5.29.2009

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix, 314 pp RL 5

Newly in paperback, Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a novel for middle grade readers and is Book One in her new series, The Missing. Haddix has plans for at least seven books in this series, due out at about one a year. Author of over twenty books, seven of them comprising the very popular Shadow Children Series, Haddix is known for writing suspenseful stories.

Because this is a suspense novel with surprises and twists, if you think you might read this book and don't want any of these revealed to you - which, in my opinion is the best way to read suspense - do not read this review. If you do not want a major plot point revealed and if you or your children plan to read this book and purchase it from a bookstore - DO NOT LOOK AT THE BACK OF THE DUSTJACKET of the hardcover. There is information pertinent to the second book in the series, due out in August of 2009, Sent. This information IS NOT revealed on the back of the library edition. If you don't mind reading a few spoilers, carry on!


Before I go on, I have to let you know some personal problems I have regarding suspense. I was the kind of kid who looked through closets and under beds for birthday presents. And I was the kind of kid who also felt a little cheated after opening them. When I read a suspenseful novel, written for children or adults, I usually skim the story so I can get to the action and have my questions answered. Then I always feel a little let down at the end. This is no reflcetion of the quality of the writing or the intricacies of the plot, in most cases. It's only a reflection of the kind of person and reader I am. This is exactly how I read the new, incredible teen book by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, which is sort of a cross between Lois Lowry's Newbery Winner, The Giver and the television show Survivor. But with violence. There was a major plot twist that isn't revealed until almost the end and I inadvertently blew it for myself when I asked a coworker who had read the book an innocent question about wether or not it was going to be a series before I read it.

And, I'll be honest, that is exactly how I read Found, partly because of my little "problem," but also because I unintentionally got a little bit of information from the back of the hardcover dust jacket that spoiled one of the major plot points for me. Because of this, I skimmed along until the last chapter or so to find out how it all unravelled. So, any critiques I make of this book, please bear in mind my pre-existing prejudice and the fact that I skimmed part of it.

The plot: Jonah Skidmore knows he is adopted. He also knows that his sister Katherine, who at twelve is a year younger than him, is not. When Chip Winston moves to town and cryptic letters begin arriving for both of them, the mystery begins. Chip, who learns for the first time that he is adopted, becomes engrossed, along with Katherine, who, although she loves her brother and wants to help him, also seems to really enjoy spinning her wheels and digging for clues and piecing things together. Jonah, for the most part, remains aloof and unsure. He doesn't care that he is adopted or who his birth parents are and thinks Chip is overreacting. However, as the odd incidents and coincidences begin to pile up, along with an important meeting with someone who has some answers, Jonah changes his mind and tries to lead his sister and friend to safety.

And just what do Chip, Jonah and Katherine discover? They learn, thanks to the one witness who would not cooperate with the government's gag order, that thirteen years ago an airplane containing thirty-six infants, all approximately three months old, landed, or rather appeared out of nowhere, at Sky Trails gate 2B. There were no crew or pilots on board. The babies were removed and sent to adoption agencies all over the country. Now, the families who adopted the babies have all moved back to the same three suburbs and are participating in a county run workshop for families with adopted children who are becoming teens. While the parents hear a lecture, the teens go on a hike to a cave where they will discuss "identity." Pretending to be absent adoptee Daniella McCarthy, Katherine tags along. Once in the cave the children are trapped by the session leaders who are really from the distant future. These men are employees of Interchronological Rescue, a company that travels back in time to save inconspicuous victims of suffering throughout time in their infancies and then adopt them out to loving parents. They begin by saving children who would have been murdered during the Spanish Inquisition. However, they can only rescue children who's presence (and absence) will not change history in major ways. Thus, they cannot rescue every victim of the Holocaust. However, according to the agency that polices time travel, Interchronological Rescue has become primarily interested in rescuing the famous or royal victims who died as children. Charles Lindbergh III, first famous kidnapping victim in America, the Romanov children, Virginia Dare, first child born to pilgrims on American soil, and Edward V of England and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, the two "Princes in the Tower," as immortalized by Sir John Everett Millais in his painting from 1878 are among their famous "rescues." The two princes were sent to the Tower of London in 1483, ostensibly for their own safety after they were declared illegitimate. Their uncle, Richard III, took over the throne and the two were never seen again. It is not known what became of them, if they lived or died, making them perfect candidates for traveling to the future. The princes are among the children who, through "time reversal" have been returned to their infancy so that they do not remember their pasts and can more readily adjust to life in the future, and are on the plane that lands at gate 2B. Chip turns out to be one of the princes and he and his "historical brother" are being sent back in time at the climax of the story. Jonah, who's historical identity is not revealed (yet) and Katherine link arms with them and are sent back to the fifteenth century along with them with the condition that, if they can fix the ripples in history created by the vagaries of the Interchronological Rescue company, they can return to the twenty-first century, their families and the lives they knew.

Haddix's plot concept is genius. I love the idea that people can be plucked from history, returned to infancy and grow up all over again in a utopian future. However, the two hundred and fifty pages it took to get to this plot development seemed like one hundred too many. Haddix has an odd way of mentioning an important plot detail out of the blue and then explaining it in dialogue a few lines later. I found it jarring to continually be reading (skimming...) along and stop to re-read something that didn't make sense then read on to find it explained in the next paragraph. Also, I found her characters a bit two-dimensional and too clever. Again, take my criticisms with a grain of salt, but, my favorite time travel trilogy for young adults that I have read recently and think is stunningly well written with well developed, complex child (and adult) characters is the Time Quake Trilogy by Linda Buckley-Archer which begins with Time Travelers.

That said, I happen to enjoy fifteenth century England and plan on reading Sent when it comes out in August to see what Jonah, Chip, Katherine and Alex do with themselves and what Haddix does with her interesting ideas. I am definitely open to the possibility that this story, writng and characters become more complex as the series progresses. In a FAQ page on her website, Haddix says that she intentionally kept Jonah's historical identity a secret and I am VERY curious to find out who he is!

