Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eight Great Reasons to Do Your Shopping Now!

 I just wanted to post this, because it's so funny. Our fabulous Magic Tree Holiday Recommendations are on the way as well!

Saturday on Twitter, Katherine Fergason (@KatherineBoG), manager and
children's buyer at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven, Mass.,
offered hourly reasons "why you might want to consider doing your holiday
shopping now instead of waiting until after Thanksgiving."

1. We have not yet started playing Christmas music.
2. That feeling of self-righteousness over starting so early translates
into treating yourself to something as well.
3. You can make a list of all the things you want, so that you can hint
liberally at Thanksgiving.
4. If there's a hardcover you've been eyeing, you have time to read the
whole thing before giving it away.
5. We have free gift wrapping. By Christmas, you’ll forget what it was
you bought. Aren't surprises great?
6. It’s much easier to stick to your budget when we aren't serving you
eggnog like we do the week before Christmas.
7. All versions of The Night Before Christmas are still in stock. You
won't have to settle for that one weird one left over on Christmas Eve.
8. You'll bring smiles and joy and a twinkle to the eye of your
favorite local, indie bookseller.

Bring some joy and shop early and often at your local independent bookstore!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Good Reads, Good Scares

There are two books I read as a kid that remember being really scared by. Both were library books and I doubt if either is still in print by now. The first was called Alfred Hitchock's Spooky Stories or possibly Alfred Hitchcock's Tails of Terror. It was an old book when I read it, with a sort of 1960s looking cover with the director's famous outline ( although I had no idea at the time who he was).
It was, as advertised, filled with scary stories. But one, called 'Davy Jones' Locker' stands out in my memory. In it, a sailor dies and is buried at sea, but another sailor can't stop thinking about him and something wet and dripping comes in through a porthole one dark night.. you get the idea. I was probably about 8 when I read it and I remember shivering under my covers, unable to stop thinking about it, listening for squelching footsteps dragging damply down the hall outside my room.

The other book was also from the library and even holder- a small, musty volume, bound in worn green fabric entitled Ghost Stories of the Scottish Highlands. It was filled with gruesome tales of warring clans, beheadings, bloody castles and the ubiquitous story of the bride who played hide and seek on her wedding day and disappears, her skeletal remains found locked in a trunk decades later.

But the story that danced through my brain for many nights afterwards (I can, in fact, still summon up the mental image clearly to this day) was of woman who was cut in half in a battle between Highland clans. Years later when the castle is made over into a hotel, a tourist recounts a sleepless night watching first the bottom half of the lady's skirts running in terror through his room, her waist ended in a bloody stump, and then her torso, which floated outside on top of the castle walls, dripping blood until the terrified woman's upper half is flung from the battlements by invisible assailants.

Even after all these years, the fear I felt when I read those stories is still with me. I can recall it perfectly, as I can recall reading The Shining by Stephen King for the first time, or Ghost Story by Peter Struab.

There is a lot of good fiction being written for kids these days that ranges from actively gruesome and horrific to really funny.Vampires and werewolves are par for the course these days, but there are a lot of other traditional 'horror' themes to explore. In honor of Halloween and all the kids who like scary stuff, here are some really good books!

For kids 8-10, the Scream Street series by Tommy Donbavand follows a reluctant kid werewolf and his new friends, a wannabe vampire and a tomboy mummy when he and his family are relocated by the government to a neighborhood populated by ghosts, zombies and other supernatural folks. These adventures are more funny than scary and give a humorous twist to the practical realities of living life as a monster.

Another terrific series dealing with spooky stuff for the same age group is Something Wickedly Weird, written and illustrated by the very talented (and appropriately named) Chris Mould. His line drawings and sketches make the lively story of the mysterious little village of Crampton Rock and Stanley Buggles, the boy determined to figure out all of its secrets even more entertaining.

Also for the 8 to 10 crowd, and a personal favorite in our house, The Secrets of Dripping Fang by Dan Greenburg follow the adventures of the Shufflemuffin Twins as they escape the poorly-named Jolly Days Orphanage for life in Dirpping Fang Forest, populated by zombies, giant slugs and overly-affectionate aunts. The entire series keeps you in stitches and these books are just the right size for reluctant readers to enjoy too.

Since Halloween can also include aliens from outer space, I just have to include a book that came out a couple of years ago from Hyperion's Disney imprint. Normally I am not a huge Disney fan, but this Hyperion imprint has put out consistently high quality books, such as Peter and the Starcatchers by humor writer Dave Barry .

The book I want to recommend is The True Meaning of Smekday by writer and illustrator Adam Rex. The Earth is invaded by the Boov, a short, stocky race with poor language skills but advanced technology. Deciding that they need most of the United States for themselves, the Boov relocate the humans first to Florida and then later to New Mexico. Gratuity Tucci and her cat Pig are on a quest to find her mother when they meet a Boov on the run who calls himself JLo.
A flying car made from a slushy machine, a trip to the Happy Mouse Kingdom complete with its own group of vigilante Lost Boys and all sorts of terrific comic illustrations made this book truly laugh-out-loud funny. Things go from bad to worse when the taller, stronger and definitely more disgusting Gorg come along and decide they want to take the planet from the Boov. But maybe Gratuity and JLo can save the planet, with a little help from Pig. Lots of action, wacky characters and a sort of cosmic civics lesson make this book a great read for ages 9 and up.

