Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best of the Year 2012

The fact that I have not posted to this blog in weeks is not going to stop me from getting in on the end-of-the-year-list goodness!  Although I have not updated this blog as much as I would like, I have still posted more this calendar year than ever before, so I'm going to celebrate with a list of my favorite things I blogged about this year:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Online Tools: Edcanvas

I feel like I've been looking for a way for students to easily create bibliographies of online resources forever.  I've tried having them copy and paste links into word or send me links using wallwisher.  But none of these methods feel particularly efficient.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Booklist: Picture Book Memoirs/Autobiographies

The curriculum at my school calls for the kindergarten students to write memoirs.  Hilarious, right?  The teachers like the students to read "mentor texts," also known as examples, before they start writing, so I'm on a quest to find excellent examples of memoirs for 5-year-olds.  Since my post on personification is one of my most popular posts ever, I thought I would share more of my picture book lists, starting with this one.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Review: We've Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson

I'd like to echo what Levinson writes in the afterward to her book: "How could I not have known?" I knew a little about the role young people played in the Civil Rights movement before reading this book, but I never knew that children played a pivotal role in reviving the Movement at a time when it was dying out.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen

I actually convinced my mock Newbery group to read this book, although for some reason I feel sheepish about it.  I think the book was just too much fun and possibly a little derivative.  But it's my favorite children's book of this year.

It begins with the theft of a large piece of meat. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

First of all, Ms. Turnage can really turn a phrase.  Her narrator, Mo LeBeau, had me in stitches with her North Carolina-flavored declarations.  Here's a sample of one of Mo's phone conversations:
"Yes Ma'am," I said, "Anna Celeste's party is Saturday but I don't need a ride ... No Ma'am.  It's because Anna Celeste is my Sworn Enemy for Life and I'd rather go face-down in a plate of raw chicken entrails than go to her party.  Plus, I'm not invited... Yes Ma'am, I'll tell the Colonel you called.  Good-bye."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

I won't mince words: I didn't like this book.  Like a lot of readers, I was confused about what this book was supposed to be.  I knew the premise--that two girls in foster care find their guardian dead and conceal the body for weeks--but the cover was so summery and beautiful that I thought the novel must really be a sort of caper. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

I think some authors are reluctant to be realistic about the racism of white people in the 1950s--especially the racism of white children.  Because, really, who wants to read a book narrated by a racist kid?  So instead they give their white protagonists an out-of-the-mouths-of-babes precious innocence about race that seems completely unrealistic to me.  So you can see why I was worried I wouldn't like this book.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review: Tracing Stars by Erin Moulton

Disclaimer: I know Erin Moulton.  She's a YA librarian at the same library where my mother is a reference librarian, so I've met her a few times and I totally think she's cool.  However, I wanted to review her book, because I truly enjoyed it.  And no one pays me to blog, so I can do what I want!  Ha!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rant: The Dewey Decimal System

I recently read a post on the digital shift (via 100 Scope Notes) about a librarian who recataloged his library using a made-up system.  Interesting stuff, although I've already read similar posts on METIS or the lovely glades at the Darien Public Library.*  What really got me was the comments.  I cannot stop thinking about the comments!  I'd comment myself, but the post is a bit old and the author hasn't weighed in again, so I'm just going to rant here instead.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Diverse Energies by 11 speculative fiction authors

The order in which the stories in Diverse Energies are arranged is smart: the first three show the range of the collection, and the last story, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is so freaking fantastic (hello, it's Ursula K. LeGuin) that everything else pales a little in comparison.  In the middle, there are a lot of dystopias set in future Asia.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rant: Nobody's talking about my Newbery favorite

Lots of people are talking about whether buzz matters or not, so I'm not counting my favorite contender out yet.  But I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing?  A reason this book, which got positive reviews, falls short of distinguished?  The book I'm talking about is The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence.  [ETA: Question answered!  Charlotte kindly points out that the book is not eligible.] 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Earlier this summer I was wishing to visit new places via fantasy books, but I have to admit that it's also satisfying to revisit a place I have long loved: Victorian London, with its scrappy orphans, dapper gentlemen, and performers of all stripes.  I've been there before, and whether I'm reading Phillip Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, Wilkie Collins's The Moon Stone, or anything by Dickens, the setting always gives me a delicious feeling of dread.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

After reading a number of possibly orientalist fantasy stories, I was looking forward to reading "a Golden Compass for the Arab Spring," as one blurb has it.  However, Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, reminds me less of The Golden Compass and more of The Historian.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review: The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

This is a Margo Lanagan novel, so I was pretty sure it was going to make me uncomfortable.  And I was right.

It's the story of an isolated town, a little island fishing community, where something cruel and deviant becomes socially acceptable.  Although the novel reminds me of news stories about Pitcairn Island, the plot's ripped from folktales, not headlines. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

This Week on the Internet: July 29-Aug 4

I've been meaning to start a weekly list of links, and since I've been exploring sites that help curate internet resources, I'm going to try to use storify for this purpose. So, here's my first installment of This Week on the Internet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Storify: Who are the real GoodReads bullies?

At first, I didn't think I had anything to say about the StopGRBullies website, because there's already a lot being said, and I barely use my GoodReads account, nor do I know any of the people involved. 

However, as a librarian, I am interested in how this story has been documented. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

The Assassin of Adarlan.  The Queen of the Underworld.  A woman who killed her overseer and 23 sentries when she attempted to escape from the salt mines of Endovier.

And she's worried about how she looks?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rape Culture in YA Fiction: Survivors can be Heroes too

Last week, on the Stacked blog, Kimberly posted an interesting discussion about rape in the Chemical Garden trilogy.  The commenters help refine her argument, so I encourage you to read the comments as well as the post.  I am always interested in what other people have to say about rape in young adult literature, because I'm often not sure what I think about it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

What if you worst insecurities were revealed--not just with words but with physical manifestations, like a rash on your skin or an angry monster that followed you around?  That's the nightmare scenario that plays out in Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos, the freakiest YA novel I've read since Libba Bray's Printz-winning Going Bovine.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Booklists: What Would Suzy Bishop Read?

That headline (<<) made me smile, because although there are many meaningless phrases we use to describe categories of books (middle grade, young adult, what do they mean?), "fantastical picture-book preteen romance" is not one of them.

