Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones, 304 pp, RL 4


If you have been following my blog for a while, it's no secret that fantasy - kid's fantasy - is my favorite genre, and one that I really only began exploring in a post-Harry Potter world. There wasn't much fantasy when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s. Working as a children's bookseller beginning in 1995, it was easy to track the influence of JK Rowling's work on the world of children's literature when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in the US in 1997. Even better, though, was the impetus it gave me to explore authors who had been writing for this genre all along that I had never heard of, like Brits Eva Ibottoson, Joan Aiken and Diana Wynne Jones, to name a few. And, while there are plenty of post-Potter Americans contributing amazing books to the genre of fantasy for kids and setting their stories squarely on American soil, there is just something about a work of fantasy by an author from the UK that feels more genuine than anything else - to me. Enchanted Glass is the penultimate book published by Diana Wynne Jones, in the US anyway, and I hope in this review to point out what makes her work unique and outstanding.

As she did in her Chrestomanci Series of books, which begins with Charmed Life, (check out my review of this book which includes more expansive information about all of Diana Wynne Jones's works) magic is a part of everyday life in the world that we know in  Enchanted Glass. There is not a wardrobe that leads to a world of magic, but magic that exists side by side with the world we know or,e even better, is an integral, if sometimes secret, part of everyday life.  When  Enchanted Glass begins, Andrew Brandon Hope is driving from the university where he is a professor (no, not a professor, an academic, as he tells Mrs. Stock's deaf ears) to the small, nearby village of Melstone to visit his grandfather. When the ghost of his grandfather appears to him in the middle of the road, gesturing to a piece of paper in his hand and causing Andrew to run off the roa into a ditch. After the apparition disappears, Andrew uses magic to get his car out of the mud. Magic that is so simple and straightforward it almost doesn't even seem like magic the way Andrew performs it, as Jones describes it.

He thought of movements of sky and earth, time, and space. He though Einstein and skyhooks. He thought that the position of the wheel in the ditch was only a temporary and relative fact, untrue five minutes ago and untrue five minutes from now. He thought of the power and speed of that skid and repelling power of the ditch. He thought of gravity reversing itself. Then he knelt down with one hand on the grassy mud and the other on the wheel and pushed the two apart. Obediently, with some reluctant squelching and squeaking, the car moved out of the ditch and over the bank and bumped down the road.

This paragraph, which comes early on in the book - page 4 to be exact - makes me feel like I could perform the same feat if I could just corral my thoughts like Andrew. The scene ends with Andrew acknowledging that his grandfather would simply have "stood in the road and beckoned to get the same result," and he resolves to work at the practical side of magic with more dedication. Little does Andrew know what is to come.

Andrew not knowing much about magic is the central theme of  Enchanted Glass. He inherits Melstone House, his grandfather's estate, and everything in it but, because of a rift between his grandfather, Jocelyn Brandon, and Andrew's mother, who viewed magic as unsavory and embarrassing, Jocelyn never got around to telling Andrew much about this part of his life when he was living or if he did, Andrew seems to have forgotten all of it. However, he two were very close and Andrew was allowed to spend summers with Jocelyn, giving him a certain level of familiarity with the estate. Besides the estate, Andrew comes to learn that he has inherited his grandfather's "field-of-care," or region of magical responsibility, although it is a long while before Andrew realizes the true responsibility that comes with this and the importance of his job. It seems there is deviousness at work, especially when it comes to the owner of the nearby estate of a Mr. O. Brown. Gradually, the reader, and eventually Andrew, realizes that nothing is what is seems in Melstone, or rather, there are two versions of everything. It takes the appearance of a boy named Aidan Cain, on the run from a dark force that began haunting him in London shortly after the death of his grandmother, to help turn things around for Andrew and everyone else in this story that is packed full of adults.

Jones has a way with subtle humor in  Enchanted Glass, and the characters in this village and their summer fête are lovingly caricatured in this story that takes on glimmers of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as the story unfolds. There is Mr. Stock, the gardener at Melstone House who, when he is angered (which is often) "gifts" the overgrown, often inedible, products of his prize-winning vegetable patch to Andrew. Then, there is the domineering, sour Mrs. Stock, no relation to Mr. Stock - a good "half the people in Melstone were called Stock" - who cooks Mr. Stock's vegetables for Andrew as punishment (cauliflower cheese being the most common) and insists on returning the furniture that Andrew rearranges to original positions when Andrew is away. Mrs. Stock enlists her nephew Shaun who, for lack of a better term, seems to be an idiot savant, to work for Andrew, thinking this might be further punishment for him. Add to this, Tarquin O'Connor, a retired jockey who lost a leg, and his lovely daughter Stashe (short for Eustacia), niece to Mr. Stock. Mr. Stock gets Stashe hired on by Andrew to sort out the affairs of the estate and ostensibly help him write his book.

There are as many skillfully woven plot threads in this story as there are panes in the enchanted glass of the title (see the UK cover below for a great visual.) As Andrew and Aidan, who is carries with him the fear of being returned to London and the foster care system at any moment, get to know each other and in turn, understand their magical talents, preparations for the summer fête are heatedly going on around them, their doubles arriving at Melstone House in greater numbers, all searching for a boy named Adam or Alan or Ethan, each one more menacing and familiar than the next. As Andrew and Aidan work improve their skills and determine the magical field of care, Mr. O. Brown (Oberon...) and his cronies work to get at Aidan, culminating in a spectacular, massive magical storm that converges on the fête, each villager displaying a magical trait of their own in an effort to fight off the King of the Fairies.