We've had Adam Rex at the store before. His wife Amy Timberlake wrote a wonderfully funny picture book based on an old Texas folktale called The Dirty Cowboy and Adam illustrated it. He hasillustrated and written other picture books of his own, most notably Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich and Frankenstein Takes The Cake, both a great way to introduce very young kids to monsters in a really funny way. Sometimes when you meet an author, he is so personable and so talented that you really want his career to go far. Adam and Amy both fit this description, so please check their books out!

A recent movie adaption has come out of The Vampire's Appretice, the first book in Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series which came out a few years ago. Although the movie had some good performances and was fun to look at, the books are a great deal more detailed and Shan invents his own spin on the vampire mythos and follows it up with entertaining details and well-drawn characters. If your kids saw the movie, get them the book! They will like it even better.

For kids ages 10 and up, The Last Appretice series by Joseph Delaney kicks off with Revenge of the Witch. This book sends shivers up the spine and although it begs you to keep reading late into the night, you won't want to turn off the light for fear of the shadows. Old Gregory, the Spook of the county rides the countryside, ridding the villages of evil pests; boggarts, ghosts, the Unquiet Dead, and even the occasional witch. Now that 29 apprentices have fled or failed to live through the experience, it's up to Thomas Ward to take over. This series has an old-fashioned Legend of Sleepy Hollow sort of flavor that many modern novels lack and each book is very creepy as well as being a real page turner. The woodcut-style line drawings by Patrick Arrasmith only add to the atmosphere of quiet horror and make for a satisfyingly scary evening of reading.

One of the best and most interesting horror novels for older kids and young adults that I hve come across in a long time is Monstrumologist by Rick Yancy.

Written in a highly literate neo-Victorian style, it tells the tale of orphaned Will Henry, who is appretice to a monster-hunting doctor in an alternate historical world that calls up Dickens and Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Frankenstein and echoes of Jekyll and Hyde. As Will and his master go in search of the Anthropophagus, a supposedly extinct monster that feeds through a mouth of razor-sharp teeth in its belly, the book takes on a Lovecraftian twist and starts a series of taunt Gothic horror that is sure to challenge older readers while holding all their attention.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is a book that sneaks up on you. You're not sure quite when it takes place at first, or where. You don't know just why Mary must keep to her village, trusting only in the rules of the mysterious and omnipresent Sisterhood, or why the Unconsecrated lurk in the Forest beyond the Wall. But as this book draws you in, you will be unable to put it down until you've followed Mary to the answer to all of these mysteries. This is a well-crafted story filled with wonder and romance and dark horror that will appeal to older readers and stay with them between waking and sleep. I think this book will especially appeal to teenage girls, and anyone looking for something to read without vampires can try it.

Steampunk author Chris Wooding knows his way around many genres: horror, manga, fantasy, young adult and adult fiction. His 2001 book The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, a steampunk-horror novel set in an alternative Victorian London overrun by undead wych-kin effectively combined a quick thinking hero and plucky heroine, a government conspiracy, and spine-tingling action with creepy-crawly horror and made it one of my favorite books of the year.

His new novel, Malice is a combination of graphic novel and prose that follows a group of friends into a sinister comic book. If you read the book and do the spell, Tall Jake will come and steal you away into the violent and terrifying world of Malice- where your misadventures and gruesome death will be printed in the next issue while you languish there forever! Appealing and believable characters, clever dialog and a well-balanced combination of text and art make Malice a great read for fans of comics, horror or adventure stories.

The blustery days of autumn are finally upon us! Soon enough it will be the holiday shopping season and I'll have a whole slew of new recommendations for that as well. But in the meantime, between the end of summer and the turkey, curl up under the covers, stay up late, and read a scary book! Just be sure to leave a nightlight on for when you've finished.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Early Loves and our Second Childhood

I mark time by what I was reading. I can't remember a time when I didn't do this, or when the name of a book didn't evoke a strong related image or memory.

My memories are often tied to the characters in the book- some of my best and earliest friends. For example, one of my earliest vivid memories is of reading 'Charlotte's Web' by E.B. White with my mother. I am about 4 years old. This is the first book I will remember both having read TO me and then picking up and reading for myself.

I see the pale blue paint of my bedroom and the pastel colored flowers on the wallpaper. I can see Gareth William's simple, but detailed line drawings which somehow convey so perfectly the messy ribbon in Fran's ponytail, the bristly hairs on a pig's back, the cunning eye of a clever rat. When I look at these pictures now, I marvel at how I can see them in the same way as I did then- with an absolute certainty and clarity that is also part of the that first early memory of reading.There are very good reasons why this is the first book that many people remember reading or having read to them.

Why do some books stay with us long past their first reading? Especially books from childhood- books many people assume we outgrow, and becoming older readers, move on from. My love affair with the written word was the product of my parents who were both voracious readers in their own way and whose literary habits I absorbed through osmosis. Much modern research now tells us that to raise children who read, you must have reading material in the home- books, newspapers, magazines, anything. Anything that the child can see adults reading and pattern themselves after. Of course reading aloud is a key component as well. If anyone doubts that those two things will produce a lifelong reader, I can only hold myself up as an irrefutable example.

In my childhood, I feel that I can safely say that I read literally thousands of books. I read at the dinner table (until reprimanded), in the bathtub (I stopped taking showers when I realized that baths would provide me with an extra half hour of reading time before bed), under the covers with a flashlight, on vacations in the back seat of the car (I taught myself not to get carsick out of sheer willpower and the impending boredom of not being able to read on the highway) and in boring classes at school, hiding the book under the edge of the desk. (I now suspect that many of my teachers knew this, but they also knew I was bored and I wasn't causing any trouble, so they never stopped me). My mother, an avid and encouraging reader, was constantly telling me to "Put down that book and GO OUTSIDE AND DO SOMETHING!"

