Do You Read the Winners?

And the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is:

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata!

As you may remember, my predictions were:

“What I think will win: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

What I want to win: Picture Me Gone”

From my review about The Thing About Luck: “What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.

One thing I love about the NBA — it makes me read books I otherwise may not have. So I’m glad that the NBA Award will bring even more readers to Kadohata’s books.

One thing I’ve sometimes heard about awards such as this — and the ALA ones — and other ones — is “but do kids care?”

Here’s the weird thing about books. The way that readers find their way to books — that books find the way to readers — would defy even the powers of Sherlock Holmes. A book recommendation is from a friend — ask that friend, and the thread goes from friend to relative to friend and ends, where? Reviews and awards. Because someone reads about the awards, reads the book, tells other people, buys it for their library, displays it in their bookstore, adds it to reading lists, booktalks it, and those people tell friends and along the way, if ever, the “I read it because it won” gets lost.

As you can see, my belief is that the awards have power, it’s just that readers don’t always realize it.

What do you think, about awards and readers?




Flashback November 2006

And now, a look at what I reviewed back in November 2006!

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner. From my review: “Kate used to have a job and a life. OK, it was as a glorified gossip columnist, but it was fun! Now she’s an at-home mom, stuck in the suburbs; but to make things oh so worse, everyone around her is a Martha Stewart mom (you know, hand made baby food, elaborate birthday parties, dress as if they are in a magazine.) Basically, she’s the Odd Girl Out in a land of Queen Bees. To make matters worse, her husband is convinced that Kate should be one of these Stepford moms and gets angry that Kate doesn’t try to “fit in.” Things get interesting when Kate finds one of those oh-so-perfect moms dead in her own kitchen; and Kate cannot help herself. She wants to find out who did it; and as she does so, she discovers the dark underside of the suburbs.”

Babymouse: Beach Babe and Babymouse: Rock Star by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. From my review: “Babymouse has some of the best daydreams, ever.

Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot. From my review: “Lizzie has just graduated college and is off to spend an exciting summer with her boyfriend, Andrew. Except, well, sometimes, Lizzie sees things the way she wants to. For example, she hasn’t graduated because there’s one more major paper she needs to finish. And “boyfriend” seems to be a strong word for a guy she met the day before he returned to England. When reality intrudes on fantasy and Lizzie can no longer ignore that Andrew is just an Andy, she takes off to meet some friends in France. Upset, she babbles away to a stranger on a train, sharing all her troubles. Except the stranger? He’s the guy her friends are staying with. It’s a perfect college/ twenty-something book, and I am insanely jealous. Not that Meg Cabot wrote this and I did not (tho, yeah, that too) but that publishers are finally recognizing this demographic and publishing things just for this age group. I would have loved books like this in my 20s; and obviously, while I still read and enjoy them (and the books that involve romance for people closer to my age), it’s always nice to have a book that is about your stage of life. Here, the post-college questioning years, that will also be enjoyed by those still in school.”

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson. From my review: “Octavian is raised in an odd house where only he and his mother, a princess in exile, have names. He is educated and dressed in silks; but something odd is going on and he’s not sure what it is. There is a forbidden room, and once Octavian enters and learns of his true place in the world, he can never return to innocence. . . . I began with absolutely no spoilers, and for a while thought I was reading Gothic fantasy; after a few chapters I realized it was historical fiction set during the Revolutionary War, and that it was realistic fiction. Why fantasy? The fact that Octavian and his mother are royalty in exile; that there is a bit of the fantastic to their lush life; but that there is something horrible lurking in the corners.

The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen. From my review: “This is Bruen’s third book featuring Jack Taylor, a disgraced ex-cop living in Galway. When he is sober, he works as a private detective. When he isn’t sober, he works as a private detective…and he’s almost as good as when he’s sober. . . .  I love, love love these books featuring Jack Taylor. . . . This book is so harsh and uncompromising about Jack that “love” seems too soft a word to use. But I do; I love the harsh matter of factness; I love Jack’s love of drink and drugs and his total unrepentance. It’s refreshing, in its bleakness. Perhaps I have read one too many young adult issue books, where there are tears and rehab and a reason for the behavior (Mommy was mean, Daddy was overly nice, the mean girls are mean, my parents expected too much, no one understands….). Jack doesn’t hide behind excuses or reasons; he simply is what he is. A drunk, who will plan, this is when I need to be sober, and then this is when I can get so drunk I won’t know my own name.”

