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Archive for the ‘Kids books-general’ Category

peter panI was shocked recently when a friend asked me to clarify a plot point in Peter Pan, and I realized I’d never read J. M. Barrie’s book. It got me thinking about all the other classic children’s books I’d never read, or read so long ago I barely remember anything about them. And while I may have gotten over my guilt of not reading certain adult books, I don’t mind catching up on classic kids’ books. Here’s a partial list of what I plan to tackle:

Peter Pan--never read

The Jungle Book--never read

Anne of Green Gables–never read

Charlotte’s Web–last read in elementary school. I only remember the basic plot and some of the characters’ names.

The Secret Garden–all I remember is the existence of a garden behind a locked gate, and a grumpy kid who may or may not be sick.

I should probably add Alice in Wonderland to this list, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. It was just so boring and confusing. Alice fans, feel free to convince me otherwise.

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chaldeaI’m no expert on Diana Wynne Jones, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize she was a cat person. Felines–especially the magical, clever sort–regularly get starring roles in her books, whether it’s Plug-Ugly in The Islands of Chaldea or Midnight and Whippersnapper in Castle in the Air. No matter how powerful the cats are, they inevitably behave like cats, by turns hungry, opinionated and irritatingly indecisive.

Patricia MacLachlan, on the other hand, is definitely a dog person. Her canines tend to be loyal and slightly magical. They comfort the dying in Kindred Souls, help rescue people in The Truth of Me, and even counsel parents in Waiting for the Magic (to be fair, there’s a cat in this book too, but the canine:feline ratio stands at 4:1).

Other authors have non-animal hobbies and/or obsessions that reliably appear in their stories. I suspect Gary D. Schmidt is quite the baseball fan, as evidenced by The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now. Madeleine L’Engle probably loved classical music, since there’s a lot of singers (mostly of church music) and pianists in her books. In The Young Unicorns, music literally saves lives.

Elizabeth Wein, obviously, is a pilot, and flying is crucial in both Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity, not to mention her short stories. And it seems her next book is about pilots-in-training (Ethiopia and airplanes–what a way to combine her two series)!

Redwall_CookbookNo Brian Jacques book is complete without mouth-watering feasts. I’ve heard he took great care with his descriptions because he started out writing for kids at a school for the blind. Whatever his reasons were, he’s inspired countless readers to attempt cooking his woodland fare…with mixed results.

Like Jacques, Laura Ingalls Wilder liked writing about food, but it usually comes across as gratuitous or slightly desperate (do we really need a description of every meal eaten by Almanzo in Farmer Boy?) Of course, it all makes sense when you consider the author’s childhood of near-starvation (remember her gaping incredulity when she got peppermint candy and a heart-shaped cake for Christmas in Little House on the Prairie? Meanwhile, Almanzo’s mother kept her house regularly stocked with home-made doughnuts). No wonder Laura found such joy describing her husband’s privileged upbringing.

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You know how it is: first you notice one thing, then another example of the same thing, and pretty soon you’re convinced this trend is taking over the world.

Lately, it seems, I can’t seem to escape middle grade books starring orphans–not just any orphans, but orphans in 19th century London, sneaking through grimy, secretive places and doing things adults can’t (or wouldn’t) do. Here are just a few examples:

index1. The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud. In a world where England is attacked by vengeful zombie-ghosts that can only be seen by children, orphans are routinely hired by terrified adults to get rid of the threat–often with deadly results (for the orphans). It’s a brilliant story, but not recommended for the claustrophobic (too many trapped-in-a-cobwebbed-room-with-monster scenes).

2. How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks–19th century London with supernatural predators. This time, it’s an adult using kids as bogle-bait, with yet more sewers, chimneys and cramped quarters.

3. Black Ice by Andrew Lane–in one disgusting scene, young Sherlock Holmes is saved by London street kids who know how to navigate the sewers (again with the filth and tight spaces!)

howtocatchabogle4. Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell–this one takes place in Paris instead of London, but the main character is British (and a presumed orphan), and she ends up joining a group of French orphans who live on rooftops and trees, never stepping foot into the street. Less claustrophobia, more acrophobia.

