Wednesday, April 29, 2015

2016 Contenders: Inventions That Could Have Changed the World...But Didn't!, by Joe Rhatigan

Inventions That Could Have Changed the World...But Didn't! is exactly the kind of book that my ten-year-old self would have devoured in a single sitting. It's sort of a curiosity cabinet of commercially unsuccessful inventions and the people who devised them. Each failed invention is described briefly -- usually in less than half a page -- and accompanied by cartoon illustrations, patent drawings, photos, or some combination of these.

It's a quick, breezy read, and I think it would be a very easy reader's advisory sell for the kinds of kids who haunt the 000s looking for books of weird facts. However, it's put together less carefully than I'd prefer. For instance, the very first page of the book says, "Before lightbulbs, people went to bed when it got dark outside. (There was nothing else to do.)" That statement neatly overlooks the development of torches, candles, and oil lamps, and sacrifices accuracy for the sake of a witty observation.

The book is still a lot of fun, and it's nice to have internet links to things like an audiorecording of the demonic-sounding Edison Talking Doll and a video of some brave/foolhardy folks driving Dynaspheres. If I were still doing collection development, I would certainly purchase Inventions for my library.

I'm not entirely sure about the eligibility of Inventions for the ALA awards -- the copyright date is 2015, and Amazon lists it as having a 2015 publication date. However, Goodreads claims it was published originally in 2014, and the printing date is October 2014. Even if it's eligible, however, Inventions certainly won't win the Newbery, and I doubt the Sibert committee will show it any love either.

Published in February(?) by Imagine / Charlesbridge

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Digressions: two bits of Penderwick trivia.

My daughter and I finally got our hands on the audiobook version of The Penderwicks in Spring, so my favorite Massachusetts family has been much on my mind this week. This has led to a couple bits of silliness:

1. I finally looked up the GPS coordinates that Birdsall gives as the location of the Penderwick house. They lead to 49 Gothic St, Northampton, MA, which appears to house a massage therapy practice. I wonder if the address has some personal significance for Birdsall.

Honestly, I expected the coordinates to lead to the Eric Carle Museum or something.

Here's something fun, though: in the book, the Penderwicks always call upon Ernie's Service Station to care for their elderly vehicles, and there is actually an Ernie's Garage around the corner from that address! Curious.

2. Since music plays such an important role for Batty in this novel, I thought she should have her own playlist, including all of the songs that she hears, hums, listens to or loves. So here it is.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

2016 Contenders: The Cottage in the Woods, by Katherine Coville

Fellow fans of The Wind in the Willows: have you ever tried to pin down exactly how big Toad is? Most of the time he seems to be the same size as Ratty, Mole, and Badger - that is, the size of a real toad. But he's always stealing motorcars from people, and presumably they are people-sized motorcars. And then there's the scene where he borrows the clothes of a human washerwoman and escapes from prison... oy.

I think Grahame gets away with this kind of logistical nonsense due to the slippery, dream-like tone of the novel. I mean, one moment everyone's being sensible and Edwardian, and the next moment Rat and Mole run into the god Pan. Clearly, the laws of physics are not operating in a consistent manner (so if Toad wants to part his hair in the middle, I'm going to roll with it, even if Beatrix Potter disagrees).

What works for Grahame does not serve Katherine Coville as well in her new gothic-fairy-tale-parable-mashup novel. The Cottage in the Woods retells the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the point of view of Baby Bear's governess Ursula, recasting Papa Bear as a wealthy gentleman bear and Goldilocks as a traumatized enfant sauvage. The whole thing takes place in the Enchanted Forest, where enchanted animals coexist uneasily with their human counterparts.

Coville has done an effective job of spoofing the traditional gothic governess narrative - too effective, I would say. Ursula's habits, mindset, and manners are so recognizably and consistently those of an early nineteenth-century English lady that it's jarring when we are reminded of her bearish attributes. I kept being thrown out of the story as I wondered how a bear would play a pianoforte with its claws, or why exactly a bear would need the tight corsets that Ursula is constantly complaining about.

(It's telling that when I just did a Google image search for "bear corset," I got lots of pictures of corsets with bears on them, but no pictures of bears in corsets. And this is the INTERNET we're talking about.)

And then there's the romance. In keeping with the conventions of the genre, Ursula falls in love with a dashing young bear above her station, and then spends several chapters pining after him. This really made me question the intended audience. I just don't think that Ursula's hand-wringing internal monologues about filial duty would hold the interest of many middle grade readers.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the weird political plot: the sinister Anthropological Society is busy campaigning for human rights which, in this case, means curfews and other apartheid-like limitations placed on the rights of enchanted animals. That's an awfully heavy topic, and its resolution is disconcertingly blithe (though in keeping with the sentimental tone of the novel as a whole).

The Cottage in the Woods is a valiant effort, with more than competent writing and several well-developed characters (and some truly bad baddies), but ultimately it falls short of the mark. 

Published February 10th 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers