Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

"Remember that part in The Graveyard Book..." Two people in my family read The Graveyard Book earlier this month, and the third person quickly learned that a reference to "Jack" meant a Very Bad Man. We've been talking about The Graveyard Book. In serious terms--"The Graveyard Book brings up my worst nightmare as a mother--the parents murdered and their child in danger," I shuddered. In wistful terms-- "I wish I could have that knife that stayed sharp for 10,000 years," Matthew sighed as he chopped an onion. In playful terms--"Jack Frost is going to get you!" threatened Iris.

The Graveyard Book is a book that readers will think about, and talk about. I have read only one other book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline, and years later I still think about it. Last Sunday, the day before The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Award, a friend of mine pressed her copy of Stardust into my hand. She had read it months before and was still thinking about it. That's one of Gaiman's gifts, and why adults, teenagers, and children will be reading and thinking about The Graveyard Book for many years to come.

Where you can listen to The Graveyard Book: Neil Gaiman Reads
My favorite character in The Graveyard Book: Silas
Who HAS to read The Graveyard Book: fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
What I will read next: The Jungle Book

True Story

I was reading Audrey, Wait! (Robin Benway) at the gym, and I laughed so hard I almost fell off the treadmill.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

After Tupac and D Foster, Homophobia, and Newbery Reactions

I first read After Tupac and D Foster (Jacqueline Woodson) last fall, when Heavy Medal chose it as one of the shortlist books for the Mock Newbery. I liked it a lot, even if I didn't think it was perfect. But right away I shut my mind to the idea of it winning the Newbery.

I had various reasons to give; I remember saying, during the mock-discussion, "I would never be bringing this up if we weren't analyzing this so closely, because it's a great book, but--" and mentioning some point about the text and plot development. Eventually I even voted for it to receive one of the mock-honors and was pleased when it was chosen.

But a couple of days before the real awards were announced, I recognized the real reason I didn't want to consider After Tupac as a possible Newbery winner. I didn't want to deal with the aftermath if it won.

I'm really enjoying reading discussion about the awards on various blogs, including dissent--is The Graveyard Book a fully-developed novel? what was wrong with Chains? how could they ignore Wabi Sabi?-- even the (to me very odd) suggestion that the non-standard English in After Tupac keeps it from being literary enough. (...would the same argument apply to the non-standard English in, say, Huckleberry Finn?)

But homophobia is hard for me to shake off sometimes. And I really didn't like the idea of reading blogs and even newspaper articles, the day after After Tupac might have won the Newbery, and reading veiled and not-so-veiled opinions about the Newbery committee "pushing an agenda" and choosing a book that "is not right for the children in my library" and that "I couldn't possibly use in my classroom".

After Tupac and D Foster is, at its center, about the friendship of three girls in the 1990s who love Tupac Shakur's music. One of the girls has a brother who's gay, and also in prison. There's a lengthy scene in the book where two of the girls and the man's family visit him there. A sample:

"What's the first thing you gonna do when you get home, Tash?" I asked.

"Girl, you know I'm gonna get my hair twisted, make myself a cute drink and get myself over to the river and see my people!"

The river was where all the gay guys hung out. Sometimes Tash took me and Neeka with him when he went to hang out with his "girls". I loved going because all the other queens always made such a fuss over us, telling us how beautiful we were and how we'd grow up to give somebody "fever" one day.

"Some of the children came to see me last week and they were like Girl, how is you living up in here?!"

I laughed, trying to imagine Tash's queenie friends looking around the gray walls and dirty floor and barred-up windows.

