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Review: Listen, Slowly

listen, slowlyTwelve-year-old Mai Le has no desire to hear why she must give up her summer vacation to accompany her grandmother to Vietnam. As far as she’s concerned, the “quack” detective her grandmother hired to find Mai’s grandfather, who was captured by the Viet Cong and disappeared during the Vietnam War, is leading them on a wild goose chase.

Neither is Mai interested in discovering her roots. A Laguna girl through and through, Mai knows she belongs on the beach with her gal pal, Montana, and the boy she’s secretly crushing on, not slumming it in the stifling heat of the remote village where her grandfather grew up, where she doesn’t speak the language and the notion of personal space and privacy is nonexistent.

So Mai makes it her personal mission to help her grandmother accept the truth. The sooner Ba finds closure, the sooner they can go home. This turns out to be easier said than done.

In Listen, Slowly, author Thanhha Lai takes a refreshing approach to the familiar story about a third culture kid experiencing her ancestral homeland for the first time. Happily, neither the plot nor Mai’s character arc hinge solely upon Cultural Identity and A Newfound Appreciation For One’s Heritage and Land of Origin.

Instead, Mai preoccupies herself with trying to escape her predicament. She also gets into scrapes, has teenage concerns, makes friends, meddles in the villagers’ daily routines (and love lives), and even does an impressive amount of sleuthing with the help of her new friends.

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Growing up, one of my favorite books was (and still is) Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I was fascinated by the Danish Resistance, and clueless enough not to realize some of the characters were part of the Resistance until Lowry revealed it to us. But I never stopped to think how the Resistance got started. I just assumed they’d sprung up organically once the Nazis invaded.

I didn’t know the true story until I read Phillip Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, and the truth is so outrageous it’s truly stranger than fiction. Hoose’s book is the perfect companion to Number the Stars, adding historical context and depth. It got me thinking about other nonfiction/fiction kidlit pairings that work perfectly. This is my initial list:

calpurnia_tatecharles-and-emmaThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, with Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.

–if you want to understand the scientist who inspires Calpurnia’s interest in science, Charles and Emma is the perfect biography, especially because Calpurnia would have fit perfectly into Darwin’s life. Darwin raised his kids to have open and inquisitive minds, so Calpurnia is kind of a fictional, surrogate Darwin Jr.
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After reading Kelly Jones’ wonderful book, we decided to ask the author some questions about her writing and her inspirations. Kelly kindly responded–take a look:

author Kelly Jones with her unusual chickens (photo courtesy of Kelly Jones)

Author Kelly Jones with her unusual chickens (photo courtesy of Kelly Jones)

1. Your author’s note says you keep chickens. How did you get into poultry farming?

I grew up in a small town, and my best friend had chickens. Later, when I had my own suburban yard, I started reading up on chicken-keeping and touring urban farms. Finally, I took the Chickens 101 class from Seattle Tilth, and decided to give it a try!

2. How did your (presumably normal) chickens inspire the unusual characteristics of Sophie’s super chickens?

Henrietta’s telekinesis was inspired by a chicken who shoved other chickens out of her way. Chameleon’s camouflage came from not being able to find a chicken who was hiding in my backyard (it’s amazing how well they blend in!). And watching one chicken grab a slug and take off running, with all the other chickens in hot pursuit, inspired Roadrunner’s super-speed. I liked thinking about which superpowers would actually be useful to chickens doing chicken stuff, instead of, say, saving the world, which is just not that interesting to chickens.

3. Are any of the characters based on people you know? Is Sue?!?

All of them — and none of them! Sophie isn’t based on any one person; she turned up in my head exactly how she is in the book. The rest are all a mix of bits and pieces of people I’ve met or imagined. Real people are too complex to fit easily into stories; they don’t do what I want them to do. But to help characters feel real, I tend to borrow characteristics, names, hobbies, and other pieces from people I’ve met.
photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

Photo courtesy of Kelly Jones

4. What was your favorite book when you were 12 (Sophie’s age)?

I was a very strong reader, so by twelve, I’d already read and loved all the Daniel Pinkwater books I could get my hands on, including Sophie’s favorite: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. I was ready for something new! On special occasions, when my family went out to dinner, we’d go to our local bookstore afterwards (RIP A Clean Well-Lighted Place in Larkspur, CA!) and my parents, my brother, and I would each choose a book. An awesome bookseller recommended Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer to me (it was first published the year I was twelve), and it immediately became my favorite. I’d never read an epistolary novel before, and I loved the idea that two writers wrote a whole book in letters to each other! I tried to talk all my friends into trying the letter game.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones

unusual chickensIs the book about chickens?
Yes. Chickens with superpowers, but they still have chicken-sized brains and behave like normal chickens. Sometimes.