Nevermind, though: Moonrise Kingdom is a consciously literary movie. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Review: Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

"I ain't never been one to trust beautiful people, and Tarrin of the Hariri was the most beautiful man I ever saw."
I had a good feeling about Annana, the pirate heroine of this novel, when I read that first line.  Sure enough, she was a loveable rascal of a narrator who made the pages fly by.  But when I got to the end of The Assasin's Curse, I didn't feel like I knew Annana or the other characters any better than I did on page one. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Booklist: Beyond Eurofantasy

Until recently, when I thought about diversity in speculative fiction, I thought about people.  Characters, authors, and readers. 

Then I discovered Martha Wells' list of fantasy books by women with settings that aren't vaguely medieval Europe-y (via Book Smugglers).  Or as she calls it "Fantasy by Women who Broke Away from Europe." And that has me thinking about place. 

Certainly, thanks partly to Tolkein and partly to Dungeons and Dragons, the majority of fantasy novels take place in quasi-Nordic, Celtic, or Medieval European settings.  The fact that science fiction and fantasy books are largely populated by white people is obviously related.  However, focusing on setting rather than character opens up new critical approaches. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix

Lots of princes in literature lately, right?  The False Prince, A Confusion of Princes, A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom ... OK, maybe that's it, but since I keep getting these titles confused with each other, it feels like a lot of princes.  And all of them are having their princely authority challenged in one way or another!

But before I talk about A Confusion of Princes, by Garth Nix, I do have to point out one sad thing: whitewashing.  Here's how the main character, Khemri, describes himself in relation to his fellow Princes:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: Broxo by Zack Giallongo

I don't often reread books, but Broxo is a title that I enjoyed very much the second time I read it.  It takes place at the top of an icy, barren mountain that reminded me of "The Wall" in The Game of Thrones ... especially when the zombies appeared.

A young barbarian/Viking-looking princess named Zora climbs to the top of the mountain, on a mission to find the Peryton clan.  But all she finds is a boy about her age named Broxo and a giant, shaggy dog with a single horn, like a unicorn.  His name is Migo.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coates

I have a special place in my heart for stories of rebellion against the English crown.  Maybe it's my Irish blood.  Maybe it's also the fact that my father read Robin Hood, The Quiet Man, and The Scottish Chiefs* out loud to me when I was 10.

I'd love to write about the odd and profound effect these books had on me, but this is supposed to be a review of The Wicked and the Just.  So just note that I am predisposed to adore books set in the medieval era and focusing on rebellions against England.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Does Amazon love books?

I don't listen to many podcasts, because I find them boring, the way I do most TV shows, which is probably because I don't stick with them long enough.  (I wish children's books podcasts were more like PTI.  I enjoy arguing.)  However, I do like the NYT Book Review podcast, and I particularly like last week's episode, because it touches on two issues near and dear to my heart: Amazon and children's book reviews.

In the section on Amazon, Sam Tannenhaus asks something I've been wondering: why do all the major innovations in reading and publishing seem to be driven by Amazon?  For a while, I have perceived Amazon as the big bad, so I was surprised when Nancy Pearl, whose action figure I often receive as a gift, signed a deal with them.  I thought it was the position of librarians to dislike Amazon--especially now that they are encroaching on our territory.  However, my boyfriend often declares, "Nobody loves books more than Amazon."  I think he has a point.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves

As soon as I realized the main character in Bleeding Violet was an Afro-Viking, I had to read it.  I've also been meaning to read The Girl who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow and Quicksand by Nella Larsen, but those books don't have monsters.

Afro-Viking is a cool word for the child of a Scandinavian parent and an African or African-American parent.  I'm not positive the main character in Bleeding Violet counts, because her mother is African-American and her father is Finnish.  Finland is not always considered part of Scandinavia.  But I rarely get to use the term Afro-Viking, so I'm going to keep using it until someone corrects me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"To the degree that we can ... replace books with people, that’s the future of where libraries are going.”

That's Anthony Marx, the President of New York Public Library, quoted in a 2011 article in The Nation.  He's talking about a plan to convert the Central Library to a circulating library as well as research facility.  The plan involves ripping out a lot of stacks, adding a lot of computers, and closing two branches to pay for the renovation.  I learned about the plan from a passing comment on the Fuse#8 blog--a Guardian article on the subject makes it clear staff are discouraged (forbidden?) from commenting.  However, library users have not been silent.  And there are some irate Slavic scholars out there.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Review: Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

I was immediately captured by the cover of this book, and my interest in the book led me to the Strange Chemistry website.  Strange Chemistry is a new imprint of Angry Robot, and they've compiled some pretty fantastic lists of recommended fantasy and science fiction.  The lists make me feel like they're positioning themselves on the geeky side of YA fantasy and sci-fi.  And that's a really good thing.  That's where Joss Whedon likes to hang out, right?  While paranormal romance and dystopia have somehow moved into the mainstream, there are still a lot of teens out there who like the kinda uncool stuff, like cosplay and elves.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Review: Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

The story of Liar and Spy is told by Georges, a seventh grade boy named after Georges Seurat (more about the paintings of Georges Seurat in a minute).  There's something wrong with Georges, but you can't put your finger on what it is. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

New GC4K Core Title List and Superhero Comics for Children

When the peeps at the Good Comics for Kids blog published their first core title list, I think I called it the most helpful thing on the internet that month.  Well, it's been updated!  And in addition to pointing you to the new list, I wanted to break out one category and look at the choices.

So let's look at superhero and commercial properties (by which I mean characters owned by companies and depicted across platforms, like Transformers, Avatar, Ninjago).  I want to look at this category, because it's still an overlooked and sometimes maligned category.  Although we know how important these action series can be in the development of readers, I think librarians get nervous about buying series that might just be thoughtless spin-offs of games and TV shows. 

For example, there's a new Avatar GN written by Gene Luen Yang.  Gene Luen Yang, people!  I assumed the librarians would be all over that.  But there isn't a single copy in a public library in RI.  Apparently, a fear of comics featuring commercial properties is stronger than the power of a Printz winner's name recognition.

There are also fewer real comic-y comics published for kids.  Although kids love to read superhero comics, as a school librarian, I only buy comics that are intended for children, and that really narrows the field. That's why I think it's important to know which GN featuring popular characters are worth buying, because there are good ones out there, and they mean a lot to some of our readers.