If this doesn't already sound drastically different from most works in this genre, consider this. As Marjorie Ingall wrote in her review two new works of fantasy for middle grade readers in the New York Times Book Review on May 10, 2013,

Want to write a middle-grade fantasy adventure series? It’s easy! First, conjure up a plucky, prickly team of three — children who have to learn to trust one another and work together. Make the stakes really high; saving the world is always good. Use lots of wisecracking humor. Ensure the parents are absent (dead, missing, away — you’ll figure it out). Invoke classic themes and figures from folklore and mythology, but don’t bother becoming slavishly wedded to them. Be sure to include an intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl.

Of all these common elements,  Enchanted Glass has almost none. While Aidan's mother is dead and his grandmother has recently died, he is the lone child in a book filled with adults, save the teenaged Shaun. And, while there is no "intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl," Jones does make Stashe out to be lovely and tough and good for a fight when called on. There are classic themes from folklore and mythology and, more than seeming wedded to them, Jones seems interested in weaving them into everyday life and showing how something is always simmering just under the surface if we can only find the right angle at which to observe it, all will be revealed. Like looking at someone through a stained glass window, I suppose.

Source: Purchased audio book

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: Revised and Updated Edition by Diana Wynne Jones, 234 pp, RL 5

The inimitable, irreplaceable Diana Wynne Jones was inspired to create The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel late in 1994 when, as she says, "I was recovering from surgery, a situation I found myself in rather often during that decade." Knowing that she was bored and impatient, her friend John Clute, who, along with John Grant, are the authors of the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, first published in book form in 1997 and now available on line, suggested that she help work through the projected entries for the encyclopedia. Working with Chris Bell, she helped to decide which entries were necessary or made sense and provide examples. When they came to the proposed entry, "Nunnery," they both shouted in unison, "Nunneries are for sacking! There is usually one survivor." Diana went on to say, "You know, most of these books are so much the same that I could write the guidebook for the country they happen in." And a book was born. And then updated in 2006.
Although encyclopedic in nature, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel is laid out like a guide book (I almost typed "rough" instead of "tough" so many times while writing this review). A very funny, "How to Use This Book" chapter at the start of the guide instructs the reader to "Find the MAP," (words in ALL CAPS indicate entries in the Tough Guide) "Examine the map," "Find your STARTING POINT." From there, the reader must "set about finding an INN, Tour COMPANIONS, an meal of STEW, a CHAMBER for the night, and then the necessary TAVERN BRAWL." In a way, Jones is encouraging the reader to pursue this book as a "choose your own adventure" venture, if you remember those books. And, while it is possible to read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel it's almost more fun to peruse it, opening to any page and reading an entry, especially since the Management tells the reader that the map is useless. Like any good travel guide, there are "identification elements," or icons next to the entries for quick reference. There are the traditional, like icons for money, building, person, lodging and landmark, as well as less common, like fish, clan, magic and evil, which gets a "thumbs down" image. Each chapter, which corresponds with a letter, begins with a quote from the "Gnomic Utterances," citing the author and era, and they tend to be more humorous than helpful.

The "O" chapter begins with this quote, "Onions much attracted the Sage Algeron, who used to declare that onions were like the eyes of demons. Some say it was a demon who took off his left big toe." The first entry of the chapter is OMT, or, Official Management Term, which has the icon for CLICHE next to it. OMTs appear throughout the guide in italics and indicate frequently used words in the genre of fantasy that "perform the same function as music in films." Words like "thick" and "savory" get the OMT italic treatment when paired with STEW, which is often described as being thick and savory in fantasy novels. While you have to have a a fair knowledge of the fantasy genre - or fantasy novels set in a medieval realm to be in on some of the humor in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel, you don't have to be able to get the joke or ever know that Jones is being funny to enjoy this book. In fact, the perfect book to read as a companion while perusing The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel is Vivian Vande Velde's fantastic Heir Apparent. Set in the not too distant future, Giannine finds herself stuck in a virtual reality game called Heir Apparent in which she, as the bastard heir to the throne of the newly deceased king, must navigate a medieval kingdom, making the right allies and thwarting the right enemies in order to take her place on the throne. When a mob of protesters furious at the violence of video games charge the gaming center, things get dicey and Giannine finds she only has a limited time to play, fail, die, and level up in the world of the game before her brain is fried in the real world.

If I haven't done enough to entice you yet, here are a bits and pieces of few more entries:

ANIMALS: See ENEMY SPIES, FOOD and TRANSPORT. Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purposes (and this includes HARES and RABBITS), there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland. Any other animal you meet will be the result either of a WIZARD's BREEDING PROGRAMME or of SHAPESHIFTING. You may, on the other hand, hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Mangement when it feels the need for a little local color.     See also DOMESTIC ANIMALS and ECOLOGY

KNITTING: It is possible that Knitting has not yet been invented in Fantasyland - at least so far as mortals are concerned (see CRONE). The complete absence of SOCKS and sweaters suggests that the inhabitants have concentrated instead on EMBROIDERY and weaving.

