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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 »

penderwicks in springI was lucky enough to catch Jeanne Birdsall on her book tour to promote The Penderwicks in Spring. Porter Square Books was packed all the way to the door–and the person we have to thank for it all is a young Penderwicks fan who wrote to Birdsall awhile back, asking her to put the bookstore on her list of tour locations. That fan was in the crowd when Birdsall spoke, and I hope she got a free book or two as a reward.

Predictably enough, one of the first questions Birdsall got was, “where do you get your ideas?” You could almost sense Birdsall rolling her eyes, but she must be used to it by now, and patiently explained the influence of childhood favorites like Five Children And It, not to mention Little Women (though she stressed several times she wouldn’t be killing off any of the sisters). She also emphasized her steadfast belief in the importance of books for the 8-12 age range, which is why Penderwicks in Spring leaps forward five years in time, allowing Batty, age 10, to be our narrator. Although Jane, Skye and Rosalind show up, we never see anything from their perspective, and Birdsall confirmed she has no desire to get inside their teenage brains. Other highlights from her talk:

  • the Penderwicks have a new sibling! Lydia, age two, was added to the story so Birdsall could write the fifth and final book from Lydia’s perspective, when she’ll be ten or so. If Lydia’s toddler personality is anything to go on, I have high hopes for the sequel.
  • by Penderwicks in Spring, faithful Hound was so old he had to die, but Birdsall was kind enough to kill him off between books. Not that it made it any easier…any mention of Hound in this book is a tearjerker.
  • Hound’s willing-to-eat-anything personality is based on a dog Birdsall had as a kid. Her dog really did eat everything, including the labels off all the canned goods in the kitchen, setting off pandemonium on the cooking front.
  • for anyone who dreads the prospect of a Penderwicks movie, fear not. Birdsall has no intention of selling the rights, and she’s not a fan of the book-to-movie route, since it ruins how every reader has imagined the book. As Birdsall pointed out, can anyone separate Harry Potter from the face of Daniel Radcliffe anymore?
  • when Birdsall first began writing, the Penderwicks were named the Pendergasts. But when Birdsall showed the draft to friend and fellow author Patricia MacLachlan, MacLachlan, with much swearing, kept getting the name wrong by adding extra “r’s” where they didn’t belong, and got so frustrated she convinced Birdsall to change the name.
  • Birdsall may be the only New Englander who welcomed this past winter. Penderwicks in Spring begins in April, when there’s still snow on the ground. But the past winters have been so mild that Birdsall considered changing the book to begin in March–until this year, when the weather confirmed that snow in April still makes sense.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame AlexanderThe 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards were remarkably diverse. We’ve got the obvious standouts, like The Crossover winning the Newbery medal, and the outpouring of love for graphic novels. In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other recent efforts, it’s a welcome change. And that got me thinking about the larger trend of diversity in children’s book awards, which led to an insane exercise where I cataloged the winners of eight kidlit book awards over eleven years.

One thing that became immediately obvious is that this year’s ALA awards bucks the trend. Consider, for instance:

  • 2015 is the first year since 2005 (Kira-Kira) that the Newbery Medal-winning book stars a character of color. Think about that. Two winners in 11 years.
  • Now compare that with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, where 6 of the past 11 winners have starred a protagonist of color (The Thing About Luck; Inside Out and Back Again; Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party; Brown Girl Dreaming)
  • If you consider protagonists from other under-represented groups (disability, LGBT, etc), then the NBA gets one more (Mockingbird), and the Printz Medal has four winners (In Darkness, Ship Breaker, American Born Chinese, I’ll Give You the Sun), but the stats for the Newbery remain unchanged. These “diverse” books (for lack of a better catch-all term) are even rarer as Caldecott Medal winners. There’s just one: Chris Raschka’s The Hello, Goodbye Window from 2006.

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Once again, it’s time to test my non-existent powers of divination. I know so little about most of this year’s judges that it’s truly a tossup for most of the matches. So here goes:

Round One

Brown Girl Dreaming vs Children of the King, Judge: Holly Black

–the Newbery curse strikes again!

The Crossover vs Egg & SpoonJudge: Isabel Quintero

El Deafo vs The Family Romanov, Judge: Elizabeth Rusch

–the hardest one yet. I basically flipped a coin.

Grasshopper Jungle vs The Key that Swallowed Joey PigzaJudge: Jo Knowles

The Madman of Piney Woods vs Poisoned Apples, Judge: G. Neri

The Port Chicago 50 vs The Story of Owen, Judge: Rachel Hartman

This One Summer vs A Volcano Beneath the Snow, Judge: Nathan Hale

–I wasn’t a big fan of either book, but Volcano was too long and read at times like a textbook, so I’m counting on This One Summer’s artwork to give it the win

We Were Liars vs West of the Moon, Judge: Kelly Barnhill

Round Two

Children of the King vs Egg & Spoon, Judge: Jason Reynolds

El Deafo vs The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, Judge: Cat Winters

The Madman of Piney Woods vs Port Chicago 50, Judge: Elizabeth Wein

This One Summer vs West of the Moon, Judge: Alaya Dawn Johnson

Round Three

Children of the King vs El Deafo, Judge: Kekla Magoon

The Madman of Piney Woods vs West of the Moon, Judge: Marcus Sedgewick

The Undead Revealed

I think Brown Girl Dreaming and El Deafo have high hopes of getting the most votes, with The Family Romanov as a possible runner-up. So that means the final round will be:

The Closing Battle

El Deafo vs The Madman of Piney Woods vs Brown Girl Dreaming, Judge Clare Vanderpool

And I’m giving the win to Madman of Piney Woods, for no other reason than a steadfast belief in the Newbery Curse. May it finally be broken this year…

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