Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Totally leebossa!!!

Don't let this ick-en-spick new cover fool you, The Secret Language is just as leebossa as you remember it. And I'm plugging it today because the recent Terebithia movie got me thinking about Nordstrom's only book.

Both are books about lonely kids, and about deep singular friendships and secret imaginings that make the world a bigger place. And while in Terebithia it's a pretend place that bonds the kids, in Secret Language, the shared device is an invented language

(I don't think I have to translate leebossa or ick-en-spick for you, even if you've never read the book. Remember your context clues?!)

My own childhood was this way. I only had one friend-- one REAL friend. But my faith in that friendship (and the private imaginary universe we constructed together) was what made the "real" world feel safe to me. And so books like this struck a real chord in me.

Now, as an adult, reading such books reminds me of what it truly felt like to be a kid. The same way that sitting under the dining room table can still make me feel eight years old.

There were different vantage points back then. Perspective was different. Experience somehow a little richer.

The Secret Language is a good book for bringing back such perspectives. It's a tree to climb, a fort you've built from pillows. Reading this book is like opening your eyes underwater to search for the penny.

(It doesn't hurt that it's set in a boarding school. I always wanted to go to boarding school. Then again, I also wanted to be an orphan. This seems crazy now, but that's because I'm a grownup now. Dang!)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Not entirely a coincidence...

That I happen to be taking a few Pinkwaters with me on vacation this week, at the very same time that somebody else has just interviewed Daniel Pinkwater, America's Greatest Writer.

Not *entirely*.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What I'm up to...

Yeah, yeah... excuses excuses...

No, really, I *have* been reading. But mostly I've just been reading this over and over and over again, to my elephant-addicted son. And while I don't love it enough to blog it, my son's discerning toddler-tastes would indicate that Gilles Bachelet is a total genius, and worthy of kidliterati status.

No really, it's cute.

But enough about my kid. What about ME?!

Well, I'm awful busy, over here, getting organized and blogging for the Class of 2k8. You should check it out!

(Oh, and it turns out to be true-- the running-away latke and the Hannukah goblins are officially the best Jewish-winter-holiday-books on the market. Says ME!)

Monday, December 17, 2007


I just found out that Lewis Carroll invented the work "chortle"! A hybrid of the words "chuckle" and "snort".

Did you know? Probably you did...

But I find this to be a wonderful thing, and I'm feeling glad I didn't let my editor change my word "glop" to "blob" as she desired...

So glad I'm chortling.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New site!!!

My new site is live and AWESOME... if I do say so myself.

Stop by for a sneak peek of some of Jaime Zollars' amazing artwork for Inside the Slidy Diner.

Great great thanks to Jeff Skinner, my superdoooooper designer.

No, no, no...

To the person who got here with a google search: ferdinand the bull gay.

You are stupid.

Ferdinand is not gay. Nor is he straight. He is a bull. And let me tell you, the average bull is likely to fornicate with just about anything that fits when he has a mind to. But I do not think he forms romantic attachments.

Not even Ferdinand.

I wonder if you are assuming that anyone who likes flowers is gay. Or that anyone who does not like to fight is gay.

If so, color me gay.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The no-review review...

I cannot tell you about my favorite Chanukah picture book because....

As far as I know, no truly amazing Chanukah-book-for-kids has yet been written.

And I don't mean an acceptable book. I don't mean a "Wee-ell, it's pretty good, and the pictures are nice, and if we don't give them something they'll read Frosty the snow-man or How Little Bun-Bun Went to Jesus Land..."

I mean GOOD! Nothing GOOD is out there... GOOD like Christmas has good stuff. Good like the Peanuts Special, or the Christmas chapter in Little House in the Big Woods where Laura gets a WHOLE penny, all for herself. Gift of the Magi GOOD or A Christmas Carol GOOD.

Why is this? Why does Christmas only require a special time of year and "spirit", and so it can do a whole range of things... but Chanukah sends us to pancakes and dreidels and candles and that's IT! Why can't there be a Chanukah "spirit" with which to infuse books, so that we might abandon our oily foods as a theme?

Oily foods are NOT A THEME!

And one gets tired of the Maccabees. And the pogroms. Didn't anyone ever celebrate Chanukah in any other place and time than Israel, Poland/Poland-ish place, or [insert present-day name of wherever you happen to be]. Weren't there Chanukahs happening in like, Medieval England? The Wild West? Burlesque stages in the 30s?

Can you imagine if every bit of Christmas media was required to mention candycanes, paperchains, and Jesus?


Bring it on!

(and don't you dare send me to look for Moishe and his dumb fry-pan. I'm over the shtetl thing. And don't you DARE send me to look for Sammy the Spider. Sammy the Spider is sooooo last year.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Cures for Heartbreak...

Margo Rabb's Cures for Heartbreak kicks total tush.

I do not, as a rule, read a lot of YA fiction, and I'll admit I only read this one because it landed in my lap and (full discoslure) I happen to know Margo. A little bit.

But wow.

Because of my recent resolution to stop overthinking, I will not pick it apart. I will just say this-- I cried.

This is a book like life, a little messy and a little little brutal and a little embarassing. But in the end, full of wisdom and honesty and love if you look at it the right way. It is not adorned. It is not oversmart. It is not trying to impress you. It is just telling a true and terrible story.

There are places where my own memories of teen pain and angst and self-awareness overwhelmed me. I too have a weird dad. I too overthought what I wore each day. Thank God I do NOT have a dead mom.

I did find myself wondering how today's teen responds to outdated references to Depeche Mode and the Gogos (I loved these references, since I'm old) but I don't really care. The book rocks. Really.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lots of Good Books...

So, I was going to review The Mysterious Benedict Society, but I crashed my car, and while I was embroiled in that insanity, I began reading the Neddiad...

Then I was going to review the Neddiad, but I crashed our other car!!! Two cars!!! And while I was embroiled in *that* insanity, I began reading the Canning Season (although the hardback cover is tons better than the paperback you can see on Amazon)...

So now, here I sit, (in my rental car, duh) with THREE new books I want to talk about... even though I started this blog primarily because I couldn't FIND enough new books worth reading/talking about.


But here's the thing-- I've recently gotten some flack for "overthinking" kidlit, and now I'm pondering my methods of reviewing-- my way of talking about children's books online. I'm wondering whether I shouldn't just tell you, in less thinky ways, what I REALLY think of these books. What I like and don't.

So I will attempt to do that right now.

All three of these books are GOOD, though none are "GREAT" (In the true sense of greatness. None of them will save the world. None are Narniastic). But they are all very very very good books.

All are funny and silly in different ways. All offer us endearing and odd and memorable characters. All are old-fashioned in one way or another. All are (however much the authors might protest) literary. Careful with language. Clever. But the books are different from one another.

In short:

Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)-- I LOVE the cover, the puzzles, the orphanhood, the setting, the precociousness of the main character. If it fails at all it's just because it goes on too long for a middle grade book. It takes too long for things to get where they're going. I got just a teensy bit bored (sad to say), but the book is wonderfully written and reminds me a little of John Bellairs book.

The Neddiad (Daniel Pinkwater):

I love the tone. LOVE the tone. The humor, which is subtle and perfect here (quirky humor is hot right now, and often teeters over into random/dumb. But NOT this one. Never dumb or gratuitous). I love how this book wanders. I love that it is set in Hollywood in the fifties (the world my mom is from). But The Neddiad wraps up a little too fast. I found myself fingering the last 4 pages and thinking, "How is this gonna end in FOUR PAGES?) However-- this book stands up to a Dahl comparison, and that's pretty rare. High praise coming from me. There is something of Dahl in this book. It surprises quietly. (editor's note. Extrmem abuse of the word "Quirky" has been modified. Please forgive...)

The Canning Season (Polly Horvath):

This book is WEIRD. And it doesn't need a bunch of obviously weird weirdity. It just IS weird. Because it's human, and humans are weird.