Snip Snap What’s That? by Mara Bergman, illustrated by Nick Maland. From my review: “An alligator chases kids; the kids are scared and run away; finally, there’s no place left to run.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. From my review: “Liesel’s foster father is Hans Huberman; and let me say, how nice it was to have a father figure who is a truly good man. Not a molester or monster or pedophile, but a good, kind man; maybe not very rich; maybe coarse; but good. Rosa, the mother, is almost more complex than Hans; someone who on the surface would be labelled as abusive, but is a caring woman who does not express it in the words we use today, but shows it again and again in her actions. And Liesel and Hans understand this about Rosa. There is no romance of childhood; no looking down at adulthood; it is also astonishing, in the way it portrays what would today be called abusive parents, as loving parents. Most modern books would equate Rosa’s roughness and hitting with no love; would equate it with hate; would say that only one type of parental love is acceptable. The Book Thief recognizes seeing where love is, in all its many places, both pretty and rough, expected and unexpected, rather than insisting love come in only one flavor, one emotion, one thought.

Drizzle of Yesteryears And Other Stories by M.K. Ajay. From my review: “This is a collection of short stories about people “from Pambunkavu, a fictional village situated in the Malabar region of Kerala, a southern Indian state,” and is divided into two parts: At Home and In Exile. . . . I enjoyed this collection of short stories. They were exactly that; short stories, glimpses into the lives of assorted men and women of different ages; some traditional, some modern, usually just a handful of pages long. Many had a twist or surprise ending. Yes, there were words I didn’t know; but it didn’t interfere with understanding these stories.

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld. From my review: “A modern look at vampires; Cal is affected, but as a carrier without any of the symptoms. Which meant he has infected others. And those infected ones are not as lucky as he is; meaning that they change, they hunt, they kill. And it’s up to Cal to find them; and stop them. And he also wants to find the woman who infected him. . . . Westerfeld’s take on vampires and vampirism is that it’s about parasites; and to prove his point the book contains a lot of real science about parasites. Let me just say: gross, gross, gross. Yet also very fascinating. After reading this book, I almost wanted to move into a bubble… but then came the part in the book about how escaping parasites can also kill you.”

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith. From my review: “Jenna (a modern girl of Muscogee (Creek) and Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe) descent) wishes she could be a jingle dancer like her grandmother. She studies a video of her grandmother dancing; and then, to get the jingles needed for her dress, visits various friends and relatives, asking for a few jingles. She borrows just a few from each, so that their own dresses remain able to jingle; and by borrowing from many, is able to make her own dress.

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko. From my review: “It’s 1935, and Moose, 12, has just moved with his family. But this isn’t another new kid in town book, because Moose’s new town is Alcatraz. That’s right; the family has moved to the Island that houses the infamous prison. Moose’s father is a prison guard; and it’s prison policy that guards (and other employees), along with their families, live on the Island. Why move your family to a prison with murderers and criminals like Al Capone? It’s the Depression; so it’s not a bad job at all. Plus, there’s Moose’s sister Natalie. Something is wrong with Natalie, and it’s the last hope of Moose’s desperate mother that a school in nearby San Francisco will do something magical to make Natalie well.

Who Is Melvin Bubble? by Nick Bruel. From my review: “Who is Melvin Bubble? If you want plot-driven picture books, this is not for you. Jimmy asks the author to write a book about his friend, Melvin Bubble; and here, the assorted people in Melvin’s life answer the question: Who Is Melvin Bubble?”

Olivia Forms A Band by Ian Falconer. From my review: “Am I the only one who jumps for joy when there’s a new Olivia book?

Disney Cuties Project Bedroom by Apple Jordan. Random House. From my review: “It’s a pretty typical bedroom decorating book, aimed at children ages six and up. It’s short, with things like the “cuties quiz” to help create a “room that screams YOU.“”

Nancy Drew, Girl Detective: The Haunted Dollhouse graphic novel based on the series by Carolyn Keene, by Stefan Petrucha & Sho Murase. From my review: “Nancy Drew’s home town is celebrating “Nostalgia Week,” so they ‘re going to dress and party as if it were 1930. When crime scenes mysteriously appear in an antique dollhouse, and then come true, Nancy has a mystery to solve. Of course, a doll Nancy soon appears in peril in the haunted dollhouse. . . . The Haunted Dollhouse is a good place for an adult like myself to start, because it’s a celebration of Original Nancy. Since it’s Nostalgia Week, GN Nancy is decked out like Original Nancy, with roadster and vintage clothes. The book is also full of in-jokes and references that would only be known by someone who knows about Nancy; for example, there is a Stratemeyer Foundation. I loved it; and these types of references struck me as very typical of graphic novels. And it’s not just Nancy Drew History; there’s also references to prior female detectives such as Anne Rodway.

