Review: The Last Little Blue Envelope

 The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson. HarperCollins. 2010. Review from ARC from ALA Midwinter.

The Plot: In Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny Blackstone was left thirteen envelopes by her late aunt, resulting in a tour of Europe that pushed Ginny outside her comfort zone and gave her some insight and understanding into the life of her Aunt Peg. Unfortunately, it all ended with the unopened thirteenth envelope was stolen.

It’s a few months later and Ginny is in her senior year, trying to figure out her future as well as to keep living the lessons she learned over the summer. To her surprise, she is contacted by a stranger who has found the stolen envelopes … and a new adventure begins.

The Good: I’m sure I’m not the only one who threw Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes across the room when the last envelope was stolen. ARGH. And while I understood and it made perfect sense for the book, I still was very ARGH about it. So I was pleased as punch when I heard that there was going to be a sequel and my torment would end.

Yes, this is a sequel, so yes, I recommend reading the first book first. I read the first one when it came out and yes, I forgot some of the key points and no doubt my reading experience would have been richer had I reread the book. But, I didn’t, and I still enjoyed it.

Ginny is hilarious. I love her observations and internal commentary on what is happening. From early on in the book: “She looked at the calendar she had made for herself out of sticky notes on the wall next to her desk. Today’s note read: Sunday, December 12: FINISH ESSAY!!!!! NO, SERIOUSLY, THIS TIME FINISH THE ESSAY!!!!! And a few lines down, the due date: January 5. She pulled it off the wall and tossed it into the trash. Shut up, note. She didn’t take orders from anything that had a glue strip.” The whole book is like this; so if you’re looking for smart humor, read The Last Little Blue Envelope. (Which, for some reason, I keep wanting to call The Thirteenth Envelope.)

The mysterious Oliver contacts Ginny about the found letters; he is all and “come to London now if you want your letters back.” Kind of like Aunt Peg was to Ginny: “do what I say in the blue envelopes.” Ginny takes her winter holiday break to go to London, stay with her Aunt Peg’s husband, and, honestly, to see Keith, her “kind of something” flirty-kissy friend she met in the first book. And, yes, to get the envelope. It all turns out to be exactly what Ginny planned… and nothing like Ginny planned. The last envelope contains new directions that send Ginny to a mix of new and old places, and this time she has friends to keep her company. 

By the end of this book, I was resolved to start saving my money immediately to go to London, Paris, Dublin, and the other places Ginny visits. Johnson does a spectacular job of conveying a range of settings, in a way that makes you wish you were there. Except, I wouldn’t stay in hostels. Unless I had my own bathroom and my own bedroom.

Oliver and Keith are two very different, very interesting boys with a realistic mix of good and bad characteristics. Both, at times, do things that make you want to hit them — you know, a back of the head “thwap.” Both, at times, do things that make you go “awwww”. Neither is perfect. To say much more would give away those things I enjoyed learning for myself, so I will leave other readers the joy (and sorrow) of reading it themselves.

One quibble I had about the first book was that the free-spirited, artsy Aunt wanted to shake up her niece’s world and make her niece more free-spirited and artsy and did so by providing specific rules and “to do”s. On one level, it worked in that Ginny is the type of girl who needed that push and needed, well, those specifics. Also, since Aunt Peg wasn’t going to be around to do it in person — to take Ginny on a spontaneous tour of Europe — she was trying to do the next best thing. At the time, I told myself “this is the conceit of the book. Accept it, move along.” Still, it was a bit too “planned spontaneity.”

I was really pleased that halfway through The Last Little Blue Envelope, one of the characters raises some of the exact questions I had: “”Those rules, they were a bit mental.” “Did you ever think that she expected you to break some of them?”Maybe you like all the rules, the backtracking, the games.” I liked someone in text thinking what I had, and also leading me to new answers, such as Aunt Peg knowing Ginny would enjoy the game-aspect of the letters. Ginny didn’t just need that guidance; she wanted it. Aunt Peg knew her niece. And knew how to reach out and give Ginny what she needed and wanted.

I had forgotten how much of the first book was about art, creation of art, and the way an artist looks at the world. Aunt Peg’s last letter to Ginny is as much about giving Ginny a quest as it is about giving Ginny some training and education on art. Actually, I have a theory about that… when more people have read, let’s discuss.

Subterranean YA Issue

The Subterranean Special YA Issue is here! Subterranean publishes horror, suspense, and dark mystery (also known as all the genres that make Liz happy.) You may recognize the publisher from the not-for-children picture book, The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle. (Which, by the way, my ten year old niece loved.)

