Friday, April 11, 2014

Second Chances

John Corey Whaley

John Corey Whaley, the author of Noggin, says the outlandish premise of his latest novel--a transplantation of a full cranial structure onto a donor body--began with Kurt Vonnegut.

"What is it about him that I'm able to connect with so much?" Whaley said of Kurt Vonnegut when we got to interview him recently. "He's able to take absurd ideas and scenarios, and you can be laughing hysterically on one page, and he'll bring you to tears on the next."

The idea of scientific advances allowing doctors to cryogenically freeze someone's head and surgically affix it to a healthy donor's body may be something akin to what Vonnegut might create, but, like Vonnegut, Whaley grounds the story in authentic emotional experience. Travis essentially falls asleep and wakes up five years later. But the people he cares about have lived on, gathering life experiences. "That was the most realistic way I could re-create the way people feel their friends and family are growing up a little faster than they are," Whaley said. "A lot of life is people moving faster than we are, and us moving faster than others."

Travis is 16 when he goes to sleep, and his friends are 21 when he wakes up. He has a second chance at life, but does he want it, if he can't be with Cate, who is now engaged to someone else, and his best friend, Kyle, who has retreated back into a life of denial? Whaley gets to the core of growing up through his exploration of Travis's dilemma. Travis wants to win Cate back. But in those five years, Cate had fully grieved and accepted the loss of Travis in her life. Travis and Kyle are able to restore their friendship, but Travis's desire to recreate the romantic relationship he'd had with Cate remains problematic.

Travis must ask himself, how do I go on from here, with this new reality? Is it worth it to get a second chance if I cannot have the people I want in my life the way they were? Travis quickly learns that his return does not come with an automatic reset button. It means working on these relationships--with his parents, with Cate, with Kyle, and with his new friend Hatton. How do you stay true to yourself yet still honor that relationship, either as it is now, or what it once meant to you? Is it possible to do? How much compromise is possible without losing your self?

At a pivotal time, when teens are becoming adults and trying on new personas and/or deepening their beliefs, their relationships are shifting. Whaley captures all of these nuances with humor, compassion and unforgettable characters.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The New Orleans Legacy

Rodman Philbrick

Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick takes readers with narrator Zane Dupree on a visit to New Orleans, just before Hurricane Katrina hits. Because Zane is new to the city, we learn through his conversations with his grandmother and through Zane's own observations the deep and complex history of this culture-rich town.

He has barely arrived when the mayor instructs everyone to evacuate in preparation for the storm. Zane gets separated from his grandmother when his beloved dog escapes from an open window in her preacher's van, and he chases after his pet--all the way back to her house on the Ninth Ward. This is most of all an adventure story. But as Zane learns more about his rescuers, Malvina Rawlins and her guardian, Truedell "Tru" Manning, a renowned jazz musician, readers also learn more about the culture of New Orleans, its traditions, its racial tensions, its economic divide. Armed security teams guard the homes of the rich, which are on higher ground. Rescue efforts take days and days. Malvina and Tru pass the time by telling Zane stories.

Philbrick describes the situation in a way that 9- and 10-year-olds can understand, yet with enough suspense and details to hold the attention of teen readers, too. Another book for 8- to 12-year-olds about life before and after Hurricane Katrina is Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. And for older readers, the books that delve into the nuances and rich past of New Orleans are the historical novels Richard Peck's The River Between Us, and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. In many ways, the city of New Orleans reveals in microcosm the tensions that have haunted and continue to plague the United States, as well as the many gifts of food, music, language, celebration and culture that one city's residents have given to the nation.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Specifics Reveal the Universal

King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Christiane Krömer, offers children a window into Pakistani culture and craftsmanship through a story of one family's experience of Basant.

Interior image from King for a Day
Basant began as a Hindu celebration that "marked... the beginning of warm weather," according to the author. Its focus on vibrant kites in sunny skies could easily bring 4th of July celebrations to mind. The author doesn't explain the rules of the kite-flying contest at the center of Basant; we understand them through narrator Malik's careful guidance of his kite, Falcon, and its weaving in and out of the other kites' strings in order to bring them down. Readers watch Malik make the kite, and quickly realize that this is not his first time. He's an experienced kitemaker and navigator, and his perch on his building's rooftop gives him an excellent vantage point.

Christiane Krömer portrays Malik in a wheelchair, though Rukhsana Khan does not mention this in the text, and readers see that Malik is master of his kite. His sister helps launch it, and his brother collects the kites that Malik brings down, but Malik is the craftsman and strategist of Falcon's path.

The characters' dress and the architecture may appear a bit exotic to children, but the kite-flying sport quickly creates a point of identification with Malik and his siblings. Into the contest, early on, arrives a bully who lives nearby and launches his giant kite (which Malik nicknames Goliath) from street level. The bully has back-up kites galore and eagerly attempts to amass the prize kites of others. This tug-of-war between Malik and the bully lies at the core of the book, and it's a situation every child will recognize. A satisfying ending brings justice for all.

At the end of the day, we see the hero savor his well-earned victory, alone, as sunlight departs and the stars come out. Krömer's final image captures the peace that hard work and a clear conscience brings.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Books to Play By

Tickle by Leslie Patricelli is a board book that inspires participation. The toddler essentially dares someone to try and make him or her laugh with the statement, "I am NOT ticklish."

Of course, Dad the Tickle Monster must prove his baby wrong. This simply begs that the reading experience between child and parent or grandparent or older sibling also devolve into a ticklefest.
Interior from Tickle

On the page where all of the toddler's ticklish body parts are labeled, that same parent or grandparent or older sibling will similarly follow with "Are you ticklish on your belly button? Your knees? Your toes?" It's a fun way for a toddler to learn the names for all the parts of his or her person while also being lovingly tended to by a trusted caregiver.