In addition to being weird, humans are also mean, and so this book has meanness in it too. Delicious meanness. A reliable (and brilliant and fabulous) source tells me that Canadian authors (HOrvath is one such) are more subversive than American kidlitters. They can handle the mean...

Set in Maine in the present-day, but in the creepy old home of two spinsters (Tilly and Penpen), surrounded by lots of hungry bears, with no TV/phone, etc. It appeals to me (though it might not to you) in part because it is the only middle grade book I ever read with the word F*ck in it. Not to mention cancer and cigarettes and mothers who cut off their own heads and drunk driving and all kinds of things you usually only find in "edgy YA" There is a "mystery" aspect to the book I like a lot-- the main character (Ratchet) has a deformity , referred to (awesomely) as "That Thing". There is a little bit of trashiness in this book too. It's a GOOD book, and it comes close to Great, but I fear a lot of parents won't be able to hang with the F*ck.

Did I manage to avoid thinking these books too hard?

Perhaps, but I think I overthought the overthinking...


I yam what I yam...

Monday, November 12, 2007

More excuses...

Okay, so I had TWO car accidents. TWO! And I know I'm way behind on my blogging, but did I mention that I had TWO CAR CRASHES???!!!

And then, on top of that insane mess, I FINALLY got permission to show you THIS! It's the cover of my book (done by the remarkable Greg Call). MY BOOK< "Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains", coming out next August from Random House.

So really, I can't be expected to blog about other people's books when I have THIS to show you. Right?


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Soon, soon...

I really want to blog about the Mysterious Benedict Society. But I crashed my car, lost my Grandma, and discovered that both my sons have fevers. All in one day.

So it'll have to wait.

Say a little prayer?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dumbledore is gay!!!

So, the kidlit threads and blogs are alive with the Gay Dumbledore saga... and in fact, it's fascinating.

One big question is HOW we teach when we have "secret information" from a living author. Information not in the text (though there's nothing in the text to refute).

Another issue is whether Rowling chickened out. Whether she should have/could have been more opaque, more detailed in her exposure of Dumbledore's romantic life.

A third topic is whether this suits the needs of the nasty-minded, since Dumbledore was an older man, a priest-model, and Harry a young orphan in need of love.

A fourth is whether Dumbledore (if he is in fact gay) is the ONLY gay man in the wizarding world.

And my thoughts? I think that Rowling didn't *know* her headmaster was gay in book one, but that by book 6 or 7 she was envisioning him as a gay character. I'm guessing that she made this apparaent in an early draft, and was edited down. If this is all true, I'm glad she outed him at Carnegie Hall (in any case, really) since I think the HP7 audience is exactly the population that needs to be more open to discussions of identity/lifestyle.

What makes me sad is that a heartfelt scene about Dumbledore's struggles against the stigma would totally fit into the book. In book 7, Dumbledore gets unearthed and destroyed in the press, and it would make perfect sense iof he love life came out in that process. It would further make sense for Harry to struggle with this a little, and to then ASK Dumbledore about it in his dream/post death conversation with the headmaster.

And this would have been such a good way for Dumbledore to create a GOOD stereotype as an older gay man. To show the world that because his lifestyle was so hated (like Lupin, actually) in the wizarding world, he was denied a chance to marry and have kids, and so became the headmaster of Hogwarts (instead of minister of magic), where he could put his love of children to good use.

Which ties it all together. Dumbledore pours his love into Harry in such a healthy way NOT because he's a dirty old man, but because he's been denied a family by the closed-minded world around him. This Harry would be able to understand I think, after being hunted/hated himself.

I feel like Rowling missed her shot. But I'm glad she's outing him now.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Young Readers' Guide to Contemporary Poetry...

What would people think of such a thing? A truly contemporary list of poets who might interest young (let's say high school) readers. And tips on how best to teach and best use their work?

Last I checked, ee cummings was still being taught as "wacky new poetry".

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My kind of blog...

Okay, so I'm a fan of finding adult themes in kidlit. And (as we all know) I'm a freak for Edward eager. So THIS BLOG is pretty much rocking my little world.

"Collective Farming Experiment" indeed!

I'll be adding Oz and Ends to my daily reads...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kids and Poetry...

Speaking of poetry... what do people think of it?

Now, stop yawning! That isn't funny!

Okay, that's a leetle funny, but seriously... I was interviewed the other day, and they asked a question about the first poems I can remember loving. And this was, for me, a very easy question. Because poetry, when I was little, when I read formal poetry and loved the sing-song quality of it... poetry was IT!

I loved poetry.

I remember my dad reading me Yeats and Blake. I remember, by heart, most of the Real Mother Goose, A Child's Garden of Verses, When We Were Very Young, and the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children.

I really can still recite pages and pages of these poems to this day, and that has to mean something. That has to be a HUGE part of how my brain got formed, right? If 30 years later, those fairy poems are still embedded in my skull?

Are they embedded in yours? Can you finish these sentences?

We daren't go a hunting, for fear of little...
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the...
What immortal hand or eye can tame thy fearful...
It isn't really anywhere, it's somewhere else...
A wonderful view, of geraniums (red) and delphiniums...
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear, there is a hole inside my...

(Some of these may be imperfect, as I'm typing from memory, and not checking myself, but you get the point. If you know these poems, and loved them as I did, you'll recognize them I think...)

So yeah, I love poems, and I always have, and in fact, my middle grade novel is full of this stuff, now that I think about it. Little singsongy poems. I'd show you one, but I'm afeared that the Random House Copyright Ogre would come for me.

At any rate, poetry was a key part of my childhood, and I wondered if other people felt the same way.

Poetry teaches us so much about sound, and rhyme, and the ambiguous nature of language. In poems, words get used most creatively. They get stretched and pulled and twisted, to fit the form. Poems can be silly and playful and engaging to children learning to read (or speak).

I realized this rencently, recognized the power of rhyme, when my 22 month old son began to sing the alphabet with me... but only the rhyming letters. For real! He knows G, P, V, and Z.

It's kind of amazing how they rhyme like that, with a loose meter...

But really, I ramble. What say you about verse?

Friday, October 12, 2007


I try not to use this blog to promote my various (and scattered) non-kid-related projects. But I'm just soooooooo excited about this, I can't keep from announcing that ...


And while it is decidely NOT for kids (there are naughty words) the cover was done by the wildly talented artist who is illustrating my picture book.

So that's something... kiddish.

I know not everyone reads poetry, but maybe you know someone who does? It makes a great Chrismakah present...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

It would seem...

It would seem that a revolution began this week, at the first EVER Kidlitosphere Conference. There's all kinds of fun coverage online.

(there's a ton of other folks blogging it, but I'm in need of sleep, so you'll have to play link-link-link to find them!)

I love conferences. I love kidlit. I love bloggers. I love Chicago.

So this pretty much sounds like heaven, and I'm sad I missed it.

But next year... I'm totally going to Portland.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Dark is Rising...

In the form of a movie...

Dark days ahead for fans of Susan Cooper, I fear...

Yes indeed... if you read this blog... you're into kidlit, and if you're into kidlit... I probably don't have to tell you that Susan Cooper's AMAZING series, The Dark is Rising, has been made into a movie. Out this week! The movie is called called "The Seeker" and I'm not going to blog about it here. Because it is probably really terrible, and it'll get plenty o press without my tiny blog.


It does have me thinking about Cooper, and what makes her so good.

Here's the thing about Susan Cooper. She has this great skill in writing books that are a little bit magic. And books with a little bit of magic are my favorite kind of magic books.

I'm not one for high fantasy, wizards and dragons and spells far away from my life. What I like is magic that makes you believe in magic. Either because it begins in the "real" world, our world of regular stuff... or because the characters in the invented magic-land are so human you can't help believing in them.

If a wizard is going to live and breathe, he has to sneeze and stumble. If someone lives in this century and has powers, they likely also have a cell phone. Ommisions of such details are the biggest flaws in a lot of magic books.

If an author wants to write about dragons, I think that author should know what dragons eat, but also where they poop. Magic doesnt let you off the hook. Your world still has to be complete.

