Thursday, October 29, 2009

Elephant Run: Mother-Daughter Reviews

My nine-year-old daughter's teacher enjoys sharing contemporary children's novels with his class. Recently, he did Elephant Run by Roland Smith as a read-aloud for the class. Suzy enjoyed it and wanted to read it on her own, too, so she checked it out from the county library.

When she arrived home with the book, she suggested I might like to read it, too.

OK. Elephants, Burma, World War II, it sounded pretty interesting. And I wasn't disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Elephant Run. We've both finished it now, so we've both reviewed it. You can read Suzy's review on her blog, SuperBookGirl.

The book begins in London, 1941. Thirteen-year-old Nick Freestone's mother sends him to live in Burma with his father after their home is destroyed in a bombing raid. Nick's father owns a teak plantation, which uses elephants for logging. Unfortunately, the Japanese arrive almost immediately after Nick does, taking his father to a prison camp and occupying the plantation. It's a story of Nick's survival and eventual attempt to rescue his father.

It's a great novel for ages 9-12. The book is well written, with an engaging and exciting story. It doesn't gloss over bad things that happened in World War II (deaths of some people on the plantation, for instance) but also doesn't get excessively graphic. Nick is clearly attracted to his friend Mya, but it's not overly emphasized (it's not a kissing book!).

I also thought it was interesting to see a different piece of the World War II story. History and historical fiction doesn't often focus on Burma, and personally, I've read much more about the European part of the war.

I would highly recommend this book for ages 9-12, and older kids and adults will enjoy it, too.

A Quick Note on Scholastic/Myracle

Laurie and I are not impressed with Scholastic's response to the Lauren Myracle uproar. This is just a quick note to say that; Laurie will be posting later with more book fair thoughts. (I'm interested to hear what she has to say.)

Scholastic is getting a lot of credit for "reversing" their position and putting Luv Ya Bunches in its book fairs, lesbian moms intact. But they're allowing it in their middle school book fairs. Not their elementary school ones. Luv Ya Bunches is an elementary-level book, and gay parents are not mature content.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I'm indignant, as a consumer!

As usual, my first thought when I heard about the Scholastic Book Fair/Lauren Myracle book controversy (to sum up: middle grade author of non-gay-themed book asked to turn gay parents into straight parents for book fair edition) was a selfish one.


I have fond memories of book fairs. We didn't have a lot of extra money when we were kids, and in my memory, book fairs were one of the only times I got to pick out my own books to keep. (My sisters may remember this differently, and I'm not even sure if book fairs were common when Kathleen was in elementary school. History of book fairs, anyone?) Why I wasted such opportunities on books like How to Draw Horses and The Ghost at Dawn's House is a mystery to me. (The fact that I remember buying these books specifically shows how significant the fairs were, I think.) I also remember buying a copy of Beverly Cleary's A Girl From Yamhill, though, and I think Daddy Long Legs.

Oh, how I remember the class visits to the book fairs to pick out what books we would buy when we came back with our parents, and how the teachers would try to shoo the kids away from the picture books once we were in upper elementary, which seems sad.

But how many of those books we bought at the book fairs had been changed from their original form? How many had words or characters or scenes altered? I learned about this practice a few years ago; I think it applies to the "book orders", too (those colorful fliers the teachers sent home every couple of months; I got a few books from there as well, like the first Pen Pals book). And I started to remember how occasionally I've noticed a difference in editions--like my ancient Scholastic copy of Anne Emery's Senior Year, in which teenagers are suddenly dancing the hustle instead of the original foxtrot.

I want to read the books as they're written. I think most people do. At the very least, I want to know I'm reading an altered edition. Are there disclaimers on Scholastic books now? I can't remember seeing one before. Don't we need a "this book has been edited for length and content" kind of message on there, so at least we KNOW the real book is out there?

If you were a parent and bought a no-gay-parents edition of Luv Ya Bunches (sorry, the sweetness of that title gives me the willies, too) for your kid, wouldn't you feel sort of dirty? I would.