(After Tupac and D Foster, Jacqueline Woodson, p 104)

So let's pause for a sec and talk about voice, because voice is what really makes this novel stand out--what makes it, in my opinion, "also truly distinguished". The narrator's voice is so true and believable throughout the book that it's almost hard to believe she isn't a real person. And I found the voices of all the supporting characters equally impressive--the above is a great example. Doesn't the narrator's response sound exactly like what a comfortable 12-year-old would be thinking? Doesn't Tash feel like a real person that you could walk down to the prison or the river and meet yourself? Can't you see all his friends visiting the prison and looking around the visitation room in horror? And just mentioning "the river" adds another element to how this novel deals with place. Even though Tash is lucky in his family and friends, he still has his own place with his own people. He doesn't belong totally in the neighborhood, the way the girls do.

It doesn't really get more explicit than this. There are some veiled references to the dangers of being obviously gay in prison that I think will probably go over the heads of most kids (but if they don't, I don't have a problem with that, either). But there's certainly no chance of missing that Tash is gay, and his family and friends accept him. And I knew that would be too much for some people.

A lot of people don't like it when the term "homophobia" is applied to them, because, they say, they aren't "afraid" of gay people. But they do show fear--the fear of their kids "becoming" gay, usually, and a fear of having to talk with their kids about what "gay" is and whether it's right or wrong or neither. These are the people who are thinking--for subject matter, anyway--that After Tupac shouldn't have been given a Newbery honor.

I like talking with people about gay issues, usually, whether they agree with me or not. Often I have to hold back laughter when I'm talking with (or reading the blog posts of) people who are well-meaning but extremely naive, or people who have totally ridiculous reasons for their anti-gay beliefs. But I think this year... maybe I've had enough of homophobia. I live in California.

So I didn't want to think about what might happen if After Tupac and D Foster (a book that I would say is appropriate, reading and interest-level wise, for kids about 11 and up) won the Newbery. There's almost never as much discussion about the Honor books (which is too bad, of course). So I'm only hearing the occasional comment about After Tupac being "really for older readers", or, as one blogger put it,
this is most definitely a young adult novel, and deals with gangs, violence, prison, and mentiones homosexual prison affairs. So unless you want to be explaining that . . .

But since this isn't all about my personal comfort, I'm delighted to think of the range of children, parents, and teachers who will be reading this book now and identifying with these girls who embrace their brother's gayness. To my knowledge, this is the first Newbery book (winner or honor) that clearly contains LGBTQ content. (I haven't read that many of the recent honors, so if anyone knows of others, please tell me. I think A Solitary Blue has gay themes, but it's... well, not explicit, but I want to believe it so much that I'm NOT going to write Cynthia Voigt and ask her, because if it isn't, I don't want to know.) Thanks, committee, and thanks, Jacqueline Woodson.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A funny article from the AP

Let's just start off with the assumption that I am always annoyed when the Anita Silvey article is cited as a source to show that the Newbery hasn't been good for years and everyone knows it--because a. not really a reliable source, since it was more of an opinion piece than a sourced article, and b. the Newbery has had books lots of people love and books that had smaller audiences throughout its history as well as throughout the last few years. (One of my favorite things about the Silvey piece is how she mentions The Story of Mankind as an example of a popular book.)

All the articles that appear today are likely to take one perspective, and because I'm feeling generous, I'm going to say it's because they need a hook, and this year's hook is going to be "Neil Gaiman is famous and popular! Weird!"--not because all the journalists are cruddy and rude.

But this article from the AP is a really funny one.

--apparently, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is too "difficult" (first I've heard of it; I bought it for my five-year-old niece, even if not necessarily for her to read to herself)

--and The Higher Power of Lucky is too "disturbing". What? Maybe someone thinks children will be so disturbed by the word "scrotum" that they'll... run off into the desert? There are quite a few objections to Lucky as a distinguished book (I can't wait to find out in the sequel how Brigitte is going to make a go of a restaurant in that impoverished town that no one visits), but "disturbing" is one I've never heard.

But the killer is the last paragraph: "Gaiman, 48, has three children. Two have grown and moved away."