This special issue was guest edited by Gwenda Bond, and the table of contents is pretty sweet. Malinda Lo, Kelly Link, and Sarah Rees Brennan are just to a few of the writers whose stories are included.

Gwenda’s introduction and some of the stories are up and available to read; as Gwenda explains, new stories will be added weekly until the issue is complete.

Review: Rot & Ruin

Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry. Simon & Schuster. 2010. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Benny Imura has turned fifteen, which means he has to get a job or lose half his rations. Morningside and its inhabitants have survived the First Night of the zombies and fourteen years later, the zombies still moan outside the town’s fences. Benny tries a number of different jobs; he manages to find something wrong with each one of them until he has no choice but to become his brother’s apprentice.

His brother, Tom Imura, is a professional zombie killer. Benny knows it won’t be exciting; he knows Tom isn’t as brave as people think. Tom never talks about killing zombies, doesn’t boast about daring feats like the other bounty hunters, Charlie and the Hammer.

Tom takes Benny beyond the fence, into the Rot and Ruin. Turns out, almost everything Benny thought, about zombies, humans, and even about First Night, was wrong.

The Good: Rot & Ruin begins humorously, with Ben and his slacker friend Lou Chong trying job after job. Locksmith, because even bedroom doors need locks on both sides… in case someone dies, becomes a zombie, and turns on his family in the night. The zombies of Rot & Ruin are the type that, with death, lose coordination and planning.  Also, the dead always rise, not just the ones that were bitten by zombies. Locksmith is actually a bit boring and, well, unnecessary as zombie’s usually can’t even turn a door knob. Then there’s Carpet Coat salesman, because carpet coats are so thick they hold up well against zombie bites. They hold up so well pretty much everyone already has one. Funny, yes — but always lurking in the background are the zombies. Benny’s saga of job-seeking not only establishes Benny’s character, it is also a terrific way to show the reader Benny’s world, a world of zombies, of isolation, of Benny thinking the way he lives is normal.

Benny’s journey with Tom outside the gate is the actual, physical journey of hunting zombies — and even that phrase, “hunting zombies,” turns out to not mean what Benny thought it was. It is the journey of Tom and Benny becoming brothers. Finally, it is Benny’s journey from child to adulthood as he learns the truth about the world and those he thought were heroes and cowards. That journey is scary and violent and action packed.

Maberry examines the question — what will life be like for that first generation of survivors? Rot & Ruin is set safely away from the actual events of First Night and the months that immediately followed, the months of running and fighting until the town that would be Mountainside was founded. Benny knew (or thought he knew) his own story: his father a zombie, his frightened mother shoving her toddler son into the arms of his older half-brother with the one word: “go.” Now, there are houses with cisterns for water and trade routes between the isolated towns. Now, there are fences to keep the zombies out. Now, the people who live behind the fences can almost — almost — forget.

Rot & Ruin also addresses the fact that the dead were once alive, and not just alive but loved ones. Family. Father, mother, child, sibling. After running, after survival, how does a person handle that their loved one is out there? Erosion artists, one of the jobs Benny flirts with, creates zombified pictures of relatives.

How does surviving zombies impact people? Does it make them kinder? Traumatized? Do they value life more, or less? Benny is forced out of his teen slackerhood into adulthood, forced to make these decisions out in the Rot and Ruin.

I am thrilled to say that there is a sequel coming this summer, Dust & Decay.

Because zombies aren’t in this book just because they’re the latest cool thing. Because zombies manage to be both terrifying and sad. Because Tom Imura is an amazing zombie fighter, even if it takes a while for Benny to realize it. Because I am as  haunted as Benny by the Lost Girl, the human child surviving beyond the fence. Because after I read this, I went into my kitchen to try to figure out how much food I’d have when First Night struck and realized, at most, I’d last a few months. Because of all this, Rot & Ruin is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

Some book extras. As Bookshelves of Doom says, “the pages practically turn themselves.”

YALSA Nonfiction: Purpose

The purpose of the YALSA Nonfiction Award:

The award will:

  • Recognize the best in the field of nonfiction books (at this time, only books will be considered for the award) materials for young adults
  • Promote the growing number of nonfiction books published for young adults
  • Inspire wider readership in the genre
  • Give recognition to the importance of the genre
  • Position YALSA as an authority in the field of nonfiction for young adults

Five points here. Note that the purposes are both to recognize and promote nonfiction books for teens. By so recognizing and promoting, YALSA positions itself as an authority.

This is pretty straightforward. Next week: Charge!

Three Cups of Pennies

I have to confess, I have never read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. I use “confess,” because Three Cups of Tea is one of those books that was “you must read” / “what do you mean, you didn’t read it”. And, I didn’t. Not my cup of tea. (Groan).

