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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.

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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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Lisa’s thorough study of the “Newbery Curse,” a phenomena that seems to strike Battle of the Kids Books out of contention before they’ve even had a chance to warm up, got me thinking: how can I quantify this?

In statistics, there is a way to measure the efficacy of a test–for example, mammograms as a screen for breast cancer. It’s called the predictive value positive (PV+), the probability that a someone who tests positive for a disease actually has the disease. The closer a test’s PV+  is to one, the better it is at predicting a certain outcome based on a positive test result.

To see whether the Newbery sticker–in gold or silver–affects a book’s ability to proceed through the first round, we’ll let the sticker be our test.

I tallied up the outcomes of Battles from years past and here’s what I came up with:

Presentation1

What I found was that a Newbery sticker of either gold or silver predicts that the book won’t advance past round 1 71% of the time. Of course, these values depend on how I determined if a book was middle grade or not (I did it by age, content, and included non-fiction), but if the rate for “won’t advance” rate for all middle grade books is 56% and the “won’t advance” rate for Newbery winners and honors is 71%, maybe there is a curse after all….

 

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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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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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So, I may have cheated in the O’Dell Challenge by reading Bo at Ballard Creek before the other 8 books ahead of it on the list. I’ll save my real review for the right time, but for now I’ll tackle the persistent comparisons between Bo and the Little House books.

It doesn’t seem like a fair contest. After all, Bo has 2 adventurous fathers, eccentric neighbors, NatGeo magazines, lots of friends, and the excitement of a mining camp. Laura Ingalls has preachy parents, a goody-two-shoes sister and really boring Sundays. Still, both books contain episodic stories about a year in the life of a little girl growing up on the frontier. And the pictures offer plenty of parallels. Perhaps illustrator LeUyen Pham had Little House on her mind. Some of them even look like an homage to Garth Williams’ drawings:

Laura's family

Little House in the Big Woods

Bo's family

Little House at Ballard Creek: colder and wilder than the toughest Wisconsin winter.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Laura and Mary with their dolls.

Bo and Grafton with their teddy bears.

Bo and Grafton with their bears–gifts from the “good-time girls.”

Laura at a dance

Laura at a dance: finally, a chance to see people outside her immediate family.

Bo at a dance

Ballard Creek dance: Fourth of July with the neighbors.

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Happy Chinese New Year!

The Year of the Horse

The Black Stallion, in GO pieces.

After kicking off the New Year with an evening of 五子棋 (5 in a Row) and 年糕 (sticky rice cakes–Lisa’s family recipe!), we bring you this list of horse books so you can celebrate the Year of the Horse all year long!

Brush of the Gods by Lenore Look–Not strictly about a horse, the great Tang Dynasty painter Wu Daozai does paint one in Meilo So’s gorgeous illustrations.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater–Every November, riders on vicious flesh-eating water horses sweep through Puck Connolly’s little town in the event known as the Scorpio Races. This year, to save her family, Puck enters the competition.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo–Set against the backdrop of the horrors of WWI, War Horse tells the remarkable story about the bond between a boy and his horse.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis–A Horse and his Boy meet a Horse and her Girl, who happen to be much better riders, and together they make their escape north towards freedom.

Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry–The classic horse book for generations, Henry has the market cornered when it comes to horses.

And of course, no New Years book list is complete without a Grace Lin book! Happy Reading!

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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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