5.27.2009

Wolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, #1) by Michelle Paver, illustrations by Geoff Taylor, 293 pp RL 4

Set 6,000 years ago when all of northwest Europe was forest, Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother, the first book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness begins just after a bear has attacked Torak and his father. As Torak's father is dying, he makes Torak promise to find the Mountain of the World Spirit and ask it to help destroy the bear before the bear, who seems to be possessed by a demon, destroys the forest. He also insists that Torak stay away from humans and remember to always look behind him. Torak agrees and unwillingly accepts his father's knife, giving him his own, to take on the Death Journey with him. As he places the Death Marks on his father to help his three souls unite on the death Journey - the circles on the heels marking the name-soul, a circle over his heart marking the clan-soul and finally a circle on his forehead to mark the Nanuak, the World-Soul, he knows he cannot make this journey on his own. Raised alone in the Forest by his father who is of the Wolf Clan, Torak has supreme hunting skills but there is still so much his father hasn't taught him. And so many secrets he has not told him.

What follows is a suspense filled, treacherous journey as Torak makes his way to the Mountain of the World Spirit, a place no one has ever been to before. First, Torak finds the guide his father said would come to aid him. A wolf cub who's family has been drowned in their den during a flash flood seems like a suitable dinner, even though Torak is part Wolf Clan, until he discovers he can understand wolf-speak. Torak spares the cub, names him Wolf and learns that, despite the cub's tender age, he truly is a guide with an unfailing sense of direction and can be trusted implicitly. While most of the book is told in third person narrative, portions are narrated by Wolf, who refers to Torak as "Tall Tailless." The relationship between Torak and Wolf, as well as the brief narratives by Wolf, make up the backbone of the book. Paver conducted extensive research, which included traveling the forests of Finland and Lapland and, "sleeping on reindeer skins in the traditional open-fronted Finnish laavu. [Eating] elk heart, reindeer, and lingonberries, and spruce resin: the chewing gum of the Stone Age," to write this series. She also studied the belief systems of more recent hunter-gatherer clans such as Native-American and Inuit tribes in order to create doctrines of the spiritual world that the various clans of the Wolf Brother adhere to. The spiritual beliefs of the clans and their deep respect for nature and the animals that helped to sustain their lives was especially fascinating to me as I read the book. The clans peoples' belief that everything, rocks, rivers and trees are alive and have spirits and, while they can't all talk, they can hear and think affects the way they live their lives down to the way they walk, what they wear, how they hunt and where they will travel.

This understanding plays into the main drama of the book, the hunting of the bear-demon that has been created as a means of revenge on Torak's father, who was aware of this before he died. This knowledge is part the reason that he has kept Torak's existence a secret from all but one person - the Mage of the Raven Clan. As Torak, Wolf and the bear-demon make a path through the forest, the bear-demon leaving a trail of kills behind him, killing not to feed his body but to feed the demon inside of him that makes him bigger and stronger with every death, all three make their way to the Mountain of the World Spirit. Forgetting his father's warning to always look behind him, Torak and Wolf are captured by hunters from the Raven Clan and taken back to their camp. Unbeknownst to Torak, he has killed (and prepared, making use of every possible part which Paver describes in fascinating detail) the buck that the Ravens were tracking and they want him punished. The rules of the forest have changed and Torak, having lived apart from the clans, only attending one clan-meet ever with his father, is unaware of this. When Fin-Keddin, the Leader of the Raven Clan agrees to let Torak fight a clan member instead of being put to death, Torak takes on Hord, an ego-filled young hunter and one of the three, along with his younger sister, Renn, and Oslak, who captured him and brought him to the camp. Of course the fight is not a fair one, but Torak finds a way to win and in doing so unknowingly reveals himself as thBolde Listener who "gives his heart's blood to the Mountain. And the Shadow is crushed."

Regardless of this prophecy, Torak intends to carry out his promise to his father. However, it is up to Fin-Keddin and the rest of the clan to decide it young Torak should be allowed to go the the Mountain and spill his own blood or if he should be killed and a stronger man be allowed to take his blood to the Mountain. This is generally more talk about blood and killing, even if it is to survive, than I am used to or interested in, however, because of the time period of the novel and Paver's magnificent writing skills, I was immersed in the story almost immediately and overcame my aversions easily, in the same way that I was able to come my revulsion at Mary and Laura playing happily with a pig's bladder balloon on butchering day in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. Also, in addition to reading this book, I had the IMMENSE pleasure of listening to Sir Ian McKellen narrate the audio version which can be downloaded at audible.com but does not seem to be available for purchase as a CD. To read Ian McKellen's enthusiastic words about the series and the experience of recording it, click here. To watch and listen to McKellen in the recording booth reading Book 5 in the series, with an introduction by Michelle Paver, click here.

Genre wise, this is not my kind of book at all, but there is something so completely entrancing about it that I am going to clear the decks as much as possible so that I can read the second book in the series, something I rarely have time to do since I started reviewing books. Personally and professionally, I feel that this is a series that, despite the seemingly boy overtones, will appeal to both boys and girls. Renn, who becomes Torak's traveling companion and eventual friend by the end of the book is a fabulous female character, a bit like Elliott from the Tunnels series (book 2, Deeper) by Gordon and Williams. Also a book with very few female characters and even fewer positive ones, Elliott is powerful, smart and self-sufficient as well as admired for these skills by the boys and men around her.

I never read Jean M. Auel's The Earth's Children series but find myself wondering if there are any similarities between it and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. Please weigh in! Otherwise, there are no other books in the children's or teen's section that I can think of that are similar. I know they are out there, so please clue me in to them! This is the kind of series that people will LOVE and seek out similar titles while waiting for the next step in Torak's journey to be published...


























5.26.2009

Dinotrux written and illustrated by Chris Gall


Chris Gall's illustrative style reminds me of a combination of Chris Van Allsburg and David Weisner. He can be almost photographically realistic and marvelously fantastical at the same time. With Dinotrux, he hits a sweet spot that kids (and parents) will not be able to resist. In fact, by the time I finished the story time in which Dinotrux debuted, one copy had already been sold!