Since most of the article is talking about whether The Graveyard Book is horror, or too disturbing, the emphasis on "grown and moved away" makes it sound like... well... SOMETHING SUSPICIOUS happened. I mean, did NOT happen, and we shouldn't think anything else.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Um, according to an article (that contains a lot of iffy grammar, by the way--I think they should be embarrassed) in the School Library Journal Online, when librarians at the ALA conference heard that Neil Gaiman's twitter post read “F---!!!! I won the F---ING NEWBERY THIS IS SO F---ING AWESOME. I thank you", "some librarians were already expressing disappointment, saying such language was inappropriate".

...maybe they ARE out of touch.

Hmm. Some of the grammar in the article has already been corrected in the five minutes since I first read it. I mean, that's good, but... weird. Also makes it harder for me to be snippy. Am glad I didn't mention the bad grammar in my already-snippy comment about the first line (about the Newbery finally ending its "slump").

ETA: link. The article has been edited a few times already from when I posted, which is... interesting.

More coherent thoughts

During the live feed for the awards announcements, I was blogging here, chatting with my sister, and refreshing the livejournal of a friend who was also blogging minute-by-minute... as well as trying to keep track of time so I wasn't late for jury duty. The Newbery was announced just in time (I live only six blocks from the courthouse), and I'm here now, sitting in the courthouse hallway because all the jury waiting rooms are filled to bursting. I'm happy to see so many people reading. Probably no one else knows how cool I am for having a copy of Tender Morsels right here (I have about fifty pages left).

People who are very happy right now:

*Me. I'm thrilled with all the winners. Even though The Porcupine Year didn't take anything, I don't have any feelings of "how could THAT win when Porcupine didn't"? There's one book each on the Printz and Newbery lists that I didn't love, but I did think they were both good, so it doesn't matter. And I didn't really take After Tupac and D Foster seriously as a Newbery contender--I think I'm going to have a whole post about that later--but I did think it was very good. Is Jacqueline Woodson the Susan Lucci of the Newbery?

I'm tickled that I called We Are the Ship for the Sibert award (non-fiction), and glad that What to Do About Alice was honored there, too; I still think it'd be better for the Caldecott, but an award is an award. And The House in the Night was a terrific Caldecott choice.

I find that my greatest happiness is about the Printz honor for Nation. It is... oh, I don't know. I can't explain, but this is such a great example of how a book can be great YA without being violent or shocking or sexual. I don't necessarily object to those things--Tender Morsels is all of them--but I want people to know there's something else.

*Cheryl Klein, a Carleton classmate (can I say classmate? she was a year ahead of me, but "schoolmate" sounds funny), who edited Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, which won the Batchelder award for best book translated from another language, AND edited A Curse As Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, which won the Morris award for best YA novel by a first-time author. I'd only read a couple of the Morris nominees (love having a nominee list), but I'd thought to myself that the Morris is MADE for books like Curse.

*Nina Lindsay, who loved The Graveyard Book, but was sure it wouldn't be eligible (one of the chapters was previously published).

*Neil Gaiman.

Reactions As They Happen

6:42 I really hope this livestreaming thing is going to work.
6:43 Music from the livefeed! Possibly the jury people will appreciate it if I brush my teeth.
6:44 Oh, I liked the music. Oh, well.
6:45 Message from Twitter, nothing from livefeed.
6:46 YES! Here we go.
6:52 Haven't heard of any of the Alex Award books, but I've been busy.
6:53 Am amused at how much librarians sound like high schoolers and/or concertgoers.
6:55 Piano Starts Here for the Schneider! I've actually read that! I liked it.
6:56 Waiting For Normal for the next Schneider! What a great choice. Oh, I thought it would be because of the mother's mental illness, but it's her learning disability. I'll probably write about that in a future post.
6:57 Haven't read the Schneider teen book, but I'm feeling very successful so far.
7:00 Twitter is ahead of the conference; does the audience know? We could start hearing preliminary squeals.
7:00 CSK Honor for We Are The Ship. Yay, but WHAT is going to win?
7:01 Haven't read CSK winner for illustration, The Blacker the Berry.
7:02 Woohoo! We Are the Ship wins the author CSK. IT'S SO GOOD.
7:09 YES! A Curse Dark As Gold was my hope for the Morris award.
7:10 YAY Nation!
7:11 YAY Tender Morsels!
7:12 Have heard great things about Jellicoe Road! Altogether pleased.
7:19 I don't have much time left. Luckily, I only live six blocks from the courthouse.
7:24 Sibert honors! First one sounds good, Alice is great of course
7:25 YAYYYYY! Also, feeling smart!
7:26 I haven't heard of the LIW winner... oh, an illustrator, that's why.
7:33 Caldecott!
7:34 The House in the Night! Not my choice, but I'm very happy! Great art.
7:35 EEEEEEK I can't stand it
7:35 Underneath, YAY!
7:35 The Surrender Tree, one I haven't read!
7:36 Savvy, not my choice, but one I called!
7:36 Tupac, Congrats to Nina for calling it!
7:36 The Graveyard Book! Was eligible! YAY COMMITTEE! WE LOVE YOU!