I taught myself to roller skate in our driveway while reading, tracing careful ellipses around the cement in retaliation. I would skate and read and skate and read and look up, startled, when my father's pickup truck halted, idling in the street, waiting for me to move out of the way so he could pull into the garage. Dinnertime already?!?

It is February 1st, 1976. I have my hair in a bowl haircut as a homage to Dorothy Hammil, although I cannot figure skate. It is my birthday and among other gifts (including a clock with a flowery face that is still emitting a faint orange glow in my old bedroom at my parent's house) is a yellow book.

But this is not just ANY book. It is a small, but heavy hardcover book, its yellow dust jacket embossed with elegant silver type. 'The Fairy Book' by Warwick Gobel. It is rich and shining, with pages of dense black type spelling out fairy tales. Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast, some of these I know already. Other richer, stranger fare like Grimm's The Iron Stove and Anderson's Little Mermaid ( the creepy, more bloody original version) will later entrance me for hours.

This is a grown-up book, despite its 'fairy tale' title. It has a ribbon, a yellow ribbon attached right to the book to make your place. Stuck at random within the pages are opulent color illustrations listed in the front as 'coloured plates' with princesses and tailors and monsters and clever stable lads. My mother has written the date on the inside cover, along with a note, as she will do for every book I continue to receive for birthdays and other holidays.

When my mother was a little girl living in Cleveland Ohio, she was given a birthday gift from a neighbor who was an English war bride. 'The Jungle Book' by Rudyard Kipling was in a musty box in the closet when I was a little girl. When I was seven, my own Children's' Illustrated Library copy was my introduction to the world of the Jungle Law, the White Seal and Riki Tiki Tavi.
I remember reading the words out loud to myself in bed, hissing "We be of one blood, ye and I!" in all the animal languages I could think of to make up, just in case. Riki Tiki Tavi was one of my first loves, a perfect mongoose. I remember seeing the Chuck Jones cartoon version of the story and feeling horribly cheated. It was an early lesson that the movie seldom stands up to the book, although it is very superior to a lot of what passes for children's animation.

We worked our way through many children's classics each Christmas and Easter. Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' made me long for a cozy hole and Christmas carolling mice. It's leisurely pacing interspersed with action and animals would be part of my preparation to read the incomparable 'Watership Down' by Richard Adams when I was older. I

read 'Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates' by Mary Mapes Dodge and then had to re-read back through it carefully. It is a story, a history and a travelogue all in one as children's author Bruce Coville points out in the afterward to his new picture-book adaptation, exquisitely illustrated by Laurel Long. But I have always been a re-reader and recognized the virtue of going at something until I wrestled it into comprehension.

I fell utterly in love with Sara Crewe,the heroine of Francis Hodgeston Burnett's 'A Little Princess'. I wanted to live in a garret and sweep out fireplaces and suffer nobly and befriend a poor scullery maid. I loved the romance and mystery of 'The Secret Garden', but liked Mary less than Sara - Dickon, the wild boy from the moors was my favorite character there.

After Riki Tiki Tavi, horses were my animal passion for many years and I started with Anna Sewel's venerable 'Black Beauty', which today reads like a litany of all the good and bad ways men treat the animals in their care. It gave me my first taste of the idea of animal cruelty- I wasn't a child who was inclined to pull a dog's tail or a cat's whiskers, but after reading Black Beauty I was aware that there were other people who would, as Black Beauty would say "Just for the pure sport of it." I bet no one ever read 'Black Beauty' to Micheal Vick when he was a kid. Later when I drove horse carriages for tours around downtown Chicago, I kept Beauty and Ginger and the rest firmly in mind and made frequent stops at the old horse watering fountain still running at the original Water Tower.

Next were Margarite Henry's books about the ponies of Assategue and Chincotegue Islands off the coast of Virginia - 'Misty of Chincotegue' and 'Stormy, Misty's Foal'. Although I loved her hardy ponies, Ms. Henry really won me over with her wonderful book 'King of the Wind', a fictional history of the Godolphin Arabian, who became the foundation for the bloodlines of almost all Thoroughbred horses today.

During my 'horsey' period, I also devoured Walter Farley's marvelous 'Black Stallion' series. They came out in a particularly attractive set of paperbacks when I was growing up and I had every one of them. 'The Black Stallion and Satan', 'The Black Stallion's Ghost', 'The Black Stallion and Flame'... just the titles stirred me to adventure. (A lot of these got read rollerskating around the driveway on hot summer afternoons.)

I read them one after the other and then went back and read them again. For any other Black Stallion fans out there, Steven Farley, son of original author Walter Farley, maintains a wonderful website at: www.theblackstallion.com with discussion forums, book covers from all over the world and a bibliography of all the original books and all the following books written by Tim Farley. They sponsor the Black Stallion Literacy Project for children as well. Check it out!

My introduction to the 1800s world of Louisa May Alcott was not with 'Little Women' but through a lesser known book called 'Under the Lilacs' about a boy and an amazing trained poodle who run away from the circus and a drunken father and are taken in by a friendly family whose daughters have tea parties on the walk of the Big House under the lilac bushes.