Here's what the GC4K contributors recommend for grades 3-5:
Baltazar, Art and Franco. Tiny Titans series. Illus. by Art Baltazar. DC Comics.  2009-ongoing. 5 vols.
Fisch, Sholly. The All-New Batman: Brave and the Bold, vol 1. Illus. by Rick Burchett. DC Comics, 2011. 128p.
Star Wars Adventures series. Various authors and illustrators. Dark Horse. 2009-ongoing. 4 vols.
Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures series. Various authors and illustrators. Dark Horse. 2004-2007. 10 vols.
Transformers Animated series. Various authors and illustrators. IDW. 2008-2010. 13 vols.
Walker, Landry Q. Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade. Illus. by Eric Jones. DC Comics, 2009. 144p.
I want to briefly note for purchasing purposes that some of these DC titles will be available in hardcover through Capstone this fall, and the Star Wars hardcovers are available through ABDO (Spotlight). 

So there you go: a focused list with which you can introduce kids to important characters in the American canon.  Add to that the Marvel picture books I reviewed and you've got a nice superhero collection for young children. I'd add the Ralph Cosentino books, too, actually--especially for the Wonder Woman book.  And whatever you do, don't skip the Star Wars, because it features characters of many colors.  (I haven't read all of the others, so I'm not saying they don't.)

Now I'm going to take my own advice and get the Transformers GNs for my library.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: Legends of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Here's the short version of my review: Is the second Zita book as awesome as the first one?  Yes.  And since the first one was pretty much my favorite children's GN ever, I'm just going to try not to gush too much.  Ready?  Go.

In the first installment of Zita's adventures, she accidentally zaps her friend to another planet.  Her search for her friend drives the plot, and while she ends up saving the planet, that's mostly a bonus.

However, in this second installment, Zita is famous for her planet-saving.  Everywhere she goes, aliens beg her for autograph.  So when a robot shows up who can do a remarkable impression of Zita, our heroine is happy to take the afternoon off. Unfortunately, by the time the afternoon is over, robot Zita has accepted a mission to save another planet and real Zita's friends have taken off without her.

Despite the "spacegirl" in the title, I read the first Zita book as a fantasy.  When Zita pressed that irresistible red button and followed her friend across the universe, it was like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or Lucy pushing aside the last fur coat.  There was no real scientific explanation for how Zita traveled, and when she arrived, there were alien lifeforms wearing top hats and speaking in Cockney accents--not to mention talking animals and a man with a magical flute.  As a regular fantasy reader, I felt very much at home.

The second book is unmistakeably sci-fi--not because there's any hard science, but because there are  recognizable sci-fi scenes: Zita in an escape pod shooting past stars, robot police stomping down hallways, maverick pilots repairing clunky spacecraft.  There's a beautiful cuteness to all of these scenes that seems Japanese-influenced to me.  This could be a superficial observation.  I see many-tentacled creatures and adorable robots and I think Japanese!  But there's a spacecraft that looks an awful lot like Howl's Moving Castle.  And there are mecha.

Look's like Howl's Moving Castle, no?
The second book is also wider in scope and more action-packed.  It introduces two new characters, and with them, a more complex network of relationships.  I didn't have as strong of feelings for these new characters as a did for the crew in the first book, but that's not necessarily a criticism.  I think it's partly because there's more action than character development, partly because the new characters are less helpless, and partly because the author puts more distance between Zita and the reader.  The characters from the first book make brief appearances at the end, but you have to have read the first book to appreciate their role.

What I mean about the distance between Zita and the reader is this: in the first book, we see everything through Zita's eyes.  This time around, Zita's reputation precedes her.  We see posters of Zita before we see her, and the author gives us glimpses of scenes in which she doesn't appear.  Because we're not inside Zita's head all the time, there are also moments when she seems less noble than she does in the first book, like when she steals a random space craft to chase after her friends.  Also, when she saves the day at the end of the story, she seems driven more by a desire to establish her identity than to protect others from harm.  It's the slightly disreputable nature of both Zita and the motley crew she falls in with that really intrigue me about this series. 

Needless to say, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next in Zita's saga.  Since Legends ends in a cliffhanger, I'm sure there's more to come.  I wonder whether the series will continue in picaresque form or whether there's an over-arching storyline that hasn't really been introduced.  Is there a reason why the red button landed in Zita's backyard?  Are characters like Piper and Pizaccato looking out for her on purpose?  Are the police after her for more than the stealing of someone's ship?  I'm not saying I think Zita is some kind of "chosen one."  After all, the first book pokes fun at that kind of plot.  Plus Zita's too much of a space cowboy.  I mean girl.  But I'm kind of hoping for an epic battle of good and evil. 

This book is sure to please fans of the first book as well as devotees of the Amulet series.  I also think that the uptick in action will make this a good recommendation for kids who like Missile Mouse and perhaps manga series like Neon Genesis Evangelion ... not that the kids are reading that these days.  I'm trying to think of robot manga that the kids are reading these days and I'm drawing a blank.  But kids still like robots, right?  I know they do.  In fact, Zita is now officially one of the many graphic novels that are making sci-fi cool at my urban elementary school library.  So, go robots! 

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl will be published Sept. 4, 2012.  I got a copy from NetGalley.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ha ha! Or I could just read the directions

Today I noticed that NetGalley totally has instructions for downloading galleys to your ipad using Bluefire!  I might try that app, too, but I'm a little worried about overusing my Adobe ID.  For now, I am happy with my German solution.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Can't stop me, Apple!

I was all excited about NetGalley until I realized that they used Adobe Digital Editions.  I was planning on reading the ebooks on my ipad, but ADE doesn't work on ipads.  Curse you, Flash wars!  Curse you, DRM!

After I got that out of my system, I searched the boards, and it turns out it's not even hard to read ADE PDFs on an ipad.  You just need Textr.  Since Textr has been around for 2 years, it's possible that my fellow bloggers using NetGalley already know this, but with thanks to those who already posted on this topic, I'm offering this short how-to for other ipad users:

You need to create an Adobe ID if you don't already have one.

Then install ADE on another computer (not your ipad, although my ibook plays nice).

Download the Textr app to your ipad.  This will prompt you to create a Textr account.

In the Textr app, go to settings and enter your Adobe ID.

Download your NetGalley or other ebook to the computer where you installed ADE and open the ebook in ADE.