Scholastic has put out a weird update on this situation of a neither-confirm-nor-deny stripe. (It makes no sense: if they "recognize Milla’s two moms as a positive and realistic aspect of the story", why would they ask to have them removed?) I'm puzzled that they mention carrying After Tupac and D Foster at book fairs. Is it an edited version or not? If not... why one and not the other? Perhaps it's because After Tupac skews slightly older; maybe it's the very middle-gradeness of Myracle's book that made someone think two moms were inappropriate. ("You can learn about different kinds of families when you're older, honey.") Maybe they know that the kind of parents who would be offended by Myracle's two moms would never, ever pick out After Tupac in the first place. Maybe they think the book is insidious because it looks "safe" but OMG liberal agenda!!!1!

Let's call it like it is, Scholastic. Let's put out Luv Ya Bunches: The Homophobic Edition.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Newbery Project Revisited

It's been just over a year since I finished reading all the Newbery winners, something I only thought about after I was able to put my Newbery skillz to work recently and call out Peter of Collecting Children's Books (which I referred to this weekend as, I think, "the best blog in the world" or similar), who graciously posted all about it.

Recently I said to Jen Robinson "I'm just really invested in the Newbery," and she responded "I can see that," possibly with a little "hello, Ms. Crazypants" in her eyes.

If I was formal about this kind of thing, I would start a Newbery Challenge and try to convince bloggers to read one Newbery they think they have zero interest in. Or to pick the decade of which they've read the fewest books (probably the 20s or 30s for almost everyone) and read one from there. Or to read the book published the year they were born, or the year their mothers were twelve. (The Westing Game and Amos Fortune: Free Man for me, respectively, which is very funny--of all the books on the list, I put The Westing Game at the top and Amos Fortune at the bottom.)

Every once in a while I revisit the idea of reading all the Newbery Honors, too. I've always avoided that for two reasons--one, I am not a compulsive person in the slightest, and two, a lot of the Honors sound really boring. But compared to most people, I have very little knowledge of most of the Honor books. (Um... when I say "most people", I mean... people with specialized children's literature knowledge. YOU know.) I did have an idea for a series of posts that deal with the winner and all the honors for one particular year; in fact, I finished all my reading for 1953, and if I ever post that year, I'll be soliciting for other year suggestions.

But for now, I'm going to do a decade-by-decade suggestion list. You could take it as a challenge, if you wanted.

1920s: Best read: The Trumpeter of Krakow; interesting setting, characters, and easy-to-enjoy plot. Most important read: The Story of Mankind. I think you really have to know this book.

1930s: Best read: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, a delightful story of adventure. Most important read: probably Caddie Woodlawn is the one with the most cultural resonance, though I found it unremarkable.

1940s: Best read: The 21 Balloons. This is really the book I wish everyone would read (especially if you like food). Most important read: depending on why you read, maybe The Matchlock Gun. It's easy for me to write off most of the racist books on the Newbery list, because most of them aren't very good. The Matchlock Gun is VERY good. It's a good (and safely in the past) point of reference for discussion about cultural insensitivity vs. distinguished writing.

1950s: Best read: Oh, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was talking with a writer who isn't familiar with most of the Newbery books, and she was asking if I agree that most of them aren't very appealing to children. "Like, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, do you really think that's a great book?" she asked. "It's in my top five," I said enthusiastically. She hadn't read the book, had just heard something about it. I loved it when I was a kid and love it more now. Ladies and gentlemen, THAT is a great work of literature. Most important read (other than that): Secret of the Andes. Depending on who you are, you'll read it and see how horribly wrong committee discussions can go (that's me), or you'll read it and come off brilliantly when you're the one person in the group arguing that the right book won that year.