Are there any humans?
Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown and her parents, recently moved from Los Angeles to her late great-uncle Jim’s remote chicken farm. Since Sophie doesn’t have any friends, she soon finds herself taking care of Jim’s special chickens and getting into the spirit of poultry farming.

So this is a book for chicken owners.
Not necessarily. I wasn’t a fan of chickens when I started, but the book did make me want to get chickens of my own. Talk about the Code Name Verity Effect!

Specifically, I want chickens with as much character as Sophie’s flock, unusual powers optional. I’ve met humans with less personality than Henrietta, Chameleon, et al.

Besides, I aced the book’s quiz on whether I was prepared to take care of chickens. According to Redwood Farm, provider of unusual super chickens, I totally deserve some of my own.
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black dove white ravenWith Elizabeth Wein single-handedly dominating the YA category of gutsy female pilots in wartime, it’s tempting to compare her latest novel, Black Dove, White Raven, to its predecessors, Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity. Publishers Weekly remarked on the obvious: the main characters “share an avocation with those in her award-winning novels.” Meanwhile, Kirkus Reviews praised Wein’s ability to “plait together the historical record, her passion for flying and ferociously vivid characters to create a heartbreaking adventure that grounds readers in the moment even as geopolitical complexity threatens to knock them off their feet.”

Nevertheless, I’d like to celebrate an equally important but overlooked Wein trademark: friendship. This may not seem like a big deal, but how often do you come across a YA book where the main relationships are between two close friends?

In Black Dove, White Raven, there are two such friendships. And one stolen plane.

The first friendship belongs to barnstorming, daredevil pilots Rhoda Menotti (aka the White Raven) and Delia Dupré (aka the Black Dove.) They learned to fly together, star in an aerial show together, and even raise their kids—Rhoda has a daughter, Emilia, and Delia, a son named Teodras—together.

In the decade after WWI, Delia, who is black, dreams of leaving behind racially segregated America so she and Rhoda, who is white, can raise their kids together under the wide, promising skies of Ethiopia. When tragedy strikes, however, it is up to Rhoda to make Delia’s dream come true.

Emilia and Teodras–Teo for short–are also a double act. At the age of five, their mothers buckled them into the middle cockpit of the family plane, shared with them a secret hand signal, and took them up into the sky for a spin. They have been “in the soup” together ever since.

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More Author Hobbies

mrs_giocondaLast year I wrote about various authors’ favorite motifs, and what you can tell about their real-world obsessions based on their books. I’ve thought of a few more, including:

E.L. Konigsburg: when I read The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities to The Mixed-Up Files. Now I’ve picked up The Second Mrs. Gioconda, and it’s clear that Konigsburg had a real appreciation for art, and a fascination with the creators and caretakers of that art. We’d all be more art-savvy if teachers taught art history the way Konigsburg wrote her books.

Maggie Stiefvater: any reader of the Raven Cycle will recognize Stiefvater’s obsession with cars…and as her blog confirms, she owns a racecar with a license plate that makes law enforcement nervous.

markofathenaRick Riordan: This one’s so obvious it’s almost cheating, but when you consider all three of his kids’ book series are based on ancient world mythologies (Greek/Roman, Egyptian and Norse), it’s a pretty good bet that mythology is more of a hobby or obsession than a convenient plot device.

On a related note, Kathi Appelt probably has a similar interest in myth, though she’s more about folktales and legends, which she transforms to fit her stories. The mermaids in Keeper are self-explanatory, and the Sugar Man is based on the Sasquatch, but the ancient snake in The Underneath is harder to pin down. Perhaps she’s based on a local legend or Native American myth?

Jeanne Birdsall: music, of course, with a preference for classical and Broadway tunes. Now that Jeffrey and Batty are both accomplished musicians, I can’t wait to see the music referenced in the next and final Penderwicks book.

penderwicks in springJeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks in Spring is pretty much everything you could want in a quadrequal. (Okay, I know that’s not a real word, but let’s move along…)

Like all successful sequels of books with sequels, it:

1) retains the spirit (read: oodles of genuine Penderwick charm) of its predecessors,

2) is perfectly satisfying to read as a stand-alone,

3) yet builds upon the existing story/universe thus far by bringing something new

One such “something new” is Batty’s (now almost eleven!) love of music and budding passion for singing. And she, her musical mentors, and Birdsall by extension, have impeccable taste in music.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” or the song when Batty first realizes she has real singing talent. Larghetto in the key of C. Continue Reading »

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