...and I'm off to jury duty.


I have the live feed for the ALA awards open; I have the Twitter screen open just in case. I'm all ready to go to jury duty as soon as the awards are announced. But first, just in CASE the Newbery and Printz aren't things I've read, I also have the library's website open so I can be first to request the books.

I wonder how much more productive I'd be if I always got ready for the day before reading all my favorite blogs.

Do read the anticipation posts on Heavy Medal, starting here, and reading at least the two after. Sharon mentions that she's been working on the Rainbow List of the year's best LGBTQ books for kids--how crazy is it that there are enough published now to warrant a yearly list? Dude, when I was a teenager we had to be happy with reading Annie On My Mind in a seldom-visited corner of the school library.

Nina mentions in another post about the list of Notable Books. Thinking about this list is a relief to me--all those books that I really like, but don't think are good enough for the Newbery--they can still be Notable Books.

Twenty minutes! I have to confess that I'm hoping I do get on a jury; otherwise I'll have to come up with a new hobby all on my own.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Caldecott Addendum (and a Printz)

I just tracked down two more Caldecott front-runners: Wabi Sabi (Mark Reibstein/Ed Young) and Wonder Bear (Tao Nyeu). And I was surprised: Wabi Sabi didn't win my vote. I think the illustrations are great--some of them are terrific, especially one that combines a collage with a photo of pine needles--but I didn't find that marriage of art and text that seems to be important. The text is so different in tone that it almost seems like it belongs to a different book. I'll understand if Wabi Sabi does win, but I think the other contenders are stronger.

Wonder Bear, on the other hand, is terrific--or so I thought. I have a new fondness for wordless picture books, and I could read this one over and over. The drawings are lovely, and the story is beautifully complete. Check this one out.

I'm also now in the middle of Tender Morsels, a serious Printz contender, and I'm in favor. It's definitely got an edge to it, and from what I've seen, the Printz committees celebrate edge.

Friday, January 23, 2009

2009 Caldecott Predictions

I know very little about picture books, or what makes a good one. This has been an interesting exercise for me. I kept finding myself considering the books only as art (I have a BA in art history, so I have a sort of natural inclination) or only as stories (since I... I don't know, read a lot, I guess). It was hard to try to judge the illustrations as telling a story and interacting with the words.

As with the Printz, there are a few front-runners I wasn't able to read--namely, Wabi Sabi. But I've probably read at least thirty Caldecott-eligible books.


What to Do About Alice? (Barbara Kerley/Edward Fotheringham). This isn't a popular choice, but I thought it had a great interaction between illustration and story. The illustrations are evocative of the time period (turn of the 20th century), but they have a lot of humor and movement; the tone of illustrations matches the tone of the text perfectly.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Kadir Nelson). Oh, I don't know what to do with this book. It's a wonderful book, and I want it to win something so that more people will know about it. The pictures (oil paintings) are incredible works of art. When I read it I thought it was a shoo-in for the Caldecott. But on reading the criteria... these illustrations don't interact with the text. They're just gorgeous pictures. They add to the book, but they aren't an integral part. I don't know if this meets the criteria well enough to win. And I don't think the text is good enough for the Newbery. I would love to see it win the Sibert for non-fiction.