Board books that invite interaction are a wonderful way for children to associate books with laughter, play and imagination. Patricelli's Tickle leads nicely into other interactive books, such as Nina Laden's Peek-a-Who?, Taro Gomi's Peekaboo!, The Baby Goes Beep by Rebecca O'Connell, illustrated by Ken Wilson-Max, and William Steig's Pete's a Pizza--books that also inspire pretending and playing together.

Reading is not a passive experience, these books demonstrate to youngest children; books are a way to get involved, whether physically (as with Tickle and the other aforementioned board books) or emotionally and imaginatively, as they get older and begin to read fairy tales and other stories.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Futuristic Fairy Tales

Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer sets her fairy tales in the future, turns the victims of the classics into agents of change, and provides a lens through which to view the present. Cress, her third in the Lunar Chronicles, reimagines Rapunzel, trapped in her tower, as a brilliant hacker and programmer drone sequestered in a satellite. Cress made a cameo appearance in Cinder, as the one who revealed Queen Levana's diabolical plans to Cinder.

In Cinder, the heroine retains the classic fairy tale position of least valued in her household, but she nonetheless supports her stepmother and stepsisters as the most gifted mechanic in the Commonwealth. She's also a cyborg--considered second-class citizens in their society. Prince Kai seeks out Cinder to repair his android, and that is how they meet--at her workplace. The heroine of Scarlet, in the second book, is a talented pilot searching for her missing grandmother, and a hybrid named Wolf helps her solve the mystery.

Meyer deepens her characters well beyond fairy tale archetypes and also develops plot twists that keep readers guessing. Dr. Erland, for instance, turns out to have a history that adds another layer of complexity to his motives for assisting in and encouraging the Emperor's cyborg draft to "aid" in finding an antidote to the letumosis plague raging across Earth. Captain Thorne reveals a sense of morality when tended by Cress's affection. And Wolf proves his fierce loyalty when Scarlet is taken prisoner by Queen Levana's chief counsel.

All the while, Meyer weaves in themes relevant to modern teens sorting out their views on immigration policy (Cinder's society wishes to ban or segregate cyborgs), security and privacy (Queen Levana has hidden cameras on Earth that deliver information to her on Luna). The framework of these stories owes a debt to fairy tales, but as readers delve more deeply, they discover subtle commentary on the structure of society and may use the questions raised in the stories to examine its core assumptions and values.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Never in Doubt

Sally Gardner

Like Roald Dahl, Sally Gardner writes of adult cruelty to children in such a way that the child's welfare is never in doubt in Operation Bunny: The First Case, illustrated by David Roberts, the launch title in the Wings & Co. series.

Emily Vole is a resourceful, smart child with survivor instincts, and there's no question of her innate goodness. She wants to escape from the laundry room of her adoptive household safely, and leave her neglectful adoptive parents, the Dashwoods, behind. Like Harry Potter, Emily discovers that she has a higher calling. She's the Keeper of the Keys, with the ability to restore the fairy world--if she can outwit Harpella, a witch with a vengeance for fairies.

Emily does not seek revenge on her cruel adoptive parents, but rather, acknowledging Mrs. Dashwood's blindness to her triplet daughters' evil ways and the woman's myopic efforts to restore them to their previous horrid personalities (after Harpella steals their souls), Emily incorporates Mrs. Dashwood's unique traits in her plot to overthrow the witch Harpella. Indeed the battle between the two women (each a witch in her own way) is one of the funniest scenes of the novel. Gardner cloaks her conflicts in humor, so they never feel that threatening, and David Roberts's comical drawings emphasize the Vaudevillian air.

The author taps into the secret desire many readers have to believe that magic exists in our everyday world, and her fairy characters offer credence to that desire. They are running the police department and solving mysteries, and residing with cats. Her book has the classic underpinnings of a fairy tale, but with original plot twists and large doses of humor. Best of all, Emily's ultimate triumph over evil is never in doubt.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Less Is More

The simplicity of Nest by Jorey Hurley is astonishing--the spareness of the art, and the economy of language. Just 14 words describe an entire cycle of life, from the building of the nest for a newly laid egg, to that new life maturing, finding a mate and beginning its own family. One word per spread completes the story.

Over the years that I have been in children's books, I have heard many adults cavalierly say that they "have a picture book" they've written. Usually people with little experience reading them to children or studying them to see what makes the successful ones a success and the misfires a misfire. A great picture book is like a fine poem: every word counts.

Interior from Nest by Jorey Hurley
In Nest, all 14 words count. Because Jorey Hurley is also the book's artist, she can choreograph each word's placement on the page, drawing a child's eye to where she wants them to pay the most attention. Many of the words she chooses do double duty, as both noun and verb or adjective and verb. "Nest" is the place the mother and father robin watch over their sky-blue egg; it also describes what they do when they protect their egg. In the spring, "warm" refers to the quality of rain that falls around them and also to the activity of the mother incubating her egg. When the tree where the robins live bears fruit, the fruit provides a "feast"; it's also a word that means to eat, which they do in the illustration.

As a child lives with the book and returns to it for multiple readings, and as his or her experience of the world widens, these double meanings start to become clear, and the book feels new to the child. Children begin to wonder, what other discoveries can I make? What other ideas are here, hidden on the page (who's holding the other end of the kite on the "surprise" page in Nest, for instance)? What other books of mine have these secret revelations awaiting my newfound understanding of the world? That might not be quite how the child would put it, but these are the connections he or she is making. Most importantly, children begin to see that books are a way to unlock life's mysteries.