The Cooper books do a pretty fabulous job of blending both ways of making magic real. This series threads two families together. One family is a family of regular everyday British folks, who just happen to be friends with an old professor who turns out to be--- (I won't spoil it!) And the other family is an ancient and powerful magical family--- (won't kill that one either!) The families (and in some cases the books in the series) are distinct from one another, but they blend and clash into each other to great effect. The children from both families meet in THIS world, and the LONG AGO world.

And of course there are grails and powers and good and evil colliding in dramatic ways... but there are also everyday meals and whiny kid brothers and cars and parents.

And all of this is executed in a dreamlike way. The magic builds slowly, convinces you of its likelihood. Cooper does not rely on a willing suspension of disbeleif. Rather she creates, cajoles, convinces you of her magic...

I remember reading Over Sea Under Stone as a kid, and wanting to visit England. I wanted to go to Cornwall and look for this world that I was sure existed. There, in 20th century England. As it had in 6th century England. Both of them magical in their different ways...

And for me, that's the sign of good magic writing. Not just that I want to go there, but that I truly think I can... that the world is real. That MY world is magical.

Monday, October 1, 2007



I don't fully understand how this works yet myself, but I'm all for literacy, picture books, mentoring, anf bloggers!

I think the gist is that they're compiling a list of picture books that help promote reading/writingskills in kids, along with ideas for how/why to use the texts...


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Grumpy Bird...

I've been trying not to write too often about picture books, in part because I figure you don't need me to tell you that Hop of Pop will make your child happy (though it will also resound in your brain like a drill after umpteen consecutive readings), and in part because it seems cheaty to "review" books that're only 800 words long.

But you really need to check out Grumpy Bird, and I've been shocked that I can't even find it at the two bookstores I frequent. It isn't bestselling enough I guess (though why that is I cannot imagine). So run out and request it. Get it on the shelves!

I like Grumpy Bird because:

a. It's not too "nice." Grumpy Bird is grumpy, and that's okay. And when his friendly friends accost him with friendliness, he gets snarky with them, and that's okay too, Go Grumpy Bird! There are far too many nice books in the world.

b. The art is AMAZING. Mixed (and slightly surreal) media, old sepia photos layered underneath vivid cartoon/painting or something. I LOVE innovative design.

c. It doesn't really "make sense". In the real world, beavers can't, (last I checked) fly. And there's no complicated "world building" to explain this flight of the beavers... The beaver just decides to fly, and flies. The book depends on a tone of authority-- that you'll accept the rules of the world (e.g. bird wakes up "too grumpy to fly", though there's no explanation of why grumpiness takes away the bird's flying power). I think the best picture books do this-- operate with confidence and leave the explanation out (though it should be said that the worst books do the same thing. But fail!). But it's still an interesting point-- that the best picture books are good because of what they leave out, rather than what they include.

If I go on any longer I'll have taken up more space than it would require to copy the text of the entire book ten times, but you should check out Grumpy Bird. This is a debut book from a new author/illustrator, and I can't wait to see more from Jeremy Tankard!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Outsiders...

There's a really wonderful piece of writing today in the New York Times Book Review, a bit about S.E. Hinton and her insanely good book, The Outsiders (and if you've never read it, I think you somehow missed your teen years). I was not (in my own teen years) and am not now, especially interested in YA books. But The Outsiders was different-- more in a club with Catcher in the Rye than the Babysitters Club.

The article goes into all the many references in the book-- to Robert Frost and Shirley Jackson, and in some ways, the list-y story reads like an undergrad English paper called, "Direct literary referneces in the work of S.E. Hinton". But it's illuminating. And timely.

The article ends,

I was reminded of 19-year-old Kaavya Viswanathan, who was flayed last year for borrowing excessively from various sources for her own novel. If some high-minded, plagiarism-wary reader had persuaded S. E. Hinton to remove all references to the books and movies that inspired her, “The Outsiders” probably wouldn’t have slipped past the internal (let alone official) censors that governed ’60s adolescence. Forty years on, we may see the seams of its gilding, but the heart of Hinton’s groundbreaking novel is still, indisputably, gold.

And I think this is gutsy, this statement. And I think I agree.

We're so concerned with plagiarism right now, (and yes, I know plagiarism sucks, but...) because we can be. Because computers make it easy to catch plagiarism, in a way that only an incredibly well-read person with a photographic memory could have done in the past. And because we *can* hunt down every stolen line, we feel we should.

But this article is a reminder that when the work is good enough, it uses its references, and in doing so, it earns them. It becomes part of a tradition, and not derivative.

Certainly not theft.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ferdinand the Bull...

Tonight I'm thinking about politics. Because I wrote a bad scene today, a scene in my new book, a chunk of clunky dialogue about war, which I could NOT get right. So now I'm wondering whether our political leanings have any place in children's literature. I'm not sure...

I mean, on the one hand, I feel like they absolutely do. Like children's literature is the best place to help educate our young in subtle, serious ways... the best place to teach them that when we talk about "politics" we're really just talking about how to treat people. Justice. Service. Faith. Books are the best way I know to talk about such things.

And yet...

And yet when I hear about an overtly political book I cringe a little. Even if I agree with the politics. Even if the book comes from a press I love and admire. They tend to be message-y, such books-- heavyhanded. A little dumb.

So thinking about this today, I wracked my brain, tried to think of children's books I liked, but that carried political messages. And I thought of Ferdinand!

Remember Ferdinand? The bull who didn't fight, who preferred to smell the flowers?

Written by Muro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, Ferdinand is a "charming" book, though that's a term much abused (and overused) in reviews of bad (trite, sacharine) children's books today.

But let's think about what "charm" is. Charm is a kind of deception. An understated attraction. And Ferdinand is both deceptive and attracting.

There's a brilliance to the simplicity of Ferdinand. The juxtaposition of a little cork tree and a bullfight in Madrid. The conflict of bee and bull. Size as a misread indication of anger, violence. A fallacy. The myth of our automatic roles in the world. And passive resistance as ultimate power.

We could all stand to think a bit about Ferdinand this year. It is as apt a metaphor now as ever it was in 1938, in Spain. We could all stand to consider how the fact of being a big bull does not require one to snort and stab.

With classic line drawings that match Munro's artful text, Ferdinand should be required reading for those of us (like me) attempting fruitlessly to batter home a message with an iron pen (or keyboard).

The test of whether propaganda is good? Is art?

When you read a political children's books, I think you should feel confused. You should have to ask yourself, "Are they talking about what I think they're talking about?" You should not be sure.

Because if you know for sure what the message is, it'll only serve in preaching to the choir.

And even then, probably only if it's a really dumb choir.

In closing, I want to say that I have high high hopes for this book, the Little Gernal and the Giant Snowflake, but I ahven't read it yet...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Narnia in pictures...

(the only cover I've ever known)

Bookslut's Heather Smith takes on Narnia-art, and hits the nail on the head.

Though honestly, I'd loooooove to see Hilary Knight take on "spooky bunny noir Watership Down".

In fact, I'd love to see Hilary Knight take on anything. Edward Gory and Edward Eager too. I'd like to see any of those three illustrate ANYTHING. The Joy of Cooking. The Bible. My mother's will.

Seriously. Some people have just the right touch. Pen and ink... and maybe a little humor.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Jesus Christ and the Deathly Hallows...

Believe it or not, I have managed to hold off this long on HP7. And not only have I managed to hold off on reading the book, I've managed to hold off on reading the press surrounding the book, including all spoilers and reviews. Honest to gosh, I went in with no sense of what I was about to read.

So I don't know whether or not I'm "supposed to" love it or hate it.

But I love it. I totally do.

It's a really good book. Clunky in places, because Rowling sat down to write it with 6 books of world-building behind her, and has to reconcile the past books with this one-- make every little detail match up. So the histories interweave in sometimes awkward ways. But that's how it goes, with a slow-growing series of any complexity. And Rowling's logic is TIGHT. And her characters are real.