Twenty Heartbeats (Dennis Haseley/Ed Young). I haven't heard a thing about this book, so maybe it isn't as original as I think it is, since I don't know picture books. But as art, this book is terrific--the illustrator used collage to create gorgeous texture and fine movement. The illustrations are similar to one that's getting more attention, Silent Music (James Rumford), but the collages are far more effective, in my opinion.

The House in the Night (Susan Marie Swanson/Beth Krommes). This is one I'd heard a lot about, and while at first I thought the illustrations were rather too busy to be really distinguished, or attractive for children, this is another case where the illustrator did a great job with the medium (scratchboard).

Dinosaur vs. Bedtime (Bob Shea). This is, possibly, not a serious choice, but it had the best use of mixed media that I saw. Interspersing drawings with bits of photograph struck me as amusingly seventies; sort of a Sesame Street feel.

I haven't read Wabi Sabi (Mark Reibstein/Ed Young) or The Little Yellow Leaf (Carin Berger), but they look intriguing. I confess that I couldn't get past the central issue with In a Blue Room (Jim Averbeck/Tricia Tusa), which makes me feel pedantic. Making the room yellow instead of blue was an intriguing choice, and I would have thought it was terrific if the text hadn't said over and over that she WAS in a blue room (even before the moon came out). The illustrations themselves still wouldn't have pushed this up to the top for me, though.

Consensus seems to be around Wabi Sabi, and I won't be surprised to see something for We Are the Ship. The House in the Night is sure to be on there somewhere. Into the Volcano (Don Wood) is a possibility.

2009 Printz Predictions

I have a harder time trying to identify exactly what it is a Printz committee is looking for; I haven't read as many of the past winners and honors, and the guidelines are... odd, to say the least. (They read sort of like an email someone sent out in the middle of a discussion about how a young adult award winner should be chosen (scroll down to "Criteria").

I also haven't read some of the front-runners, like Paper Towns and Graceling. So my predictions aren't worth much. I've read 12 of the 30 suggested on Goodreads, plus I think some others that weren't on that list.

My Preferences:
What I Saw and How I Lied (Judy Blundell) already won a National Book Award, which disgruntled many, who think there were better books on the ticket. What fascinates me about this one is that it is, overall, a coming-of-age story--but couched in the terms of a classic film noir. Blundell carries it off beautifully, and it's something new.

Impossible (Nancy Werlin) is not a perfect contestant; it's sort of campy, maybe a little silly. But it's also compelling and fascinating. This is genre fiction that rises above itself.

Nation (Terry Pratchett) is a little muddy; it needs serious polish. (What I Saw is polished to within an inch of its life.) But I don't know that I read any other book this year that captured adolescence so perfectly, in the tentative almost-romance between Pacific Islander Mau and stranded Victorian Daphne. Mau angrily wonders about the validity of religion after his entire society is wiped out. Daphne struggles to live up to the potential she's tried to bury. Really funny jokes lighten the mood and carry the story along.

I think Nation may have a real chance; there's also a whole lot of consensus behind The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (E. Lockhart), which I found unremarkable. And there's so much talk about Graceling that I think it must have a shot.

The contender I disliked most was Madapple (Christina Meldrum), which I thought was exploitive and similar in tone and topic to many adult books that no one takes seriously, but it has some strong supporters.

What about The Hunger Games, you ask? I think it fits fine in either the Newbery or the Printz categories; I put it more on the Newbery side, because the treatment of the topic isn't really sophisticated. But I don't think it's good enough (everyone else has already said why: character, plot, etc). I wouldn't really object to seeing it get one of the honors, though, for either medal. It does what it does very well.