MISSING HEIRS occur with great frequency. At any given time, half the COUNTRIES in Fantasyland will have mislaid their Crown PRINCESS/PRINCE, but the Rule is that only one Missing Heir can join your Tour at a time. Yours will join as a COMPANION selected from among the CHILD, the TALENTED GIRL, or the TEENAGE BOY, and as part of your QUEST you will have to get them back to the Kingdom where they belong. This can be a right nuisance. All Missing Heirs shine with innocence (some of them quite dazzlingly), and most have very little brain, which means that they will not pick up any hints as to their true status. You have to do this for them. In addition . . . (this entry goes on twice as long and only gets funnier!)

As I read through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel and was reminded of several books I have read and loved, I realized that, even though these aspects of the realm of fantasy are so common that they can be cataloged and made fun of, they are also what makes the genre so wonderful and, yes, to some, comfortable. What fascinates me is the new wave of fantasy being written for kids in a post-Harry Potter world. It has been 15 years since the boy who lived made his debut on American shores and already it seems that there are commonalities for this new wave of fantasy. As Marjorie Ingall succinctly noted at the start of her New York Times review of two new works of middle grade fantasy:

Want to write a middle-grade fantasy adventure series? It’s easy! First, conjure up a plucky, prickly team of three — children who have to learn to trust one another and work together. Make the stakes really high; saving the world is always good. Use lots of wisecracking humor. Ensure the parents are absent (dead, missing, away — you’ll figure it out). Invoke classic themes and figures from folklore and mythology, but don’t bother becoming slavishly wedded to them. Be sure to include an intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl. 

Do I have a problem with these rules? I do not. Girls should play a role in saving the universe. Teamwork is important. Trust is a gift in our cynical, selfish world. But turning these rules into a book that’s both fun and well written is quite a trick. A writer has to create characters we’ll come to love, build a vivid world, ratchet up suspense, keep up a propulsive and pulpy momentum, use language deliciously, and spark enough excitement and imagination to get us to Book 2. 

As much as I love the conventions of traditional fantasy, I have to confess that I am beginning to grow weary of the sameness of these new common themes. Always three kids, always dead parents and always saving the world. And as much as I like the "intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl," I think it's time for publishers and authors to expand on these  characteristics and broaden this brave new world of fantasy.

Source: Traded through PaperbackSwap


Dragon's Fat Cat, story and pictures by Dav Pilkey 48pp RL1

I first posted this review in September of 2008, when my blog was barely a month old and I was racing to write reviews of all my favorite (and my children's) books. A new comment on these books reminded me how wonderful and rare they are and I decided to repost this review and hopefully introduce a whole new generation of emerging readers to these superb books! If you already know the DRAGON books, scroll to the bottom of this review for more titles from Pilkey that are perfect for new readers.

This is exactly the kind of book that I wish there were more of - a first grade level reading book with chapters, that LOOKS like a chapter book and not a picture book or beginning to read book. I see so many kids every day at work who are reading at a first grade level but want to read something that looks like a Magic Tree House book, not an easy reader. While the "Dragon" books are a little bit larger in trim size than a traditional 2nd grade level chapter book, they do have chapters and are easy to read. And, they're so, so funny!

Most of you are probably familiar with the work of Dav Pilkey even if you don't realize it. His Captain Underpants chapter books have been huge sellers for over 15 years now and his Dumb Bunnies picture books for even longer. Pilkey is a funny guy who is interested in appealing to kids on their level, which means he really gets potty humor and thinks "underpants" is a silly word. However, not much of that sensibility pops up in the Dragon books, although Dragon can be a little clueless most of the time, which makes for some funny situations and an entertaining read.

In my favorite, Dragon Gets By, Dragon wakes up very tired. He reads an egg and fries his newspaper, butters his tea and sips his toast and, sooner than later, ends up back in bed where he belongs. In the chapter titled, "Shopping," Dragon restocks his cupboards, but he is so hungry that he sits outside his car and eats all of his groceries. Afterwards, he is so stuffed that he cannot fit in his car to drive home. He decides to push it home, since it's all downhill, but things get out of hand. In some ways, Dragon reminds me of Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel's great beginning to read series, which is my standard bearer for all good easy reader books. Like Dragon, Toad is a little neurotic, a little difficult and a little confused about the best way to get things done. But that, along with Pilkey's bright, cartoon like illustrations, are what makes for great, hilarious reading!

Since I posted this review, I discovered that there was a television show based on Dragon and his friends AND this show has just been added to Netflix's catalog of streaming movies and shows. This stop-motion animation show was produced by a French-Canadian company in 2004 and you can visit the show's site here. Wikipedia also has a decent entry on the show that lists all the episodes - and there are a lot! I don't normally find television shows based on books worth sharing, but the characters are done so well and this show has expanded on the stories in the books exponentially that this is more of a situation of having more to love...

Dragon: excerpt from "Dragon Learns to Skate."
from Philip Marcus on Vimeo.


Big Dog and Little Dog capture the playfulness, camaraderie and silliness of the world of Dragon. There is a hardcover edition that collects all five stories in one, which I suggest. The other books are available as board books only and, while they would be great for toddlers, these books are fantastic for emerging readers.

I assume that everyone knows DOGZILLA and KAT KONG, featuring Dav's corgis and cats. Not sure who owns the mice... These books are hilarious and hugely popular in school libraries. Both are available in paperback.


Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, 512 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE


Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was published in July of 2012 and has received a lot of well deserved attention since then, including the Morris Award for a debut book by a first-time author writing for teens. I struggled to write this review and put it off for weeks, in part because this book is so well written and engrossing, but also because I listened to the audio book (brilliantly narrated by Mandy Williams and Justine Eyre) and do not have the text in front of me. This is problematic because Rachel Hartman has a truly imaginative gift for language and Seraphina is rich with names like Lucian Kiggs, Comonot, Glisselda, Pesavolta and Okra Carmine. There are the Ityasaari, a race of human-dragon hybrids, there are Porphyrian Philosophers and houppelandes. And, while Hartman didn't invent the word "houppelande," I'd never heard it before and anytime it was part of the story I found myself turning the word over and over in my mouth like a piece of hard candy. Fortunately, like all things popular and some things obscure these days, fans have created a wiki site for this book, which is where I learned how to spell all these amazing names that have sprung from Hartman's seemingly endless imagination. There is the southern country of Goredd, founded by Belondwegg, with the capital city of Lavondaville, which is home to Seraphina. The Goreddi culture is centered around a religion that, rather than worshipping one omnipotent deity, prays to a host of saints. Hartman has started a compendium of the Goreddi Saints. On her blessing day, the psalter falls open to the pages of Saint Yirtrudis, the heretic who appears not to have believed in heaven, and Seraphina is given a substitute saint. The luxuriance of language and abundance of saints reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Fly By Night written by Frances Hardinge. While the intrigue and action of Hardinge's book centers around the suppression of the printed word and not the tenuous nature of a treaty between humans and dragons, both books claim intricately developed, fully realized worlds and intelligent, determined, fearless heroines navigating their way through realms where political intrigue and conspiracies abound.

Like Mosca Mye, the main character of Fly By Night, Seraphina Dombegh is an outcast, an oddity among her fellow Goreddis. While Mosca's rare gift and curse is being a girl who can read, Seraphina's burden, growing up in a city that is heavily prejudiced against dragons, is that she must hide the fact that her mother was a dragon. Seraphina herself is filled with shame and self-loathing, keeping her scales hidden under layers and layers of clothing. I have to admit, when I heard the premise of Seraphina before it was published I couldn't begin to imagine how Hartman could possibly create a character who was part human and part dragon and develop a world around her in which this phenomena could make any kind of sense. Hartman has done exactly this with the dragons as she imagines them. While Hartman's dragons have silver blood, scales, talons and smell like brimstone, they also have the ability to take the form of humans and are called "saarantras" when they are in this form. In Goreddi, all saarantrai (or saar, as they are more commonly called) are required to wear a silver bell indicating that they are dragons in human form. The draconian culture reveres two things above all else, mathematics and ard. "Ard" is a concept that refers to the order and correctness of their world. Emotion is considered the opposite of "ard" and dragons find the "human condition confusing and often overwhelming, and they had developed strategies over the years for keeping their heads 'in ard' while they took human form." This is an especially fascinating idea when applied to the sixteen year old Seraphina. As she suffered through a childbirth that would take her life, Seraphina's mother filled her with as many secreted maternal memories as she could, arranging for certain real life experiences to trigger the release of these memories. When a memory is released, the physical and mental effects are devastating to the young Seraphina, like a tsunami version of a migraine, and her tutor Orma, who she learns is in fact mother's brother, is called in to help her develop the "ard" needed to organize and manage them. The relationship between Orma and Seraphina is a subtle yet powerful aspect of this novel. The dragons have created a Board of Censors that functions independently from their government and constantly observes and tests the dragons in their human form to make sure that they have not been contaminated by human emotions. Contamination is addressed with a excision of the brain that results in what is essentially a memory wipe. Orma makes Seraphina's education his occupation and, in turn, the Board of Censors secretly sends an agent to determine if Orma has been corrupted by his attention to this young human. This incident finds the eight-year-old Seraphina being dangled over the edge of the bell tower of the cathedral by her new tutor, Zeyd, an agent from the Board of Censors.

This brings me to what is perhaps my favorite aspect of Seraphina - the grotesques. Orma teaches Seraphina to create a mental garden using a form of cognitive architecture that reminds me of both forms of meditation and methods used by professional mnemonists. This garden is peopled with characters she refers to as her grotesques because some of them look less than human. Each night before bed Seraphina sits on the floor of her room and imagines herself walking through her garden, greeting the grotesques, each of whom she has named something suiting their personality and appearance - Fruit Bat, Loud Lad, Miss Fusspots, Pandowdy. How Seraphina controls these memories her mother has left for her and the secrets that they - and her detective work throughout the city - uncover as the forty-year anniversary of Comonot's Treaty (established by Comonot, the legal Ardmagar of the dragons and Queen Lavonda to end the war between the two factions) approaches makes up the spine of the plot of this rich novel that resonates with world issues today. When a member of the royal family is found decapitated during a hunt, his head missing (dragons have a taste for human heads, apparently) there are many suspects, with signs pointing to the Sons of St. Ogdo, St. Ogdo having developed dracomachia, the martial arts of Goreddi nights used to fight dragons. In her role as the assistant to the gout-ridded Viridius, court composer of Goreddi, Seraphina, a profoundly gifted musician, something emotion eschewing dragons have no ability or interest in, finds herself increasingly embroiled in the affairs of the court as the search for the killer of Prince Rufus collides with efforts to avert a revolt against the dragons and their peace treaty as the anniversary celebrations get under way. As court intrigue reaches a fever pitch, Seraphina finds herself in a position to begin to embrace and even speak out about who she really is, in part after she discovers she is not the only ityasaari in the kingdom.