5. The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson–I haven’t read this yet, but it’s about “mudlarks”–Victorian London orphans scrounging for stuff to sell from the River Thames. This is playing out during the cholera epidemic, so expect plenty of unhygienic conditions.

What did I miss? I’m sure there are plenty of other recent books with plucky orphans not afraid of a little dirt.

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Once in awhile I succumb to the guilt of trying to be more knowledgeable about Literature. And thus, a few weeks ago I slogged through 300 pages of prose from a Very Important Author, re-affirming, in the process, why I read children’s books:

PLOT: if there was a plot to this Famous Book Which Shall Remain Nameless, it was too subtle for me to catch. I like stories where something happens. But there was no sense of progression in this book, just random slices-of-life that never quite strung together.

CHARACTER: everyone, it seemed, was either a quivering mess of low self-esteem or just plain cruel. I don’t need all the characters to be likeable, yet the constant unvarying doom was uninspiring. If there’s no discernible plot, at least give me someone to root for.

WRITING: the prose was fairly straightforward and not at all interested in showing off. I only wish it had been used to tell a better story.

From now on, I think I’ll stick with the adult books that work for me, like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or nonfiction. (Why is it that nonfiction reads so much better? Is it because the authors feel they have to work harder to make the story shine?) And the next time I get a guilty twinge, this post should cure any inclination to act on that impulse.

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3_9_BKTS_1RND_alljudgesThe Newbery Curse strikes again! Every year during SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, we joke about how Newbery books always fare badly. And indeed, both Newbery-stickered books in this year’s tournament (The Doll Bones and Flora & Ulysses) were defeated in Round 1. I don’t think either has a chance of coming back from the dead (my bet is on Eleanor & Park or Rose Under Fire), so it looks like they’re out of the running for good.

What about previous years? I took a deep dive to study the Curse’s power:

In 2009, the event’s first year, The Graveyard Book (Newbery winner) and The Underneath (honor) lost in Round 1.

In 2010, the Newbery winner (When You Reach Me) and honor book Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice went down in Round 1. But The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate made it to Round 2 before being defeated by Charles and Emma. We have our first (semi) winner!

In 2011, the only Newbery book–One Crazy Summer–lost in Round 1 to The Odyssey.

In 2012, Dead End in Norvelt lost in Round 1, but Newbery honor book Inside Out and Back Again won once before being vanquished by Drawing From Memory in Round 2.

2013 is special, because all four Newbery-winning and honor books made it into the tournament (what eerie predictive powers you have, Battle Commanders). Three Times Lucky and The One and Only Ivan lost in Round 1. Surprisingly, Bomb and Splendors and Glooms made it to Round 3 before losing out–to The Fault in Our Stars and No Crystal Stair, respectively.

The verdict? No Newbery winner has ever made it past Round 1, or been selected as an Undead Winner. In that sense, the Newbery Curse is omnipotent (0/5). Once you consider the nine honor books, two made it to Round 2, and another two to Round 3. Not a great record, but far from a complete loss. Clearly the Curse has its weak spots. I wonder how the books would fare if BoB occurred before the ALA Youth Media Awards? Does the Newbery sticker create a subtle bias on the part of the judges, who want to highlight books that didn’t get Official Award recognition? I suspect there’s more at work, since the hallmark of BoB is to pit books in different categories against each other. It all comes down to the judges’ personal preferences, and that’s why we spend so much time scrutinizing their publishing history to search for clues. What do you think?

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On the eve of battle, here are my predictions for this year’s SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books. I was amazingly lucky last year, getting 7/8 in round one. Let’s see if my luck holds:

boxers saintsRound One

All the Truth that’s In Me vs. The Animal Book

Boxers & Saints vs. A Corner of White: I’m counting on judge Yuri Morales’ illustrator background to give the graphic novel the edge.

Doll Bones vs. Eleanor & Park

Far Far Away vs. Flora & Ulysses: because I don’t want the Newbery Curse to rear its head this early in the game.

Hokey Pokey vs. March Book One

Midwinterblood vs. P.S. Be Eleven: given Chloe and the Lion, I think Mac Barnett would enjoy the nontraditional structure of Midwinterblood.