Really, the name and the cover illustration says it all. And who among us, when driving down the road and pointing out back loaders, graders and the like to our kids has not had a fleeting thought on the similarities between construction trucks and dinosaurs? Which is exactly why this book works so well. Gall has hit upon a common but heretofore undocumented communal idea. The story itself is not long or complex, which is great because most (not all, of course) kids phase out of trucks and dinosaurs by the time they are five or six. The dinotrux are big, bad brutes clomping around the earth making things dangerous for the wild-eyed cave folks and each page is dedicated to their dastardly ways. Gall blends the dinosaur and truck names, as well as their personalities, brilliantly. There is the Tyrannosaurus Trux, naturally, but there are also the Garbageadon, the Craneosaurous and the lazy Deliverasaurs who resemble brown UPS trucks with massive claws. They are lazy because in the prehistoric world dinotrux are not helpful like the evolved trucks of today. Towards the end of the book there is a massive change that brings about the end of most of the dinotrux, who are swallowed up by the ground to become fossils. Those who survive, over time, become the sturdy workers of today, as depicted in a fold-out page. The penultimate page of the book is devoted to a city construction site scene in which the fossil of an old dinotrux is being hauled out of the ground by a crane as a crowd, some of whom look suspiciously like the cave people, look on. The final page of the book finds a janitor in a museum sweeping up for the night in the semi-darkness as the massive Tyrannosaurus Trux fossil he is standing in front of shines its headlight eyes down on him...

I wish I had more of the illustrations to share with you. The dinotrux are executed with just the right amount of humor and the color palette Gall works with is perfectly matched to the subject matter and not too muddy or dull despite the jurassic time frame. This is definitely a book worth buying for the 2 - 6 year old crowd, especially if your little truck lover is just beginning to develop his or her passion. You will find yourself driving down the street saying, "Hey, look at that tankerasaurous over there kids!" For the older kids, this is actually a great book to practice reading skills on.

Finally, you will not be surprised to learn that Dreamworks has bought the rights to the book and plan to make and animated, 3-D movie based on it!

Check out Chris's other books:








































Also, not the best segue, but I want to call attention to a wonderful post written by children's book author and educator Kate Coombs over at the blog Book Aunt titled, Picture Book Lessons About Being Yourself. She comments on this topic, much abused by celebrity authors, and suggests a few books that handle it both subtly and inspiringly. There are also several great titles mentioned in the comments as well.

5.25.2009

Clemency Pogue and The Scrivener Bees by JT Petty, illustrations by David Michael Friend, 165 pp, RL 4

With Clemency Pogue and the Scrivener Bees, JT Petty continues the story he began in Book #2 in the series, Clemency Pogue and the Hobgoblin Proxy. The first book in the series, Clemency Pogue, Fairy Killer, can be read as a stand alone and, for younger children, I suggest exactly that. The story of the changeling with a chip on his shoulder, Inky Mess, begun in Book#2, continues in Book #3 and gets increasingly darker - much like Cornelia Funke's Inkworld Trilogy. And, as I discovered at the end of Book #3, the saga continues! It has been two years since Clemency Pogue and the Scrivener Bees was published and still no resolution! Does Inky destroy Make-Believe or can the amazing Clemency and her hobgoblin crew, Chaphesmeeso and Kennethurchin, who's secret, true name Clem uncovers by the end of the book, finally put a stop to his evil ways?

Even though I have to wait for the answer to this question, I still had fun getting to it. Book #3 is swarming with new and horrible creatures as well as some pretty funny new fairies, even if Inky is capturing all of them. The book begins with Clemency worrying over her parent's deteriorating relationship. At the same time, Inky is sneaking into the institution where his mother, well, Kennethurchin's mother really, lies in a catatonic state. As a changeling, a creature goblins make from clay to use as a decoy when stealing human infants, Inky seems to have some abandonment issues to work out with his mother, who went insane when she realized her real child had been replaced with a changeling. However, when Clem teaches Inky to read, thus learning "human magic," one of his two major grudges against the world is resolved. Unfortunately, he uses this new skill to take control of the most powerful piece of magic in Make-Believe, the Forgetting Book, in which all of Make-Believe, including the true names of every fairy and hobgoblin (the knowledge of which allows the possessor of such complete control over the fairy or hobgoblin.) And, if you are wondering, the Scrivener Bees are magical creatures that live in a vale of coal black flowers called kettlepot blossoms which is surrounded by a thorny hedge. They sleep during the day and work at night and are watched over by the Fairy Queen of the Scrivener Bees. The bees can answer any question asked, with the help of the Queen, and both Inky and Clem seek answers over the course of this book. This painful and fascinating part of the Scrivener Bees is that they use their needle-like stingers to tattoo the answers to the questions onto the asker. Inky has lots of questions. Clem has only one and, as the bees tattoo it on the back of her neck she cant read it until she finds a mirror. But, by the end of the book she has fallen into bed, exhausted, as her parents stand over her tucking her in wondering, "Is that a tattoo?" and "What does ask the right questions mean?" The final page is Inky's drawing of how to make a fairy trap...

Above all else, I hope that JT Petty finishes this story. Clem is one of the greatest girl heroines I've read in a while and I feel like there is so much more that can be said about her. The Houndsankes, the lopped-off boxer tails from Clemency Pogue and the Hobgoblin Proxy, have grown into massive, creepy things but play a relatively small part in the book. I am sure that Petty has more creepy things up his sleeve, but I am willing to tough them out in order to see Clem, Chaphe and Kennethirchin prevail. And, when the series is all done, they can repackage it into one convenient 600 page paperback...

5.22.2009

100 Cupboards (Book 1) by ND Wilson, 289 pp, RL 4







ND Wilson wins the award for the creation of the best fantasy creature you might actually like to have as a pet, the raggant, as does Jeff Nentrup, for bringing it to life with his painterly talents. Sort of a thinking girl's unicorn, the raggant looks like a chubby, cuddly baby rhinoceros with wings and is used sort of like a homing pigeon or a bloodhound. Raggants are sent to find someone and can only do this once as a raggant stays with the person it finds until it dies, never letting anyone see it fly. And it eats cat food. Since the main character of 100 Cupboards, Henry York, is not united with his raggant until the end of the story, I can't tell you if it grows to the size of an adult rhinoceros, but perhaps that question is answered Book 2 in the series, Dandelion Fire. And, I have read that this is to be a trilogy, although I could not confirm that on the author's website. Besides having a really cool new magical animal in it, 100 Cupboards has one of the best maps in a fantasy book I have seen in a while. The illustration is not a map of a fantasy realm, magical city or underworld empire, but of the 99 doors of varying shapes and sizes that serve as portals to other times and places. Taken from the journal of Henry's grandfather, this map also includes notations for every cupboard that, in the best cases, tells where the door opens to, specific to the geography of the place, the name of the place and what time it is following, such as alternate past, yesterday, now, alternate future and so on. Sometimes the information in the journal is not complete...