On the same computer, go to the Textr website and login. 

Once you're logged in, click on My Books.  Click on upload.  Navigate to the Digital Editions folder on your computer (mine's in my documents).  Select the PDF you want to read on your ipad and upload.

Open Textr on your ipad and your book will be there!

I'm currently reading a NetGalley of a GN, and there's a little bit of lag before the images appear clearly, but it's readable, and I am victorious!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

This was my first Polly Horvath book, and that makes me feel like I might not be qualified to review it.  I've met some Polly Horvath fans, and they get a mushy look on their faces when they talk about her.  I think there might be some Horvath tropes that I didn't recognize and therefore didn't fully appreciate.  So I'm going to dive in, but here's the thing: I didn't immediately like the book.  But here's the other thing: The bunnies ultimately won me over. 

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny--Detectives Extraordinaire! begins with Madeline, a girl living in a remote part of Canada with her ditzy, hippie parents.  These are not endearingly eccentric hippie parents; these are annoyingly selfish ones who refuse to understand why their daughter wants to go to her 6th grade graduation, where none other than Prince Charles is scheduled to hand out the awards.  Thus responsible, resourceful Madeline waitresses at a local restaurant until she has enough money to buy the white shoes required for graduation herself.  She is walking home at night with the money in her pocket when a car speeds past her, almost knocking her off the road.  The car appears to be driven by foxes.  When she arrives home, there is a note stuck to the fridge: indeed, foxes have kidnapped her parents.

I really shouldn't explain any further, because the story is delightfully nonsensical.  Suffice it to say that Madeline hooks up with two bunnies who have recently moved to the city and bought fedoras with the desire of becoming detectives.  They take the case of her parents' kidnap by foxes, but they are often distracted by meetings of the local hat club and the need for home baked snacks.

One of the reasons I started to lose patience with the book is that all the adult characters, from Madeline's parents to the bunnies, are similarly dense.  The conversations Madeline has with these characters are funny, but they are all funny in the same way: the adults can't seem to stay on topic.  For example, when Madeline explains the situation to her uncle:
"Madeline, dear," he said when she burst in.  "What are you doing here?  Or am I imagining you?  My fever keeps spiking.  Still, why imagine you?  Why not imagine a piece of pie instead?" ...
Madeline ignored this departure into pie and gave him an organized and coherent account of events before handing him the note. 
"Extraordinary," he murmured.  Then he sighed.  "Still I do think you'd make a better piece of pie ... You don't suppose you could make an effort to be pie?"
Madeline doesn't meet the bunnies until one third of the way through the book, and by the time she has the same kind of loopy conversation with them (after they make her hop over 37 hills to get to their hutch for lunch), I was as frustrated as Madeline.  However, I stuck with the book because by then the bunnies had grown on me. 

Mr. and Mrs Bunny made me think of grandparents with cell phones.  The two of them have lots of enthusiasm, just enough knowledge to be dangerous, and no shame.  Mr. Bunny wears platform disco shoes so he can reach the pedals of his smart car.  Mrs. Bunny knits fashionable items out of used dental floss.  With their old fashioned appreciation of school graduations and hat clubs, and their sincere desire to reassure Madeline (even when they have no idea what they are talking about), the bunnies are a foil for Madeline's parents.  They're also hilarious in that old-married-couple-on-a-sitcom way, where they're always gently undermining each other and paying each other back for their jabs and jokes, but ultimately going to bat for each other.  I particularly liked when Mr. Bunny cried, "Mrs. Bunny, you have more enthusiasm than brains!" while following her into the fray.

Of course, the important question is, will kids love it?  I think they will, and I think the repetition will soothe rather than frustrate them.  However, like me, I think they will hanker for a little more villainous action.  The foxes are great bad guys, but they only make two appearances, and they seem lacking in commitment to their evil plan.  There are also a number of plot points that seem like they are going to be weaved into the stunning conclusion, such as a scientific article on explosives that Mr. Bunny is reading, which turn out to be irrelevant.  I wonder if these red herring plot points are signature Horvath elements.  I feel a bit as though the joke's on me as the reader for trying to make sense of a nonsensical book.

In conclusion, I think I should have started with a different Horvath book, because I definitely understand her charm after reading this one, but I feel vaguely disappointed by the way it ended.  Perhaps that is partly the disappointment of knowing I will not be having any more kooky conversations with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny.  Perhaps it is also the disappointment of knowing that Madeline is going to go back to living with her helpless parents rather than her new animal friends.  (In the flurry of events at the end of the book, she barely has time to say good-bye, which I think hurt my feelings as well as Mr. Bunny's!)  Perhaps it's just the disappointment of being done with a wonderful book.  It's the same disappointment you feel when you're waving out a car window to someone you love.  And if a book can make you feel that way .... well, I think I might have a mushy look on my face after all. 

Ah, but I would be remiss if I did not mention the occasional black-and-white illustrations.  I adore Sophie Blackall, and her tendency to decorate her characters' clothing with playful patterns is put to good use here.  The animals' faces are toothy and not too cute, and the picture in which Madeline gets stuck in the doorway to the bunnies' house evokes just the right amount of Alice in Wonderland.  There are a few action shots where the perspective seems to be a bit wonky, which is weird since the running scenes in Big Red Lollipop were some of the most masterful.  However, it could be the weirdness of seeing bunnies and people running around together.  They are very different sizes, you see.  But apparently, the bunnies are large enough to drive smart cars as long as they have platform shoes.  Surely, this is easier to imagine than to draw.

I do think the last illustration is perfect: Madeline is on stage talking to Prince Charles, and at the foot of the stage are two rows of the backs of people's heads, and at the very back are the silhouettes of two bunny heads.  I  missed them the first time I looked, which perfectly illustrates what Prince Charles says to Madeline on the stage: "I've often heard animals speak.  Plants, too.  It's all a matter of noticing, isn't it?  The richness of our lives depends on what we are willing to notice and what we are willing to believe."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Garbology! I must use you in a lesson!

I'm on a roll today.  Also, here's where I'm getting this stuff.  You know how AASL has its annual best websites for teaching and learning?  Well, they're not the only organization giving out awards for excellent websites.  I just discovered the Webby awards!  They have awards for great sites in about a zillion categories, but I found the Best Use of Animation and (duh) Education categories to be most relevant to what I do.