On a final note, I gave Seraphina a rating of "middle grade" because, while the main character is sixteen and there is a bit of romantic longing, there is nothing inappropriate for children of this age. However, the language is complex as are the philosophies of the characters. Hopefully, this will challenge younger readers to think beyond the page. Thanks again to the Seraphina Wiki which was very helpful for determining the spellings of the various people, places and things in this amazing debut novel. The second book has the (tentative?) title Dracomachia. After the first print run of Seraphina sold out quickly, the publisher decided to tweak the cover and add an author interview and the bonus story, "The Audition," which tells the story of Seraphina's audition with Viridius for the position of assistant to the court composer. If your edition doesn't have this extra material (my audio book didn't!) you can find the story by clicking HERE. In the event that doesn't work, search for "The Audition, Scribid, Rachel Hartman."

The Italian cover for Seraphina. Kind of cool...

Source: Purchased Audio Book


P.S. Be Eleven, by Rita Williams Garcia, 274 pp, RL 4

With her new book, P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia picks up where  her multiple-award winning One Crazy Summer, began and ended - with the Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, on a Boeing 727 flying across the country. This time, the girls are flying home from a month-long visit in Oakland, CA, with a mother they hadn't seen in seven years. And, even though they were only gone 28 days, the home they return to on Herkimer Street in Brooklyn is full of changes.

Besides the anticipation of turning twelve before the calendar year is out, Delphine has the sixth grade dance and the fact that, after the gangly Ellis Carter, she is the tallest girl in her class, to worry about. But she is looking forward to her year with Miss Honeywell, a cool, young teacher who, supposedly, was sent home to change when she wore a bell bottomed pantsuit to school the year before. And then there is The Jackson 5. At the insistence of Delphine's sometimes-friend Lucy Raleigh, the sisters sneak and stay up past bedtime to watch The Hollywood Palace and their lives are changed. Not only are they each instantly in love with one of the brothers, but the sisters, who make a point of counting and announcing the times they see black people on tv, find that they would have to shout, "Black Infinity" when that family is on the screen. On top of it all, Delphine begins corresponding with her mother, who she decides to call Cecile, who dispenses sage if terse advice, always ending with the admonishment to, "P.S. Be Eleven," even when Delphine turns twelve.

Homeless at sixteen and pregnant with Delphine not long after, Cecile understands what it means to grow up too fast and tells her that, "Time turns always, Delphine. Don't push it." But, the world around Delphine has other ideas. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam, his body intact but his spirit broken. And Pa has a fiance, Miss Marva Hendrix, who does not impress Big Ma but makes gentle advances with the girls. As with One Crazy Summer, the plot of  P.S. Be Eleven is shot through with historical and literary threads. From an exchange teacher from Zambia who is reading Chinua Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart to Miss Hendrix and her efforts to see Shirley Chisolm elected to political office to a classroom debate about women in politics, Williams-Garcia's book is rich with details from the time. But, P.S. Be Eleven is also filled with timeless experiences and observations on the part of Delphine, who uses her letters to her mother to ask questions and find guidance. The tension of One Crazy Summer that comes from not knowing what kind of mother, if any, Cecile will be to her daughters, is a driving force of the novel, the actions and lessons of the Black Panthers taking a back seat to the girls having to fend for themselves in a strange, new city. In P.S. Be Eleven there seems to be less drama, but it's really a different kind of drama. The beauty of the novel and of Williams-Garica's storytelling skill, is that this time Delphine does get to be eleven, rather than the little mother to Vonetta and Fern that she often had to be, a role that Cecile and Big Ma placed her in. Delphine is not immune to the struggles of the adults around her or her own disappointments, but in school and surrounded by her friends, she gets to be the child she is, even if she is a child on the cusp of teenager-hood.

The Gaither girls continue to be a joy to spend time with, on the West Coast and the East Coast, but P.S. Be Eleven is truly Delphine's story. And she deserves it.

Source: Review Copy


Line 135 by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine

Line 135 is by Germano Zullo and Albertine, the European duo who brought us Little Bird, which is translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion BooksLine 135 begins, "There are two places I belong in the world. The first place I belong is my house in the city. The second place I belong is my grandmother's house in the country."

Line 135 is as much a book about traveling and moving from one place to another as it is about how we choose to see the world, with the young narrator's wonderful outlook gradually influencing the geography around her as the train travels to its destination.

The narrator tells us that one day she will travel in every direction and "know the entire world." She also tells us that her mother and grandmother say this is impossible, that she it too small to know the entire world. And that it is "difficult enough to know yourself." She tells us that she doesn't always understand her mother and grandmother, who tell her that she will understand things better when she is big and that when she is big her "life will pass very quickly."

But, the narrator knows that when she is big she will "make sure life moves with me" and she will know the entire world. She will say to her mother and grandmother, "You see!" And she will tell them what they have forgotten, what she has always known, "It is possible."

Line 135 is timeless. The text and the illustrations will stay with you long after you have finished reading this book. And I have no doubt that this is the kind of book that will be read over and over again, well into adulthood. In fact, if you want to give a really fantastic, fresh book to a high school or college graduate, skip Dr Seuss and because everyone is already buying that book anyway and give Line 135. It's more than a feel good book, Line 135 will make readers (especially graduates) think...

