs to happen. I am not a software developer or database engineer, or I'd start working on it right now (plus - fingers crossed - I may be real busy with committee work next year). 

Another challenge: something like this should be free, I think, and I know that review content isn't cheap. Somebody has to keep Roger Sutton in bow ties, right? 

2013 Contenders: Penny and Her Doll, by Kevin Henkes

So after my post on Penny and Her Song, a couple of our readers chimed in to opine that I might have picked the wrong Penny book to highlight. Not that they didn't like Song a lot, but they thought that the sequel, Penny and Her Doll, might have been just a little bit better. This intrigued me enough that I decided to have a look at Doll as well.

In this installment, the titular heroine receives a doll as a present from her Gram. She loves the doll, but figuring out a name for it proves to be a real challenge. Which name is the right one?

One of the things I like most about Kevin Henkes is that he has an exceptional grasp of the issues many children take to heart, and a respect for those issues, whether or not an adult might consider them "important." What to name a cherished toy falls firmly into this category, and Penny's parents treat the question seriously, which is nice to see. The love that this family has for each other jumps off the page, and it creates a mood that's sweet without being cloying.

Is it indeed better than Penny and Her Song? In my mind, it's close to a dead heat, but Doll might be ever-so-slightly superior. There's probably a stronger conflict-resolution plot in Doll, and the ending flows satisfyingly from the rest of the book. Doll doesn't have anything quite like the magical childlikeness of the actual words of Penny's song in Song, but the sheer beauty of its construction might nudge it a bit ahead. (It's also worth mentioning that the Notables committee seems to feel so too, since Doll is on their Nominated Titles list, and Song isn't.)

Do I think that little bit extra is enough to make Penny and Her Doll show up on the Newbery list? No, not really, for the same reasons that I mentioned in my post about Song. I think it might well be the front-runner for the Geisel award though.

Published in September by Greenwillow / HarperCollins

2013 Notables Discussion List Announced!

Fresh off the ALSC blog comes the news that the official 2013 Notables list of nominated titles is out!

It certainly looks like a list that would engender great discussion! It also, especially in the nonfiction, seems like a brilliant encapsulation of this year's best books.

There were a few omissions that surprised me a bit. Several established authors had books out this year that I figured were a pretty good bet for the final Notables list, so it's interesting to note that Applewhites at Wit's End, by Stephanie S. Tolan; Will Sparrow's Road, by Karen Cushman; The Great Unexpected, by Sharon Creech; and The Wild Book, by Margarita Engle, all missed the preliminary cut. It's also worth mentioning that this year's National Book Award winner, William Alexander's Goblin Secrets, also didn't make the longlist.

I always enjoy the Notables list, which by nature is able to include a more varied overview of the best children's books of the year than the Newbery and its associated Honors are. I can't wait to see what makes the final list!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Winner's Circle: King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry (1949)

Marguerite Henry is a prime example of that group of Newbery winners whose winning book actually isn't their best or most famous. (Other authors I'd nominate include Beverly Cleary, Avi, and, depending on how we feel in another decade or so, maybe even Jack Gantos.) Misty of Chincoteague, Henry's 1948 Honor book, is much higher on the list of familiar and classic American children's books than her 1949 winner, King of the Wind.

Before I get much farther into this review, I should probably say that I've never been a "horse book" kind of reader. So if you love Black Beauty and National Velvet and The Black Stallion, you may well like King of the Wind more than I did. The novel's Goodreads page is full of people who swear by it, largely based on its excellent descriptions of horses and horse behavior.

I can't argue with that -- Henry clearly knew her horses -- but I still wasn't all that sold on King of the Wind. It's more or less based on the story of the Godolphin Arabian, a famous horse whose descendants were some of the finest racehorses of all time (including Man o'War, as the oddly disjunct introduction mentions), but it's so heavily romanticized and embellished as to remove any veneer of realism. We follow the Arabian -- known for most of the book as Sham -- from his initial home in the stables of the Sultan of Morocco, to the Royal Court of France, into disgrace as a cart-horse, and finally into triumph as the greatest sire of racehorses in all England. This whole plot relies heavily on chance coincidences, theatrical gestures, and soap-opera dialogue, and I didn't find it believable in the slightest.