This book is so sweet and sure- but not cloying. I enjoyed every minute of it. In fact, I haven't re-read it for quite a while and just writing about it now, is making me want to go and pick it up again- the weight of the little black book in my hands, with its occasional colored illustrations inserted on thick, glossy paper...

Another much-neglected duo by Alcott are the wonderful books 'Eight Cousins' and 'Rose in Bloom', the story of seven boisterous boy cousins growing up in a shipping family in Boston in the early 1900s and their orphaned girl cousin Rose who comes to live in the big house known as the 'Aunt-hill' for all the sisters who live in the neighborhood. These books deal gently but firmly with such modern-day issues as classism, women's equality, and education and are simply delightful to read even today.

After that I did indeed move on to the irrepressible March sisters. I was always a Jo, although secretly I sometimes wanted to be Amy. Poor dead Beth was just sad, and domestic Meg held no attractions for me when I was young. But I knew the March sisters like I knew my own family and like Louisa May Alcott, being a person who wants to know 'how they all turned out' as she says in her dedication to Jo's Boys, I read all through Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys. Her quote at the end is worth repeating:

'And now, having endeavored to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall forever on the March family.'

It made for an altogether satisfying ending. I have recently wondered if JK Rowling also read these books as a child and adopted this general philosophy when ending the Harry Potter series. I found it to be a satisfying conclusion, although I know many other people did not. But that is another discussion entire unto itself.

I cannot write about books that influenced me in childhood without referring to C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, which are beloved by so many people. We were fitful Protestants in my childhood and I remember very clearly telling my mother that I did not want to go to Sunday School anymore when I was seven or eight. So my 'formal' Christian background was pretty much non-existent. But I knew morality when I saw it and the Narnia books exemplified these virtues for me in a way that Sunday School never did. The simple little moral lessons wrapped into each marvelous adventure made it clear to me what was the right way to behave, without beating me over the head with it.

In fact later in college, I was astounded to have a fellow student tell me that the books were 'idiotic Christian allegory' just C.S. Lewis pandering to his new found Catholicism. I had to go back and re-read them and actually LOOK for the Christian references myself. Since then I have read a great deal of C. S Lewis' other writings and also a couple of biographies. I truly believe he is one of the great theological writers of the past century and honestly, I don't think it matters if you want to read the Narnia books as reaffirmations of Christian faith or just as rousing good adventure stories. The quality of the material and the moral lessons shine though, no matter what spin you want to put on them, in my opinion.

For example, in 'The Last Battle', when Aslan the Lion is explaining to the Calormene soldier that:

'Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name , then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, child?'

and after puzzling it out for a minute, I did understand. That it matters far more what we do than who we say we do it for. It may sound strange, but my personal moral code, today as an adult, is shaped more by Narnia than by any religious service I have ever attended or instruction I have received or class that I have taken. C.S. Lewis gets to the heart of the matter of how we ought to treat each other so simply and beautifully, that it really cannot be improved upon.

When I left the world of animal characters and began to read more history, the librarian at the public library gave me 'The Witch of Blackbird Pond', by Elizabeth George Speare, which proved its Newberry Award winning power by opening my eyes to seeing an issue from both sides.
The main character, Katherine Tyler is coming from Barbados, where she has lived on a plantation and her grandfather had owned slaves. Owning slaves was very bad, I knew. But her Puritan relatives, although they are NOT slave owners and think a lot about the Bible and being good, are not really any better than anyone else and persecute a kindly and wise old woman as a witch.

Good people sometimes misjudge things. People brought up with a wrong, like slavery, can overcome that, and learn to change. A little hard work never hurt anyone, but it doesn't make you better than other people. Be kind to those less fortunate than you. Freedom is valuable. All these things absorbed from one little book- a book which doesn't seem like a lesson, and which I can still enjoy reading today. This was the first book I remember reading where I noticed that it was a Newberry winner.

That little silver Newberry disc on the front became a talisman for me, and afterwards, I would seek it out and knew that finding it on the cover indicated a better than average chance of a good read.

When you are a reading sort of child and limited to 3 or 5 books per library trip on your own proud, grubby library card and your mom can only manage to get to the library once a week most weeks, you have to be careful with your options. Later on my mom would check out additional books on her card for me, and as I grew older and known at the library deck as an enthusiastic and proficient reader, kindly librarians would often wave a few extra books through, their noblesse oblige confirmed upon me with a smile or a gimlet eye of warning as I loaded up my stack of slippery plasticine dust jackets and carried them to the back seat of the car.

I always liked historical adventures and fantasy- I still do. My criteria for how well written a children's book is are few:

1)If I read it as a child, can I still remember the story and characters.
2)If it is an older book, does it still seem fresh and exciting, even if the time period or style of writing 'dates' it somewhat?
3)Can I pick it up as an adult and still have an enjoyable read? Different from the way a child might experience it, but still full of pleasure or interest?

A good example of these criteria that I recall vividly and specifically reading are Madeline L'Engle's extraordinary trilogy, 'A Wrinkle in Time', 'The Wind in the Door' and 'A Swiftly Tilting Planet'

All three of these books are so well written, their ideas conveyed so clearly and eloquently that there is very little to match them, then or now. To marry ideas of physics and science with fantasy and the everyday problems of an unhappy girl at school whose father has disappeared from the household and a poor boy who is intelligent but doesn't have any shoes that fit him is a remarkable accomplishment.

The Murray family is endearing to us at the start with their creaky old house, basic kindness and distracted, but understanding mother who cooks stew over Bunsen burners in her lab. But as we grow to know them through the books, we empathize with they and the other characters more and more; they are the microcosm through which the larger issues of our species and even the entire universe are revealed to us.