Rose Under Fire vs. The Thing About Luck

True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp vs. What the Heart Knows: everyone knows Mo LeBeau and Bingo and J’miah are kindred spirits.

Round Two

The Animal Book vs. Boxers & Saints

Eleanor & Park vs. Flora & Ulysses

March Book One vs. Midwinterblood

Rose Under Fire vs. True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Round Three

Boxers & Saints vs. Eleanor & Park

March Book One vs. Rose Under Fire

Big Kahuna Round

Eleanor & Park comes back from the dead, facing off against Rose Under Fire and Boxers & Saints: while I would love to see Boxers and Saints walk off with the (virtual) medal, I predict Rose Under Fire will win–not that I’m complaining, of course! Rose’s “Rabbit” family reminds me so much of the large, scrappy families at the heart of Jenni Holm’s books.

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I’m a quarter of the way through Eleanor & Park, and enjoying it a lot more than Jen did. I had the advantage of reading without high expectations, whereas Jen read it over the summer, right after it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and much praise from reviewers. That’s the danger with hype: even great books can easily fall short. Luckily, by the time I got to the book a week ago, my main concern was finishing it before SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books begins next week, and the only review I remembered was Jen’s.

Of course, hype can also work the other way: there was a lot of grumbling about What Came From the Stars before Jen and I read it. I like to think we would have loved it regardless of what the reviews said, but our low–or at least neutral–expectations didn’t hurt. We continue to be bewildered by those who fail to appreciate its genius.

Perhaps I should start avoiding certain reviews. I get most of my book recommendations through blogs, twitter, and The Horn Book. When all three sources start rhapsodizing about the same book, I get nervous about the book’s ability to deliver (notable exceptions: The Doll Bones, Bo at Ballard Creek, Team Humanwhich were simply too good). I could impose a quota: if there’s a book I’m going to read anyway, I pledge to read no more than X glowing reviews before I judge for myself? This seems like a superficial solution. Sometimes it takes a good five or six reviews to push me to read somethingie Between Shades of Gray, because I wasn’t ready to be depressed. I would hate to miss another book like that by avoiding what others have to say.

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STATS 101 with Sondy

I’d like to share the stats lessons Sondy from Sonderbooks offered in response to my previous post regarding SLJ Battle Stats 101. They’re too good and geeky to be buried in the comments section. First, she caught my terminology snafu: intersection vs union.

You’re actually not finding the union of the events at the end, but the intersection. In other words, you’re finding the probability that you guess all matches right up to the semi-finals AND the probability you guess the last match correctly. They’re independent, so you multiply, as you did.

So to make sure I really understood (midterm in a week!), I made a diagram:

intersection (more…)

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battleI’m a few weeks into my statistics class and so far, it’s been a lot of “plug and chug.” But real mastery of statistics requires knowing when to use who’s test where…so for fun, I will attempt to analyze this year’s brackets for SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, especially now that the Battle schematics are up! (Aside: please correct me if I get the math wrong. Better now than on my exam.)

Suppose you didn’t read any of the battle books, what’s the probability of randomly guessing the correct winners?

Now, there are 14 brackets leading up to and including the semi-finals, and the probability of guessing right per bracket is 0.5, since there are two contestants, but only one winner each time. Each guess is independent of the others, since you’re no more likely to correctly guess the outcome, say, of Boxers&Saints vs. A Corner of White after successfully predicting the previous match-up.

To solve this problem, the gut instinct thing to do would be to multiply 0.5 fourteen times, which equals 0.000061, to get the probability of guessing correctly all the way through the semi-finals. (more…)

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floraLisa: Hello! So, Newbery reactions!
It was a good year for squirrels
Jen: and a good year for Floras!
Lisa: yes. I haven’t read Flora and the Flamingo but I could see Ulysses’ Flora attempting to dance with a flamingo
Jen: really? I think she’d be too cynical
Lisa: well, if her mother stuffed her into a tutu…
and there was a pink bird nearby…
Jen:
….
….
soooooo, anything surprise you about this year’s ALA youth media awards?

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