Maybe that's just my resistance to the genre. After all, I've made no secret of my intense dislike of Smoky, the Cowhorse, and the arc of that book's plot, if not any of the specifics, isn't all that far off from King of the Wind. More troubling, though, is the book's lack of characterization. The Arabian is cared for and followed during the whole story by a mute boy named Agba, whose character exhibits almost no development through the novel, and who seems to exist in the story largely because Henry was unable or unwilling to follow the Will James model and have everything take place in the horse's point of view. (As far as I can tell, Agba seems to be entirely a product of Henry's imagination, as opposed to a real person that she worked into the story.)

So, no points for plot or development of characters from me, though Henry's prose is crisp, and the settings (the 1940's ideas about historical Morocco and Islam aside) are well developed. That said, although the 1948 publishing year was a pretty good one for picture books (Blueberries for Sal, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, The Big Snow), it was a weak one for older readers -- maybe the weakest of the decade -- and so I wouldn't characterize King of the Wind as a mistake winner, or anything like that. As I've said before, all publishing years aren't created equal, and King of the Wind was probably as good a choice as anything else. But -- those kids who are really into horses aside -- I think it's a very minor entry in the Newbery canon.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Maryland Mock Newbery Winners 2013!

Our fourth annual Maryland Mock Newbery program was held today! After an exciting morning of high-spirited discussion and debate, we held the vote, and the winner was:

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

We also named one Honor book:

Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Thanks to everyone who participated, discussed, and voted!

Friday, January 11, 2013

2013 Contenders: Water Sings Blue, by Kate Coombs

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."

"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea."

Admission: I have a great weakness for sea poetry. Like Melville's Ishmael, "when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Or at least to seek out some nautical literature.

And sea poets, in turn, seem to have a weakness for formal meter and rhyme. Maybe it's something about the rhythm of the sea itself, but look at those two excerpts above, from poems by John Masefield and e. e. cummings. Don't they just capture the great, surging rhythm of the world's oceans? I think so.

So it was with great pleasure that I opened Water Sings Blue to find that Kate Coombs has chosen to write about the sea in rhyming, metered verse. It feels like there's not a lot of "serious" modern children's poetry that rhymes. Plenty of light verse and nonsense verse rhymes, of course. But when children's poets get all SRS BSNS, they seem to feel the need to do so in free verse.

Not that Water Sings Blue is uniformly serious. To paraphrase one of the reviews, it has as many moods as the sea. While the individual poems vary in tone, though, they are united by the poet's arresting use of imagery and metaphor. "Please, O Lord," entreats a fish in "Prayer of the Little Fish. "Protect me from / the high, dry, breathless air." Breathless air, y'all. That knocks me out.

At its best, the musicality of Coombs' language adds another layer of meaning to the poems. In "Sand's Story" she writes, "Now we grind and we grumble / humbled and grave, / at the touch of our breaker / and maker, the wave." All that alliteration and internal rhyme just reinforces the relentlessness of a force that slowly crumbles mountains.

And yet... and yet. Despite the gorgeousness of the language, despite the stunning imagery... not all of this verse scans properly. In fact, quite often, it doesn't. "I'm going shopping at the tide pool. / They carry everything there - " My, that feels awkward. Incongruously awkward, given the talent of the poet and her attention to detail otherwise.

Ultimately, though, the weird scansion is not nearly enough to sink this pretty little book. No pun intended. Content trumps form for me, so it's definitely among my top ten of the year. As for Newbery... well, it's a strong year and poetry rarely medals, but I'd be happy to see a silver Honor sticker on the cover of this one.

(Thanks to reader Brandy for the recommendation!)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Digressions: Okay for Newbery

Meanwhile, on Google chat... 

Sam:  Man, I hope Wonder doesn't win.

Me:  I think it probably won't, but I would actually rather have Wonder win than something that's both flawed and unappealing. coughsummerofthegypsymothscough... 

Sam:  Gah. I'm trying to think how many of this year's books I'd actually be ok with winning.

Me:   Good question!

It is a good question, isn't it? At some point in the discussion and voting process, I guess that's what the committee members have to decide: not only which book they're pushing for, but which ones they would accept as winners. Which books would leave them at the "I'm not super excited, but I am at peace with this choice" level on the consensus meter.

For me (and these are, of course, my feelings prior to the Mock Newbery discussion next Monday, so everything is subject to change), the list looks something like this. 

Top Choices (totally behind any of these; smiley face on the consensus meter) 
  • Twelve Kinds of Ice (my actual first choice right now)
  • Splendors and Glooms
  • Liar and Spy
  • Starry River of the Sky
  • Mr. and Mrs. Bunny, Detectives Extraordinaire 

Second Tier (wouldn't go away from the table seething; "meh" face on the consensus meter) 
  • Wonder
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • No Crystal Stair
  • Crow
  • Moonbird

I won't go into my third tier. I've already mentioned my non-fandom re: Summer of the Gypsy Moths, but to delve further would be petty. 

How about you guys?

Monday, January 7, 2013

2013 Second Takes: We've Got a Job, by Cynthia Levinson

We've Got a Job was a late addition to our Mock Newbery reading list. Actually, it wasn't on our list of semifinalists at all, but after Sam and I read all of the nominees, we found ourselves at an impasse. We wanted a nonfiction title to be part of the discussion, but I vetoed Moonbird and he wasn't keen on Titanic. I hadn't read We've Got a Job, but Sam said it was not only one of the best nonfiction books of the year, but one of the best of the many books published this year on the topic of civil rights.

And, of course, it is. I'm most impressed by the original research and the meticulous documentation. Copious source notes, an index, a discussion of the language of race, and numerous primary documents all help to paint a rich, nuanced picture of a time and place many of us know only through headlines and sound bites. Levinson does an excellent job, too, of getting out of the way of her sources and letting the reader see the events through the eyes of the children themselves.

I have to disagree with Sam about organization, though. Since (after a brief prologue), the book begins with profiles of the four young people, it ends up jumping back and forth chronologically, which I found disorienting. It could really have benefited from a longer introduction to set the historical stage and establish a steady pace before it starts to meander. 

That's a relatively minor point in the overall evaluation of the book, but it's enough to sink it as a serious Newbery contender for me. Staying just within the realm of nonfiction, I felt that both Titanic and Temple Grandin were better organized and more evenly paced, and that's leaving out Bomb, which I have not yet read. A highly impressive piece of research and writing, but not a title I'll be looking for on Newbery Day.

2013 Contenders: Penny and Her Song, by Kevin Henkes

Some of the best-known and best-loved American children's books are easy readers. However, if you added up all the Newbery mentions given to The Cat in the Hat, Are You My Mother?, Owl at Home, Bread and Jam for Frances, Sammy the Seal, and There Is a Bird on Your Head!, you wouldn't even have to use any fingers to tabulate the result. In fact, outside of the Honor taken by Frog and Toad Together in 1973, the list of easy readers on the Newbery rolls is essentially blank.

Sure, since 2006, we've had the Geisel award, which is devoted specifically to easy readers. And sure, it's hard to separate the text of many of the best easy readers from the illustrations. Still, given how insistent the Newbery criteria are about including books for the entire age range from birth to fourteen, it's interesting that almost every committee has elected not to give even the most distinguished easy readers a nod.

Back at the beginning of 2012, there were some rumblings that perhaps Penny and Her Song would be the book to break that streak. As the year went on, those noises got quieter, and at this point, almost nobody is predicting that the book will pick up any non-Geisel awards.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that it's so much harder to hit many of the Newbery criteria in the limited space available in an easy reader. Penny has great characters -- the excited but obedient title character, her kind parents, her baby siblings who serve as the book's source of understated humor. But are they as beautifully and incisively drawn as those in Liar & Spy, or Splendors and Glooms, or even Mr. and Mrs. Bunny? I don't think that's even a real question.

That this is a function of the format rather than the author is borne out by a look at Kevin Henkes' middle-grade novel from last year, Junonia. That one was one of our finalists at the Maryland Mock Newbery, and though it didn't end up winning anything (either there or in the Newberys proper), it did make the Notables list, and it certainly rated very highly in each of the Newbery criteria. Is that because it's an objectively better book than Penny and Her Song? I don't think it actually is -- it's just longer, and has more room to develop its characters, setting, and themes.

The more I think about it, the more I'm puzzled as to what an easy reader Newbery winner would even look like. Are You My Mother? and Green Eggs and Ham are classic books, ones read and beloved by generations of children, but to win the Newbery, either one would have had to beat The Island of the Blue Dolphins. The year that The Cat in the Hat was eligible, the winner was Rifles for Watie. That one was on my list of Newbery mistakes, but would I take The Cat in the Hat over Gone-Away Lake, another classic that was eligible in that year? That seems to me to be a tough position to take, especially since the Newbery criteria mean that one can't give any weight to Dr. Seuss's iconic illustrations. It might just be that, given the rules as they're currently constituted, there isn't an easy reader that could win.