Source: Review Copy


Signed By: Zelda, by Kate Feiffer, 232 pp, RL 4

SIGNED BY ZELDA is now in paperback!

Kate Feiffer's Signed by: Zelda (with wonderful cover art by Kelly Murphy) is her second novel for young readers and comes on the heels of nine pictures books, four of which are illustrated by her father, the great Jules Feiffer. Besides her own great track record as a children's book author and her wonderful lineage, I was intrigued by Signed by: Zelda because one of the main characters is a budding graphologist!

Feiffer brings together two very different eleven-year-olds, a talking pigeon and Grandma Zelda who has lived an amazing life all over the world but has not left her apartment in over a year. Lucy, the graphologist, is the daughter of a surgeon and a teacher and she and her parents have moved from Savannah, GA to New York City for her mom's "great job at a great children's hospital." Lucy immediately notices that "great" has become a throwaway (a word that you use when you don't want to say what you really want to say) word for her parents. Lucy moved into apartment 6D. Directly above her (and much to her annoyance as he practices flying every night which is not much more than jumping off his bed and making loud thuds on the floor - Lucy's ceiling), in apartment 7D, is Nicky Gibson, his older and usually mean sister Stella and his dad. Two years ago his mom got on a plane to India and has not come back and Nicky has not grown at all since then. Things have gotten pretty and he finds that his TOA (Time-out-average) has risen significantly - both at home and at school. In apartment 8G lives Zelda who bakes Zeldaberry pie, spends as much time with Nicky as she can and talks to Pigeon. And Pigeon talks back. In fact, Pigeon is the flying link between these three characters when, on April 1, Zelda disappears. 

Lucy yearns to use her skills as a handwriting expert (and her well outfitted laboratory) to solve a crime. She gets that chance when a few mysterious notes come her way and she finally has a reason to go upstairs and talk to Nicky. The two uncover some pretty dastardly, Roald-Dahl-esque deeds by Mr Gibson, Stella and Nicky's dad and Zelda's son, who seems to be a pretty mean guy a few thin excuses for his shameful treatment of his kids and mother. The plot didn't quite hang together for me throughout the entire book, but I was so excited to read about a character who analyzes handwriting and I grew to love Nicky's bad luck and bad decision making that it was easy to overlook, as I'm sure it will be for young readers. Feiffer includes some great extra information, including a handwriting analysis test and notes about writing the book. Signed by: Zelda reminded me often of a less intense, less socially complex version of Rebecca Stead's Liar & Spy that also came out this year and took place mostly in a New York City apartment building and involved the solving of some possible crimes.

Other books by Kate Feiffer

Picture books by Kate and Jules Feiffer

 My Side of the Car (click for my review)

Picture books by Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode


One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 218 pp, RL 4

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garica, as you can see by crowd of awards (Coretta Scott King Award, Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Medal, Newbery Honor and National Book Award Finalist - basically the most prestigious awards for children's literature there are), has been very read and loved since it was published in 2010. I have not read the gold medal winner for 2010, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, but I think it must have been EXTREMELY hard to be a Newbery judge that year... Before I write another word, I listened to the audio book of One Crazy Summer and I need to acknowledge the supreme narration skills of Sisi Aisha Johnson. As someone who listens to copious amounts of audio books, I have my favorites, usually narrators who can create voices for a range of characters. Johnson masterfully created distinct voices for the three sisters, including that of Fern, the seven-year-old, as well as several male characters who were part of the story. Delphine, the oldest sister, has a powerful narrative voice that Johnson coveys magnificently and movingly. She also narrates The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, as well as Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper and books by Octavia E. Butler, Sharon G. Flake and Julius Lester, all of which I plan to seek out in the future.

The "crazy" in the title of One Crazy Summer doesn't refer to wacky, fun times but rather the perceived mental state of Cecile, the mother who left shortly after the birth of her third daughter some seven years earlier. It is the summer of 1968 and Delphine, Vonetta and Fern's Papa has decided that it's time for his daughters to spend time with their mother. He and Big Mama, his mother, take the girls to the airport and put them on the Boeing 727 headed to Oakland. Eleven, nine and seven, the sisters have spent most of the previous night dreaming and talking about the oranges and apples they will pick off the trees in California, the trip to Disneyland they will take, the surfing they will do and the movie stars they will ask for autographs in soda shops. When they land in California, they wait and wait for Cecile. Delphine finally spots her lurking behind a cigarette machine, wearing big sunglasses, a big hat and man's pants. Gruffly and almost wordlessly, she herds the girls from the airport to her green stucco house in Oakland with the leaning palm tree in the front yard. When Delphine hands over the $200.00 her father gave her that she has been keeping in her shoe, Cecile sends the girls down the block to get shrimp lo mein, egg rolls and Pepsi and they sit on the floor of the living room on a table cloth. Cecile bans the girls from the kitchen where she has a printing press and where Delphine catches a glimpse of "white wings hanging," her mother's poetry, printed and drying on lines crisscrossing the room. Delphine has memories of her mother writing on cereal boxes and even on the walls when she still lived with her family, her urge to write was so powerful. The next morning, Cecile makes it clear she wants the girls out of the house from morning to night and sends them to the People's Center. Twenty-seven more days before the sisters can go home.