Peter Pan by James Barrie. From my review: “I loved reading this book as an adult; and I adore Peter. Not because he is adorable; but because he is so honest and brutal and self-involved. He is a real child, who hasn’t been glamorized or sanctified, at least not by Barrie. Peter is “gay and innocent and heartless.” And it is in that heartlessness that Peter is so such a wonderful creation, because I’m not sure how many books are so heartless themselves in viewing children. It is this heartlessness that I didn’t recognize as a child in my reading of the text, probably because of being heartless myself so not recognizing Peter as being anything other than a typical child; but I see it now. And think that it’s must reading as an adult. (Makes me think those who say Peter Pan is fun and uplifting haven’t read the book as a grownup.) Part of my adoring him includes, at times, being afraid of him and what he is capable of.”

The Sphere of Secrets, Book II of the Oracle Prophecies by Catherine Fisher. From my review: “In The Oracle Betrayed, Mirany, a priestess, and Seth, a scribe, managed to get the true Archon (the child Alexos). In this sequel, we find that getting the true Archon in power hasn’t solved all the problems; the political corruption that almost led to a false Archon remain, and a drought has led to instability and the possibility of invasion. Alexos/Archon decides he must go to the Well of Songs to restore order and save his people. . . .  As with any quest, Archon must go alone; but alone turns out to include Seth, Oblek (a drunken musician who helped last time), and the dangerous Jackal, a Egyptian lord and secret tomb thief. . . . Mirany, meanwhile, has to remain back home. Her hands are full, because while nine young women serve the Oracle, only Mirany appears to truly be in contact with the god and to have faith in Alexos. . . . Hey, it’s the Tolkien rule: split up your merry band in book two! So we get two stories: Road Trip with Action Boys, While Pretty Girl handles Politics.

Review: Mad Girl’s Love Song

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Personal copy. One of my “vacation reads” — books for the grown ups, reviewed around holidays, when you may want to take time off from reading young adult books.

It’s About: Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes in 1956. Which means, a close examination of Plath’s childhood, college years, and first months in England.

The Good: I’m working my way through the 2013 books on Sylvia Plath; this past August I reviewed Pain, Parties, Work, about Plath’s New York City summer in 1953, before her suicide attempt. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a slightly broader look at Plath — the years before 1956 — and next I’ll be reading American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. While I’m approaching these three books in a particular way — start small and focused and moving to books covering larger time periods — for those new to Plath’s biography and works, I’d recommend the opposite reading order.

So, Mad Girl’s Love Song! By focusing on the pre 1956 years, Wilson gets the chance to really dive into the details of Plath’s adolescence and college years — into what made Plath. It also creates a focus on certain aspects of Plath’s life that, I think, get lost in books that cover her entire life.

On the one hand, Plath had a privileged upbringing. She went to a terrific high school, and then a top college. She had opportunities and encouragement. From the start, she looked to publish her work and did publish.

On the other hand, the Plath family financial background was such that those things did not come easily. After Plath’s father died, her mother selected a town to move to based on both the school system and possible college opportunities. The family valued education, yes, but did not have money or any real connections. Part of her mother’s sacrifice in selecting the right, the perfect, town for her children was sharing a home with her own parents. The house they lived in was so small, that Plath and her mother shared a bedroom.

People can read things different ways — but being that family, the family where you share a room with a parent, with the working mother and grandfather — of course, Plath felt the pressure of expectation to make all these sacrifices worthwhile. As Mad Girl’s Love Song explores, Plath was aware of what was being done for herself, as well as her brother. She worried about money and finances. Yes, she had scholarships, but there was no margin of error in her college studies — scholarships could be lost. And, of course, being on scholarship at a prestigious school meant she was surrounded by those who were much more well off than she was. Plath was grateful and thankful and resentful.

Mad Girl’s Love Song also provides a look at the 1953 suicide attempt, and what lead up to it, and what happened after. The problem with looking at this time in Plath’s life is that, well, who knows what Plath’s current diagnosis would be? What does what we know now influence how we look at Plath’s life and actions? What are things she did or didn’t do because of her mental state, as opposed to the result of being a driven woman in a time that didn’t allow many avenues for female ambition?