L'Engle is as deft and comfortable with explaining physics or mitochondria or time travel as she is with speculative science fiction or snakes and kittens or staid and un-imaginative school principals. Her great gift is to be able to present all these things to us equally, none more important than the other and convince us to take them as a whole. There are few writers who can do this so effectively, so it is important to remember not just that these are 'famous' or award-winning books, but WHY, because that why has not changed even if the world has.

I have many 'favorite' books, both as an adult and a child. Some from my childhood stand out as near-perfect examples though. I have gone back to these books again and again. I have recommended and sold them to so many children and parents at the Magic Tree over the years that it is now something of a store joke that they must be in stock when I walk in, just so I can sell them to people. Fortunately, I've also convinced colleagues to read them over the years if they hadn't already and they are in agreement. One of the best parts about finding a near-perfect book is to share it!

'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' by Joan Aiken is my first choice . Written in a sort of Gothic/adventure style, this rollicking story about two girls in the 1800s who must escape and evil governess and flee the great house of Willoughby Chase by skating on the frozen river features non-stop adventure and two clever heroines; brave Bonnie and sweet Sylvia. They are helped by a gooseboy who disguises them to go to London where they fall into the clutches of an evil workhouse mistress and ... you get the idea. The book has a charm that few adventure stories can manage while still keeping the level of suspense at a fevered pitch. I've read it so many times and still enjoy it each and every time.

'The Genie Of Sutton Place' by George Seldon. This author is better known for his sweet book, 'The Cricket in Times Square', but although that book is very endearing, I love 'The Genie of Sutton Place' more. Set in 1950s Manhattan, this book captures the time period perfectly without being dated or quaint. After his father dies, Timothy goes to live with his fussy aunt in her posh Sutton Place apartment. But his Aunt Lucy is allergic to Tim's dog, who falls in love with her. In order to keep his dog, Tim releases an ancient genie from a carpet and ... wacky highjinks ensue! This book is a funny, funny story with appealing characters and humor that keeps readers entertained, whether they are dog or cat people or believe in genies or not.

'The Westing Game' by Ellen Raskin won the Newberry Award in 1979 and is now taught in many classrooms. I was given it by my mother to read for a vacation trip the year it came out. It's a captivating mystery with a fun cast of characters which I am sure have inspired a lot of people to go on to become hard-core mystery fans as adults. The apartment building overlooking the mysterious old Westing House, a fortune that only one family will inherit, a cranky old delivery boy, a little girl who kicks people... each element comes together into a flawless ending that just cannot be improved upon. This book set the tone for many other great authors to follow, but it remains the gold standard for children's mystery.

One of the great joys of having a child has been introducing him to books. Fortunately for both of us, he took to this instinctively and has become a avid reader all on his own. Working at the Magic Tree has helped with my sense of proportion- when to suggest something, when to step back and not force a book on him, when to read aloud and when not to.

This spring we were lucky enough to accompany my mother on a trip to Wales to visit our cousins there from my mother's side of the family. I was able to realize a nearly life-long dream by driving up the coast to Aberdovey, the site of much of the action in Susan Cooper's timeless classic 'The Dark Is Rising' cycle.

'The Dark is Rising', 'Greenwitch', 'The Grey King' and 'Silver On The Tree' are touchstones of children's fantasy, seamlessly melding ancient mythologies of England, Cornwall and Wales with Arthurian legend and compelling characters and magical situations both beautiful and eerie. My son and I started reading these books aloud together before our trip. The lovely patterning of Cooper's writing made it a pleasure to read, even if my Cornish and Welsh accents were a little fuzzy.

We were working on 'The Grey King' which is set on the coast and craggy sheep farmland of western Wales when we left for our trip, a battered old paperback stuck into William's messenger bag. One day we drove up the coast, stopping at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on the way. (If you are ever in Wales, and are a bibliophile, don't miss it! Go on Monday when they have tours into the private parts of the library)

When we reached Aberdovey, it was chilly and grey. It wasn't quite raining, but the wind was blowing sand up from the beach and we were glad of our windbreakers and hats. The rows of painted houses along the quay and the nearly deserted beach evoked such a strong response in me- seeing what I had read so many times before. Although the previous warm weekend had brought in some early spring tourists, they were gone now and William and I trudged down the stony beach, our cheeks red and windblown, pausing to pick up pebbles and shells and pointing at things back in the village that looked like places we had read about in the book. It was a long drive home, but we all agreed that my pilgramage had been worth it; the trip would never have been complete if we had come so close and not gone there.

We finished 'The Grey King' while staying in Cwmplis Farm outside of St. Clears and when we ventured into the larger town of Camarthen for market day, we were determained to find a bookstore so we could move on to 'Silver on the Tree'.

We found a Waterstone's on one of Camarthen's many squares and I spent a happy 20 minutes talking with the staff about children's literature in both the UK and the States (yes, all the young adults there are reading Twilight too). William found a spy novel, a book of Welsh folktales - and with an excited cry, he hefted a dense blue tome, with a design of a quartered cross etched in silver on its cover. It was all 4 books, bound into one volume.

"I want this one," my son said authoritatively. "It can be my souvineer. You only have those paperbacks that don't match and this one can be just mine." The gene for book possessiveness must run strong in my family.

