Dear Susan Cooper,

January 21, 2010

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper – 232 pages

“When Will Stanton wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers an unbelievable gift — he is immortal. Bemused and terrified, he finds he is the last of the Old Ones, magical men and women sworn to protect the world from the source of evil, the Dark.

At once Will is plunged into a quest to find six magical Signs to aid the powers of the Light. Six medallions — iron, bronze, wood, water, fire, and stone — created and hidden by the Old Ones centuries ago. But the Dark has sent out the Rider: evil cloaked in black, mounted upon a midnight stallion, and on the hunt for this youngest Old One, Will. He must find the six great Signs before the Dark can rise, for an epic battle between good and evil approaches.”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Greenwitch – Susan Cooper – 148 pages

“The Dark has stolen an object of great power — a golden grail that holds a vital secret. Will embarks on a new quest to reclaim the grail, and to drive back the Dark once again. But first he will need the help of three former grail seekers: Jane, Simon, and Barney Drew.

Learning to work together, they must take back the grail and retrieve the missing manuscript that unlocks its mystical secret. But the manuscript is located at the bottom of the sea, and their only hope of obtaining both grail and script is entangled in the mysterious ritual of the Greenwitch….”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

The Grey King – Susan Cooper – 224 pages

“With the final battle between the Light and the Dark soon approaching, Will sets out on a quest to call for aid. Hidden within the Welsh hills is a magical harp that he must use to wake the Sleepers – six noble riders who have slept for centuries.

But an illness has robbed Will of nearly all his knowledge of the Old Ones, and he is left only with a broken riddle to guide him in his task. As Will travels blindly through the hills, his journey will bring him face-to-face with the most powerful Lord of the Dark – the Grey King. The King holds the harp and Sleepers within his lands, and there has yet to be a force strong enough to tear them from his grasp…”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

Though it might be a little overwhelming to read, I thought it might be more logical to write about these three installations in The Dark is Rising Sequence all at once (since I read them mostly in a row).

After Over Sea, Under Stone, I was intrigued but still not entirely certain I was going to love this series as much as people said I should.  Still, I tried to keep an open mind, and was rewarded reading The Dark is Rising.  I found I liked Will much more than I liked the Drew children–he had more of a mind of his own, was a little less childlike and, being an Old One, was rather more precocious than the Drews.  I always enjoy that in protagonists, and Will was very endearing.  I liked his spunk, and this book kept me on the edge of my seat much more than the first.  I also found that I didn’t mind the sensation that I was reading well-used fantasy tropes; again, perhaps at the time this was written, they weren’t so well-used, but in any case Will’s strength as a character cast the whole plot in a more enjoyable light.  Five stars for this one, yay Will!!

Greenwitch was something of a mix for me.  The presence of Will in the story again was delightful, though I found myself wishing it were told from his perspective; still, from a writing standpoint I understand why it was told instead through the eyes of the Drew children.  I liked them better in this one–perhaps because they got smarter, got used to danger and the mysteries surrounding them, and perhaps because I found the plot of this book to be especially intriguing.  The Greenwitch itself was fascinating; the bit about its construction reminded me a bit of the sort of sacred, nature-oriented magic and mystery of The Mists of Avalon and its many companion books, and the parts that happened underwater brought to mind Diane Duane’s Deep Wizardry.  Overall,  think that since the Drews finally started to grow on me in this book, it gets five stars.

Of course, I should have known that a series this famous and well-loved would only keep getting better, and The Grey King proved it to me.  I mean, wow!  Talk about suspense.  And Will is fantastic in this book, I love him even more than before.  You’ve succeeded in creating danger that felt really real to me, too, which is sometimes hard to accomplish.  Sure, I can get invested in fantasy danger, but it takes a special kind of threat to make me actually get nervous and rush through pages because I have to know if the protagonist makes it out okay.  That’s what this book did to me.  I’m actually sort of putting off reading the final book, because this one was so enjoyable, and it’ll be nice to go back to this series after reading some other stuff to draw the experience out a little!  Five stars once again, and I look forward to reviewing the final book!