My main knowledge of Mortenson before last week was from the Pennies for Peace program, a program embraced by schools and libraries. Those who use the Collaborative Summer Reading Program materials will find information on using that program and summer reading. (I’m writing this from home, so don’t have access to those materials. Monday night I’ll edit with specifics). (Disclaimer: my state is one of those that had libraries that participated in Pennies for Peace.)

Because of Pennies for Peace, it was with great interest that I followed last week’s news reports about misstatements found in Mortenson’s books and allegations about misuse of funds from his charities, both Central Asia Institute  (CAI) and Pennies for Peace. I watched the 60 Minutes report, Questions Over Greg Mortenson’s Stories and bought and read Jon Krakauer’s expose, Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian, Lost his Way (excuse the link to Amazon. Krakauer’s article is part of the new Byliner Originals website, which will have original writing and articles like Three Cups of Deceit. For a few days, the article was available for free; now it costs $2.99 and is only available via Kindle editions. I gladly paid $2.99 to read on my iPhone using the Kindle App.) I’ve read through the various statements listed on the CAI homepage. I’ve read some of the responses, such as What Mortenson Got Wrong at the New Yorker, Greg Mortenson’s Dizzying Fall From Grace at the Guardian, and Three Cups of Tea, Spilled by Nick Kristof at The New York Times; and posts like Three Cups of Tea Author Lied for All The Right Reasons (The Stir, a Cafe Mom blog).

For those of you who haven’t heard, in a nutshell, what 60 Minutes and Krakauer allege (and I urge you to watch and read them yourselves, rather than relying on another’s interpretation): Three Cups of Tea contains fictional events presented as fact, including changing the village that was first promised a school; the finances of CAI, Pennies for Peace, and Mortenson individually are co-mingled to a confusing and overreaching degree and the monies raised are not used as represented by CAI and Pennies for Peace; schools that were built are not as they are represented by Mortenson and CAI; and a school was built to provide the Three Cups of Tea sequel, Stones into Schools, a satisfying narrative.

Personally, the questions I am most interested in seeing answered have to do with the Pennies for Peace program and what happened (and is happening) with those contributions.

As a reader, I’m curious about the issues of truth in memoir. Ashley Judd wrote a memoir of her childhood, All That is Bitter and Sweet, and her mother’s response was that she honored her daughter’s reality. That is a pretty respectful way to address that question of whose truth appears in a memoir. Krakauer’s report, however, is far more damning than a difference in interpretation of events. Rather, it’s about Mortenson changing what happened in order to make it a better story, to make it more compelling, to make the reader respond. And, for Stones into Schools, it’s about creating facts — creating a school — so that a book can say “and then we created the school!”

As a former lawyer, I am fascinated and appalled by the management and finances of CAI, as put forth by 60 Minutes and Krakauer.

What also intrigues me is the question of gurus; of those people whose personality is so overwhelming that things aren’t questioned, questions aren’t asked, and when they are asked, are dismissed because how can you say this about someone who has done such and thus? How much is forgiven when the person is likable? Has done some good? I mean, really — no one noticed that Mortenson wrote about seeing Mother Teresa’s corpse after she died, and using the wrong year of her death, to point to one factual inaccuracy. Gurus aren’t only in charities; they are in publishing, in the library world, in many places.

What does it say about us that so many people fell hard for Mortenson and his story? That the defenses include “even if it’s true….” So even if it’s true that the pennies from schoolchildren paid for private jets, it’s OK because…well, because it’s Greg? Because he has raised awareness of education in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The Atlantic, in the Magical Myth of Instant Development, delves further into why Mortenson’s story is appealing, and Two Cups Short of Full Service (Easily Distracted blog, by Timothy Burke) offers more insight. Reading all this also makes me wonder…. why schools? No, really — is formal, traditional schooling like we have in the US really the answer, the blueprint, for everywhere?

As my friend Jone asked on Twitter, what is a librarian to do with the Mortenson books now? How do we respond to patrons’ questions? What about ourselves — do we need the “instant development” myth so badly that we will believe when the next individual comes up, or is it possible to become wiser about those myths?

Review: Tofu Quilt

Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell. Lee & Low Books. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

It’s About: Poems tell the story of Yeung Ying growing up in Hong Kong, from age five to twelve.

The Good: The poetry is simple but not simplistic; a tremendous amount is conveyed in a handful of words.