It was also true that my old paperbacks were losing bits off of their covers and I always loved getting hardcover books for special occasions and who knew when we would be back to Wales... We bought the book. Of course.
Actually, we bought all the books and my mom bought a few more light novels to read on the train and later in London I bought the brand new hardcover of A.S. Byatt's new novel for its lovely British cover ("Don't tell grandma I bought another hardcover book!" I told William. "She thinks we have too much to carry already!") True, but the memories of what we have read and where we read them!!!

I will never forget snuggling up to my son in his twin bed under the high oak rafters of the old stone barn guesthouse on Cwmplis Farm and reading 'Silver on the Tree', the Welsh night quiet as a soft rain pattered on the roof and the woods outside of our window. These literary memories stay with me always and I hope -and believe- they will stay with my son as well. One of the greatest gifts we can do is to pass them on.

Please - let me know what books YOU remember reading most as a child. What books have you bought your own children because of that, or recognized on a bookstore shelf with a smile? Please share- I wonder how much we'll have in common and what new things we might find!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Rise of the Geek: Outcasts in Young Adult Literature

The concept of the social outcast as hero in youth fiction goes back a long way. If we wanted to, we could start off with Hansel and Gretel- literally cast out into the woods by uncaring parents to make their own way. The concept of orphan as hero -or heroine- becomes a staple of Victorian literature that remains a hallmark to this day and really deserves its own entry.

Although there are a wealth of books available to us in that genre, we aren't going to be talking about them this time around. Despite these long-suffering characters and their enduring popularity with readers, American youth fiction in the early part of the past century was more often about golden lads and lasses who solved mysteries, were twins who traveled the world and basically popular, happy young people whose innate good natures, kindliness, helpful dogs and generally sterling qualities almost always insured them a well-deserved place at the top of the social heap.

Fast-forward to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In so many titles for young adults, it is the cheerleader, the quarterback, the heroes of yesterday's fiction who are now exposed as self-absorbed, vain and even cruel. More and more we find that the sympathetic character of the story is the underdog. And not just sympathetic - the underdog, the outsider, is the character we are rooting for all along. He or she is not there merely to provide a more lovely main character with a convenient person to stick up for against a bully or be adored by or give a helpful makeover to. Somehow this straggly haired person has been elevated to the main stage. How and why did this happen?

I was trying to remember the first book I read as a child set in more modern times that identified the main character as an outsider. The book that immediately came to mind was the Newberry Honor book 'My Side of the Mountain' by Jean Craighead George.

Most of you probably read this book in school, as I did. Sam Gribley decides to leave his overcrowded New York City apartment and runs away to the mountains to live inside a hollow tree. I remember being amazed by Sam's resilience ( acorn flour pancakes, anyone? a tame hawk?!) but also, I couldn't help but wonder what the heck he was DOING. Sam is an example of the outside by choice- he does not like his surroundings, so he changes them. There is little explanation in the book of what, specifically drives Sam to this, but it is in every way his choice.

Compared to some more recent 'self-exiled' heroes of fiction, Sam had it easy. He avoids people. His struggles are only for things like food and shelter- not social acceptance or even, just to be left alone. There will always be people who march to the beat of their own different drummer, but still have to try and get along with the rest of the band.

D.J. Schwenk, the heroine of 'Dairy Queen' by Catherine Gilbert Murdock knows all about how hard it is to be yourself when it means everyone else thinks you're crazy. Her Wisconsin family dairy farm is falling behind in everything, despite all the work she's done since her father got hurt. Her brothers are college football stars, but never visit home. All DJ wants is a shot to play football herself for the high school team. And possibly to get a really great hair cut. Dairy Queen was one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. Although DJ's goals are decidedly different from those of most teenage girls, she goes after them with determination and makes a laugh-out-loud funny story. She chooses her own path and learns to stand up for herself. Football lovers will definitely get a kick out of this one.

I just read 'Marcello In the Real World' by Francisco X. Stork about a teenage boy with a cognitive condition that causes him to hear music no one else can hear. Similar to someone with asperger's syndrome, Marcello refers to himself in the third person, doesn't use pronouns and has always gone to a special school where his studies are tailored to his interest in music and religion. He plans a summer job there, working with the ponies used for the students' therapy, but his father has another idea. He wants Marcello to experience more of the 'real world'. He believes that Marcello is capable of better interaction with society but has not been given the opportunity to do so. If Marcello comes to work in the mail room of his law firm for the summer, he can choose for himself whether to stay at his special school for his senior year or transfer to a public high school.

At first when reading this, I thought Marcello's father was being cruel and unrealistic. Marcello was obviously happy and secure where he was. In the 'real world' he would be opened up to teasing and torment simply for being the way he was. But as I read the book, I began to value Marcello's way of looking at things around him - and the way others reacted to him, both negatively and positively. This is a book which is beautifully written with lyrical prose which perfectly conveys the way that Marcello processes language and really gave me a brief look into how someone like him might interact with the world around them.

Author Frank Portman's first book 'King Dork' has been hailed as 'the MySpace generation's Catcher in the Rye' by Gawker.com.
I think they were being clever about that, since CITR is woven though the story when Tom 'King Dork, Chi-mo, Hender-fag Sheepie' Henderson finds his father's old copy of the book and tries to solve a personal family mystery that may or may not involve his high school principal, play in a punk/metal/guitar... ok, just to play in a band that doesn't completely suck, get to first base with a girl and maybe topple or at least make a dent in the social hierarchy of teenagers. Frank Portman is the frontman of the hysterically fabulous San Fransisco band The Mister T Experience and if you like his books, I strongly recommend you check out their music as well.