Major props, Ms. Rowling.

I'm about 23 pages to the end of the book, and I just shed a few tears (yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh) but that got me thinking about something...

I couldn't shake how much the scene where Harry goes out to meet Voldemort, accepts his own death, reminded me of something... of something... else.

Couldn't think what.

And then I knew what it was! It was Narnia. It was Aslan. It was Aslan, with Lucy and Susan only walking so far... watching from a distance as the lion let himself be bound and slaughtered by the White Witch. Aslan going those last steps alone. Submitting. Dying to be reborn. Dying so that unknown (deep) magic could be fulfilled and undo the evil at work in humanity.


The use of submission so critical to both tales, but also other things--the 2 companions held back, too human to accompany... and then the two sets of descriptions... of the evil creatures in the darkness. A hoard of evil creatures in a forest, hungry for the death of goodness. The most evil of all waiting with a weapon, foolish, missing a piece of the story.

So much the same, these scenes. Harry Potter, Aslan, Jesus. The only thing that could overcome death was the willing submission to death. Powerful, heavy, lonely, sad.

"Into your hands..." and all that.

Funny for me, as a Jew, to be reading this now, and shedding tears over it. Since of course, in the original, my people were the giants, the hags, the Death Eaters... waiting in the darkness, too foolish to see what was about to happen.


So what I still don't understand is.. why are the fundamentalist Christians so bothered by Harry? Here in Georgia, they're still trying to ban him from the library...

I mean, he's Jesus with a wand, for Chrissake.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Quick bit...

Via Jacketflap... I stumbled accross Jen Robinson's great post on Zilpha Keatly Snyder, who wrote many of my favorite childhood books, most especially The Egypt Game-- which is notable for being a non-magical book that manages to feel magical. A magic-ish book that also addresses "real" issues and carries serious emotional weight.

But now that Jen has written about it, I won't need to!

Thanks, Jen. Great post!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Orphans and England...

What is it about the English orphan that so captures the attention of the American kid-lit reading public?

I'm not sure why, but suddenly this morning I could not stop thinking about the Shoes books, by Noel Stretfield. Remember Ballet Shoes?

(Egads! Amazon-shocker. Could that cover--the one above--be any more different from the cover of my youth?)

Ballet Shoes, the finest of Streatfield's books, is the tale of three little orphan girls-- Pauline, Petrova, and Posy-- collected by an aging explorer/archaelogist (rather than bones) on three different excusions into the wild. When the old man disappears on another such adventure, the girls are left poor (though poor in 1937 fancypants England is not the poor of 2007 Sierra Leone or the South Bronx for that matter), to be cared for by their legal guardian (the explorer's niece)and their utterly devoted Nana (who raised the niece and now loves the family sooooo much that she refuses to take pay once they become "poor" and cannot afford nice clothes or fancy tea cakes any longer).

And what happens to three "poor" orphans in fancypants 1937 England? Why, they become Shakespearean actors and trained ballerinas, to support their hodgepodge family. Of course they do. They hit the stage and become famous movie stars. Why not? What *else* can you do when you don't have the money for new velvet frocks any longer, or Citroen cars...

If you detect a tone of sarcasm in my voice, I should explain... I don't mean to be severly critical by any means... I LOVE this BOOK! I do. But I have a hard time with it now that I'm a grownup, because it is soooooo far from the reality I now see around me. Concerned as it is with tiny comforts and the self-involved search for wealth and fame. This is not a political book. Not at ALL!

But when I was a girl? Back before I knew about genocide and AIDS and nuclear capabilities and national statistics on education and leaching plastics? Back then I didn't know from sarcasm. Back then I wanted to be a ballerina, an orphan. I wanted to have whooping cough in the English countryside, ride the tube, live in a house full of interesting boarders... I loooooved these girls and their lives.

And that's the point of this post I think-- that there is something lovely about the fantasy-life of people who lived before CNN and blogging (and equality I guess). One could--reading the Shoes books-- dream of being a ballerina or an explorer. Dream of eating tea cakes and wearing velvet frocks. Dream of being adopted by another family, a more fascinating family. Because the books were so utterly devoid of any awareness of the world beyond the books. It was a good thing, in 1937, to dream for yourself. To seek comforts. To have a devoted servant or a highfalutin pursuit worth abandoning a family for...

In 1937, talent and intelligence (above a certain strata of society) was a kind of manifest destiny. Gifts were rewarded with further gifts. A passion for life was rewarded with a good life. Or that was the attitude anyway.

I'm not sure I'm doing the book justice here. Not sure I'm getting at what I want to say. that this book far predates any kind of meta-thought, any kind of political imperative for a child. This book is about people who live with an expectation of the world being a comfortable and interesting place. And what they do to insure that the world lives up to its potential is a fabulous and wondrous tale. These girls are perhaps a little selfish, and perhaps they ahve blinders on, as their universe is a little selfish, and also wears blinders-- believes that the sun will never set on the Empire and all that. But guess what? That's what children are all about. Selfishness, and blinders. The sun never setting on the world that is.

That kind of thinking is-- I think-- the kind of fantasy children need to feel safe, conforted, and to seek out interesting lives. There's all the time later for them to "know better". But as kids, they *should* all expect to be president, or a ballerina, or an astronaut. They should *not* settle, at age eight, for the realization that customer-service-representative is more likely the truth.

Me? I wanted desperately to be Pauline. Blond. Beautiful. Tiny. Talented. Desperately I wanted to be Pauline.

Until I wanted to be Noel Streatfield. Which is something I'm still working...

(side note-- this is a GOOD book for showing young girls a range of careers. Waaaaaay ahead of the curve. This book has women role models supporting themselves, educating themselves, living alone, in 1937!!!)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen... We Have A Winner!!!

The winner of the "Name My Dastardly Villain" Contest is the fabulous Christy Lenzi, who is perhaps a bit dastardly herself!

I'll be using the name she so generously provided, Wichita Grim, in my upcoming novel, Any Which Wall, alongside any other name Christy likes.

Thanks, Christy!!!

(Now, if only folks would enter my "rewrite my crappy 4th chapter" contest. Sigh...)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The "Name My Dastardly Villain" Contest: SHORTLIST...

Well, I've finally found some time to write, and I need to pick a name at last. So I've been culling thought the amazing 200+ names people sent me, and I've narrowed the field a bit. Anyone have an opionion? I'm liking:

Jed Scratchett
Duck Barnes
Horace Noosethrottle
Wichita Grim
Benjamin Blackwater
Red Killjoy
Ezra Retch
Hannibal Hogswaller
Cecil Dregroot
Ely Darkwater
Cornelius Crake

Want to place your vote?

Friday, August 10, 2007

I'm in Baltimore right now, trying to work on the new book, while my very generous mom babysits Mose. And while I'm here, I'm also pawing through my old picture books down in the basement. Guess what I found?

Rain Makes Applesauce!

Remember this one?


Well perhaps this eloquent Amazon reviewer will refresh your memory:


Um, yeah... okay, loser. You also don't seem to *get* that the CAPS LOCK IS FOR SCREAMING!!! Yeesh!

Despite the idiocy of "H. Price", you should run out and get your kid a copy of Julian Scheer's wonderful book. What makes it so appealing to me is that it's dreamlike and nonlinear. Each page is a sort of discrete little nonsense scenario, but then those scenes (all gorgously illustrated by Marvin Bileck) are unified by a few repeating lines,

"Rain Makes Applesauce"


"Oh, you're just talking silly talk..."

A little trippy, as one might expect from a sixties era picture book. But the effect is lovely and magical and it draws a child in, with it's simplicity and the odd dialogue created by the repeating lines. A young reader gets to be at once the dreamer/silly talker and also the voice of reason. I remember shouting out the repeating lines when my parents read me this book.

Mom would say, "My house goes walking every day,
and rain makes applesauce."

And I'd laugh and scream, "Oh you're just talking silly talk!!!"