But, before I delve further into the fantasy aspects of the story, I need to begin where ND Wilson begins, in Henry, Kansas. Wilson is a thoughtful writer who spends time giving shape to Henry as well as describing the geography of his new home town. His writing in "our world" is as engrossing and compelling as his descriptions of the "other worlds"and their inhabitants that come later. Wilson's writing reminds me a bit of one of Wendy Mass' characters or even Owen Birnbaum from Ellen Potter's amazing book SLOB. 100 Cupboards is a story that reveals itself slowly and, for the first few chapters seems almost like it might not be a fantasy at all. Henry York finds himself arriving in Henry, Kansas on a bus. He is spending the summer with his Aunt Dotty, Uncle Frank and their daughters, his cousins, Penelope, Henrietta and Anastasia. We learn that Henry's greatest, secret wish is to learn to play baseball. We also learn that Henry is just beginning to realize that his parents have forced him to live a very sheltered life and to fear everything. Henry slowly realizes that much of what he thinks of as normal - riding in a car seat, wearing a helmet in PE class and peeing sitting down are not typical of boys his advanced age (which I think is approximately ten years old, but I couldn't find it stated anywhere in the book.) Uncle Frank takes Henry under his wing immediately and the two spend some quality boy time together, which includes buying a baseball mitt and a switchblade knife at a rummage sale. Henry tries to fit in with his cousins and their play, but is used to being an only child. Despite this, he relishes the new life unfolding before him. Henry begins wishing that his parents, travel writers who have been kidnapped while bicycling through Columbia, would be freed and happy, but leave him to live out a more regular life with his relatives in Kansas. Even the old man in the purple bathrobe that Henry sees leaving the bathroom in the middle of the night doesn't seem to worry him.

As Henry has his first taste of soda, going on to consume several in short time span, and play baseball with the boys at a town picnic, you start to settle in to this small-town-boy-coming-of-age story until the plaster starts chipping off the wall above Henry's head while he sleeps one night. Using his new knife, he uncovers two knobs protruding from the wall. Fervently, Henry spends as much of the night as he can peeling away at the wall to see what is underneath. Eventually, and with the help of Henrietta, who hears him in the middle of the night, the two uncover 99 cupboards. The first one that Henry finds that seems to have activity going on behind it that resembles a post office box as viewed from the inside out. A warm yellow light glows from the other side and a pants leg passes by occasionally. After Henry and Henrietta have fiddled with the doors they could open without a key, two letters arrive for Henry. Warning letters. In addition to this, there is the small, black door in the bottom corner of the wall, one that Henrietta seems to be recklessly drawn to and one that causes Henry to be so seized with revulsion and fear when it's opened that he throws up. The mystery of the cupboards, where they lead to and how they got there slowly unravels over the last half of the book. Family secrets are revealed, journals and keys are found and a witch is struck down before the book ends. But, like Patricia Wrede's excellent first book in her new Frontier Magic Series, The Thirteenth Child, Wilson's 100 Cupboards is clearly a "Book 1." Characters and themes are introduced and questions are asked, but resolution comes only with future books. By the end of 100 Cupboards, you feel like you are on the verge of a much greater adventure that will present even more dangerous challenges for Henry, the Willis' and their neighbor and baseball champ, Zeke. And, maybe even a name for the raggant. However, this doesn't make the summer-stroll pace of the first part of the book any less enjoyable. Wilson's writing is so rich with detail, emotion and development of all of the characters, that you will enjoy stroll that takes you to the doorway to another world, another time and a place much bigger and more threatening than Henry, Kansas, even with the tornadoes.

Fortunately for all of us,  Dandelion Fire, Book 2 and Book 3, The Chestnut King are both available in paperback. Also, for any of you interested in the musings of an interesting writer don't miss ND Wilson's blog, the link to which can also be found on his website. He just started a new category of posts titled, "Books From My Past," where he plans to write about childhood favorites that stuck with him, beginning with the amazing turn of the century artist, illustrator and author Howard Pyle!




5.18.2009

Interview with Diana Leszczynski, author of "Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose"

This is my first author interview and basically, I am an excited fan asking questions about things that I would like to hear the answers to. I hope that my interests are somewhat universal and that my interview skills develop over time so that this is not my first and last author interview ever... If you read this interview before reading Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose, thank you! If not, please be sure to come back to it after you finish reading this remarkable new book! You will want to know the nuts and bolts as well as the inspiration behind the story.







Do you read children's literature, if so, what?


Yes, I read children’s literature and adult literature, and any literature I can get my hands on. I read old and new. Most recently, I finished Hoot; which I liked a great deal. I am looking forward to Scat. Carl Hiaasen’s sense of humor is great. I read The Penderwicks, which I loved because it took me back, tonally, to books I read as a child. One of my favorites is Holes.



What were your favorite chapter books as a child?

Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven Series, Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes, Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island. Mostly, I loved adventures and travels to new and exciting places; be they real or imagined. I also liked the Nancy Drew series, just because I love ferreting out a mystery.



Have any authors influenced you as a writer?


Lewis Carrol, for the adventure and absurdity. Dicken’s characters are inspiring, and right now, because I think they’re brilliant, I’m trying to figure out how Kate Atkinson, David Sedaris and Ian McEwan can influence me.



How did you come up with the idea for Fern's gift - the ability to communicate with plants?


So many things combined to come up with the concept. It seemed to me that Fern’s mother, as a super-botanist, must have a special skill in order to make her a super botanist. As a woman whose mission it was to save dying species, what could be more powerful than to be able to hear the cries of failing plants all around the world. Also, people talk to animals. Some people talk to their plants to encourage them to grow. I just wondered, what they would answer back, and what would they think of us?