Love,

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Dear S.E. Hinton,

January 15, 2010

Some of Tim’s Stories – S.E. Hinton – 160 pages

“…a profound and wry compilation of fourteen short stories. Terry and Mike are cousins whose families are almost seamlessly intertwined. Raised as close as brothers and living happy childhoods, neither one thinks of what can go wrong. But the unexpected deaths of both their fathers catapult their lives in two very different directions. Terry finds trouble with the law, while Mike lives his life racked with guilt and sadness. In her first book in four years… S. E. Hinton gives readers a gritty view of how one incident, one tragedy, affects two boys very differently, and changes their lives forever.”  –from US.PenguinGroup.com

I’ve always loved The Outsiders, and in fact I treasure a distinct memory of reading the whole book in one sitting for school in 6th grade, even though we’d been strenuously instructed not to read ahead of the single chapter we were assigned.  I did that a lot, but I was pretty good at playing dumb about the content of the rest of the books.  Anyway, though The Outsiders is dear to me, I’ve never read any of your other work.  Out of the blue I decided to change that, and picked up Some of Tim’s Stories.  I’m extremely glad I did.

What a captivating little book!  I’m a sucker for connected-but-separate short stories, like the ones in this collection, and was drawn in at once by your plain, stark prose and by Mike and Terry’s personalities.  I mean, talk about craftsmanship. You really know how to spin a tale, weaving all the threads together and making it look easy, while still keeping it so blessedly simple.  Though the subject matter was sometimes poignant or saddening, these stories were really a treat.  You have a deft touch, and reading your work now was just as satisfying as when I read rebelliously ahead in The Outsiders some fifteen years ago.  Five stars.

Love,

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Dear Nahoko Uehashi, Cathy Hirano and Yuko Shimizu,

January 14, 2010

Moribito II:  Guardian of the Darkness – Nahoko Uehashi, trans. Cathy Hirano, illust. Yuko Shimizu – 272 pages

“For many years, through countless fights, Balsa has survived. The evil King Rogsam tried to kill her when she was only six. Eight assassins pursued her in the long flight that followed. But her mentor, Jiguro, protected her until his death, and then Balsa became a bodyguard herself, helping other people survive the challenges they face. When she returns to her native country of Kanbal, she hopes to see Jiguro’s family and her own for the first time in many years. But what should be a simple visit of truth and reconciliation becomes a fight for her life when she learns that King Rogsam framed Jiguro for the deaths of the eight assassins—as well as a crime that threatens the very existence of Kanbal. With the help of two Kanbalese children, Balsa must unwind the conspiracy surrounding Jiguro and the mystery of the Guardians of the Darkness, before it’s too late.”  –from ArthurALevineBooks.com

Ever since I picked up the first Moribito, Balsa has been a personal heroine who remains very close to my heart.  I think part of it is that though Moribito and now Moribito II are definitely YA, Balsa herself is very close to me in age.  She’s a young woman who isn’t old enough to settle down with the childhood friend who loves her, and who still has a lot of journeying to do before she figures out what she’s doing with herself, but she also isn’t young enough to be carefree.  In the first book, she started as a bodyguard to a runaway child prince, and wound up a little more maternal than I think she might have planned; in Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, she must face her past and shoulder the responsibility of redeeming her family and her dead sensei and guardian.  She walks the line between typical YA heroine and grown-up really nicely, in a way I can really identify with.

Anyway, I love Balsa, and I think by writing through a nearing-30-year-old protagonist, you’re capturing a kind of story that wouldn’t necessarily happen otherwise.  I read YA partly because I love stories of teens saving the day and doing things on their own and being capable, but this has a different (and entirely pleasant) feel.  That said, I wonder how Balsa comes off to a teen audience–do they care that she’s almost thirty?  Would someone who isn’t 27 herself not find it different?  I wonder.

This is turning into a very long ramble, but it’s because I really like this book, I love Balsa, and I find the translation really interesting.  I’m sure I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain quality of storytelling in YA I’ve read translated from Japanese that I find different from American YA lit, and I don’t know if it’s just the way any Japanese prose is when translated to English, or if it’s specific to what I’ve read…but it’s always a really different experience, sort of distant but still totally engaging at the same time.  Also, let’s not forget, the art was just as breathtaking in this volume as it was in the first–the whole design of the book is beautiful, and I want to shove it in the faces of everyone who owns a Kindle and say “here, look at this, can you get this on a machine?”

So, without a doubt, five stars again for you three and for Balsa!