One of the best examples of the hero in a self-imposed exile has to be TJ Jones, of Chris Crutcher's 'Whale Talk'. This is one of my all-time favorite books for teen age boys and has a harshness and a beauty and a reality that few books come close to. TJ is one of those kids who could be anything - he's smart, not unpopular, a good athlete with a cool girlfriend. But when he stands up to a bunch of jocks tormenting a mentally handicapped boy for wearing his dead brother's letterman jacket TJ has to decide to walk the walk.

He does this by starting a school swim team of complete misfits (one of whom has only one leg) and vowing to go all the way to State. Meanwhile he deals with the racism of his small Washington state town, and tries hard to see the dignity in everyone. This is such a marvelous book because it tells us the truth of how we relate to each other in all of our good and terrible ways without being even a little bit preachy. TJ is honestly one of the most refreshing, decent and likable characters I've ever come across and his story is interwoven effortlessly with the people around him, until it ends in an unexpected and violent climax. TJ is a character with the kind of inner character we all hope to have.

Sometimes the heroes aren't really trying to make a stand about anything. They just are what they are and try to get along. Or they find themselves overwhelmed by personal situations and become outsiders in an attempt to cope.

Last year I read Barry Lyga's terrific 'The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and GothGirl', about a boy with no social standing at school other than being picked on, but a dream about drawing a comic book and meeting his hero, the comic illustrator Brian Bendis. The Fanboy teams up with an unlikely friend- a lying, secretive, but somehow forthright GothGirl who manages to insert herself into Fanboy's life even while holding him at a distance. Their friendship seems to be over at the end of the book, when a betrayal occurs and Gothgirl has to go away.

But Wait! I received an advance copy of 'GothGirl Rising' which will be published in October 2009 by Houghton Mifflin. This book explores the truth about Kyra the GothGirl- what her family is really like, why she had to go away and even reveals why she dresses the way she does.

I loved both of these books. In parts of 'GothGirl Rising' I didn't always like Kyra much. I was so frustrated with her- and yet, Lyga's teenagers are so realistic, so clumsy and unsure about some things and yet so dead-certain of what they know that you feel your heart break for them.They are both outcasts who misunderstand one another, even as they try to be true to each other and themselves. A lot of people might look at a schleppy Fanboy at a ComicCon in a hoodie and dismiss him. A lot of people might look at GothGirl and be horrified by her lip ring, her dyed hair, her black clothes. Sometimes it takes novels like these to remind us that we don't always know what appearances stand for.

'Fat Kid Rules the World' by KL Going is a book than manages to encompass both the negative outsider - a fat kid who sees that reality as his only identity at home and at school- and the self-chosen outsider -a punk rocker basically living on the streets, living a very unhealthy lifestyle, but hailed by his classmates as a celebrity while his life spirals downhill. This is a funny book and one of the best things about it is that it shows that there is no perfect fix- becoming popular doesn't fix your life, being fat isn't the end of the world, but there's something you can do about it. I particularly love the supporting characters, the Fat Kid's dad and brother. It would have been so easy to make them cookie-cutter 'token' characters: a hardcore military background dad with a fat son, and a perfect, athletic older brother who is a one-dimensional jerk. But Going takes all of her characters more seriously than that and forces us to do the same thing. This is another great book if you have an aspiring rocker in your house. The puke scene is unforgettable.

Some outcasts are created simply by association. In 'Hate List' by Jennifer Brown, to be published September, 2009 by Little, Brown , Valerie Leftman is as shocked as everyone else when her boyfriend Nick opens fire on their high school, killing several classmates and wounding Valerie before turning the gun on himself. But the worst part is the Hate List that they kept together- a list of people in the school who have wronged them, a list that Nick chose his targets from. Now Valerie has to convince her former friends, her teachers, and even her own family that the Hate List was never supposed to be something real. She has to convince herself that she can move beyond this.

When a girl from the Hate List stands up for her in public Valerie has to change her life as well and grieve for Nick along with all the other victims. This is an uncomfortable book to read at times. I felt almost like I learned more than I wanted to know about Valerie and her family. But her character is well drawn and complex and the unique way she and the other students choose to deal with the aftermath of the shooting made this book one that I read almost straight through.

Religious association is definitely something tat can create problems for teenagers. In 'Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature' by Robin Brande Mena Reece is kicked out of her family's fundamentalist Christian church and so when her former friends and churchmates decide to take on the local science teacher, Mena knows what's coming. But Ms. Shepard is a brilliant scientist, who remains calm and unruffled and Mena's lab partner and his family introduce Mena to a new way of looking at things. This book shows the small, even petty everyday struggles we all have with our own beliefs. This was YA chick-lit with an added twist- a perfect summer read.

A terrific import from Australia, 'Ten Things I Hate About Me' by Randa Abdel-Fattah shows a girl who is Jamie at school, just another Aussie girl with dyed blond hair and Jamiah at home, with her loving Lebanese Muslim father and siblings. Seeing how other Muslim kids at her school get hassled, Jamilah keeps her heritage and religion a secret. But she loves playing traditional music and her friends and culture, and an Internet friendship that turns serious makes it hard to keep the two separate forever. This is another good summer book- light in tone, but dealing with real issues. Distinctive supporting characters, including a feminist sister who embroiders slogans on her hijab and gets put in jail after a protest march put this book outside of the norm of Chick lit as well. Also check out 'Does My Head Look Big In This?' by the same author, about a girl who decides to start wearing the hijab in public.