I was born in England and one of my first strong memories, from when I was very small, is of a television show called Bill and Ben, The Flower Pot Men. In it an anthropomorphosized weed, named Weed, shouts out one single word, Weeeeeeed! In one of my favorite books, Alice in Wonderland, in the Through the Looking Glass book, Alice has a lengthy conversation with plants, and that image always stayed with me.



Did you worry about making Henry Saagwalla too evil and creepy for readers and parents?


No, I really didn’t. Henry had a back story which did not make it into this book, and in that back story we see that he is the way he is because of something bad that happened to him. He was not always that way.



Your writing is so descriptive and visual that I have to assume you have a pretty fair knowledge of the plant world. Is that an accurate assumption?



My mother is British, and like most Brits, loves her garden. Summers were spent in the garden, and winters were spent cultivating an indoor garden. We were always surrounded by plants. While I don’t live in a place that has an outdoor space, I do have an indoor garden.


I was fortunate to spend several months in Sri Lanka, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and much of the description for that segment comes from my memory of that magnificent island.


I love flowers and plants and greenery. Right now I have a dozen giant sunflowers smiling at me from across the room.



How did you decide to make Fern turn 13 in the course of the story? Why not 10 or 12?


It seems to me that thirteen is an age when we begin to look at the world differently. We are lurching towards adulthood. Thirteen is a time of great change. By developing the gift at the age of thirteen, it goes hand in hand with becoming more responsible and viewing the world in a less innocent fashion. The gift itself is a huge responsibility.



I have to say, at the end of the book I was really sad that Lily lost her ability to communicate with plants and that that was no longer a bond that mother and daughter could share. Because it was a kid's book I thought maybe there might be a reversal at some point, but there wasn't. Was that a hard decision to make, taking away Lily's power? And having Fern wipe any memory of it from her? I have to admit, I am hoping for a sequel but also a little worried for Fern and her talent without her mother there to guide her.

(OK, I got pretty attached to Fern...)



Fern grows during the course of this story, and when she makes that decision to wipe away the memory of Lily’s gift, I thought of it as a very caring and loving thing to do. She wanted to protect her mother from a life of sadness; from missing the gift and having that sorrow color her life. Any future Fern story will center around Fern attempting to discover the source of the gift, so that she might somehow have it returned to her mother. Also, having this disconnect between Fern and Lily is symbolic of the disconnect that can occur between teenage girls and their mothers.



You do a remarkable job of presenting earth friendly lifestyle choices and ideas, as well as illustrating, through the character of Henry Saagwalla, the ways in which humans destroy nature. As a reader and environmentally conscious person, I appreciated your descriptions and laughed a little bit to myself at some of them (Lily's heels that go down instead of up - Earth shoes!). How did you maintain what to me seems a fine balance between presenting these ideas and choices without being dogmatic or ironic?



Thank you. That’s a lovely compliment. I don’t like messages being hammered home, and because of the nature of the story (excuse the pun), the message came through organically (excuse the second pun). I also feel that serious issues can often be dealt with with humor, and lessons learned may be more memorable because of that humor.



Do you care to talk about your stance on the environment and living a green life and how it came to be part of your book? Does it really matter?


I just don’t like to see any living thing destroyed, be they plants or animals. I recycle. I am part of a compost collective. I rescue plants and our cat, the wonderful Mouse, is a rescue cat.



Why did you make Olivier Verdant French?


I grew up in Canada; an English/French bilingual country, so French was always somewhere in our consciousness. Lily and Olivier have a wonderful deep love, and when I think of love, I think of Paris. Also, the French have such a long standing regard for botany and the medicinal properties of plants, as is evident with the Jardin des Plantes.



Will there be more books for Fern in the future?


That is my hope. There is still so much more to tell.



Do you have any other book ideas you are working on?


I do. I have two that I am zooming ahead on. Well, zoom and sputter and segue; then zoom sputter and segue some more.



What would you like readers to know about you, or do you prefer to remain anonymous?


Anonymous, which is the name of our cat, shortened to Mouse.



Are there any little tidbits or details about the characters from "Fern Verdant" that didn't make it into the book that you would like to share with the readers?


As I mentioned earlier, I chose to edit out the longer version of Saagwalla’s back story, as it interrupted the flow. I really had a brilliant experience with my editor, Michelle Frey. The editing process was brief and beautiful and nothing went missing.




To wrap it up, I'd like to say, above all else, thank you to Diana for answering my questions and thank you thank you for adding this book to the shelves! Your responses expanded and deepened my enjoyment of Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose as well as eased my fears for Fern and Lily. I eagerly look anticipate more books starring Fern and those two that you are zooming and sputtering on. And, a book influenced by David Sedaris - especially if it is for young adults - will definitely be something to look forward to! My family and I are huge fans of his and often fall asleep listening to his audiobooks.

Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski, 263 pp RL 4



Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose by first time author Diana Leszczynski (subject of my first ever author interview) is one of those rare books that, thanks to an intriguing title and artwork by the amazingly talented and prolific Brandon Dorman, illustrator of one of my all-time favorite jackets for one of the best books written last year, Newbery Honor winner Savvy by Ingrid Law, jumps off the shelf and into your hands. Once it's there, thanks to Diana Leszczynski's wonderful writing, you just can't put it down.

As I read Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose bits and pieces reminded me of so many other wonderful books that I have loved. Like the main character of Savvy, Mississippi Beaumont, Fern is the recipient of a unique gift on her thirteenth birthday. The wickedly evil, child hating antagonists in the book reminded me of some of the best aspects of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events as well as al most everything by Roald Dahl. The Dickensian names (you can't beat "Fern Verdant' for it's internal rhyme, either) and occasional aside to parents (Joan Baez Middle School in Fern's new hometown of Nedlaw, Oregon, had me and my husband laughing out loud one night) are also reminiscent of Snicket and Dahl. And, the boatload of orphans with attitude, while definitely Snicket-like also called to mind the heroes of Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society and it's sequels. Whatever similarities there are to other works of young adult fiction, Diana Leszczynski's descriptively lush writing and ability to weave a suspenseful plot with rich characters makes Fern's story completely new and winning from start to finish.