Yeung Ying first learns the power of story, of words, in several ways: as a small child, memorizing poetry brings the reward of dan lai, a special custard. She writes letters for her grandmother, is read stories by her teachers, and an older cousin says she could be a writer when she grows up. In short but powerful poems, one year a teacher makes her believe her dream is possible by saying “great work” and displaying her poetry while another teacher crushes her by calling a story the “worst story in the class.” Luckily, another year brings a teacher who praises her work and restores her confidence leading to Yeung Ying submitting a story to a paper. It is accepted: she is on her way.

Tofu Quilt is not just the story of a girl becoming a writer; it is also about a girl getting an education. Set in the 1960s, Yeung Ying’s family is repeatedly told by family and friends that educating a girl is a waste of money. The money could be spent elsewhere, Yeung Ying could be working to bring in money. Yeung Ying’s mother stands up repeatedly for her daughter, providing the schooling that makes it possible for Yeung Ying’s dreams to come true. While sexism is the primary reason for relatives counseling against the wisdom of educating a girl, another reason is that Yeung Ying’s family doesn’t have much money. Her father is a tailor and some times, work is good, like when American soldiers come over from Vietnam. Other times, not so much. Russel relates the family closing the door to avoid gossips seeing what they are and aren’t eating, and the “tofu quilt” her father makes from leftover fabric scraps.  

At the same time, Russel is portraying the worlds of Hong Kong and China. Yeung Ying writes letters for family members, because they cannot get visas to travel to see each other. Other details of life and politics are provided, creating a vibrant look at Yeung Ying’s world.

What age? I would recommend this to readers from third grade to sixth. The language, and Yeung Ying’s age, makes this appealing to the younger age group, while the topics (education, sexism, writing, career) have an appeal to the older readers.

New Jersey Library Association

More blatant self promotion!

I will be presenting at two different sessions for the NJLA Library Conference, both on Tuesday, May 3:

Best of the Best Fiction for Young Adults, 1:30 to 2:20, with Bonnie Kunkel & Sharon Rawlins. Bonnie, Sharon and I will booktalk our top favorites among the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults winners(formerly the Best Books for Young Adults.)

Accessible Story Hours and Programs, 4:30 to 5:20, with Jennifer Servello. I’ll discuss accessible storyhours and programs for children and families who are blind or low vision, including book recommendations, as well as using tactile graphics and other materials. Jen will talk about what to do (and not do) when working with an American Sign Language interpreter for a story or program. This will be a packed fifty minutes, as this topic could easily be an all-day workshop.

Hope to see you there!

Review: Family

Family by Micol Ostow. Egmont USA. 2011. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Melinda Jensen is seventeen, lost and broken, looking to be healed. She goes to San Francisco where she is found and made whole by Henry. He is her answer, her salvation, a promise. He brings her into his family, a family of people whose bonds are created not by blood but by wanting to be together. What is more beautiful, what is more healing, what is more hopeful than that?

But blood will come. Because Henry is both more and less than what Mel wants and needs. Eventually she will realize that Henry is broken, that Henry is not giving but taking. What she sees as beauty and healing is a lie. By that time, though, there will be blood and it may be too late.  

The Good: Melinda, Henry, the family. As the publisher’s website explains, Family is a “fictionalized exploration of cult dynamics, loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969.”  Ostow uses fiction, verse, repetition and a fractured timeline to help the reader understand  how and why someone could fall under another’s spell so completely that they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. It may use the broad bones of the summer of 1969, but it could any cult, any guru, any strong personality who captivates and betrays.

When Mel meets Henry, she has fled “uncle Jack” and his abuse, and she hasn’t eaten in days. Henry offers coffee, understanding, and shelter as well as drugs and sex. “Henry says there is no before, and He knows how to bring me to the now. He is magic, alchemy. chemistry. soothing serum, an elixir. He offers potions, medicines to break down inside my body, invade my cells. my mind sparks and my limbs loosen.” Already, Henry is “He”. Already, he knows just how to connect to this broken girl.

Make no doubt, Mel is already broken. Upon her arrival in San Francisco, “I was tired, the sort of tired that creeps into your spine. I wanted to sit. no, I wanted more than that: I wanted some sort of infinity.” Henry does not break her, he just takes and gives her what she wants (belonging) while hiding that he is using her and her pain. My own heart breaks for Mel, for how she has been shattered, and knowing how the people she turns to for infinity — Henry and his girls, Leila and Shelly and the others — will betray her, just like her uncle Jack and her mother.

The reader only ever knows Mel’s story. Hints of Henry’s is also given, a story of being sold for a beer — “you wouldn’t believe the sorts of things that some people throw away.” Henry, Mel, all the others, have been thrown away. Shelly had been a stripper when she met Henry. Leila’s smile is “closed and mysterious, like she’d read your diary or visited you in  your dreams at night. like she knew your dirty secrets.” Mel doesn’t know Junior’s story but knows that if he is with the family, with Henry, “he is broken. must be broken.”

