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I’m partway through Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it’s so good I can’t wait to finish it before writing a review. Written in the style of an A-Z guidebook, it’s best appreciated by connoisseurs of the genre, hardcore fans and weary eye-rolling readers alike. Jones skewers clichés, inconsistencies and the often faulty logic found in fantastical realms (as Jones helpfully reminds us, the Rules were created by the “Management,” aka fantasy authors, so it’s no use blaming her). It should be required reading for every aspiring writer. Here are just a few of the delights:

CLOAKS are the universal outer garb of everyone who is not a Barbarian. It is hard to see why. They are open in front and require you at most times to use one hand to hold them shut. On horseback they leave the shirtsleeved arms and most of the torso exposed to wind and WEATHER…It is thought that the real reason for the popularity of Cloaks is that the inhabitants like the look of themselves from the back.

Of course. Who hasn’t wondered at the obvious impracticality of fighting, riding and trekking with a billowing blanket strapped to your neck?

FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile TREES. There will be giant SPIDERS too…

One of the many clear references to Middle Earth (“SPIDERS…lair in certain WOODS and in CAVES, where shorter and slighter Tourists may be seriously inconvenienced by their gigantic webs made of sticky, rope-thick strands. Often only a special SWORD will cut these webs, and it usually takes two or more Tourists to defeat the Spider.”)

Jones seems to be targeting copycat Lord of the Rings epics, and because Tough Guide was written in 1996, she didn’t have a chance to reference the Harry Potter craze, so we can only imagine what she would have done with that.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

Hmm. Good point. Someone should get on that and invent Sauron’s XX cousin.

More to come once I’ve finished the book, including a note about the guide’s attitude toward names with apostrophes.

40 acresI’m now in the Reconstruction phase of the O’Dell Awards, and the next two books make a natural pair. Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriette Gillem Robinet follows former slave Pascal and his brother Gideon as they fight for the land and freedom they were promised. Along the way, they befriend people both black and white, while struggling to avoid the notorious night riders.

In Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder, Will, a white boy in Virginia who loses his family during the Civil War, is sent to live with relatives he’s never met. Will is sure he’ll hate it. How can he respect Uncle Jed, when he refused to fight in the Confederate Army? Will’s cousin Meg is no better, constantly putting him to shame by easily doing the farm chores that Will, a city boy, isn’t strong enough to do. But after weeks of working beside his uncle, Will starts to respect the man–until Jed lets a Union soldier stay at their house.

shades of grayForty Acres offers the more complex story, and the book is better, too. While both boys struggle to find their place in the world, Will gets to do it in the safety of his uncle’s farm. Aside from a few run-ins with the neighborhood bully, he’s protected from external dangers. His main conflict–learning to understand and respect Jed–is emphasized again and again as various people have one-on-one conversation with Will to try to change his mind. The repetition got a bit dull after awhile, so it was a relief when the Union soldier arrives, bringing new complexity to Will’s life.

Pascal, meanwhile, has to deal with so much more. One of the saddest moment occurs at the beginning of Forty Acres, when Pascal wonders if he even understands what it means to be free. Does freedom mean owning his own farm? the chance to go to school? or being able to walk around without fearing the night riders? His personal journey merges seamlessly with the larger historical context, as he meets dozens of other emancipated slaves trying to rebuild their lives. The lucky ones, like him, manage to get their 40 acres. Others are rounded up by plantation owners and forced back into slavery under another name. It’s the variety of experiences, and their awareness of what’s happening in the world at large (like the moment they learn of President Lincoln’s death), that makes the book stand out.

Next up: Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, will be the first O’Dell winner I’ve read since January that doesn’t involve the Civil War or its immediate aftermath.

In honor of the 2014 World Cup, The Guardian’s How to draw… series invited author and illustrator Dave Cousins to teach us how to draw a footballer (not of the American pigskin handling variety).

While I haven’t been following the matches as closely as some, while browsing through the live commentary, this second goal scored by Miroslav Klose of Germany against Ghana (whom the US narrowly defeated) piqued my attention. So here you go! Flipping awesome victory somersault not included…

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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.

The Matter of Gravity

Alternate title: I think I’ll try/defining/Gravity (performed by Adele Dazeem)

Jason Chin‘s latest picture book, Gravity, caught my eye because it got dinged by a review in The Horn Book Magazine (May/June 2014) for simplifying the science “to the point of inaccuracy.” But let’s be honest, without an advanced understanding of calculus and physics, we’re all getting the simplified version of gravity.

“Everything has gravity,” writes Chin to his pre-K audience, prompting Roger Sutton to complain:

Despite the text’s assertion, objects, whether the sun or a banana, do not ‘have gravity'; they have mass (which affects gravity). And to say ‘without gravity, everything would float away’ misses the rather more essential point that without gravity there would be no anything to float anywhere.

According to Newton, gravity is a fundamental force that depends both on the mass of objects and distance between them. The more mass objects have, the greater the gravity; the farther apart they are, the weaker their attraction. Chin makes this connection for young readers by saying “massive things have more gravity” and drawing bold pictures of outer space that depict size* and scale in a really fun way. Now if gravity is a property of matter, and all objects have mass (which Sutton correctly points out they do), then surely they have gravity.

Einstein updated Newton’s definition by scrapping the idea of gravity as a force. Instead, his theory explains gravity as the distortion of space-time geometry in response to matter and energy. (For example, the topology of space-time around the sun dictates the earth’s orbit around it.) With this in mind, if Sutton wanted to criticize Gravity for the inaccuracy of the everything would float away line, he should have nitpicked that floating away implies force.

Instead, Sutton’s second assertion–that without gravity, nothing would exist–is more of a chicken-and-egg quibble. Matter and gravity are intrinsically related, but good luck proving causality.

It’s gutsy of Chin to tackle a tricky subject for a young age in such a vivid, memorable way. When I asked physicists with PhDs how they’d explain gravity to five-year-olds, they wouldn’t stop laughing.

 

*We all know size matters not, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s pretend mass and size have a positive relationship

 

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.

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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