2009 Newbery Predictions

ALA awards will be announced Monday morning, starting at 6:45 am Pacific time. (I'm relieved to discover that my jury duty shouldn't interfere with either finding out what the awards are the minute they're announced, or with blogging about it afterward, because the courthouse is wifi-enabled for bored jurors.)

I started out trying to read as many Newbery possibilities as possible; then started working on the Printz; and at the eleventh hour, became interested in the Caldecott.

I'm more invested in the outcome of this award than any of the others, and I've read more of the possibilities, too. I'm not sure how many, but I'd say it's probably around 40. I've read 27 of the 38 suggestions on the Goodreads "2009 Newbery Contenders" poll. My preferences first:

The Porcupine Year (Louise Erdrich). I was relieved and happy when I read this book, because it was the first possibility I'd read that I could really get behind. This is distinguished, sophisticated writing, but highly readable. I actually enjoyed it all the way through, even the very sad parts, which left me with a feeling of strength instead of despair. At the mock Newbery I attended, this was chosen as the winner, and hardly anyone had any criticism to speak of. Nina pointed out that the voice in this book isn't as strong as in some of the other offerings, which I think is true; but this has more to offer than a terrific voice. There's a clear plot arc, character development, delineation of a setting--all the elements of a solid award winner.

Brooklyn Bridge (Karen Hesse). This one hasn't been getting much attention, which is sort of surprising since the author already won a Newbery, for Out of the Dust. This is a coming-of-age story about a Jewish boy in early-20th-century Brooklyn, but it never has the ponderous feel that many coming-of-age stories do; it has humor and movement and a plot that's interesting. The setting is well-realized. Not everyone likes the vignettes between chapters that tell something about the life of Brooklyn street children, but I thought they added a lot to the book, and deepened the picture of what life was like in that time and place.

Masterpiece (Elise Broach). This is getting a last-minute swell of support, but as of now I'm the only one who's voted for it on Goodreads; when I added it to the list I did so hesitantly, sort of afraid that people would laugh. This isn't a particularly deep book, and some of it is derivative (this is about beetles, but it has similarities to The Borrowers and Stuart Little). But it has all the elements of a really good book for middle-grade readers. It's clear and easy to understand; it has jokes that aren't too hard to get, but are still actually funny; it will make kids think without frustrating them. If it weren't for a completely superfluous section (the infamous turtle tank chapters), I'd probably support this even more.

The Underneath (Kathi Appelt). I think the writing, the actual poetry of the words on the page, is terrific. I'm less convinced on the plot, and I thought it got manipulative toward the end--I thought "this author is trying to make me feel as bad as possible", which wasn't pleasant. I didn't buy the ending at all. Yet I can't ignore the power of the words, and would be happy if this got an Honor.

Greetings From Nowhere (Barbara O'Connor). This is the first book I heard any buzz about, early in the year, but it seemed to die out after awhile. I found this very well-written, and it felt more true-to-life and honest than many problem novels; it was also more optimistic. This is an enjoyable book, real but a little gentle.

It's hard, frankly, to imagine anything other than The Porcupine Year winning, because I think so strongly that it's the best of the lot. And so I think it has a shot. But it sounds like Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson) is a big favorite; I didn't think it was particularly strong. Leaving behind issues related to race, I thought it had one of the flattest voices of any of the books, and a plot that took a really long time to get anywhere. I won't be pleased if Chains takes the gold, but I think it might.

Medal: Chains or Porcupine Year
Honors: The Underneath, Masterpiece, maybe Savvy (Ingrid Law) and Alvin Ho (Lenore Look).

The only book that I will really scream about, if it should win, is Diamond Willow (Helen Frost). Wait, and The Willoughbys (Lois Lowry).

And, of course, there's the distinct possibility that the winner will be something I haven't given serious consideration (Shooting the Moon? Keeping Score?) or even SOMETHING I HAVEN'T READ.

Printz and Caldecott speculation is forthcoming.