While One Crazy Summer is ultimately a story of mothers and daughters, Rita Williams-Garcia weaves so much more into her powerful, moving novel. The girls have been raised, in part, by their grandmother who is from a town in the South that is so small, she says she's from the larger, neighboring town. She is raising the girls to be polite, well groomed and above all else, to never create a "grand Negro spectacle" in public. Delphine, the only one of the sisters with memories of her mother, is a serious, insightful, responsible child who takes care of her sisters as well as she takes care of her beloved Timex watch with the brown band. She understands that Vonetta, who is "always sticking herself onstage for everyone to see her," is also more likely to get her feelings hurt from this behavior. She understands that Fern, who was just a "loaf of bread" when their mother left, needs her Miss Patty Cake doll with her yellow hair and pink skin, to comfort her still, even though she is seven. Delphine spends most of her time taking care of her sisters emotionally and physically, but she takes a chance and ruffles their feathers in an effort to get a good look out the window of the airplane at the Golden Gate Bridge as their plane descends. Both girls screech. Heads turn, a stewardess rushes over to shush them and, even though "there were only eight Negroes on board, counting my sisters and me, I had managed to disgrace the entire Negro race, judging by the head shaking and tsk-tsking going on around us." Delphine has a lot of responsibility on her shoulders and her challenge is to take care of her sisters in this strange new place but also to navigate the shifting cultural and social environment around her that she is thrust into. Black Panthers, Sister and Brother, new, African names and the questions "What's wrong with this picture?" and "Why are you carrying your self-hatred in your arms?"that come from one of the Black Panthers on their first day at the People's Center make up this new world. Days at the center are spent making protest posters and learning about Huey Newton and the teenager Bobby Hutton, the first Black Panther after the leaders, who was shot by police during a protest in Oakland and hearing Cecile called Inzilla. Amidst these changes, Delphine learns some new things about herself and her mother.

Despite the change and turmoil, Williams-Garcia keeps One Crazy Summer relevant and entertaining for young readers. The girls make friends at the People's Center, including Hirohito Woods, Vonetta does something really awful to Miss Patty Cake in an effort to fit in and Delphine stands up to Cecile and sets foot in her kitchen when night after night of take-out gives Fern a belly ache. Anticipating the assignment of writing an essay about her summer, Delphine vows to make sure she has something to write about and plans an excursion into San Francisco for the sisters with the last of their money. While Cecile never even approaches warming up to her daughters, referring to Fern as "little girl," because their father wouldn't let Cecile name her what she wanted to," and saying on their first night that she should have gone to Mexico to get rid of them when she had the chance, she does thaw enough to tell Delphine about her own childhood, telling her daughter, "Your life seems hard, Delphine, but it is good. It's better than what I could have given you," and finally, "Be eleven, Delphine. Be eleven while you can." Rita Williams-Garcia weaves together all these compelling, powerful, historical, social elements, making them memorable and moving through the creation of the distinct characters and voices of Delphine, Vonetta and Fern. Long after the last page of One Crazy Summer had turned, Fern's plainspoken, "Surely do," still echoes in my head.

In the sequel to One Crazy Summer, the Gaither girls are back home in Brooklyn and have a newfound sense of independence after their month in Oakland with Cecile and the Black Panthers. As Delphine struggles with the changes in herself and her family's life, she writes letters to Cecile who reminds her to...

Source: Purchased, book and audio


Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe, 216 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE

Peanut by Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe is a gem! I am a tremendous fan of Smile and Drama by the exceptional Raina Telegemeier but have been frustrated by the fact that I have yet to find graphic novels that are similar to her work. With Peanut, I have finally found that book! Halliday and Hoppe tell the story of a girl who finds herself starting sophomore year of high school in a new town. Like Telgemeier, Halliday and Hoppe create characters who feel very real and has quirks and qualities that enrich the plot and I hope there are more graphic novels from this team coming in the very near future. Although this story is set in a high school, I have given the book a MIDDLE GRADE rating. There is a romantic relationship, but it is very sweet and chaste in nature with only one on-page kiss. And, there are two mean girls who make some pretty snide comments, but there are no obscenities.

Sadie and her mom move often and when she learns that she will be starting her sophomore year at Plainfield Community High School, Sadie decides to look at it as a fresh start and a chance to reinvent herself. Unfortunately for her, she decides to reinvent herself around a lie. At the start of the summer before sophomore year, Sadie is in line at a restaurant when she comments on the bracelet of the girl in line ahead of her. The girl explains that it's not really jewelry, but a necessity as it is a medical alert bracelet indicating her severe peanut allergy. Intrigued, Sadie goes home and does some research into severe peanut allergies and decides to order a medical alert bracelet for herself. On the first day of school she does her best to make friends and drop hints about her "condition."

Initial attempts to make friends with the mean girls fall flat and, rather than take interest in Sadie's allergy, they use it to make fun of her behind her back. On top of that, Sadie's best friend from her old school seems to have moved on. But, Sadie does manage to make friends, including Zoo, a bike riding, cell phone eschewing guy who communicates by writing notes that he folds elaborately and delivers to the doors of his friends. As things begin to improve socially, Sadie realizes that keeping up her lie is not nearly as easy as she had thought it would be. Soon the her mom is asking questions and so is the school nurse, and Sadie is frantic to hang on to what she has. I need to add here that Peanut actually also provides a fair amount of pertinent information about peanut allergies and related issues as Sadie researches her "medical condition."