1960s: Best read: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but you've already read THAT. Most important read: probably the same. If you look at the list of winners, this book seems to usher in a new modern era of children's books; most everything before could be called somewhat old-fashioned, even, in some ways, A Wrinkle in Time. This book has an immediacy and modernity and envelope-pushing quality that seems important in Newbery history.

1970s: Best read: Well, The Westing Game, of course. Most important read: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I think, which is so central to discussions about period-appropriate offensive language. Incidentally, in the 1970s, four of the books focused on African American themes, one is about an Alaska Native, and The Westing Game has quite a bit of race-relations conversation, too. It's an interesting decade for the Newberys.

1980s: Decade of my childhood, and none of the winners are thrilling to me, which is maybe why I avoided Newbery winners for so many years. Best read: maybe Lincoln: A Photobiography. (Most of the books are good, just not thrilling.) Most important read: um... Jacob Have I Loved might be the most YA book in the entire list, so maybe that's important.

1990s: I sense another cultural shift here. Perhaps the best read is The Giver, and the most important is Holes, which is generally held up as "both popular and profound".

2000s: Best read: A Year Down Yonder, which is spare and funny and meaningful. Most important read: Too soon to say, but Bud, Not Buddy might be the one it's most important to be conversant with, culturally.

As always, I am delighted to hear any agreement or disagreement or to take any "what did you think of" questions. And I'm nudging you--do it now!--take just one of the books I've listed above and put it on hold at the library. Let me know which one you're choosing and why.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Indigo Notebook or Why I Ate Quinoa Last Night

I'm a big fan of Laura Resau's first two books, What the Moon Saw and Red Glass. (Disclaimers are so in right now that I feel like I should put that at the bottom--Disclaimer: I do not know Laura Resau, but I really like her other books and I read her blog sometimes.) When I heard that she'd just started a new series, I was pleased but surprised. YA series are not the most common thing (despite the fact that almost every book seems to be one of a trilogy these days), so I sort of assumed we were looking at something Babysitters Club-esque, or maybe like SASS, which it sort of resembles on the surface. Nope. Not. At. All. (I confess that I have yet to make it all the way through a single SASS book, even though I love the idea; I was hooked on this from the first paragraph.)

Resau's new Notebook series follows 15-year-old Zeeta and her mother, Layla, an itinerant ESL teacher. Each year of Zeeta's life they've moved to a new country. You know Layla now, don't you? You already know that she wears wrap skirts and quotes Rumi. What keeps Layla from being a cliche? You met her when you went to Thailand and Guatemala and Ireland. She's real.

And your mind is already turning, isn't it, thinking of what it would be like to have Layla for a mother? I am completely in love with Zeeta. If I wanted to be anyone else when I was fifteen, it was her. She's pretty and interesting and comfortable with all kinds of people and speaks seven languages fluently (over a dozen not so fluently) and somehow escapes being annoying. She's like Polly O'Keefe without the self-absorption. I'm afraid I'm making her sound like a Mary Sue, and in fact I do sort of wish she had more flaws, but I swear, to read Zeeta is to love her. I'm so looking forward to traveling all over the world with her. (Next stop: Provence.)

This first book in the series takes place in Ecuador, and the first sign that I wasn't in Babysitters Club territory was the richness of setting. It's obvious that Resau knows her Ecuador, but it comes out of her naturally, without delving into travelogue territory. The last two days I felt like I WAS in Ecuador, and so the only possible thing I could have for dinner last night was Ecuadorean quinoa vegetable soup from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes--you may think you've never been that interested in going to Ecuador, but after reading this book, I predict you'll be looking up plane fares.

The setting and lovely characters are definitely the strengths of the book; to be honest, it gets a little overdramatic in the last part with a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff, and maybe a little sentimental about international adoption (Zeeta's buddy is an American boy who was adopted from Ecuador as a baby and is back seeking his roots). But those characters! That setting! The food!