As I said in my review of Pain, Parties, Work, I watch and read things set in the 1950s and think of Plath. Did you know that the fictional Betty Draper was born the same year as Plath? And like Plath, attended a Seven Sisters college?

I think of Betty (and think of Plath when I watch Mad Men) when I see and read about Plath’s romances. Her number of boyfriends and relationships, often overlapping, and what it meant within the context of the 1950s — it shows another side of her character that can be lost when the biography centers more on her life with her husband. How did Plath define herself and her world around her? And what does that have to do with the suicide attempt and her treatment? What about the push-pull of her world and her own desires, a world where the Betty Drapers were the success stories? And it’s all the more tricky because Plath documented so much, so well — but also presented different “selves” to different people, and no “one” presentation was the “real” one.

Which brings us to something else about Mad Girl’s Love Song. Sometimes, the biographies written just after a person dies are the most honest and raw because the memory is fresh. But, sometimes, there are still people who are being protected; there are people who are too close to the event and the person to even talk, let alone talk honestly. Time passes; Plath has now been dead for 50 years. Wilson includes much more detailed insight into Plath, from the people in her life, which I hadn’t read before.

Other reviews: The New York Times; The Telegraph; P. H. Davies.


Voices in My Head at Booklist

Over the summer, I spoke with Mary Burkey about audiobooks for her Voices in My Head column at Booklist.

Here’s a tease: “Burns agrees that it’s positive news that the audiobook industry is growing. “It’s good news for people who are print disabled—those who need audiobooks because of blindness, physical handicaps (which leave them unable to hold books or turn pages), or reading difficulties. The bad news is that it is still not a level ‘reading field.’ Not every book is available or accessible for these patrons.”

There’s a lot more at the article about ways to get accessible technology and audiobooks. You can read the whole article at Burkey’s Voices In My Head column in the September 15, 2013 issue of Booklist.

It’s also available online.

One thing that’s not in the article, because it happened late September: the National Library Service for the Blind and Handicapped now has an app, the BARD Mobile App, so that their collection of audiobooks and Braille can easily be downloaded, listened to, and read via iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch).

Review: Obsidian Mirror

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher. Dial Books for Younger Readers, a member of Penguin Group. 2013. Library copy.

The Plot: Time travel with a magical mirror.

You want more?

There are also the Shee. You know, the cold blooded not-human beings of legend who steal human children and never really age.

You want more?

A present-day boy searching for his father and a future girl looking for a way to save her world.

Did I mention the time travel?

The Good: Did I mention the time travel?

Jake Wilde has deliberately gotten himself expelled from boarding school and sent to Wintercombe Abbey, the home of his enigmatic guardian, Oberon Venn. A teacher is his reluctant guardian on the trip home, but no worries there. It’s Venn’s home, not Jake’s. And Jake has no intention of running away. He wants to confront Venn, convinced Venn has murdered Jake’s father.

Sarah is running. The Replicant is chasing her. She is alone, running, determined. She has a goal: Wintercombe Abbey. And she has a mission. Wintercombe Abbey is familiar, even though it’s not the place she remembers. She talks herself into a job so she can stay and find what she seeks.

Oberon Venn is surprised to see Jake. And when Sarah shows up, he isn’t sure who she is but he thinks he can use her. Oberon Venn is, you see, a man with a mission. His beloved wife is dead. So what to do? Find a way to travel through time to prevent it from happening. Jake’s father, Venn’s loyal friend, was involved.

I don’t want to give too much away about these overlapping stories —  but I really loved how it wove together. Not only is Venn researching time travel, using the Obsidian Mirror, but Sarah has traveled through time to stop him. While she is vague about sharing the details of her own dystopian future, one thing is clear: the cause is the mirror. Destroy the mirror, save the world. So, as you can see, Jake, Venn, and Sarah have competing interests. Jake, to find his father; Venn, to change the past and save his wife; Sarah, to change the future. Not only are there interests in conflict with each other, no one quite knows all the secrets to the Mirror and how it works. So it’s not as simple as finding the Mirror. It’s not as simple as possessing the Mirror.

As you can imagine, this means that there are peaks at Sarah’s future; Jake’s present; and a trip or two to the past as Venn tries to control the mirror.

But wait, you ask, what about the Shee?