Anyway, here's my other find: Garbology.

Description: Users drag and drop an item on the bottom into the right receptacle (trash, recycling, compost, or "reuse") and are treated to a short animation that teaches them about how products are made and what happens to them after they are disposed of.

The animation is broken into short clips and in between, users sometimes have the chance to play around with what's on the screen.  When they're done, they click "next."  An example of how they can play around is dragging a slider to show a banana in various stages of decay.

It reminds me a lot of an interactive ebook or an app, because it sort of has pages, but on each page there are animations and/or interactive features.

Curriculum connection: Science!  Specifically conservation, recycling, natural resources, compost, and consumerism
Technology Required: Flash, audio equipment (sound is integral)
Skills Required: Reading, Dragging and Dropping, Clicking "next"
Grade Level: 3rd and 4th (because of concepts like "global warming" getting thrown around ... 2nd grade could probably have fun with it, too, although they wouldn't get all of it.)
Teacher Involvement: I think students can do this one pretty independently.  It's also somewhat linear--they can click next and back, but they have to complete each section before moving on.
Advertising: No
Login/Personal Information Required: No
Quirks: When I tried to start the game a second time without closing my browser in between, the play button didn't work.  Restarting my browser solved the problem.
Bonus: The site has some nice lesson plans, too.

Stickman! I must use you in a lesson!

I've been trying to find websites for a third grade research project, and while following a weird tangent, I discovered this website.

It's like Adventures in Cartooning came to life!  Surely this must teach something.  As soon as I figure out what I learned by assisting in the development of a webshort staring a stickfigure of my own making, I will create a lesson around it.

I'm thinking either basic mouse skills, which I do with first and second grade, or storytelling.  Or perhaps I could relate it to Diary of a Wimpy Kid?  Jeff Kinney's website also allows you to create a stick figure ...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Eisner Nominations

Here are the ones I care about:

Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 7)
Beauty and the Squat Bears, by Émile Bravo (Yen Press)
Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, by Philippe Coudray (Candlewick/Toon Books)
Dragon Puncher Island, by James Kochalka (Top Shelf)

I'm thrilled that Dragon Puncher Island has been nominated. It's one of the most delightfully weird books I bought for my library this year, popular across grades. If you haven't read the series (the first one is just called Dragon Puncher), it involves a catlike creature who hunts dragons and a small furry creature who wants to be the catlike creature's sidekick. What the furry creature brings to the table: a spoon, called spoony, with which he will beat the dragons.

Nursery Rhyme Comics, edited by Chris Duffy (First Second)
Patrick in a Teddy Bear’s Picnic, by Geoffrey Hayes (Candlewick/Toon Books)

Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12)
The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold, by Sholly Fisch, Rick Burchett, and Dan Davis (DC)
Amelia Rules: The Meaning of Life ... And Other Stuff, by Jimmy Gownley (Atheneum)
The Ferret’s a Foot, by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue (Graphic Universe/Lerner)

I was thinking about Colleen Venable's Guinea P.I. series last night as I read one of the Joey Fly Private Eye graphic novels. Unfortunately, reading the Joey Fly GN was like reading one of those kids activity books about fire prevention or Halloween safety. It wasn't even trying to teach me anything, but the heavy handed narration made me feel like I was supposed to learn something. Maybe in this case, it was a lesson in the P.I. trope. Anyway, Guinea P.I. is the opposite: Hilarious! Kids can love a grumpy guinea pig solving mysteries whether or not they get the noir motif.

Princeless, by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin (Action Lab)
Snarked, by Roger Langridge (kaboom!)
Zita the Space Girl, by Ben Hatke (First Second)

Zita the Spacegirl is another favorite from this year. Something crashes out of the sky and presents Zita and her friend with a remote control that has one tempting red button on it. Zita presses it and her friend rockets to another dimension. When I think of the book, the first image that pops into my head is Zita hiding in the woods, hugging her knees and crying, right before she goes back to the scene of the crash and pushes the button again, following her friend into the unknown.

Best Publication for Young Adults (Ages 12-17)
Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol (First Second)
Around the World, by Matt Phelan (Candlewick)
Level Up, by Gene Yang and Thien Pham (First Second)
Life with Archie, by Paul Kupperberg, Fernando Ruiz, Pat & Tim Kennedy, Norm Breyfogle et al. (Archie)
Mystic, by G. Willow Wilson and David Lopez (Marvel)

Read all about it ...

Now I really need to get my hands on a Princeless. Usually I wait for a TPB, but this one has more buzz than a hornet's nest, and it's, like, so perfect for my library. And I've never heard of the Beauty and the Squat Bears, but now that I've read the synopsis, I'm fascinated.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games for second graders

Last week, all my second and third graders were asking me for The Hunger Games, which I don't have in my elementary school library. So I read them Hansel and Gretel. At first, I wondered why it popped into my head, but it makes weird sense: kids fighting for their survival in the woods, violent deaths, same initial letters.

And then this weekend I started reading The Uses of Enchantment, by Bruno Bettelheim. I know Maurice Sendak has called him "Beno Brutalheim" and I know that there are many more recent feminist discussions of fairy tales that I probably should read, but I wanted to start by seeing what Bruno had to say for himself, and I came across this passage, just a few pages into the book:
The acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life. We all tend to assess the future merits of an activity on the basis of what it offers now. But this is especially true of the child, who, much more than the adult, lives in the present, and, although he has anxieties about his future, has only the vaguest notions of what it may require or be like. The idea that learning to read may enable one later to enrich one's life is experienced as an empty promise when the stories the child listens to, or is reading at the moment, are vacuous.
That perfectly expresses my criticism of so many reading curricula, including the one used at my school.

I think this is going to be an important book in my professional life.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The good news and the bad news about the Hunger Games

The bad news is that Katniss is played by a white girl, even though the book describes her as olive-skinned and dark-haired.

The good news is that a number of significant characters are played by people of color.

The bad news is that some audience members were so offended that Rue and Thresh were played by black people, even though the book describes both characters as dark-skinned, that they posted predictably but still infuriatingly stupid comments in Twitter. (Lenny Kravitz as Cinna was not as big a deal, apparently, although there was some stuff about him on Twitter when the movie posters first came out.)