Love,

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Dear Heather Henson and David Small,

January 10, 2010

That Book Woman – Heather Henson, illust. David Small – 32 pages

“Cal is not the readin’ type. Living way high up in the Appalachian Mountains, he’d rather help Pap plow or go out after wandering sheep than try some book learning. Nope. Cal does not want to sit stoney-still reading some chicken scratch. But that Book Woman keeps coming just the same. She comes in the rain. She comes in the snow. She comes right up the side of the mountain, and Cal knows that’s not easy riding. And all just to lend his sister some books. Why, that woman must be plain foolish — or is she braver than he ever thought?”  –from Books.SimonandSchuster.com

When I saw the cover of That Book Woman and recognized that lovely loose artistic style, I just had to pick it up.  Mr. Small, I’m a huge huge fan of your art, which I’m sure I’ve said before, because I’ve reviewed others of your books on this site.  Still, can’t hurt to say it again–your art, particularly the picturebooks, make me giddy with joy and extraordinarily jealous of the way your style makes it look so easy.  I know most good artists make their work look easy, but for some reason the kind of line you have and the way it flows makes me imagine that you just touch pen to paper and suddenly amazing things happen by some sort of crazy magic.

With the fangirling out of the way, now I can get on to what a visual pleasure this book is for me just in its own right.  The composition, full of wide pulled-back shots and extreme close-up foregrounds, keeps every page fresh and makes me really feel the wide open space, the distance from this hilltop cabin to any other kind of civilization.  The colors are understated and used in unexpected ways to great effect, and the overall messy sort of look is really endearing and evocative.  It matches the text, the pleasantly messy dialect, to a T.  (What a weird phrase, to a T.  Where on earth does it come from?  Hmm, I sense internet research in my future.)

Of course, the words are entirely brilliant too, Ms. Henson–it’s fairly rare to see a picturebook that’s written in free verse, when so much poetry for children is rhyming.  I love the measured way you and Cal tell his story, the gentle rocking flow that, in my head, mimics the trusty, steady motion of the Book Woman’s horse.  And what a truly fantastic message!  That books are as necessary for living as food and shelter, that encouraging a reader is worth such effort through hardship and the elements, and that a reader can be made out of anyone, if they only want to try it.  I want to meet the Book Woman, and have her bring books like this one to me.

When this book came up in mock Caldecott discussion with my book club last year, there were a variety of reactions–perhaps it isn’t everyone’s style–but I think it’s lovely and brilliant, and every time I re-read it I’m struck in some way by a detail of the art or by a turn of phrase that makes me glad I have it on my shelf.  Five stars from me, hooray for books!

Love,

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Dear Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont,

December 22, 2009

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed – Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont – 48 pages

“‘It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker,’ and here and there around the city ninety-two men and thirteen women are getting dressed to go to work. First they bathe and put on their underwear. Then they don special black-and-white apparel. Then when the one hundred and five people are completely ready, each takes a musical instrument and travels to midtown. There, at 8:30 tonight, they will work together:  playing.”  -from HarperCollins.com

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed is one of those oldies-but-goodies that I never read as a child, but wish I had, because I adore it so much as an adult.  As a bookseller, I appreciate it because it’s one of my go-to handsells when someone asks for a book about musical instruments (even though it’s not the “this is a cello, this is an oboe, this is a piccolo” sort of musical instruments book, it’s so charming that I always suggest it anyway).  As a reader and a children’s lit enthusiast, I love this book because it’s one of those classics that will never get old.  Unless, you know, hundreds of years from now the NY Philharmonic, or perhaps orchestras in general, have been replaced by robots or maybe just at-home digital/virtual concerts.  Let’s hope, though, that live orchestral music never becomes obsolete.

But I digress (as usual).  Ms. Kuskin, it pains me that I’m a couple of months too late for you to somehow read this, though I’ve no doubt you heard every kind of praise for this book and mine couldn’t possibly be anything new.  That won’t stop me from trying, though!  What’s so special about you, and your work on this book, is the crafted feel of the text.  You’ve written one of those perfect books, the kind that I could read again and again and never find any fault with.  Your prose is simple and spare, giving just enough information without clogging things up, and there’s a really beautifully understated rhythm and flow that just makes me giddy with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because you were also a poet–your skill in carefully choosing and molding words into verse served you equally well in creating exceptionally fine prose that looks easy, but undoubtedly wasn’t.

The other great thing about the text of this book is the story itself–you capture that lovely anticipatory feeling of preparing for a performance (a thrill I always look back on fondly), while also tapping into the natural curiosity of children, and people in general, about the offstage doings of onstage performers.  As if that wasn’t enough appeal, you also satisfy young children’s love of routine with this book–bathing, getting dressed, putting on coats and scarves and gloves, commuting, all things children and their parents do every day, but with the added intrigue of night-time, when most children are getting ready for bed.  How unusual, then, for these characters to be leaving their families at home and heading out into the dark to go to work!