The child of boatnists, Fern's father, Olivier Verdant, is an expert on ferns (thus her name) who originates from France and her mother, Lily Verdant, is a world renowned rescuer of endangered plant species. Because of her expertise, Lily travels often and Fern grows to resent this, wondering why her mother even bothered to have a kid if she wasn't going to be around much. Because of his discovery of a new species of fern, the family packs up and moves across the country to Nedlaw (thank you to my husband for pointing out to me that "Nedlaw" is "Walden" spelled backwards - another little inside joke for us adults...) so that Olivier can study this fern more thoroughly, separating Fern from her best friend, also a daughter of botanists, Ivy. Things go from bad to worse for Fern as her mother departs on yet another rescue mission right before her thirteenth birthday then disappears, seemingly washed out to sea as she tried to rescue the valuable and rare Silver Rose. Grandmamma Lisette arrives from Paris to help her son and granddaughter through this difficult time with her buttery homemade chocolate croissants and comforting hugs, but Fern stumbles into messy social situation at school that is only made worse by her birthday.

Things begin to change, if not necessarily improve for Fern when she finally turns thirteen and, through a series of funny mishaps, realizes that she can communicate with plants. She can hear their thoughts. She can hear the grass scream as she jumps on it. More importantly, she can talk to the plants and they to her, which is how she receives a long distance message from her mother that starts her on a journey that will end on the other side of the world. But, not without the interference of some pretty (comically) bad guys first. When her father sees her talking to the Weeping Willow tree in the yard, he and Grandmamma decide that Fern needs serious help and he puts her in NITPIC - the Nedlaw Institute for the Treatment and Prevention of Insanity in Children - under the care of the hypnosis-crazy Dr Marita Von Svenson. This is exactly where Henry Saagwalla, the evil, nature hating mastermind behind the disappearance of Lily Verdant wants Fern.

After Fern's stormy escape from NITPIC, aided by some enormous Douglas Fir trees lining the driveway, she sets off on an odyssey of sorts that reunites her with her fellow NITPIC inmate the orphan Francesca, her fourteen year old bother Anthony, captain of the Porpoise, and a handful of orphans who refuse to trust Fern because she has parents. The crew of the Porpoise is in possession of a Petal from the Silver Rose, hoping they can find the rose it came from and sell it for enough money remain independently at sea. Fortunately for Fern, she can communicate with the Petal, which comes in handy more than once. The climax of the book takes place on the extremely verdant island of Sri Lanka where Lily is being held captive, in a coma, and where the evil genius has a lair worthy of any James Bond baddie. Fern does her best to rescue her mother and the Silver Rose while at the same time keeping their powers secret for, as she learns early on, anyone in possession of the power to communicate with plants will lose that power if they tell another person about it. She experiences failure in one of these areas and is deeply saddened but responds to her failure and loss with a wonderful turn of maturity and compassion that makes you love her all the more.

Diana Leszczynski creates a brave. conflicted, determined character in Fern. I barely scratched the surface describing the the amazing opportunities that come Fern's way once she can communicate with plants. While reading Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose I began to look at the natural world around me a little bit differently as I walked my dogs every morning. There is one point in the book when Fern is scooped up by a Eucalyptus tree somewhere in Northern California. She spends a night and a day in the leafy arms of the tree (who happens to have an Australian accent) being cared for by it. Leszczynski's writing is so visual that I found I could see Fern and her tree home perfectly in my mind's eye. I never had a treehouse as a kid and always wanted one, I still do. I think that may have caused me to be especially entranced by this part of the book. Also, one of my favorite characters in Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose I have yet to mention is Andrew Wedgie, a devoted canvaser for Trees Pleese, an organization that tries to call attention to the plight of trees. Andrew makes the bad decision to ring the doorbell of Henry Saagwalla who kidnaps him and gives him serums that make him follow orders without question and gradually turn into a tree. Before Lily learns his name she calls him the Chia Man because his hair is green and growing like an alfalfa sprout afro. Is Andrew a good guy or a bad guy? A tree or a man?

This book could easily be marketed as an "Environmentally Friendly" "Green" book. In fact, Leszczynski describes, through Fern's eyes, Lily in this way; she "was beautiful, but she dressed with no regard for fashion. She wore shoes with heels that went down instead of up, and clothes that were baggy and bland. Lily had to know exactly how each person who made her clothes was treated in their place of work. How much were they paid? Were their working conditions safe and sanitary? Lily needed to know that they were treated fairly in order to buy their goods. Shopping with Lily was excruciatingly embarrassing for Fern." Leszczynski walks a fine line between poking fun at and presenting lifestyle choices, like being the family's vegetarianism, that are made out of respect for the earth and nature. The Verdant's are not kooky and they are not hippies but people with solid reasons for why they lead the lives they do. Of course Fern, who is at an age when most want to fit in instead of stand out in a crowd, will find Lily's choices aggravating at times. This book could have gone in such a different direction and been a dry, dogmatic primer on how to be earth friendly. Instead, it is full of adventure and humor and lush with descriptive details about the natural world that surrounds us. Hopefully through these descriptions readers will be enlightened to new ways of looking at and treating the world around them, just as Fern is educated and enlightened by her new found ability to talk to plants.

Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose will be coming out in paperback in May of 2010. Hopefully there will be a new Fern Verdant adventure hitting the shelves at the same time! I can't wait to read more and travel to new places with Fern - maybe even to the Tunisian garden where the teal Tulip is crying out for help?

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:

Operation Redwood by S Terrell French
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle

5.17.2009

My First Author Interview with First Time Author Diana Leszczynski

I am honored to announce my first ever author interview (via email) with Diana Leszczynski, author of Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose. This amazing, unique book somehow got past me when it was published in November of 2008 and I am so thrilled that Diana sent me an email asking me if I would like to read and possibly review her book last month.  Once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down.  I became an instant fan and I want to share my enthusiasm and inspire as many people as possible to read this wonderful book, for selfish reasons, mostly - I want there to be a whole series of books about Fern!

Because I feel so strongly about this book, I decided to do my first ever author interview in the hopes of piquing interest even further. Being my first ever author interview, what follows is basically a giddy fan who has been given the chance for a behind-the-scenes peek into her new favorite book.  I hope you find it even half as interesting as I did.   I am posting the interview after my review of the book because you really need to know about Fern and her adventures to get the most out of the interview.