So maybe it's a good thing we have the Geisel award now, a place to recognize the best easy readers and discuss their unique strengths. Though I don't imagine Penny and Her Song will make a Newbery appearance, I'll be looking for it (and possibly the sequel, Penny and Her Doll, which also came out this year), when the Geisel awards are announced.

Published in February 2012 by Greenwillow / HarperCollins

Friday, January 4, 2013

2013 Contenders: The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healy

It's hard being Prince Charming -- people know some version of your story (which may or may not be accurate), but they don't know anything about you personally, not even your name. That's one of the problems faced by Princes Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav (of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel fame, respectively), but as The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom barrels along, they soon acquire any number of other problems, including trolls, giants, the King of the Bandits, and a witch intent on staging one of the largest and most spectacular demonstrations of evil the world has ever seen. Can they survive, save the world, and possibly even become real, genuine heroes?

The closest spiritual predecessor of Christopher Healy's novel isn't a book at all, but the Shrek series of films. Both are built on taking the premises of familar fairy tales, and then fracturing them with ironic characterizations, mugging one-liners, incongruous pop-culture references, and a tendency to take different tales and smash them together. Indeed, the film rights to The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom were sold before the book was even published, and it's hard to imagine that the eventual movie won't strongly resemble Shrek.

If you are willing to play along, The Hero's Guide is enjoyable enough. It's clever, and some of its twists, such as the portrayal of Sleeping Beauty as a teenage sociopath, are amusingly unexpected. I laughed in places, and I can see the book acquiring a devoted group of fans.

At the same time, I may have run out of patience for the whole Fractured Fairy Tales scene. Sure, you can create interesting effects by changing the structure of a familiar tale -- here's to you, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs -- but too often, these kinds of stories devolve into rote humor, winking sarcasm, and a sentimentality that's both cloying and superficial. The Hero's Guide is better at sidestepping these pitfalls than many other efforts in the same vein, but it doesn't do so completely. The ending of the novel, which all but ensures a sequel, also felt to me less like an organic outgrowth of the story, and more like a blatant attempt to make another book necessary.

It's possible that I'm projecting too many of my own feelings onto The Hero's Guide. Certainly, I'd recommend booktalking it, promoting it, and trying to put it into the hands of children who will appreciate its charms. But I don't think it's innovative, profound, or even funny enough to be a real contender for the Newbery.

Published in May 2012 by Walden Pond Press / HarperCollins

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reflections on a Year of Blogging

We'd discussed it for a while before that, but it was last January when Rachael and I decided to stop talking about it, and go ahead and start that Newbery-themed blog. I'm not even sure what our expectations were, but I think as long as we actually managed to keep writing, we would have been satisfied with the results.

On the "keep writing" front, we were able to succeed. In 2012, we wrote reviews of 59 different Newbery-eligible titles, as well as 14 previous winners, and 2 other books; posted our reactions to the YMAs; and managed to put up a few essay-style posts as well. I don't know if I would have kept at it without having a writing partner, but Rachael always helped me to read more and organize my thoughts.

And, to my surprise anyway, people started reading! Indeed, as the year went on, I got a chance to interact with some of my children's lit heroes, including, but not limited to, Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes; Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt of the legendary Heavy Medal; Monica Edinger; K.T. Horning; and even, for all too brief a time, the brilliant and sorely-missed Peter D. Sieruta. I've appreciated their comments, suggestions, and kind words more than I can say, and my experience in blogging has only heightened my respect for what they do and how well they do it. I've also gotten to know many other bloggers, librarians, publishers, authors, and readers, and I'm grateful to all of them.

This year, I'm fortunate enough to have a ticket to ALA Midwinter, where I'm planning on live-tweeting this year's YMAs. Then it'll be on to the 2014 books, and another year of reading, writing, thinking, and learning.

So many thanks to everyone who's encouraged us along the way, and a special, special thanks to Rachael, who is awesome, and who always makes me want to read more deeply, write more clearly, and think more elegantly.

Here's to a wonderful 2013!