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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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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.

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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

 

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After stalling on the Newbery Challenge for quite some time (The White Stag of 1939 was an offensive read), I decided to dive back in with the 1940 winner, Daniel Boone by James Daugherty. Let’s just say it rivals its predecessor in terms of offensiveness.

Billed as a biography, Daugherty spins the yarns of Daniel Boone’s life with the artistic license of a tall tale teller. Or a biographer who lack objectivity. Boone’s arrival into this world, not to mention chapter one of this book, doesn’t even come with a date. (A quick visit to the History channel reveals Boone was born in 1734.) Instead, we get snippets of Real Historical Events (without context) at sporadic times. And an allusion that compares Boone’s boyhood home of Yadkin, North Carolina, to “the kingdom of a man in a world almost as new as Genesis.”

Indeed, Daugherty all but props Boone up as a god, or at the very least as someone instated by God to do whatever the heck he pleases. “The splendor and the brightness came upon his spirit like the rushing of mighty wings,” writes Daugherty, “and the voice of mighty thunderings [said], ‘Enter into a promised land such as no man has known, a new born creation all your own; drink deep, O Daniel, of the mysterious wine of the wilderness.'”

Even worse is Daugherty’s depiction of Indians as “savages,” “dogs,” and even “varmints.” When Boone uses deceit and treachery to outwit the Indians in one of their many violent conflicts, he is praised as clever and wily. When the Indians employ the same tactics, they lack common decency. Ironically–and I’m quite sure, unintentionally–one of the few first-hand accounts included by Daugherty shows the Seneca Indians to be one of the most reasonable and kind characters in this book.

I suppose Daugherty’s folksy writing style could be considered a plus, but that’s negated a hundred times over by his troubling content. And he structures his story with all the focus of a puppy teased by squirrels. Honestly, I’m completely baffled why the Newbery committee thought this book was “distinguished” enough to deserve a medal. I guess they didn’t learn from their epic failure (excuse the pun) in taste the year before.

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My reaction to Veronica Roth’s widely popular New York Times best-selling YA turned motion picture was, to my surprise…Divergent. The very first chapter captured my attention, but the book as a whole failed to keep it. Was this an allegory for high school? Was Roth trying to depict the subtle power of cults over individuality? Or envision what a society of sociopaths would look like? Turns out, sort of and not at all.

To get the inevitable Hunger Games comparisons out of the way, Divergent is a coming-of-age story centered around a plucky (or should I say, dauntless) young woman from a grim dystopian future. Beatrice Prior has been raised all her life to practice self-denial in Abnegation, one of five trait-based factions that make up her society. At sixteen, she and all the youth her age take a virtual reality personality test to determine the proper House, I mean, faction, into which they should be sorted. The next day, they must choose wisely which faction to join; entering a different faction means leaving their old faction–and their families–behind, permanently.

Beatrice’s test comes up inconclusive, a very rare occurrence we’re told. The reason: Beatrice could conceivably belong in three of the five factions, making her (insert dramatic whisper) Divergent. I found this concept rather silly. Not being able to distill one’s personality down to a single overarching feature? Shocking. (more…)

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Contains grumbling and spoilers.

shadow throneIn contrast to Jen’s enthusiastic review of The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, my latest encounter with a sequel wasn’t nearly as fun. The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, did exactly what I hoped it wouldn’t do. Instead of challenging Jaron by making him stay put and acting kingly (e.g., deal with court intrigue and order people around like commanding a chess board), the book lets him go gallivanting around the countryside again, basically saving the kingdom single-handed. It would be impressive if we hadn’t seen him do this twice before, with much the same formula:

Step 1: panic over a crisis, in this case, the impending war as several armies march on Carthya and the kidnapping of his beloved Imogen.

Step 2: formulate a strategy, one that allows Jaron to do whatever he likes. In the last book it meant running off to confront the pirates. In this book, he sends his right-hand man to save Imogen (following, for once, the counsel of his advisers)—but fate, or rather, the plot, pushes him to mount a one-man rescue.

Step 3: to battle! I don’t remember who they’re fighting against or why they’re important, but believe me when I say there are many battles. One involves a dam scene reminiscent of The Two Towers movie, and there seems to be some improbable physics involving a collision with a cliff. (more…)

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ghostsIt’s been grand catching up with old friends Mo and Dale in Sheila Turnage’s charming romp of a sequel to Three Times Lucky, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing. You read that correctly: Ghosts.

Turnage doesn’t spend very much time wavering back and forth about the existence of the supernatural, and neither should we. Just accept it: the historic inn that Miss Lana and Miss Thorton impulse-purchased is definitely haunted. (This is fortunate for Mo and Dale; they have just impulse-promised to interview said ghost for their sixth grade history project about Tupelo Landing’s past.) As Miss Lana and Miss Thorton try not to deplete their life savings restoring the inn, Mo and Dale’s paranormal investigations make them new friends, new enemies, and one heck of a research presentation as they try to catch themselves a ghost.

To my pleasant surprise, Tupelo’s newest book manages to outdo its predecessor–a feat that cannot be said of many sequels (The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, Act II of Into the Woods notwithstanding). Instead of rehashing old plots (read: Mo’s parent!quest!, a direction Turnage wisely doesn’t take), Turnage builds upon protagonists’ experiences from book one, so readers are able to appreciate how much these familiar characters have matured over time. This is especially true with Dale, who steps up from scrawny comic sidekick to scrawny comic speaker-of-truths. Even better, the moment which I’m referring to is not a Big Teachable Moment. Rather, Dale makes a deliberate but brief comment, and the perspective he offers helps a curmudgeonly character reexamine his guilt about the past in a very natural way.

To sum it up, I liked Ghosts so much I’ll go as far to say that Mo and Dale are four times lucky.

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