Or Dad would read, "Monkeys eat the chimney smoke..." and wait for just a second, look at me meaningfully, and I'd chortle, "AND RAIN MAKES APPLESAUCE!" (notice appropriate use of the caps lock, Mr. H. Price!)

It always surprises me that more people don't know this book. I guess maybe it feels a little dated, with those acid-flashback pictures and the non-narrative format, but it was, after all a Caldecott Honor book.

In any case, you should check it out of the library now that it's back in print!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Oh, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle!!!

Remember Mrs. Piggle Wiggle? The portly widow with the trim ankles and the box full of magic cures for all the REALLY awful ailments children catch?

I find myself thinking about her lately, as my son heads into the "mines" phase of childhood development. "MINES, NO, MINES!" he screams as he grabs for a toy that is absolutely NOT his and which he has decidedly NOT been playing with. And I think, as I wipe the snot off said toy, "Did Mrs. Piggle Wiggle have any cures for "MINES!"?

She did not, I think.

But then I wonder if any of her cures are actually things I can legally execute myself (bear in mind, when she moved to the farm many of her cures were non magical).

Not likely. You aren't allowed to abandon a child alone on a farm for an afternoon anymore. But in any case, she's on my mind. So I thought (of course) she should be on *your* mind.

If you don't know her, run right out and grab a copy of the first book in the series. You'll love her.

In the 1950s graphic-art town she inhabits, all the kids have ridiculously funny names, stay-at-home-mommies, healthy afterschool snacks, and easily solved problems. And maybe that's the real charm of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. The 1950s ease of her world. Because although we read these books with a sense of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's insane intelligence (in solving afflictions like talkbackitis) , and even an appreciation for what was surely a meta-mind on the part of Betty McDonald (the author, who was also self-aware enough to write a humorous account of her battle with tuberculosis) since surely nobody could name a character Harbin Quadrangle without having a sense of sarcastic humor about it....

We also, in reading these books, sink into a world in which every problem can be solved. Each book is episodic, a series of linked stories really. And each episode is quickly resolved with a kind of "happily ever after" finality. It's nice. Very nice.

The smartypantsy needs of a reader are met by the language, the tongue in cheek tone. But the desire for a simpler world is met too. Yes, this is world where filthy kids who refuse to take baths learn their lessons in a week. When they are allowed to grow so filthy their mothers can pull radishes from the healthy loam caked behind the kids' ears.

Ah, if only it were so easy.

With pictures by masters like Maurice Sendak and Hilary Knight, these are truly classics.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Books in Prison???

Did you know that when kids visit their parents in prison, they can't bring toys with them? I guess maybe because some toys are potentially dangerous or something, but in any case... the poor kids! Just sitting around with nothing to do while Daddy gets brought down from wherever-he-is. No dolly for comfort. No gameboy for distraction.

Imagine a skinny kid, alone on a metal folding chair or something, fiddling with his fingers, looking down an institutional hallway, waiting for Daddy.


But now imagine that same kid... with a book to read.

Okay, it's still horrible, but books are the best escape a kid has, really. A transport to other worlds. A way to learn other lessons, visit other lives.

So here's the deal.

A friend of mine is organizing an effort to send books to kids with parents in prison. Books those kids can read while visiting, and then take home with them. A gift. Something nice for the poor kids.

I'm putting a box together. Want to help? Any and all new/gently used childrens/teen books are most welcome.

Backchannel me at laurelsnyder(at) gmail.com and I'll give you my address.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Apologies and classics...

I want to apologize for the lapse in posting. Between the two small children (one of them colicky), the ongoing sinus infection, the bout of pinkeye, and the book deadline, I'm not doing a lot of reading...

But what I am reading, I'm loving.

Remember Mister Dog?

With words by Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame) and pictures by Garth Williams (he brought Little House on the Prairie to life) Mister Dog was a childhood favorite. And when I read it (for the first time in 30 years) last week I remembered why.

There's something disjointed about the book. Almost unedited. There's no real storyline at all. Rather, the book is a list of details about the life of Mister Dog.

We're told that Mister Dog is named Crispin's Crispian because... he belongs to himself. We're told about how he takes a little walk and discovers a land of rabbits and cats, and another one of dogs. About how he finds a boy who also belongs to himself, and about how he and the boy go back to Crispin's Crispian's house to make themselves some dinner. We learn that Mister Dog is a conservative (and what that entails is funny) and... that's pretty much the book.

Now, why does this make me love Mister Dog?

Because this book breaks all the rules. No tension or mystery of any kind. Nothing to resolve. Just a list of random details in one day in the life of a dog who wears a straw hat.

And the characters aren't even that loveable. The boy who belongs to himself refuses to share his chop with Crispin's Crispian, and looks to be a little standoffish. Crispin's Crispian is a biot of a loner (why doesn't make friends with the other dogs) and also a neat freak.

And yet... and yet these characters feel human to me, honest. They feel like people I know. Lonely people. Imperfect people. Highly unusual people in the world of kiddie lit.

And then of course, the pictures are amazing, and the words are... well... they're the words of Margaret Wise Brown.

Who was, perhaps, drunk when she wrote them. Or lonely and depressed. Or pulling our legs.

But still a genius.

Now, back to my insanely messy child-filled house (since I am *no* conservative!)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Little Gloat!

I'm guest-blogging over at the Happy Booker today.

Miss fancypants, that's me.

See you there?

Monday, July 9, 2007

This week I read Laura Ruby's The Wall and the Wing . A dark-but-funny book I'll file under "orphans and magic."

It's a quick read, the story of a girl named Gurl, raised in an orphanage, lonely as can be. Gurl finds a friend in a boy named Bug, and together Bug and Gurl unravel the mysteries that lurk at the very core of their universe (why people have learned to fly, why neither of them can remember the past, etc)

What I love about the book is that it blends a contemporary voice and setting (New York, kid-lingo, etc) with a really unusual kind of magic (a pen that can conjure anything into being, a strange professor who pulls cats and kittens (because cats are riddles and riddles are everywhere) from his pockets. And while some authors today blend such worlds, Ruby fully integrates them. New York street punks and sewer-alligators and street musicians merge seamlessly into a kind of old-world-gangsterland and both are overtaken by really interesting kinds of magic.

It reminds me just a bit of Harry Potter in this way. Complete as it is with orphans and a "Flyfest" vaguely reminiscent of a mad Quiddich game. But in some ways Ruby has risen to a greater challenge, as she's gotten wildly creative, but left the contemporary world intact.

Which is something I find difficult as an author. Merging magic and whimsy with the "real" world. It's something I admire in authors like Ruby, and Ellen Potter. Because it's so much easier to send magical flying beasts through a city you've invented. A city in which you can rearrange the architecture. R

uby's done an admirable job of leaving the buildings intact.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Politically Incorrect ( and totally out of print)...

I thought I'd take a second today to talk about a book I LOVE, but that you're unlikely to ever have the chance to read. Since no bookstore near you stocks it.

Because the book, BEAUX, is long out of print, and too historically placed, too offensive on its surface (however well written), for anyone to ever bring back from the dead. Though you might find a first edition on ebay if you hunt.

Written by Evan Commmager (friend to Robert Frost and wife to Henry Steele Commager)) and illustrated by the amazing N.M. Bodecker, Beaux (essentially a smart southern belle's YA novel) was published in 1958. But it came out at just the wrong time for longevity.

Because (obviously) in 1958 the world was about to change in important and dramatic ways that would make topics like escaped black chain-gang members (wrongly accused) with thick caricature-ish dialects into innapropriate fodder for light and humorous storytelling.

But the book is also funny and clever and weird and smart as hell, and so if you're someone (like me) who stumbled on it before you were old enough to understand how little you knew about the complexities of race relations, feminism, etc... then you probably liked this book a LOT, since you didn't yet know better.

It's basically the story of a precocious young narrator (Chris), who wants to grow up to be a writer and "pen trenchant novels" in a garret in New York City. But this narrator is certain that such a life won't lead her to produce children, and so she sets out to keep a "book for posterity" for her sister's offspring. (Her sister is a docile and gentle young woman studying at Sweetbriar) So the narrator not only takes it upon herself to write a book for her sister's posterity, but to help her sister produce that posterity. She sets out to find a series of beaux for her sister, so that she can document their stories.