All of this time travel stuff — what you might call the science fantasy aspect of the book — is played out against what is happening on the grounds of Wintercombe Abbey. A place where the Shee live, including the Queen of the Wood, and an ageless (or only slowly aging) human, Gideon — a child taken hundreds of years ago. Venn is aware of them; knows about them; and I loved this odd mash up of genre and expectation.

Oh, and trust me: it may seem that I have given too much away. Trust me, I have not. There is still plenty of reveals and plot twists for you to uncover on your own. There is the Scarred Man! And Mortimer Dee! And Moll! My favorite may be Moll.

The Obsidian Mirror has a sequel, The Slanted Worlds, coming out in March.

Other reviews:  Forever Young Adult; The New York Times; The Book Smugglers.

Flashback to November 2008

It’s time to look back at what I reviewed in November 2008!

Hip Hop Speaks to Children with CD: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat (A Poetry Speaks Experience)edited by Nikki Giovanni. From my review: “Giovanni’s introduction reads like poetry: “When humans were beginning to develop our own language, separate from the growls and howls, separate from the buzz and the bird songs, we used rhythm: A sound and a silence. With no silence, the sound is cacophonous. With no sound, the silence is a lonely owl flapping her wings against the midnight sun seeking a careless mouse.””

Madam President by Lane Smith. From my review: “A young girl imagines her life as President of the United States. Some of my favorite (fictional) Presidents are women. President PowersPresident Roslin( OK, not President of the US. But still.) And now Katy, who not only wants to be President — she lives her life as if she were President. She’s confident.”

Round Up Of NBA Short List

I’ve now had the opportunity to read and review all five books on the National Book Awards Shortlist for Young People’s Literature!


The Young People’s Literature list:

Kathi AppeltThe True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster). My review. “Appelt is telling us a story, and it’s written as if someone is indeed telling me a story and there was something that just felt so right about that. Comforting or safe — no, those aren’t the right words. Rather, it was the coziness of feeling as if someone was sitting next to me, sharing. It made the story seem personal; it made it seem mine.”

Cynthia KadohataThe Thing About Luck (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster). My review. “What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.”

Tom McNealFar Far Away (Alfred A. Knopf/Random House). My review. “Because there is a ghost, because the Finder of the Obvious has a name out of a child’s story, because the reader has been told about fairy tales over and over, for a few moments there I thought this would be a fantastical danger. I forgot that while Jacob is a ghost, or sees things from a nineteenth century perspective, Jeremy’s world is our world. The danger is not a witch or a dragon. It is a person. And a person can be the most dangerous thing of all. I thought, silly me, that since this was about fairy tales I would laugh a little. And I did. But I also cried, and was scared, and wondered at just how Jeremy could be delivered from the danger he was in because it seemed so hopeless.”

Meg RosoffPicture Me Gone (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Group USA). My review. “”Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” ”

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints (First Second/Macmillan). My review. “But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers.”

What do I think will win? What do I want to win?

Well, I love that there is a range of ages represented here. I also like that the Yang book was viewed as one text in two volumes — and that a graphic novel was included.

I love that there is fantasy and contemporary and historical fiction.

What I think will win: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

What I want to win: Picture Me Gone

What do you think?



Review: The Thing About Luck

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Julia Kuo. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Summer Miyamoto’s family has had bad luck the past year. Summer got malaria and was very sick; her grandmother is having painful back problems; her little brother’s only friend moved away. That doesn’t count things like flat tires. Or her parents having to fly to Japan to help take care of elderly relatives.

Summer and her brother, Jaz, are left with their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan. Bills must be paid, and money earned for the mortgage, so her grandparents are coming out of retirement to work the harvest. From May to October, the family will travel. Her grandfather will drive a combine, her grandmother will cook for the workers, and Summer will help her grandmother, watch over her younger brother, and do her homework.

The bad luck continues. Efforts to help Jaz make more friends backfire, Summer’s grandmother is demanding, and Summer begins to worry that her grandparents are no longer physically able to work the harvest. Can their bad luck change to good?

The Good: What a perfect middle grade book. Summer, 12, is a sympathetic heroine. When she got annoyed and frustrated with her younger brother and grandparents, I was right there with her. When she was embarrassing herself in front of her crush, I blushed for her. When she figured out a way to help her family, I cheered.