The good news is that Rue and Thresh elicited the most powerful emotional reactions of any characters in the film, and that isn't allowed to happen in the mainstream media as often as it should be.

The bad news is that Rue and Thresh were sort of magical negroes.

The good news is that the book is better than the movie, because it spends more time developing Rue and Thresh's characters. Oh yeah, and in the book, we could see Katniss as a woman of color.

At least, that's what I got out of the debate. I also like the New Yorker blog post, which talks about how rarely blackness is equated with innocence and how often white readers just assume everyone's white--at least everyone they find themselves caring about.

I wonder what Suzanne Collins will eventually say, if she says anything.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Tall Story by Candy Gourlay

At the children's literature discussion last Wednesday, Cheryl read the first few sentences of Tall Story, and someone who hadn't read it was like, that narration is so teenage boy:
"Rush hour.
So many armpits, so little deoderant. The whole world is heading out to Heathrow to meet long-lost relatives. I am wedged between the tummies of the two fattest men in the world.
Rank" (1).
Guess what? The narrator is a girl! I loved Andi for being a 13-year-old girl whose main problem is that her parents are making her switch schools just when she made point guard on the basketball team. Her problem is not, "Oh no, all my girlfriends are getting into hair and make-up and boys and I just want to be a tom boy." Thank you, Candy Gourlay!

However, it took me a little while to warm up to Andi. I thought it was cool that she was a pint-sized point guard with spikey hair who didn't mind being mistaken for a boy. But I didn't click with her instantly.

What drew me into the book was her brother, Bernardo, who lives halfway around the world in the Philippines and is 8 feet tall. Eight feet tall! Andi's mom wants Bernardo to join her new family in London, but you know how immigration is. The paperwork finally goes through near the beginning of the book. This is great news, but complicated, because 1) Bernardo's mom doesn't know he's 8 feet tall, and 2) the people of the town where Bernardo lives believe he's their savior. How can the savior abandon his people?

The chapters alternate between Andi's and Bernardo's perspectives, and Bernardo's side of the story is what won me over. He describes a town carved out of the mountains by giants, populated with larger-than-life tailors, barbers, and witches. While Andi tells a straightforward story of adolescent angst, Bernardo is a secretive, sensitive narrator with a strange, almost magical story to tell.

The only problem with these alternating chapters is that they don't go in chronological order. The novel starts with Bernardo and Andi meeting at the airport. I thought of this as sort of the midpoint of the narrative. After starting in the middle, the narrative goes back a few years to the last time that Bernardo saw his mom, then it goes forward a few years to when Andi finds out that her family is moving. And it keeps zig-zagging around like that so it wasn't always clear when things are happening.

At other times, the author uses the alternating view points to great effect. When Bernardo shows up in England, we see his velcro suit and sandals with black socks through Andi's eyes and we hear his broken English through Andi's ears. But in the next chapter, we get to hear Bernardo's true voice, the way he sounds in his head. It's a multifaceted look at the immigration experience. Very smart.

By the end of the novel I was racing through the short chapters. There were near-death experiences, rabid dogs, earthquakes, curses, and season-ending basketball games. I wish the beginning of the novel introduced the themes and plot lines a little more elegantly, only because I really want kids to stick with this story. What the book lacks in narrative structure it more than makes up for in voice and vision.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Strange Chemistry

How beautiful is this cover art? I'm really excited for this publisher's debut in Sept. Meanwhile, I'm liking their lists of essential YA fantasy.

The book is Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and the artwork is by Steven Wood. Apparently, it's about Roanoke Colony. From the blurb:

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony.


Now I love E. Lockhart forever

I think I already loved E. Lockhart, but she did exactly what I hoped she would do in her decision: choose Chime and take Daughter down a peg. Love this line:
"the incredibly romantic ending of Chime had great strength, because it wasn’t a fantasy of a bad man tamed—it was the fantasy of loving a deeply good man, and how healing that can be."
And on a timely note, I think Hunger Games demonstrates that when you put the damaged bad boy and the nurturing nice guy in the same book, the nice boy wins.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Never fear, white people are here.

I could relate this to children's books--how many characters of color exist in children's literature just to help the white character have some kind of revelation?--but I think everyone should read what Teju Cole says about the White Savior Industrial Complex, whether it has anything to do with kidlit or not.

Elephant and Piggie and the fear of death

Psyched about the Slate Book Review but not sure what to make of this essay on Elephant and Piggie. Is the author serious? Or taking things a little too seriously?

Too school for cool

I stumbled on this thanks to the Morning News Tournament of Books. Is that what everyone thinks about the Newbery? That it's medicinal?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Have you been following the SLJ Battle of the Kids books?

My favorite decision so far has been Jeff Kinney's. Partly because he did not choose Okay for Now and partly because he admitted that he hasn't read a book in over a year. All he does is listen to audiobooks. Oh, and partly because he didn't complain about having to choose a winner. I hate it when the judges do that.

However, the decision I am most looking forward to is the next one: E. Lockhart chooses between Chime and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It's interesting because the books are actually well-matched: both supernatural romance stories with evocative settings and killer girl heroines. And E. Lockhart is sassy, so I'm pretty sure she won't disappoint me by equivocating.

I also hope she'll agree with me that Chime should be crowned. I loved the first two-thirds of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I lost interest when it went back in time to the epic love story. I respect non-linear storytelling, but the book lost its intensity and drive when it was no longer about solving the mystery of everyone's identity and reopening the portals between worlds.

Also, epic love is a little boring. I'm not sure why. But judge Sara Zarr seems to feel the same way. I loved what she said about it: "This kind of all-consuming Romeo-and-Juliet-impossible-love romance has become what is to me a less interesting version of a greater question: Can love that is not romantic be powerful enough to triumph and change circumstances and people (or angels, or chimaera) in meaningful ways?"

So I'm enjoying the Battle of the Kids Books, but in comparing it to the Morning News Tournament of Books, I do find it lacking in the commentary department. The judges give you their experience of the book, so I'd like the commentators to connect the decisions to trends and issues in the field of kidlit ... instead of just saying whether they agree or disagree.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

A short review this time, ladies and gentlemen: Hurray for Asian heartthrobs! The End.

Just kidding. But seriously, I'm always on the lookout for leading Asian men in YA lit, because my boyfriend's Asian, and one thing he often points out is how rare it is to see an Asian man paired with a black or white woman in the media. You'll see Asian women with black or white men, but not the other way around. He believes this is related to the long history of stereotyping Asian men as asexual. So that's another fun game to play while watching commercials: tallying the varieties of interracial couples!