Two more books about outcasts that I've read recently come to mind.

The first is 'Looks' by Madeleine George. Meghan Ball feels invisible at school, despite her massive size. The only time she feels solidified is when a group of boys single her out to pick on. The rest of the time, its like she doesn't exist. When Aimee Zorn shows up at school, she is mysterious and tiny, full of rituals about her food - the antithesis of Meghan. But Meghan realizes that they are kindred spirits and that she has a warning for Aimee, if she can just get up the nerve to convey it. This is a short book, with arresting prose and elegant description. It deals not just with eating disorders, but with our feelings of hurt and how hard it is to expose ourselves to the world around us.

The last book I'm going to write about here is Laurie Halse Anderson's 'Speak'. This book is widely hailed as one of the most important books for young adults published in the last decade, and with good reason. It is the story of the outcast that something has been done to. Someone who has become outcast after being acted upon by others- in this case, Melinda is raped at a party and withdraws so far into herself that she loses the power of speech. Her parents, teachers, and friends are wrapped up in their own concerns and fail to see the signs of Melinda's gradual absence from her own life. With very little graphic violence, this book manages to convey the horror, fear and terrible aloneness of the aftermath of an attack. When this book came out ten years ago, it was considered very controversial. I am glad that it is being taught in schools today, helping us all remember to pay attention to each other, because people can go missing so easily, even in - or especially in- a crowded school.

So these are just a very few of the books that I could have chosen to write about where the outcast is the character we want to succeed. I would LOVE to hear your opinions if you've read any of these books or others. Do you recommend anything in this genre? Why do you think this trend is so popular now? What have you been reading lately?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Welcome to the Magic Tree Bookstore Blog

What makes a person a life-long reader? Is it biological? A certain mix of chemical compounds seething inside of you that sends out a message to your brain to say that THIS is the way you want to process information? Is it (as much research seems to suggest) from having parents who read to you as a child, or were readers themselves? Just sheer PROXIMITY to reading material can apparently be enough to get a reader going at an early age. Did you have a great teacher or mentor who took the time to figure out what you were interested in and guide you to books that you would enjoy? Did you hate to read, have trouble with it, were embarrassed by your lack of ability until someone else helped you to figure it out? Until you unlocked that magic reader's door for yourself.

Some readers are born, no doubt. But some children will always have to work hard for that gift and be exposed to books like a fly fisherman taking their first hesitant, wading steps into a swift stream.

The Magic Tree Bookstore is a place where all of this happens and more. Imagine a store that is locally owned by two women dedicated to making a place where reading, thinking and a love of books can flourish. Independantly owned in Oak Park, Illinois for 25 years and dedicated to getting books and readers together.

Along the way, we have had countless special events, contests, writing clubs, activities and author signings. We have supported our local schools and community and have been warmed by the support that they have shown us in return. The Magic Tree keeps the classics alive, but also stocks the most cutting edge young adult fiction available, encouraging communication, involvement and active thinking for everyone, no matter what their age. Board books, pop-ups, science, art, history, non-fiction, fiction, fairy tales, series- you name it. If it's for someone from birth through high-school, that's what the Magic Tree is all about.

I have seen the faces of countless kids light up in joy at the release of a long-awaited sequel. In relief at finding a book they feel like they can read that won't make them look stupid in front of other kids. Or disappointment that a series has ended and is done for good. Well-meaning parents come in trying hard to do everything right and they just can't understand why their kid is having so much trouble with reading. Other families come in, eager to share their opinions about the book they are reading together out loud over the summer and discussing what to read next. Teachers come in with orders for a new award-winner that they'll be teaching in the classroom next fall- offering to pay for the books out of their own pockets and glad to hear about our teacher's discount and tax=exemptions.

Then there are always the customers who come in and say that someone told them we might be able to help them find a book. They loved it as a child or their son or daughter had it and now they can't find it anywhere. It had ... a purple cover and picture of a doll and was about a little girl who takes an old doll to a party.... from across our small store, three voices call out "Best Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill! " We have it in paperback but we can order it in hardcover if you want. Reuniting people with books they thought they had lost is our favorite pastime. Almost ten years ago, when my son was less than a year old, I came in looking for 'The Country Bunny and the Golden Shoes' and have been around the Magic Tree ever since.

In many ways though, the best thing about the Magic Tree for children and adults is the opportunity for discussion. I cannot list here how many fascinating discussions , debates and even arguements I have had or listened to with adults, children and teens at the Magic Tree, but I value every one. Reading a book and holding it close to yourself like a secret is a wonderful thing- but wow, how great is it to go to a place where five other people have read it and can ask about your favorite part and tell you who they liked best and let you know that the author has written even MORE books for you to read?? It's TERRIFIC, that's what it is.

This blog is for all of those people: the kids, parents, teens, teachers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and everyone in between who has come to the Magic Tree looking for something to read and gotten caught up in the ongoing discussion. This blog is also for all the hard-working authors without whose imaginations we would all be so much poorer. This blog is for the much-maligned publishers. It is an increasingly difficult industry and often one that is unfair to small stores like ours- but there are still great publishers out there, searching for and finding great new writers and books and bringing them to us.

But most of this blog is for Rose and Iris for keeping the Magic Tree going. This is for all the brilliant and talented people I have met through you- working at the store, helping with special projects and events, dedicating their time, effort and amazing talents so generously and with so much good will. This is for all of us!

So, what have you been reading lately?