How the truth comes out and what happens when it does is, especially from a teenage perspective, pretty intense. The epilogue, in which Sadie talks about the aftermath of her lie feels very realistic and, in the end, hopeful. Halliday and Hoppe do a fantastic job conveying the angst and agony that Sadie that suffers as she struggles with her lie. And the supporting cast of characters, from Sadie's mom to Mr Larch, her dramatic homeroom teacher, and Miss Anderson, the easy going, motherly school nurse, are well drawn (literally and texturally) and genuine. My favorite character, though, is the thoughtful, creative, understanding Zoo, Sadie's boyfriend. Every girl should be lucky enough to have a guy like him in her life at some time!

Hoppe's illustrations, black, white and grey with only Sadie's top (which changes from tank to tee to jacket as the seasons change) in color, are perfectly suited to the story. While Telgemeier's graphic novels are colorfully inked, the more austere palette of Peanut feels better suited to the slightly more mature themes of the novel and ages of the characters. 

Source: Review Copy

Primates : The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas, by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks, 144 pp, RL 3

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas is written by Jim Ottaviani, who's very cool website, G.T. Labs, has the tagline, "Comics about scientists? What a dangerous experiment!" Ottaviani, among other books, is the author of Feynman, a biographical graphic novel about the Nobel Prize winning scientist who did stuff with quantum mechanics and electrodynamics and other things I can't even begin to understand, as well as work on the Manhattan Project (he makes an appearance in Ellen Klages's amazing book about this time, The Green Glass Sea, told from the perspective of the daughter of one of the scientists working on the project). Primates is wonderfully illustrated by Maris Wicks.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas was called "Trimates" at one time and I think that is important to keep in mind when reading this unique biography. As a completely ignorant reader - I have read Patrick McDonnell's Caldecott Honor winning picture book Me . . . Jane about the young Jane Goodall and I know that the 1980s movie "Gorillas in the Mist" is about Dian Fossey and I have no idea who Biruté Galdikas is - I think it's safe to say that I read this book mostly from a child's perspective. I read Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas with great excitement, thinking that I would learn a lot about our next of kin. But, this graphic novel is not your typical kid's biography that lays out all the facts in chronological order so readers can write the book report, which, let's be honest, is usually the singular reason kids real biographies. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, while providing pertinent facts that create a framework for the narrative, works more to create an impression and feeling of what these women were up against in their professional lives which, for all intents and purposes, seem to be synonymous with their personal lives. This is most evident near the end of the book, which, interestingly, is comprised of three prologues that show moments from the lives of each of these great women, not at the beginning of their careers, but at the points at which each of them had become respected enough in their fields that their voices were really heard, respected and valued. In her prologue, Gladikas tells the story of a colleague who, years earlier, told her that all he could think of was gathering his data, finishing his thesis, earnign a PhD and getting a tenure track job - "Veni, vidi, vici," Galdikas says to him. Reflecting on this, she realizes that she came, she conquered, but she has stayed and does not want to conquer - or to leave the orangutans.

I realize that, despite my ignorance of the subjects, I do bring an adult need to organize and make sense of what I read to this book. Kids won't necessarily do that. As Ottaviani says in his afterword, "What kind of person does it take to to this kind of work? How hard is it? When did our understanding of what it meant to be a primate begin? And why is it important? These are the questions we hope you had when you started the book, and hope you've gotten some answers by the end. But by now you've guessed that the end of this book isn't the end of the story." I'll confess, I did have those questions, if not at the start of Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas,  then definitely as I made my way a few pages into the book, and they were not necessarily answered by Ottavani in the text. But, my interest is DEFINITELY piqued and I do want to read more about these women and I do want my questions answered. Happily, Ottaviani provides a fantastic bibliography.

The book begins with Goodall, the oldest of the trio, and her love of Africa. The one thing all three women have in common, besides a passion for primates, is Dr James Leakey, archaeologist and naturalist who established human evolutionary development in Africa and was essential for getting Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas started in their initial observations of primates. In fact, the three scientists are referred to as "Leakey's Angels," although I'm not sure if that is really worth repeating. As presented in Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, Dr Leakey has a knack for picking just the right people (women) to observe primates and a fondness for them could actually be better described as a bit of a wandering eye. Ottaviani captures significant moments in the scientific observations made by each woman, noting the previously unseen behaviors that their patience and skill allow them to observe. For Goodall and Fossey, he also shows how Leakey was instrumental in sending them to Cambridge to get their degrees after they had spent time in the field, allowing the scientific community to take their findings more seriously. Galdikas first met Leakey in the early 1970s while studying at UCLA.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, DOES show what kind of person it takes to do this work and just how hard the work is by showing days spent in the rain, climbing mountains with a broken ankle, picking leeches off legs, accidents with machetes, and suffering tropical illness after illness as well as the social and political maneuvering that each woman had to to to keep poachers away from gorillas, funding coming in and tourists away from the primates once their work became widely known. There is a reason that the word FEARLESS is in the title. But, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas is also just a really great story with fantastically appealing artwork by Maris Wicks that simplifies the story in a way that will appeal to young readers. Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas's stories are important for so many reasons, on so many levels. Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas is a brilliant entry into their lives that could, like Tarzan of the Apes did for the young Jane Goodall, inspire the life path and passion of a reader... 

Under the dust jacket of 
Primates: The Fearless Science of 
Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas

Maris and Jim, as drawn by Maris

Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas

Source: Review Copy