Along the way, she (along with her best friend Junie) tangles with gender and race, and fat old dogs and fleas. She also gets into trouble, throws up, and becomes a "popular girl" at the book's end.

But what makes the book special is voice. There's a strange quality to Chris' narration. A blend of the old south, and a sideways view of that old south. A recognition of the gender divide, and a subtle resistance of that divide. Chris is willful and snarky and iconoclastic, but she isn't addressing the icons directly, and she isn't aware of her own politics. Yet. Rather, she's a tomboy, a contrarian. And so she walks a fine line between the world she lives in, and the world that we (her readers) imagine she must surely be heading for, a world far removed from big layer cakes and blancmange and chautauqua. New York City. Civil Rights. Intellectual friends.

So in the end, I don't think this book *is* politically incorrect. I think its a rare thing, a book thoroughly of its time, but written by someone with a critical eye and a task beyond indictment.

And I think that we often find this in children's books, because they are not required, as many adult books are, to be self-aware. Children can stumble. Children are allowed. To stumble toward the truth, slowly.

Though readers are expected to be a little more savvy.

(I only wish I could find you an illustration online!)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The End???

This moment, it happens to every writer... the split-second gasp of recognition and frustration, the sudden discovery of a book they wish they could have written.

Or--more than that--the discovery of a book they think they *might* have written eventually. If they pushed themselves to the limit... and of course, if someone else hadn't beaten them to the punch.

Well, this week I found such a book. A picture book by David LaRochelle, illustrated by Richard Egielski, The End. I wish I had thought of this!!!


No-- I don't love this book because the pictures are vivid and funny (a little bit Sendak even). Or because it's a fairy tale of sorts. Or because the economy of words is pretty amazing.

I love it because LaRochelle has invented something that feels new to me. A new form.

"The End" is a book you read backwards. Duh. So obviously, it begins with "The End". And then each subsequent page contains the "cause" for the action on the previous page. In this manner, it leads readers back to the "beginning".

Like so:

“And they all lived happily ever after. They lived happily ever after because…”

How incredible is that? Simple and brilliant at once. A backwards book.

Especially brilliant because this is JUST how writers work a lot of the time, backwards. Asking themselves "Why?" before turning the page At each moment of decision or action, writers have to determine what the compulsion for the next page is. If they're worth their salt.

So here we have a book that teaches kids how to become storytellers, how to understand momentum and compulsion. How things can seem inventive and bizarre (gigantic tomatoes and big bowls of lemonade and floods of bunnies and flaming knights) without seeming arbitrary.

Because the seemingly bizarre details are connected by the all-important question "Why?"

Of course, adult writers have given us backwards books, but I don't think anyone has ever done it with pictures, have they?

Ach! Darn! I want to have written this book! But I didn't.


Monday, June 18, 2007


Sorry to miss posting this week, but I gave birth to an amazing baby boy on Monday, and don't have the time to blog just yet. Too busy snuggling.

Though I will assure you that Lewis Abraham (see above) and I *are* reading . N.E. Bode's book, the Nobodies.

I'm enjoying it a lot, and Lewis thinks the pictures are *just* "blecftchhhh!"

Whatever that means.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Hale and Hearty...

I've been reading Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl at last, after loving The Princess Academy . And I have to admit that all the attention Hale has received in the last few years is well deserved.

Hale is a meticulous writer, and her prose is full of lovely similes, gorgous descriptions, really creative character details(which is to say that she shows, rather than tells.. when it comes to internal landscapes)and a general fluency with language. She's a poetic writer. I even caught a little Emily Dickinson riff in there.

More importantly perhaps, Hale has a skill with creating worlds. Without ever sounding artifically olden-timey or high-falutin, she manages to evoke believable once-upon-a-timeness. This is something I envy her-- that she neither dips into the language of our world today, nor relies on grandiose speech.

In Princess Academy, I was blown away with Hale's imagination, with the element of "Quarry-speech (people can communicate through memory, and stone, but you'll have to read the book to really understand what that means) in particular. And though The Goose Girl shows a less innovative streak, I think that's mostly because she's set her book inside an old fairy tale, and (correctly I think) used the narrative scaffold to its fullest, leaving less room for wilder invention.

Both books do a really subtle job of integrating feminist (and also a bit of political) theory into the fairy tale universe, without ever being heavy handed, or pulling the reader out of the story/mythic realm. And this too is something I strive for myself, and struggle with-- how to NOT cave to the worst aspects of our canon/tradition, but to also preserve the "feel" of the fairy tale.

How to allow a princess her swoons and her crowns and her moments of weakness, and yet send a message to girls today that they DON'T need to wait for a prince.

Hale is really really good at walking this tightrope.

So all in all, I have to say that this woman just pretty much rocks the princess novel, hard. But there are two things I want to mention/ask about, in closing.

1. What do people think of the recent trend in fairy-tale retelling? In general? I mean, this isn't new, really (fairy tales have ALWAYS been retold, rewritten. That's one of the things that makes them fairy tales). But it does seems there's a lot of it today. From people like Sarah Beth Durst, whose new book delves into the Rapunzel myth in a far less traditional manner, to the wildly succesful (and not so new) Ella Enchanted. What do people think of these books? I ask mainly because I've noticed recent press for a few new books like this that are coming down the pipe in the near future, and I'm intrigued at why this is happening right now. I wonder what you folks have to say about this trend...

and also... another question related to Hale...

2. What do people think of Hale as a YA writer? While her books are longish, and they do involve a few innocent kisses and embraces here and there, I don't really read them as YA. Is this classification simply an issue of length, and the fact that this sort of fairy-tale mode requires princes and princesses, and so bumps into issues of dating/courtship/betrothel? I've dealt with this myself a bit for an upcoming book), and fought with the question of how to turn a child princess into a marriageable woman in 200 pages... and I find it a little bewildering. Since fairy tales (not to mention Disney movies) are full of love/dating/kissing but are NOT YA. In Hale's writing, I'm inclined to say that the tweenage princesses are really NOT YA characters, but fence-straddlers (which I like) and successfully so. But I don't know, and I wonder... how have other people handled this issue as writers, and responded to it as readers?

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Magic of Eager...

It had to happen sooner or later (inane spouting and rambling about how I love Edward Eager), so it might as well happen now...

After all, I'm re-reading a few of his books this week, as I begin tinkering with the first hundred pages of my next novel. I need it, a good dose of Eager. Regularly.

There are many levels on which Eager was a complete and total genius. Many. And I'd happily debate (or maybe pop) just about anyone who dares to disagree with me... but the particular flavor of genius that interests me tonight is best summed up by the author himself.

Or rather... by Barnaby, a character from Seven Day Magic:

The best kind of magic book... is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.

(Oh, and DIBS on this quote. *I'm* using it, and if you steal it I'll come and short-sheet you or something.)

But hmmmmm.... rules... Barnaby was a wise wise boy.

You should all, ALL OF YOU (and me too of course), think about rules often, if you happen to be writing books about magic and children. Lest you be thwarted.

See, magic is dangerous. Because it removes certain limitations from a book. It frees an author of many restrictions. And restrictions are so important when you're writing.


Let's say you've written your character (Jimbo) into a dark cave full of wild snarling beasts, and you are NOT writing a magic book. Well, now you have to draw on the objects and traits and characters and themes already at work in the book, to get poor Jimbo free. What resources does Jimbo have? What other characters might have been introduced earlier on, who might now fly to Jimbo's aid? Is there a father he fought with earlier in the day, who has come looking for him to apologize? Does Jimbo have an amazing gift with animals> You'll have to turn to the book's logic to free Jimbo. And so the book will hang together.