On page one, Mel says “I have always been broken,” and on page two “my hands are streaked with blood that is not my own. my hands are streaked with blood, and there is screaming.” Pages are turned with the question not being whether there will be an upcoming slaughter (it will happen, the blood is not her own) but whether Mel will ever be complete enough to stop betraying herself.

When I was younger, I read an excerpt of Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins in my grandparent’s Readers’ Digest. What I remember most is feeling horror, horror not just at what was done but also the fear of somehow being caught up in such a nightmare as the person doing it, dipping a towel in blood. The terror of losing oneself so completely, and finding oneself doing the unthinkable. Family explores just how a person gets to that point in a way that is devastating.

The book jumps in time, repeating words and paragraphs, reflecting Mel’s own sense of being fractured and trying to make her self and her story complete and whole. Mel at age six, Mel at 12, Mel meeting Henry, Mel and Shelly, Mel and blood, all is jumbled and mixed and twisted and turned, sometimes repeated. Even knowing what is happening, what will happen, what has happened — the blood — the reader hopes against hope that it will not end in blood.

The reader familiar with the Manson Family will no doubt try to see parallels to that story. Henry, of course, is Charlie; is Junior Tex? Is Shelly Sadie or Squeaky or a little of both? Who is Melinda and how far will she go? Fictionalizing the story of the girls who joined the Manson family allows Ostow to look at the greater truth of why someone would voluntarily join such a group, rather than be caught up in the individual stories of the real life young women who lost their futures by following Charlie.  Ultimately, in Family, the answers given are the ones for Mel. Personally, it is hard for me to think of Charles Manson as anything other than Charles Manson. I can look at a photo of Ted Bundy and think, “yes, he was attractive,” but Manson —  no. All I see is someone scary and frightening. Ostow’s Family allows a reader like me to not have a knee-jerk “no” reaction to Henry, because the book, and Mel’s actions, hinge entirely on the reader believing that Mel would believe in Henry. And yes… I believed. I believed Mel would believe.

Because the language is deceptively simple. Because phrases haunt me. Because I want, so desperately, for Mel to find herself. Because I found sympathy for the most unsympathetic actions. Family is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

YALSA Nonfiction: Definition

The Definition for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults (which I’m going to just start calling the YALSA Nonfiction Award): “An award for the best nonfiction book published for young adults (ages 12-18) during a November 1 – October 31 publishing year.”

One sentence, but wowza, look how much is in it!

First, the best nonfiction books published for young adults. An adult book with teen appeal? Go nominate it for the Alex Awards.

Second, “young adults” are defined as between twelve and eighteen. (For those who don’t like the technical term “young adults,” and I agree, it’s not one that is used by those who are “young adults,” what other term would work for this age group? “Teens” excludes twelve year olds and includes those who are nineteen.)

Third, look at that time frame! November 1 to October 31. I’m not sure if there are any other awards that have this particular time frame.

Next week: Purpose!

Best of YALS

…and “all about me.” And, a lot of smart, talented people.

Megan Fink has edited a terrific book for YALSA, Teen Read Week and Teen Tech Week: Tips and Resources for YALSA’s Initiatives (ALA, 2011). It’s the first edition of the planned Best of YALS series. From the book jacket: “For the first time, YALSA has compiled the best YALS articles on teen reading and teen information literacy into one volume, Teen Read Week and Teen Tech Week: Tips and Resources for YALSA’s Initiatives, launching its new Best of YALS series. Editor Megan Fink, middle school librarian at the Charlotte Country Day School and a former Teen Read Week chair, selected articles to form a manual that will offer guidance to librarians planning their annual events, with advice on best practices, collection development, outreach and marketing, program ideas and more.”

As you can see from the Table of Contents, one of the YALS articles included is mine! Easy on the Eyes: Large Print Books for Teens which appeared in Young Adult Library Services (YALS): The Official Journal of the YALSA, Vol. 8 No. 1 (Fall 2009): 18-19.

If you want to read more about me talking about large print books and teens, check out Large as Life: Large Print Publishing in 2011 by Gwenda Bond (Publishers Weekly, Vol. 258 Issue 14 04/04/2011) and  The Importance of Large Print YA (and How To Promote It) at YA Library UK.

Disclaimers: I received a complimentary copy of Teen Read Week and Teen Tech Week as payment for the inclusion of my article. Megan Fink and I are both on the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Committee.