While I'm on the subject, shout-out to Jenny Han's North of Beautiful, which features a wonderfully complex Asian love interest.

Now back to Cinder. This book is based on a concept I wish I'd thought of: setting a fairytale in the future. Donna Jo Napoli, Gail Carson Levine, and Shannon Hale have mined the rich vein of fairytale plots for a number of popular and acclaimed novels. But usually, they use historical settings. Cinder is straight-up Sci-Fi. I can see this launching a whole subgenre, the way Pride and Prejudice and Zombies launched a mash-up subgenre including Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Android Karenina. Perhaps this book is even related to that adult lit phenomenon.

In this case, our Cinderella character is a cyborg mechanic working in future East Asia, where a strange plague is mowing down citizens. Cinder tries to hide her cyborg status, because cyborgs are considered second class citizens who can be drafted or sold by their legal guardians to undergo plague research--in other words, to be infected with a disease that has no cure and kills within days. Thus, Cinder tries to keep on the good side of her guardian, harvesting parts from the dump to keep her repair service running and handing over all the proceeds.

Shortly after we meet Linh Cinder, her market stall is visited by a surprising customer: Prince Kai. He wants her to repair an outdated robot. Mysterious, eh? Some chapters of the novel are told from the Prince's perspective, and he has problems of his own: his father has just been infected with the plague and he's being pressured to marry the evil ruler of a colony on the moon. Everyone on Earth fears the "Lunars," because they have evolved differently from Earth-bound humans, developing the ability to manipulate the thoughts and emotions of people around them.

Now, this is one aspect of the book that confused me a little. The story is set in future East Asia, and most characters have Asian names. The prince has "copper" eyes and straight dark hair, so I assume he has some Asian physical characteristics, and I assume the other characters with Asian names do, too. The Lunars, on the other hand, are described as almost preternaturally pale (milky white skin, etc.). So wouldn't the Lunars stand out in an Asian community? However, we learn part way through the book that there are a number of Lunars hiding in plain sight. So I guess it's better to assume that future East Asia is a very diverse community.

This is believable, since the story is set 200 years in the future--plenty of time for migration and intermarriage. And I bet the author didn't want readers to put her futuristic characters in census survey categories. But I wish she's been more explicit about the appearance of the characters since the plot hinged on Lunars being able to blend in. Since she wasn't explicit, you can actually read the novel as though everyone in future East Asia is white.

Although I had questions about the future society in which the story is set, I did like the setting: a gritty, high-tech city overlooked by a gleaming castle and research facility. I also found the main characters endearing, although I didn't find their romance entirely believable. But what really kept me reading were the more villainous characters--the doctor who studies Cinder and the Lunar Queen. The doctor was interesting because he was hard to figure out--he did some despicable things but didn't seem cruel. You could sense that he had reasons for conducting his experiments on cyborgs, and I found him interesting precisely because I didn't trust him. And the queen was wonderful because she was just so powerful. With a villain that evil and in control, you really wonder how the characters will defeat her.

Of course, you don't find out in this book, because it's the first in a series, which I didn't realize until I got pretty close to the end. In fact, despite what I liked about the book, I wasn't sure I wanted to finish it. I guessed some of the twists way before the author confirmed them, and I wasn't sure there were any surprises left. But as I got closer to the end, I found myself sucked into the action. One thing I can definitely praise this book for is the rollicking good story. There were times when I wondered why Cinder wasn't working a little harder on repairing the prince's android, but I can't complain about the pace at the end. It was action-packed!

So after going back and forth about this first installment, I can promise I'll be reading part two. I think this book had brilliant ideas plus a few problems in execution. It still stands out as a romantic adventure story with plenty of action and a unique concept. Oh, and a sweet Asian hero.

*Edited to add: And there's a prequel called Glitches on the Tor site (via Read Now Sleep Later)! You can also buy a Kindle whatever-you-call-it-one-shot thing. But I remain conflicted about Kindle things. My favorite line from the prequel: "Condensation sprang up on Cinder’s steel hand as she went from the chilled air to the house’s warm entryway." And check out the artwork! The illustrator shows sketches and explains the concept here. Something about the Lunar Chronicles seems to inspire the kind of art I want on my wall.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

Everyone treats Lucky Linderman like he's crazy since he proposed this for a social studies project: poll the students in the freshman class to see how they would kill themselves. But Lucky's not suicidal. He's just sick of being bullied by Nader McMillan, whose been torturing him since they were seven. And Lucky's not crazy, either. He just dreams about rescuing his grandfather from a POW camp in Vietnam. And then wakes up with bits of the jungle in his bed.

Lucky explains all of this while he's on an impromptu vacation to his Uncle's house in Arizona. His mom takes him there after Nader attacks him at the town pool and Lucky's father, as usual, shrugs it off.

The pace of the book is unusual. It's never boring but I didn't have a strong sense of where it was going. In fact, that's making it hard to write a summary, because I don't know where to stop. There are so many important things to talk about, but many of them aren't revealed until the novel is pretty well developed. This is compounded by the fact that Lucky doesn't exactly tell the story in order. I also couldn't tell which characters were going to be the good guys and the bad guys (with the exception of Nader who was a total villain). But together, this made it all more real.

Another thing I liked about the book is that the author never cops out. There's no it-was-all-a-dream and no bullies-are-just-misunderstood. The bad stuff is bad. And it's real. Including the things that happen in Lucky's dreams. They may not be real in the strictest sense of the word, but they're not just a delusion either. Without ever explaining it, the author shows that Lucky is truly connecting with his grandfather--who he's never met--in his dreaming life. I liked this so much, I think, partly because I was so burnt by Going Bovine, which didn't seem at all real at the end.

And speaking of real, the characters in this book are so real, that I'm still trying to decide if I like one of them. Maybe that's not so weird, but I can't think of this ever having happened before. Usually I know how I feel about characters, and usually I think I know how the author wants me to feel about a character. But with Ginny, I'm still veeeeeeeery conflicted. And before I explain further, I just have to point out that Ginny doesn't even talk to Lucky until page 131. How often is a significant character introduced halfway through the book? Cool.