But if you are writing a magic book, and Jimbo has a wishing talisman, and the wishing talisman has no real rules to it... Or Jimbo's best friend is a fairy who comes whenever he calls and has limitless powers... well, under those circumstances, Jimbo will simply wish himself free. Which is LAME if it happens every time he gets stuck. Like a series of identical trapdoors. LAME! Such a book will NOT hang together. It hasn't been knitted with anything.

Magic HAS to have a logic, and you have to understand it, if your book is to succeed in any real way. Edward Eager was the king of magical logic. Each of his amazing books operated on a different set of principles, and his characters all (while they have fun too) spend a lot of time figuring out their magic, and learning about themselves and the world in the process. Which is important.

Eager struck an incredible balance between fantasy and reality. Something we all need. All of us. In our books and in our lives. You have to earn your wishes, your pleasures.

Lately, as I've been trying to read contemporary books, I've found myself a little disappointed at how many authors fail in this way. I won't name names (because I don't want to make enemies) but it seems like a lot of people just send in an amazing magical cavalry when they feel like it. Characters "discover" new powers in the nick of time.

Or worse, authors create a world in which a magic cavalry is possible or such discoveries are commonplace... and then they DON'T use these devices now and then... for no particular reason... just so they can build some tension, create a jam for Jimbo.

Which is just really really stupid. Because no matter how dumb Jimbo is, he's not THAT dumb. If he's got a magical all-powerful talisman, you can bet your sweet patooty he's keeping it with him.

Ach, okay... I haven't talked much about Eager in detail, but (now I have to run to the baby, who needs some boiled carrots and string cheese ASAP! and) suffice it to say he's a genius. His characters are smart without ever being irritating. He's literate and literary without ever seeming like a snob. And while the books are all set in the past, they don't feel dated, because the kids are so REAL.

Read the man, if you haven't already (though how you grew up without him I cannot comprehend.

Start with Half Magic and go from there.

(OH! I should also mention that the illustrator of these books is one of my three all-time favorite illustrators. ALL TIME!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The "Name My Dastardly Villain" Contest...


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!! I'm so excited about all the submissions. As I'm about to have a baby (in like, a week) I'll not get to these until July, but please know that every name has been counted, and there WILL be a group of finalists, and a winner! Hurrah!

Okay, I've never done a contest of any kind before, but I'm stuck on something. So I'm turning to the small (but growing) number of brilliant people who read this little site for help with my next book, "Any Which Wall."

Here's the deal:

I need to NAME a dastardly fellow, a filthy scoundrel, a naughty man from the Wild Wild West, stuck in the 21st century. He's truly rotten-- cruel to animals, mean to kids, and willing to rob banks and kidnap YOU just for the fun of it. He wears a black hat and a long dark coat. He smells funny.

Can you help me???

Just enter your suggestions (as many as you want, but one per comment please, so I can keep track of how many entries I've got) in the comment field of this blog.

I'll select the best name I'm offered for use in my book (Random House, 2009), and the winner will be thanked most graciously, and also given a signed ARC of the finished book, and the chance to name ANOTHER character in the book as well (I'll select the character). But they can name this other character ANYTHING THEY WANT!

I suggest that the winner use this opportunity to honor their mother or win points with their boss (I've discovered recently that moms LOVE to appear in books). But as far as I'm concerned, anything (suitable for readers 7-11) goes!

So bring it on! Help me write a book! Name my villain!

(Disclaimer-- while at least one person WILL win, and receive the chance to name a secondary character and a signed ARC, I reserve the right to change the dastardly villain's name at a later point if I have a middle-of-the-night writing freakout or a stroke of genius. Because, after all, writers are flaky and controlling and fickle!)

And please, if you have a blog, feel free to plug/link this contest! I need all the help I can get...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Danger Danger...

This week, I came home from the library with a stack of old friends (Knight's Castle, Pippi Goes Aboard) and a stack of new reads (Peter and the Starcatchers, The Wide Window).

(One of the perks to writing for kids is that you call this kind of reading "research")

And I had every intention of reading the Dave Barry Book. Really I did. But despite the awful new cover (why do publishing houses do that, put tacky new covers on classic books?) I couldn't resist Pippi.

So last night I re-read Pippi, and I have to say that I was a little surprised by the book, after all these years. Because now I'm a mom.

And I'd forgotten that Pippi is-- in addition to being a wonderfully funny liar, the strongest person in the world, and a delightful red-haired orphan living all on her own in a funny abandoned house in small-town Sweden-- also the greatrest fear of every overprotective neurotic GenX parent in the world.

Seriously, if you happen to be someone who wipes your kid's hands down with Purell, baby-proofs the laundry baskets, and reads informative websites about carseat recalls... then stay away from Pippi.

Yes, Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking is your nightmare. She'll move in next door and tempt your overly-protected children to abandon their senses. She'll teach them to climb into cages at the zoo, swim without water-wings, talk to all kinds of strangers, drink unidentified bottles of medicine, light fires, climb trees, and even (horrors!) eat lots and lots of high-risk-choking-candy.

Pippi doesn't do her homework, listen to silly grownups, or wear the proper undergmarments. She doesn't have a babysitter. She doesn't listen.

And of course I love her.

Because she doesn't teach lessons. Not at all. We don't learn anything from Pippi, except maybe that life is odd and people are interesting. Even the best (non-pulp) book for kids today tend to sneak a little morality into the mix, and Pippi doesn't. Pippi defies lesson-learning at every turn.

Which might lead one to assume there's a lesson of rebellion in the book...


Except that there isn't. Tommy and Anica (Pippi's little neighbors) are as tidy and well-behaved as the cobblestones in their little Swedish town. And she loves them as they are. They're timid and clean and polite and they do what they're told, and that's okay too. That's fine.

See? No lesson...

Of course, the book is also just totally genius in its dialogue. In the development of Pippi's (fairly complex) character. In its amazing use of humor.

But most of all, today... now... as a mom living in the age of spill-proof-eveything, handi-naps, and splinter-free toddlers... I love Pippi for being everything we fear.

Dangerous and rude and rebellious and filthy and precarious and accidental. And unafraid.

And I love timid Tommy and Anica for loving her, in their little pressed shirts.

So maybe that's a lesson.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This week I read two very different books, and both are well worth a mention. But for different reason. One is worth a mention because I think it's pretty special and wonderful, and the other one....

just isn't.

The wonderful book? Olivia Kidney (and the sequel to Olivia Kidney is equally great, btw) by the quippy, funny, imaginative Ellen Potter.

Olivia is a very real little girl living in New York City, dealing with the death of her brother and the loss of her mom. But in Potter's quirky style, these issues get tackled with humor, simplicity, and the kind of curious child-thought process that most grownups lose the ability to follow or recall the validity of. The result is that rare thing-- a book that handles serious issues without preaching or hitting you over the head. You just experience them.

The story has magic, ghosts and conjuring... introduced in super-creative ways. but the storyline is extremely urban, very common-sense-ical. The book NEVER has to tell you how smart the author is, or how smart Olivia is. It comes through in the mildest, smallest ways... driven by clear description and humor... that both Potter and Kidney are special.

By contrast, the other book I read this week (and NO, I'm not going to to tell you what it is) does just the opposite. It SHOUTS at you that the author (by right of being a literary name-dropper) and the children at the center of the story (by right of being precocious little prigs) are all brilliant. Everyone is "clever" and everyone is "interesting" and everyone is well read, and there aren't tacky things like telephones or TV sets or fast food to get in the way of the culturally elite lives being lived.

And the magic is secondary, as well as being harvested from other books. And the end result is that I felt, as a reader, slightly insulted and also bored.

And I mention this now by way of confession... because I saw in the pages of this book a million mistakes I myself (being a little priggish at times, and something of a name-dropper) might make.

So I thought I'd mention now as a writer... that when we seek to relive the past in our books, when we seek to pay homage to the great literary children's writers of bygone eras, we MUST remember that what made those books great was the humor, the quality of "Real" (and I do mean in a Velveteen way), the humanity of the characters.