Now, I don't know how long Resau plans to make this series; I think it will be a challenge to keep it from being too Cherry Ames, with a new love interest and a dramatic mystery for Zeeta in every country. But if anyone can do it, I think it's Resau, who just keeps coming up with creative and original takes on YA. The fact that Zeeta and Layla stay in each place for a year will help, because that gives enough time to really develop the situation; it won't be like Zeeta is facing a near-death experience or being held for ransom every month.

I think your bright middle-schoolers and maybe high-schoolers will love this series. I was desperate to travel when I was that age, and it seems like something even more teens aspire to now. Zeeta is both a real girl (multiracial, by the way) and a wish-fulfillment fantasy, something YA can never have enough of.

Friday, October 2, 2009

You know you want to see Ed Young illustrate "One Night in Bangkok".

My brother-in-law (and Laurie's husband), Matthew Amster-Burton, has written both a delicious book about kids and food and a guest post for this blog.

Looking for a picture book set in modern New York City? I can think of about a hundred. How about a picture book set in historical, mythical, or rural Asia? Plenty of those, too.

But where are the picture books set in modern Asian cities? I'll bet you can't name many, and that's a shame. It gives English language readers an inaccurate image of Asia (all rice paddies and pagodas) and robs us of a potential treasure trove of children's stories.

Why the missing books? I have an idea. Come on a short trip with me; when we get back, I'm going to recommend some books.

I went to a slide presentation by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of two great Korean cookbooks. She talked about regional food and sightseeing in Korea (she's also the author of Frommer's South Korea). She showed at least fifty slides, of which one or two were taken in Seoul. There were several slides of an ersatz rural community set up for tourists, like a Korean Colonial Williamsburg. About half of all South Koreans live in Seoul or its outskirts. Seoul is one of the largest, most technologically advanced, safest, and presumably delicious cities on earth.

Around the same time, I had dinner with Dan Gray, a Korean food writer who has a blog called Seoul Eats. We talked a lot about Korean food and I told him that I'd never been to Korea but really wanted to go. He offered encouragement and a warning. "You have to understand," he said, extending his arm to indicate green Seattle, "Seoul isn't beautiful."

My five-year-old, Iris, is a fan of this cartoon called Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. Kai-Lan is a Chinese-American girl whose best friends are a monkey, a koala, a tiger, and a rhino.

Recently we watched a special 45-minute episode, "Kai-Lan's Great Trip to China," where the whole crew flies to China to visit Kai-Lan's great aunt and meet a baby panda. The first thing they do in China is stop at a roadside stand for dandan noodles. I heartily approved. Then they arrive at the aunt's house, which is a rural mansion.

Soon it's time to shop for presents for the baby panda's naming ceremony, so the crew goes into the city. The city looks like the China pavilion at Epcot, only with fewer people. The funny thing is, actual cities in China look a lot like this artist's conception of the original plan for Epcot.

We read a lovely picture book called Erika-san, by Allen Say. Erika moves to Japan to become a teacher. She begins in Tokyo, which she finds overwhelming. She moves on to a smaller city. Still
overwhelming. She ends up in a rural area, where she learns the tea ceremony and marries a Japanese man. The real Japan, the book seemed to imply, isn't in the city.

Phooey, I say.

In 2000, Laurie and I went to Bangkok. It was our first trip to Asia. We brought the Lonely Planet book, some travel pants from Lands' End, and a Seattle-honed appetite for Thai food. We arrived in the city at night, breathed a lot of diesel fumes, ate some bland stir-fried chicken from a street cart, and checked into our fleabag hotel thinking maybe we'd made a mistake.

In the morning, everything looked a lot better. We found a new, clean hotel with air conditioning. We rode the river taxi up and down the Chao Phraya. We ate perfect fried fish at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, perfect grilled chicken at Sara-Jane's, and many perfect things at street carts. To say that the best food I ever ate was in Bangkok would be a huge understatement. Compared to the food I ate in Bangkok, most of what I eat isn't even food.