I also love how wonderfully balanced The Thing About Luck is, perfectly balanced as mirror and window. Summer is such a typical twelve year old, that readers will be able to identify with her. What may not be so typical? Her old-fashioned grandparents. Her grandmother, who hides her feelings with a brusque exterior. Her younger brother, whose anger issues shape how the family interacts with him. Her parents leaving for so long. And, of course, working the harvest. With the assistance of Julia Kuo’s illustrations, the whole process of “harvesting” a farm is explained. This is not an easy or simple job. It takes work and coordination. Anyone reading this book is going to look at their loaf of bread differently. And they may also think, “yes, I could run that combine…” because, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kadohata shares tons of details and explanations of why and how a harvest works.

Because Summer is telling the story, certain details are left out when Summer doesn’t know or it doesn’t matter. Take Jaz as an example. Jaz’s only friend just left. His grandparents decided the answer is to have a LEGO party, inviting all the boys in Jaz’s class. Invitations are sent. Only three say yes. No one shows up. (As an aside, the planning of the party perfectly illustrates the family dynamics. The grandparents doing what they think is right, as opposed to what the parents were doing. How the four individuals talk to each other and plan what happens. It’s a great opening chapter.)

At first it just seems that, well, Jaz has no friends. Slowly, over the course of the book, we learn more about Jaz. It’s more than him being “invisible” to others, the type of shy, introverted kid who has a tough time making friends. “Why doesn’t anybody like me?” he asks his sister. (Books about kids who don’t make friends easily and want friends and don’t have them, that’s my soft spot and it just makes me so sad.) And that’s when Summer mentions to the reader, “He had such a bad temper that when he was angry, he sometimes banged his head on a wall or whatever was handy. And he was weird because he would do things like one time he started singing a song in the middle of a test.

As Summer observes, her mother thinks the singing is cute, “but I doubted the kids in his class thought it was cute.” Later, Summer says that Jaz has been taken to doctors and there is no real diagnosis for Jaz, or at least not one her parents like. Instead, Summer is told to not make her brother angry.

It’s hard to know what, really, is Jaz’s story because this is Summer’s story and whatever she tells us is limited to her knowledge and world view. And that is part of why this is a perfect book because while I, as an adult, have questions about Jaz, most twelve year old readers won’t. What they will know is how unfair it feels that a younger sibling (or cousin or friend) “gets away” with things. Or that there is always a kid in class somehow like Jaz, who doesn’t fit in or has quirks. And they won’t care if it is or isn’t OCD or ADHD, etc. etc.

I loved how class and socioeconomics was addressed in The Thing About Luck. Summer’s family gets hired to work the harvest by people who own the combines. While Summer’s parents may want to go into business on their own one day, financially that would be tough. They are clearly the workers. Probably all you really need to know is that her grandparents, despite obvious poor health, are doing the work of people 40 years younger than themselves in order to make the money needed to pay the bills. Also – -and this is tossed off, as not important to Summer but the readers get it — Summer and her brother share a bedroom, small enough to require bunk beds.

The Parkers (the family they work for) are above them on the food chain, but they have to answer to the farmers who hire them. During the harvest, people are living in cramped trailers, eating meals together. How they all interact is fascinating to watch, especially considering the group of workers will be together, like a family, for several months. Don’t get me wrong, the Parkers are nice and friendly. They take the chance of hiring Summer’s grandparents. But it’s also their business. It’s not charity.

Summer’s grandparents were born in Japan; her mother, as well as Summer and her brother, were born in America. Details about their Japanese heritage, and what that means, are woven through the book. Some of it is when her grandparents talk about their own childhoods. Her grandmother is the group cook, so there’s also talk about food. And now, of course, I want to eat shabu-shabu. It’s not just Summer and her family; some of the workers on the team are Irish, and there’s a reference to craic that made me laugh.

The only problem I had with this book? It ended! Oh, don’t get me wrong — great ending. Perfect journey for Summer. But I want more!

Other Reviews: Twenty By Jenny; The New York Times; SonderBooks.

Review: Picture Me Gone

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Library copy. National Book Award short list.

The Plot: Twelve year old Mila and her father, Gil, are in New York, visiting her father’s friend and his family.

Or, rather, were supposed to be. Matthew has disappeared, and Mila and her father came anyway, and it is beyond awkward being in the house with Matthew’s wife, Suzanne, and baby son. Suzanne suggests that Matthew may be hiding at his cabin in upstate New York, so these two Londoners set off to see if they can find Matthew.

Mila learns a lot on this impromptu road trip with her father — about Matthew. About her father. About herself.

The Good: OK. Heads up. Two things.