Also, I want to say a HUGE HUGE "THANK YOU!" to Jill Tullo over at The Well Read Child for posting my interview and review as well.  The Well Read Child has a much bigger readership than my little blog and I want as many people to know about this superb book as possible.  Jill also posted my review of Ellen Potter's magnificent new book, SLOB on her site as well. 

I hope both these book are well and widely read!

5.15.2009

The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage by Dale Peck, 385 pp RL 4

The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage by Dale Peck finds the Oakenfeld children back in New York City, at home with their parents. Nine months have passed since they were sent to live with their Uncle Farley in Eternity Bay, Canada, and summer vacation and a visit to Drift House awaits them. Bickering as usual, Susan and Charles are returning home when their doorman presents them with a package that was left for them. Wrapped inside an oilskin and addressed to, "Susie and Charlie-o-o-Oakenfeld" they find a hefty book with the words, The Lost Cities, embossed on the cover and an empty space below where something else must have once been affixed. The book, the missing amulet from the cover and the mysteries held inside propel the story and the Oakenfelds, minus Murray who intentionally catches chickenpox and is forced to stay home, back onto the Sea of Time and into the past.

In Drift House the story takes place only on the Sea of Time with brief visits to the Island of the Past, which only allows one member of each species on its surface at a time and serves as a warehouse of sorts for living things that have become extinct. In The Lost Cities, the children find themselves visiting the past, specifically cities and civilizations that have vanished without a trace. When the future-telling fresco on the drawing room wall shows them a panorama of places like Atlantis, Easter Island, Pompeii, Troy, Machu Picchu, Hiroshima, the Tower of Babel, the settlements of Roanoke and Osterbygd and, finally, the Twin Towers in New York City, Susan and Charles become apprehensive about the journey they had been looking forward to. Things get worse when the book of The Lost Cities, which has been and endless source of bickering between the siblings since it arrived, exerts a strange force over Charles, enticing him to run off into the woods near Drift House to take a look at it, along with a spying President Wilson. When a temporal storm washes Drift House out onto the Sea of Time while they are on land and high up in a tree, Charles and President Wilson follow a stream of water left behind from the squall and walk through time to Greenland, 1483.

What follows is an extraordinary story that stretches from the stony hills of fifteenth century Greenland where the palindromic Qaanaaq tribe and the mysterious Wanderer of Days live to the ancient city of Babel and a murky ceremonial room underneath the famous ziggurat on the night of its destruction. In between there are megalomaniacal Vikings, a mirror book, a hollow Tombstone radio that serves as a hiding place for Susan and Marie-Antoinette (the Time Pirate Captain Quioin's parrot, whom President Wilson convinced to join him on Drift House and whom we also learn in this book is an ara tricolor, or the extinct Cuban macaw) an excursion inside the Trojan Horse reminiscent of Susan's travels inside the mouth of Frejo the whale and a moment on one of the airplanes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11. I have to confess that when I watch movies or read books that have time travel as part of the plot I tend to tune out the particularities of how it all works or else I end up confusing myself hopelessly. Murray and his possible status of Accursed Returner, a person who never dies but lives out lives in many time periods non-consecutively was a bit confusing to me while reading Drift House, so I stopped trying to figure out how he could be a child and childlike before entering the dumbwaiter and adult-like after, not to mention how his alter-ego, ten year old Mario, could exist in the same place as five year old Murray. So I stopped worrying about it. Lost Cities is no exception, however Peck does have some pretty nice ways of describing time and humanity that make things a little less foggy. At one point in the book the Wanderer of Days, who is piloting the plane that is destined for the Twin Towers, explains to Susan that "time is like a string. It has a beginning and an end. Only one beginning, and only one end, and only one line leading between them. Like a skein of yarn, no matter how tangled the track of time grows, there is still only one line, and no deviation from it, ever." Yet, the old man goes on to explain, there is a terrible "desire carried in the hearts of men since the dawn of creation... the eternal human desire to cheat time, to get to the end without going through the middle." This desire, when concentrated, forms a "Time Jetty," which acts like a bulldozer plowing through a maze to get from the entrance directly to the exit rather than following the winding path laid out. When the Time Jetty "passes through time's true path, it obliterates it." Thus, the lost cities, the disappeared civilizations mentioned earlier, are the victims of Time Jetties that have carried them from their beginnings directly to their ends. And, it seems, New York City and all its inhabitants are in the path of the next Time Jetty about to strike.

While doing research for this review I read the opinions of other reviewers, one of whom found this book redundant and not worth reading when there is so much other young adult fantasy on the shelves. I feel the exact opposite. With his Drift House books, of which I fervently hope there will be one more to wrap the story of the Oakenfelds, especially Murray, I feel like Dale Peck has, above all else, brought three very human, compelling child characters into the world and given them fascinating story lines to play themselves out on. As an adult reader I did feel a glimmer of recognition and wonder from the days when I was a child reading fantasy and I know that, along with Meg Murray, the eleven year old me would have held Susan Oakenfeld in high esteem if I had had the chance to encounter her back then. And I know the eleven year old me definitely would have been entranced by five year old Murray and especially the brave but ultimately sad ten year old Mario who does not know yet that he will find a way to return to his younger self, to his life as Murray with his mother and father. I think that the eleven year old me would have even like Charles. When we choose books for our children, help them choose books or read the books they are reading, we have to remember that we have a different perspective and taste when it comes to books. Even if we, as adults, enjoy the increasingly remarkably well written world of Young Adult Literature, we must keep in mind that we read for different emotions, events and resolutions than our children. That said, I hope you all go out and read these books and start some discussions with your children, whether it's about the actual historical Lost Cities or human desire, or the passing of time.