And then, of course, there’s the brilliant art, telling the bits of the story the text doesn’t.  Mr. Simont, I’ve always loved your illustrations, and this book is no exception!  The clever hints of personality you inject into the orchestra members, and the delightful variety you manage to portray among a whole bunch of people all dressing to match each other makes every page something to pore over to catch all the details.  Your style is so fluid and charming, too, and the humor and visual variety of the musicians reminds me pleasantly of 101 Dalmatians and the procession of people who look like their dogs (at 4:52).  Your illustrations are busy without being at all overwhelming, frank and funny in your depiction of diverse bodies, bathing, and the hassles of underclothes, and evocative of the text in a way that makes me convinced your art was the perfect choice for Ms. Kuskin’s words.

The Philharmonic Gets Dressed is a fantastic blend of elements that will never lose it’s appeal for me, and hopefully will never lose it’s appeal for children, either.  You both made something wonderful here, and I’m so glad you did!  Five stars and a standing ovation.

Love,

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Books this year: 101

Pages this year: 20,330


Dear Steven Goldman,

December 9, 2009

Two Parties, One Tux (and a very short film about The Grapes of Wrath) – Steven Goldman – 320 pages

“Mitchell Wells may not survive eleventh grade. He really only has one friend, his best friend, David. His normally decent grade point average is in limbo due to a slightly violent, somewhat inappropriate Claymation film. And girls…well, does hanging out with his sister count? When David tells Mitchell he’s gay, Mitchell’s okay with it—but it still seems to change things. Since David’s not out to anyone else, the guys agree to be set up with prom dates. But then one of the most popular girls in school decides she must date Mitchell, and he goes from zero to two girlfriends in sixty seconds. From his pending English grade to his floundering friendship to his love life (the one thing that’s taken a bizarre turn for the better), Mitchell is so confused, he’ll be lucky if he lasts another week in high school. And then there’s the prom….” – from BloomsburyKids.com

As much as I try not to, I find that I do judge books by their covers, which is why I didn’t pick up Two Parties, One Tux until it came out in paperback.  The silly-looking hardcover that I hadn’t glanced twice at suddenly seemed moderately interesting–then I read the back, and decided it sounded like a fun time.  Lucky thing I did, or I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year!

It’s hard to make a slice-of-life school story like this one stick out among all the other school stories out there, but your prose is light and has great flow, your characters are both witty and adorably awkward by turns, and your portrayal of the way high school can either squelch the will to learn out of a kid or drive them to sudden bouts of possibly-rule-breaking creativity (or sometimes both at once) reminds me so much of my own experience that I found myself picturing these scenes happening at my old alma mater. (Katie, if you’re reading this post, I hope you’re thinking of the bridge of ronk right now, and maybe also Wheel of Jeopardopaly.)

You’ve written a real gem here, one that I think is flying a bit under the radar, and I can only hope more people take notice of it soon.  Five stars for you!

Love,

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Books this year: 100

Pages this year: 20,282


Dear Mem Fox and Leo and Diane Dillon,

December 2, 2009

The Goblin and the Empty Chair – Mem Fox and Leo & Diane Dillon – 32 pages

The goblin hides his face and keeps to himself, so as not to frighten anyone–but when he stumbles upon a suffering farm family, he helps ease their load by night, in secret.  The goblin doesn’t realize that the family has seen his efforts until they offer their thanks in the best way they can.

Whew, it was hard to summarize this book without giving too much away.  The Goblin and the Empty Chair is just the sort of evocative story I’d expect from this particular collaboration, and the perfect book to get me back into the swing of regular reviewing.  The prose is masterful, simple and repetitive without being boring or babyish, with an air of mystery and a lot of subtlety; the art picks up all sorts of hints and cues from the text and brings them fully to life, while adding story of its own.  A really good picturebook is a mixture of art and text that don’t tell the whole story when separated, and you’ve created a perfect example of that!

Of course, it helps that I’m a sucker for stories about humble tragic heroes and human kindness, which is just what this one is, and I’m also a huge Dillon fan.  The little girl reminds me pleasantly of Wise Child, and I love the little friezes along the tops of the illustrations, and the whole thing is just an achievement in visual/textual storytelling.  You all rock my socks.  Five stars!

Oh, and this reading of the book is just AWESOME–but I wish those great friezes were shown along with the main illustrations!  This would have made a great Reading Rainbow book.  (LeVar, I miss you on tv.)

Love,

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Books this year: 99

Pages this year: 19,962