First: I loved this book.

Second: The only way to talk about this book is to talk about the book in its entirety. So, yes, massive spoilers. I feel a bit guilty about that, because part of what I loved about the book is how it is told. Mila tells the story, and she boasts about how clear eyed and observant she is — and she is — but she shares certain information on her own schedule, as she deems it important. And, for all her powers of observation, she can also only tells us what she knows when she knows it.

Matthew’s disappearance is a mystery, and it’s a mystery that Mila solves, but I wouldn’t call Picture Me Gone a mystery. I wouldn’t add that little label to the spine. Instead, I’d say this is a book about secrets. Secrets kept and told, and what that means. And it’s about the biggest secret of all, that mysterious thing called “growing up.”

So, for me to get into the why I loved this, I want to talk about those secrets and what Mila tells us and when and what Mila discovers.

Mila is twelve. She’s a cherished only child. Her parents have their own lives and own love, so it’s not that she is made too important in their lives. Rather, it’s just important enough. I won’t say she’s spoiled, but she has the self confidence and self assurance that such a child has. And she is observant, and part of that may be because of who her parents are: both over 40 when she was born, her father is now close to sixty. He is a translator, so words and intent matter to him. A mother is a musician. Here, an early look at how Mila thinks: “This picture [of her father’s childhood dog] fills me with a deep sense of longing. Saudade, Gil would say. Portuguese. The longing for something loved and lost, something gone or unattainable.

Or Mila thinking about how Matthew has disappeared on his family: “The actual running away does not strike me as particularly strange. Most of us are held in place by a kind of centrifugal force. If for some reason the force stopped, we might all fly off in different directions. But what about the not coming back? Staying away is frightening and painful. And who would leave a baby? Even to me this seems extreme, a failure of love.

Up until the past year, she and her best friend Cat played involved make believe games involving spies and secrets. As Picture Me Gone starts, Cat is no longer her best friend, and instead is hanging out with other, older kids. It’s the start of Mila no longer being a child; and also the start of her beginning her journey out of childhood.

Here is the example of Mila saying what she thinks is important when she thinks it’s important. She mentions Matthew’s disappearance; she talks about Suzanne and the new baby and another son, Owen, who Mila met the last time she was in New York. That first night, Mila is given Owen’s room to sleep in, with all his things around her. At first, given the ages — Owen is a few years older than Mila — I think there is some story of a second marriage.

No. Owen is dead; had died three years before, when he was twelve. Mila says this so matter of fact, as if we knew. But, of course, the reader doesn’t. How Owen dies is also told on Mila’s timeline. It’s not that she was keeping secrets from the reader.

Talking about secrets — Mila and her father go to Matthew’s remote cabin and discover another secret. An old friend of both Matthew and Gil. A woman, Lynda. Not just any woman: a woman who, for a time, came between the two men. Lynda is with her fifteen year old son, Jake. A woman who Matthew is letting stay in his cabin, someone he sends money to. Mila, observant, quickly picks up on the reality that Jake is Matthew’s son; and that, since Jake is the age Owen would have been, Matthew had gotten both his girlfriend and his wife pregnant at the same time.

And then Mila finds out that it’s not the first time Matthew has disappeared. He disappeared after Owen’s death. In a car accident. Matthew was driving. Secrets and secrets, but so far, they are all other people’s secrets that Mila is discovering. Oh, she sees her father look at Lynda and realizes there was something once, between them. And seeing them, and meeting them, Mila begins to think of herself as someday not being a child. “Who will I grow up to be like? I wonder at what point a child becomes a person. . . . I can’t imagine living a real life, or how I’ll ever be an adult. . . . I cannot picture me grown up. I cannot picture me any different from the me I am now. I cannot picture me old or married or dead.

Mila discovers another secret, and it shatters her. And the secret — well, basically, it’s a lie. A lie both her parents have told her. A lie that, in all honesty, I don’t see as that big of a deal but to Mila, Mila who is twelve and believes in her parents, Mila who has been so privileged in her type of family: that there is even a lie shakes her faith in everything. Picture Me Gone is about that moment, of realization, of parents not being perfect; of things being bigger than oneself; of not being the center of the universe; and of growing up. “We are all woven together, like a piece of cloth, and we all support each other, for better or worse. Gabriel is just a baby but eventually he will see the world and his father as they are: imperfect, dangerous, peppered with betrayals and also with love.” And it’s not just about seeing the world: it’s Mila realizing that what she does or doesn’t do matters. “I will not always be happy, but perhaps, if I’m lucky, I will be spared the agony of adding pain to the world.” And it’s that realization, as the book ends, that marks Mila leaving childhood.

So, yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2013. It’s amazing, I love Mila, I love the language, I love how and when we are told things. (I wish there were punctuation to be clearer about dialogue, but that’s a minor point.) But, it’s not going to be easy to booktalk this one. Any suggestions?

Other reviews: Teen Librarian Toolbox; Things Mean a Lot; The New York Times.


Review: A Spark Unseen

A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron. Sequel to The Dark Unwinding. Scholastic. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: The 1850s. England. Katharine Tulman awakes to find someone trying to break into her room. She prevents the kidnapping of her Uncle Tully, but more threats to his safety and peace of mind come. What can she do?

She realizes has to leave the haven of Stranwyne Keep, her first real home. She has to leave England.

Among the property Katharine has inherited is a house in Paris. Paris, which also happens to be the last place that Lane Moreau was known to be.

Is anything ever that easy? Of course not. Katharine is still caught between the politics of two countries, England and France. She’s not sure who she can trust. Can she find Lane and keep those she loves safe?

The Good: As a quick recap of The Dark Unwinding: orphaned Katharine had been raised by her rather mean and nasty aunt. Katharine goes to her Uncle Tully’s at the request of her aunt, to assist in getting Tully committed; instead, Katharine finds a home and acceptance with Tully, his home, his workers, and even finds love with Lane. Tully acts like a child but is a genius inventor, spending most of his time making elaborate toys. (It’s never mentioned, but it sounds like Tully is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Both the French and English government wants to misuse Uncle Tully’s inventions to create weapons of war. By the end, it turns out Katharine is the true heir; she can take care of Uncle Tully and escape her aunt; and someone important to her dies in the struggle for Tully’s inventions. (The death so shocked me I still half-believe it didn’t really happen.)

Given those deaths, Katharine’s fears for Uncle Tully and others around her are well founded. It’s also important to note how alone Katharine had been before she met Tully, Lane and the others in her uncle’s household. She is driven to keep those close to her safe, because she isn’t use to having family and friends she loves.

Oh, a quick observation about Uncle Tully’s inventions. I’ve heard these books described as Steam Punk. Given the nature of Uncle Tully’s inventions, I’d say Electric Punk or Mechanical Punk makes more sense. I’m no expert, but they are based on real inventions of the time period just “amped up” a bit.

When Katharine arrives in Paris, there are other English people there, fleeing the cholera in England. In fact, her new next door neighbors are one such English family. The good news? It’s not anyone she knows. The bad news? One of their guests is Mrs. Hardcastle, a good friend of Katharine’s aunt. Yes, the same aunt who made her life so miserable. Mrs. Hardcastle and the neighbors actually adds a bit of humor to this adventure, because she is a bit of a nosy busybody and the whole family has no clue about what is “really” going on.

What is “really” going on? Katharine wants to find Lane, even though she’s been told he is dead. Katharine arrives in Paris with only two allies, her lawyer, Mr. Babcock, and her maid, Mary. She does find someone to help her, another friend of her next door neighbor, Mr. Marchand. While it would sound, at first, that finding a missing man is hardly an adventure, keep in mind that Lane was in Paris as an English spy, working against Napoleon III. Remember how the English government hasn’t been exactly nice to Katharine and her uncle. Whether it’s Katharine discovering the truth of Lane’s death, or Katharine finding Lane alive, Katharine is not safe.

What else to add? There’s a few threads and a bunch of characters going on, with the politics and spying, and Katharine never being quite sure who to trust yet having to work with people to find Lane. The house in Paris has a housekeeper, and another bit of fun (for me) and stress (for Katharine) is that the housekeeper and her family refuse to leave the house, no matter what Katharine says. Is the housekeeper a real threat, or just an annoying woman who refuses to listen to someone as young as Katharine? And, of course, there is also all the history, both “big” (we meet Napoleon III and learn a bit more about him!) and “small” (what was a Channel crossing like in the 1850s?)

I loved  how it all comes together at the end, almost like a puzzle box being put together to form one whole. Even what appears to be coincidence is not, it’s just a bigger picture than Katharine had realized.

Other reviews: Sarcasm and Lemons; Library of a Book Witch; Through the Looking Glass (this has some fun spoilers that are best read after reading A Spark Unseen).