Anyway, Ginny is a slightly older, fantastically attractive hair model Lucky meets in Arizona. Her parents treat her like a paycheck, so she sneaks out after dark to practice the Vagina Monologues with her butch friends. Lucky thinks she's fantastic, but I didn't dig the way she dragged him around like a lovesick puppy. I thought she got off on his attention, and I wasn't sure the Vagina Monologues were really about being free: I thought they were about rebelling against her parents.

And then there's this really weird scene in which Ginny is letting Lucky "practice" kissing her, while telling him that the first time a girl has sex is "pretty much never romantic." She warns Lucky: "So don't put any high expectations on it. Just try to get through it without hurting anyone ... Guys hate being out of control. And they hate emotions. And they hate feeling let down. So try not to take it out on the girl." She keeps insisting that Lucky has never thought about this stuff and that he needs to think about this stuff so he doesn't end up like "a date rapist or something." This is in between kissing him and telling him it means nothing.

Perhaps now you can see why I don't like Ginny. And I realize it's unfair for me to assume that Ginny is speaking for the author here, but I feel this authorial presence, this message coming through the prose. It's the only moment in the book where I was really aware that a woman had written it. Hmmmmm. I think I don't like it because there's no counterargument. Ginny makes these really negative statements about guys, and Lucky seems to accept them. No one else in the novel speaks up for guys. The only men in the novel are passive (Lucky's dad) or philandering (Lucky's uncle). Lucky himself is pretty wonderful, and maybe that's enough. But Lucky's been through so much crap that Ginny delivering this speech to him, of all people, seems harsh.

But another cool thing is that even though it's becoming clear that I don't like Ginny at all, that in no way diminishes my love of the book. If anything, it increases it. I love books that make me feel something, and this one definitely got to me. There's so much more I could say, but I'm going to stop and return it to the library so someone else can read it instead. I need more people I can talk to about it. It's definitely a conversation-starter.

Review: Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin

Are you suspicious of literary devices in children’s books? I guess I am.

What it's all about

I just finished Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and I am sincerely impressed. It’s the story of a little boy whose father is arrested the night before the boy is supposed to join the “Young Pioneers,” which are sort of like Stalinist boy scouts. Raised to be a good Communist, the boy is sure there’s been some mistake and that Stalin will fix everything in time for the induction ceremony.

The reader senses the truth from the beginning: that the boy is now truly alone. Not only will his father never return, but the other adults in his life will turn away from him. Even his kindly aunt fears that taking him in will brand her as a traitor, too.

However, what makes this book a true thriller is that our protagonist, Sergei, as well as two other outcast boys in his class, take matters into their own hands. They don’t wait for the adults to save the day. When the nose is broken off of a statue of Stalin in the school hallway—an “unspeakably monstrous crime,” according to the principal—each boy uses the act of vandalism to carry out a small rebellion.

I loved this book. Some people have said children would need a basic understanding of Russian history to appreciate it, but I completely disagree. The narrator may live in Stalinist Russia, but he doesn’t understand it. We discover the true, twisted nature of the regime along with Sergei. And you don’t need to understand the politics to appreciate the message about figuring out right and wrong for yourself.

Why I mention literary devices

There was just one scene that I questioned: it’s when Sergei has a dream sequence or hallucination or something in which Stalin’s nose appears, dressed in uniform with little arms and legs, smoking a pipe and telling a disturbing story.

Right before Sergei has this vision or whatever (he’s in a Biology lab, so maybe there are fumes?), he overhears a literature professor talking to students about a story called “The Nose.” I’ve never read the story, but apparently, it’s about a nose that dresses up in a uniform and starts giving orders. The moral of the story is that we can’t let other people (particularly not noses dressed in uniform) tell us what is right and wrong.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose makes use of literary devices—an unreliable narrator, heavy symbolism, allusions to other literature, dream sequences—that are familiar to me in adult literature. But I’m not used to seeing them in children’s books. There’s a particularly interesting contrast between Sergei’s voice—a perfect 9-year-old voice, in my opinion—and the intrusion of the Literature professor’s explanation.

Here’s Sergei:

“I hear teacher’s voices, feet marching to an accordion, chalk knocking against blackboard, someone practicing a bugle. Everyone is learning to be useful to our country. Everyone is marching toward Communism, everyone but me.”

Here’s the literature professor:

“What ‘The Nose’ so vividly demonstrates … is that when we blindly believe in someone else’s idea of what is right or wrong for us as individuals, sooner or later our refusal to make our own choices could lead to the collapse of the entire political system.”

Now, that’s the point of the whole novel, encapsulated pretty succinctly, but the passage is still more abstract than the storytelling in the rest of the book. Why is this explanation inserted? Is it an homage to Russian literature? Is it supposed to settle in the reader’s unconscious until the day when he or she can understand it? Does it enhance the story in some ineffable way, whether the reader understands it or not?

This brings me to a larger question about literary devices in general: do they work best when we notice them or when we don’t notice them? Are they like special effects in movies—as soon as you notice them it un-suspends your disbelief and ruins the story? Or are we more aware when we’re reading that the story is a construct—because we are constructing it as we read—in which case we enjoy the way literary devices take us behind the scenes?

When I was in high school I looooooooooved noticing literary devices because it made me feel like I was cracking the code of great novels. As I got older, I was much more likely to roll my eyes and say, just tell me a story, author. I think that’s partly because of what’s happened in literary criticism—we’ve veered away from deconstruction and are back to comparing literature to reality and discussing how things in the real world are portrayed in novels.

The verdict

To bring it back to Breaking Stalin’s Nose, I feel like the author indulged a little with the Nose sequence. It’s like the radio addresses in Atlas Shrugged but not as bad. I think whether children understand it or not, it will take them out of the story, because it’s so obviously laden with meaning and unlikely to happen in real life.

However, I can think of one reason why the author may have intended to knock the reader back to reality: to make the reader reflect on his or her own life. Maybe the author wanted to go timeless for a minute, to stop the story and make his larger point so you would get the message that this isn’t just about Stalinist Russia, it’s about all people having to sort out right and wrong for themselves.

Or maybe not. Either way, I’ve read it and I’m a believer: this is a great novel for children. Twists and turns. Bold acts of rebellion. Expressive illustrations. Glittering city setting. Cold hard truth. No Deus Ex Machina. That’s how I like my historical fiction.