5.13.2009

SLOB by Ellen Potter, 208 pp RL 4

Ellen Potter is the creator of my favorite clairvoyant sleuth, Olivia Kidney, who now has three books to her name. She has also written Pish Posh, which also involves some serious detective work on the part of main character Clara Frankofile. With SLOB we have the honor of meeting Owen Birnbaum, a narrator who is one point shy of having a genius IQ, which is what he tells people because his mother told him long ago to stop telling people what his actual IQ is. Owen is also 57% fatter than the average twelve-year-old boy and completely endearing, flaws and all. Owen's story is the kind that you want to relate from beginng to end to the closest warm body - like you feel after seeing a really great movie with someone other than your best friend or spouse. Fortunatley, I was able to to convince my husband, sixteen-year old daughter and eleven-year old son (who chooses not to read fiction, despite my cajoling and bribes) to read SLOB so that we could all talk about it together. It wasn't a hard sell, even to my son... Alas, there are some brilliant twists in this remarkable new book that I didn't see coming and I don't want to spoil them for anyone else. So, I'll try to stick to describing the true-to-life characters and spot-on details that Ellen Potter has woven into this bittersweet story without revealing too much, even though I am bursting to tell you everything.

Owen's voice is so real that I can't help but be reminded of other great literary and cinematic characters when I think of him. Owen reminds me a bit of the underachieveing and overweight Jack, one of the three main characters in Wendy Mass' poignant and astronomical book, Every Soul a Star. The rich, unique details that pepper SLOB also call to mind the quirks in another Wendy Mass book, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. However, despite my comparisons to the works of Wendy Mass, another favorite young adult author of mine writing fiction with a contemporary, realistic setting, Ellen Potter's story is entirely her own. Well, really it is Owen's story from start to finish.

It took the act of writing about books I have read and loved to help me to realize that as an adult reader of young adult fiction, I have a totally different set of qualities that appeal to me and this criteria is probably very different from that of a child reader. And, while I realize that it is mostly adults who are reading my reviews, I do always try to imagine what, say, the eleven-year-old me would have found appealing or boring about a book as well as the qualities that I, the adult reader find engaging. As an adult, I wanted to give Owen a big hug by the end of the book. He made me laugh out loud and cry and, while I would love it if one of my children had an IQ one point shy of genius, I would be especially honored if I was the parent of a child who overcame the hurdles and obstacles that were thrown at Owen with the courage and selflessness that he showed in the pages of SLOB. The eleven-year old me would have also laughed out loud at Owen and been drawn to the complete, three dimensional character that he is thanks to wholehearted, empathetic writing on Ellen Potter's part. There were times in the book when Owen's narrative voice reminded me so much of another (probably misguided on my part) adolescent hero of mine, Holden Caufield from JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. And, while Owen is not self-destructive or deluded in the ways that Holden is, he is self-deprecating and innocent and genuinely cares about the welfare of those he loves. And, like Holden, Owen is a great, if not always reliable observer and describer of everyone and everything around him.

The bare bones plot of SLOB involve Owen's efforts to complete the construction of Nemesis, a satellite dish, a receiver, a television set and a mass of coils that he has been working on for a year and a half. As Owen says in his direct, perceptive and practical manner, "I'm not going to tell you what she will do once she's complete. You don't know me well enough yet. You probably think you do. Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We're so obvious. Our embarrassing secret is out there for everyone to see, spilling over our belts, flapping under our chins, stretching the seams of our jeans." Owen also has to deal with Mr Wooly, a PE teacher who is "a few fries short of a Happy Meal" as well as someone who is stealing the three Oreos packed in an eco-container "which is made of recycled shower curtains (I'm not kidding, they really are made from shower curtains)" and stored inside his cloth lunch sack - his one indulgence in his otherwise healthy, low-fat diet. Finding the Oreo thief leads Owen down a dangerous path and a confrontation with both Mr Wooly and Mason Ragg, the new kid in school with a horrible burn scar on his face who may or may not carry a switchblade in his sock.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg for Owen, though. Nima, a Tibetan who immigrated to New York City and now lives in Owen's building provides a safe haven and a wise voice, sharing his thoughts on karma and Buddhism with Owen as well as his leftover momos, handmade dumplings that he sells from a cart in front of the Natural History Museum during the day (see bottom or review for more on momos.) Izzy, Owen's gargantuan best friend also proves to have a lot more going on inside than appearances let on. And, without giving too much away, I need to mention the profoundly moving and subtle story arc in SLOB that builds over the course of the book. But, before I leave you with a spoiler alert I need to say that, being a reader who prefers fantasy over reality based fiction, I am rarely wowed and won over by a book of this nature. And, before I started reviewing I rarely even read this kind of book. Since then, I have been honored to read a handful of really remarkable kid's books of this genre that will stick with me the rest of my life and I am thrilled to add SLOB to that list. Like Holden says in The Catcher in the Rye, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." Ellen Potter is an author I wouldn't mind discussing a few things with, but really, by the time I finished SLOB, I wished that Owen was a friend of mine I could call up and talk about the world with.



*****SPOILER ALERT******

It turns out that Mom is not Owen's birth mother but a woman who adopted him and his sibling after their parents were murdered. Well into the plot, while visiting with Nima, Owen shares the details of their deaths and his reasons for building Nemesis, which dovetails nicely with a story thread involving his sibling. And, while Owen is a genuinely enthralling character, his sibling, one year younger he is, is also vividly written and almost as captivating. When we first see Owen meeting up with his younger sibling to walk home from school, we assume that Jeremy is a boy. However, we soon learn that Jeremy is a girl with long, red hair and skinny wrists who has joined GWAB - Girls Who Are Boys. This is a club that requires its members to get boy haircuts, dress like boys and assume boy names. The president of the group is Arthur, who looks very boyish and is always wears a read polo shirt and khakis because her mother refuses to buy her any real boy clothing. Somehow, Jeremy has managed to subvert the haircut requirement and stay in the club. Jeremy, who's real name is Caitlin, proves to be just as interesting a character as her big brother and manages to play a significant part in his story. Jeremy, GWAB and their Blue and White Rebellion represent a plot thread that I have never seen in young adult literature before but find completely realistic and fascinating. Perhaps because they are eleven, the girls in GWAB manage to be fierce and independent within the story and remain innocent. In the back of my mind, I expected anti-gay slurs to be hurled at them at some point, but the tone of SLOB is such that that was never an issue.


****SPOILER ALERT OVER*******

MOMOS!!! I've never had a momo and, while I have been vegetarian for years, I'd fall off the wagon for one of these treats. To read more about momos and their importance in Tibetan culture, click here.