We spent a week in Bangkok and didn't bother with any side trips. A lot of people in Seattle, especially young people, have been to Thailand, and everyone we spoke to found our trip puzzling. You mean you didn't go to the beach? To the floating market? To meet the hill tribes? Isn't Bangkok a cesspool of traffic and sex tourism?

Because I'd been to Bangkok, I knew what Dan Gray meant when he said Seoul wasn't beautiful. Bangkok is, well, ugly. There's a whole lot of dirty concrete. It's also wonderful, with unexpected glimpses of beauty everywhere, like smooth mounds of colorful curry paste at the market, orchid sellers on the street, a truck piled high with pineapples.

Rice paddies and historical Asian architecture are picturesque in a way a Bangkok streetscape isn't. Instead of seeing this as an artistic challenge, authors and illustrators (or maybe publishers) have largely surrendered. Imagine if Ezra Jack Keats looked around the streets of New York and said, "Nothing to see here; I think I'll head to Central Park."

When I traveled in Asia (specifically Bangkok and Vientiane), I saw children involved in all sorts of play, especially rambunctious, unstructured street play, the kind American parents like to lament the passing of. I'm not saying urban Asia is a children's paradise, but--like Keats's New York--it's a rich and untapped well of stories.

The few urban Asian picture books I've found have left me with an appetite for many, many more. Here are a couple of my favorites, mostly set in Japan:

* The Way We Do It in Japan, Geneva Cobb Iijima, ill. Paige Billin-Frye. Gregory grew up in the US but moves to Tokyo with his parents when his (Japanese-American) father is assigned to the Tokyo office. They live in a small apartment outside Tokyo. Gregory has to get used to rice and fish for breakfast; putting his bed in a cupboard every day; Japanese toilets; and school. This book wrings a lot of interest out of the profoundly ordinary, but my favorite thing about it is how it shows, without saying it outright, that a lot of things about being in a new country are cool and annoying at the same time. This is a perennial favorite in our house, even though the end is kind of dumb. (Also, according to School Library Journal, "some of the 'way we do it...' elements are a bit stereotypical of the traditional way of Japanese life." I'm not sure whether this supports or negates my thesis.)

* Tokyo Friends, Betty Reynolds; My Japan, Etsuko Watanabe. These are essentially vocabulary books, not great for reading aloud, but with fabulous, colorful artwork. Reynolds is the author of a series of adult picture books about Japan, the best of which is Squeamish About Sushi. My Japan has a great page about Japanese food which includes like ten of Iris's favorite foods.

* City I Love. This book combines poems by Lee Bennett Hopkins with artwork by Marcellus Hall. It does a great job of making Asian cities seem dramatic and cool. The Tokyo page features the dazzle of Ginza, complete with wild-eyed anime characters, and the Shanghai page highlights the insane Shanghai skyline. There's a fun scavenger hunt aspect to the book; on each page you need to find the traveling dog and figure out which city he's in. (Cities from every continent feature in the book, not just Asia.)

City kids--all kids--in the West deserve to know more about their counterparts worldwide. To cover one of my favorite continents, I'd like to see more good urban picture books set in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia.

Thanks, Matthew. Hungry Monkey includes kid- and adult-friendly recipes for pad thai, larb gai, and bibimbop, as well as an appendix with kids' books about food.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

First Paragraph Awe

I've been looking forward to The Indigo Notebook (out this month) for AGES, and I've had the ARC for a while but I've been saving it. I just opened to the first paragraph (quoted from ARC, obviously), and I am SO HAPPY:

It's always the same, no matter where in the world we happen to be. Just when I get used to noodle soup for breakfast in Laos, or endless glasses of supersweet mint tea in Morocco, or crazy little tuk tuk taxis in Thailand, Layla gets that look in her eyes, that faraway, wistful look, as though she's squinting at a movie in the distance, and on the screen is a place more exotic, more dazzling, more spiritual than wherever we are.

Sometimes--very, very occasionally--a book will say to me "Here, Wendy. This was written especially for you."