NOT the fact that the little girls wore dresses and played with dolls, or that the little boys climbed trees and didn't talk on cell phones. A magical TV can be just as literary as a magical tea set. What makes a book literary is what the child says when she turns on the TV, or as she sets down the tea set. How she enters the magic, and how we enter it with her...

Olivia Kidney pulled me into her magic. This other book... pushed me away.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Back in Print...

In a lot of ways (although I'm not sure anyone will be able to tell) "When the Sky Is Like Lace" is the book I had in my mind when I was writing "Inside the Slidy Diner" (Tricycle, 2008).

Not because the two books are really much alike, but because "When the Sky is Like Lace" doesn't really tell a story, so much as it describes a place, time, or state of mind. Because it leans on language, and depends on quirks and oddities rather than plot. Which isn't that common of late.

So many picture books today rely on EXACTLY what we've come to expect from picture books. Which is to say... whatever has most effectively been selling. And so, much like pop songs, picture books are full of exactly what we expect to find in them-- animals who act like people, children who learn lessons, precocious babies, sweet mommies and spunky kids. Blah blah blah.

And while I may not have succeeded in avoiding these tropes/traps myself with "Slidy", "When the Sky Is Like Lace" most surely succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of the usual fare.

It favors unexpected turns, but doesn't get wacky for no reason. Most of all, it chooses its words very carefully. It sets a tone, creates a world within our own. As a kid I really really wanted to believe in this world:

You will also find that, on bimulous nights when the sky is like lace, the grass is like gooseberry jam. It's not really squooshy like jam, because then the otters' feet would slurp around and snails might drown. It only smells like gooseberry jam. But if you walk barefoot, it feels like the velvet inside a very old violin case.

If you plan to go out on a bimulous night when the sky is like lace, here are some rules you must remember:

Never talk to a rabbit or a kissing gourami.
If your nose itches, don't scratch it.
Wear nothing that is orange, not even underneath.

And -- if you have a lucky penny, put it in your pocket. Because, on bimulous nights when the sky is like lace and the otters are singing and the snails are sulking and the trees are dancing and the grass is like gooseberry jam, it's a good idea to be prepared.

Words by Elinor lander Horowitz, and insanely lovely pictures by Barbara Cooney. It was out of print until recently, but they've brought it back. Get a copy before it disappears again!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

A Little Bit Dark...

Last week, my mother told me that a friend of hers--a woman she knows from church-- had written a book for children.

I yawned. I expected a self-published tale of floopsy the bunny, who teaches kids about the importance of literacy or something...

Then I discovered that THIS, A Drowned Maiden's Hair, was the book! It sounds absolutely wonderful. Dark and coldly Victorian. But also sweet and affirming.

So then I had to eat my words (or at least my yawn)

While I haven't read it yet and so can't review it here (I just ordered it from my library) I adore the first line: "On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing, The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

But hearing about this new dark and sweet book got me thinking about the wonderfully dark (but also sweet) books of Joan Aiken. And in case you don't know them, I want to be the one to tell you... they're great!

My favorite is "Black Hearts in Battersea," the second book in the "Wolves" series.

These books take place in an alternate universe, but it isn't a completely invented fantasy-world, it's a historical one. And set in England in the early 1800s,it actually FEELS historical, though never dull-- full as each book is with bawdy roustabouts, spritely waifs, dismal London streets, mad dashes across dark moors, and political unrest...

Not to mention hilarious songs and the occasional balloon ride.

In the world of Simon, a young art student (and our charming main character) James II was never deposed, and Simon (loyal to the crown) matches wits with the evil "Hanoverians" (who are often drunk but always a stitch) intent on bringing down the good king, James III.

Very English. Very smart. Very funny. A little bit frightening and a little bit sad in moments. With a fine silt of dingy coal dust everywhere...

If you don't know the Aiken books, I strongly urge you to get yourself to a library or a bookstore. There are lots of them, and once you start reading you're bound to have a stack beside your bed.

Oh, and you should know that this is a series you can read out of order. The books relate to one another, but they also stand alone (and I'll tell you as an author that's no mean feat!).

So don't worry about starting in the middle. Just start!

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Best Book of All...

I realize that one should never claim to have found the "best" book, but for years now, I've come back again and again to The Thirteen Clocks, by James Thurber. I read it at least every six months (no kidding), and find something new each time I pick it up. I owe a great debt to Steve Gettinger, who bought me my copy long ago...

This is a book of poetry, of wordplay, of silly songs and fairy-tale cadences. It is pretty pure imagination, fantasy at its best. But it's also a cynical book, wry and funny and clever. The story of a prince who follows an impossible journey for the love of a fair maiden, The Thirteen Clocks is also the story of his sidekick, the Golux, who is flawed, mistaken... and yet we trust him.

There are children long gone who never resurface. There is a terrible villain who learns nothing. There is a terrifying beast, the Todal, an agent of the devil whom we never come to understand. Heros are deceitful and the princess is bland. Spies switch sides and are killed for the slightest infractions. This book breaks all the rules beautifully. As good books should.

But here, I have been wasting words. I can't do it justice. Let me show you:

”I am the Golux,” said the Golux proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device.”

“You resemble one,” the minstrel said, “as Saralinda resembles the rose.”

“I resemble only half the things I say I don’t,” the Golux said. “The other half resemble me.”

Oh, if only they did...

Nothing resembles the Golux, or the Thirteen Clocks.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Not that she needs the publicity, but...

It goes without saying that when it comes to old-fashioned prose for the kiddles (and kiddle-like adults), Kate Dicamillo leads the pack...

But while everything she has written is good, Edward Tulane is a new kind of good (by which I mean an old kind of good).

It's a quiet kind of book, a paddle down a slow-moving stream. Not recommended for anyone who requires constant adventure, not EXTREME in the least. But that's why I like it.

Just a story about a toy, a china bunny, who learns some things about himself, and wanders through the world, pushed hither and yon by forces beyond his control. A distant cousin to the Velveteen Rabbit.

Candlewick makes beeeyoooteeeful books, and this one in particular is astounding. For production value it reminds me of my childhood copy of The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth.

Which you should also read (if you haven't already)...

"Now, what am I to do with this creature..."

Let me tell you a little story...

Last week at the library, I asked the librarian to help me find a good book for a young reader.

"Please, I need a good book for a young reader..." I said.

The librarian blinked. "What kind of book."

"Well," I said, "This young reader (yeah, the young reader *is* me, and it's a stretch to call myself young I suppose, but I'm not OLD exactly)" enjoys fantasy..."

The librarian pointed to an island of short fat paperbacks with pictures of shiny dragons on them. Shiny dragons with digestive problems.

I contined "... but she likes old-fashioned fantasy, this young reader. She loves Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. Baum and Juster and Lewis and ... well, you know, the GREATS!"

The librarian blinked again. "Has she read Harry Potter?"

I responded in the affirmative. "Yes, she has."

The librarian scratched her head. "Lemony Snicket?"

"Yep!" I chirped.

"Well then," said the librian, I don't know what to tell you." And she wandered away... to kick someone off a computer.

Which leaves me without a clue for what to read. Again!

You might ask why a 32 year old (young) woman is reading children's books. And I could tell you that it's because I'm a children's author (which I am) but that would only be a partial truth. Because I've been reading (and re-reading) the same books for 25 years, and I've only been a children's author for two of those years...

But now I want NEW books, books that will live up to the standards of the books I love.

And so, henceforth and post haste... this site will become a little blog-roster, of the authors (for children) that I love best, and occasional rants on things that particularly touch, confuse, befuddle, or impress me in the touching, confusing, befuddling, impressive world of children's publishing.

This site will be irregular, as all fun things must be... updated whenever I feel moved to update. This site may be "cheeky".

But most of all, I hope this site will become a place where people who like to read VERY good books, (and perhaps have a penchant for the past) can find something new to read (whether or not it's newly written).

Finally, I reserve the right to post the occasional rant about nothing or everything, the occasional baby-picture (I have a baby!), and the occasional bit of personal news... because this is, after all, a blog.

For goodness sake.