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Giants Beware!Giants Beware! by Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre. Graphic novels aren’t my favorites for reading aloud, but I was so excited about this one that I read it aloud to my son. (I read about it on Charlotte’s Library as well as PW.) Even the toddler, normally impatient with my reading to Brother instead of her, was captivated by the bright, vivacious drawings. Active Claudette is incensed when she learns that the hero of her small town did not kill the baby-feet eating giant that plagued it in years past. Even though the giant has been banished to the mountains and the city is safely enclosed within walls, she decides that it’s up to her to slay the giant. She’s the kind of kid who makes up her mind first and thinks through the problems second, if at all. Her first task is convincing her best friend, Marie, a would-be princess, and her little brother Gaston, a chef who dreams of being a sword smith, to come along. This she does by telling them that their ambitions will of course be fulfilled if they come along. They must all then get around Claudette and Gaston’s father, Augustine, the local sword-smith, crippled from a fight with a dragon years ago, and his assistant, the massive, wise and black Zubair, whose words about the foolishness of monster fighting go right over Claudette’s head. Their journey leads them through the Forest of Death, over (or perhaps also through) the Mad River, and up into the mountains. Meanwhile, the Baron of the village, Claudette’s father, leads a party of reluctant villagers in pursuit of the children, while Augustine and Zubair take up a more enthusiastic chase, though slowed by Augustine’s wheelchair. Each one of the children finds that their particular skills will be needed to get them out of one scrape or another along the way. By the end, the quest is accomplished, even if the goal has changed along the way. Claudette has also learned important lessons about the usefulness both of force and telling the truth. These are clear without being preachy or getting in the way of the fabulous adventure. Giants Beware! is a great counter-example to the truism that boys will only read about boys – yes, Gaston is a boy, but Claudette is clearly the reckless adventure-seeker here, and her drive kept my boy enthralled. This is going to the top of my list of good all-ages graphic novels to give both to people who love them already and to people (I keep finding them) who aren’t yet convinced that real literature can come in graphic form.
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I read this book because it won this year’s Printz Award for Young Adult Literature. Here I take a very small moment to note that the winners of all three of the ALA awards that I pay the most attention to – the Newbery, Printz, and Odyssey – were this year by and about males. I am torn between thinking that books by men are already over-recognized and over-reviewed, and thinking that having strong boy books could help combat the notion that only books for girls get published any more.

Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. Cullen Witter, aged 17, lives in the small town of Lily, Arkansas. His best friends are his younger brother Gabriel and Lucas, a very popular boy who manages to spend large amounts of time with Cullen without altering either of their popularity scores (Cullen’s: dismal. Lucas’s: very high.) One of Cullen’s pastimes is writing down titles for books he might someday write, and the narrative switches charmingly between Cullen’s first-person casual narrative of passing events and his more formal and somehow funnier third-person reflections on what has just happened. Many things are happening. Cullen’s slightly older cousin has just died of a drug overdose. A man who seems to Cullen and his small gang clearly to be a charlatan has come to Lily claiming to have seen a living Lord God Bird, a very large woodpecker believed to be extinct. Many tourists follow, hoping to see it. Lucas sets Cullen up on a date with Alma Ember, a recent graduate of the high school, who left Lily, married, divorced, and returned. Even though Cullen has an enormous crush on the prettiest girl in school (of course already dating the biggest and meanest boy in the school) and feels odd dating an older woman, he agrees, in order to go on the double date that Lucas so clearly has his heart set on. And then Gabriel disappears into the blue, leaving everyone adrift. Weeks go by with no news, and the family and their friends struggle to carry on and to know whether or not they should give up hope. Alternating with this main story is the story of Benton Sage, a young man eager to please his uncompromising father, who tries and fails at mission work in Africa and then goes to college. He becomes obsessed with the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and involves his roommate in this obsession. The characters in the Lily, Arkansas part of the story seemed just slightly quirkier regular humans – Ada Taylor’s curse of having her boyfriends die off, for example. By contrast, something about the characters and the storytelling style of the Benton Sage plot line seemed a little stiff and unreal, so that for most of the book I thought that we were reading Cullen’s novel-in-progress. Then the stories intersected and I had to revise everything that I had thought about it. There are some very serious topics addressed here, like the balance of sanity and insanity in the face of extreme grief. “Where Things Come Back” seems to refer both to hoped-for returns like the Lord God bird, and the return of people like Alma who hoped to get out of Lily and end up coming right back home. Somehow, perhaps due to copious amounts of under-aged if not graphically described sex, and definitely Cullen’s sense of humor, the book manages to feel, if not light, a whole lot lighter than I’d expect a book with one missing and a couple of dead teens to be. These are topics that I normally try to avoid, but I found myself enjoying this book, rooting for the characters and hoping that Gabriel would come back.

Cross-posted to and .
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Usually, when the year’s Newbury-award-winning book is announced, I check to see whether I’ve read it or not, and add it to my mental “to read” list if I haven’t. I will note that a mental list is very good for avoiding stress and guilt for not keeping up with the reading, but not so good at actually getting the books read. This year, I put the Newbury and Caldecott books on hold right away, and am currently listening to one of the Odyssey books (for best childrens audio) with the boy. (The actual winner of the Odyssey, Rotters is all about corpse robbing, and therefore not for me.)

Dead End in NorveltDead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. It’s 1962 in Norvelt, a Pennsylvania town founded as a self-sufficient homestead community by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Depression. Now, in 1962, the original residents are slowly dying off – all women, as the men died of black lung from working in the mines much earlier.When I first started this book, about a boy named Jack Gantos growing up in the same town as author Jack Gantos, I was prepared for another thoughtful and moving but ultimately somewhat boring book about growing up in a slow, long-ago time. The start felt a tad slow to me, as young Jack gets in trouble for accidentally firing a Japanese WWII rifle that he hadn’t thought was loaded at the local drive-in screen. One of his major entertainments seems to watching war movies from his yard using binoculars. Maybe not boring for boys, but boring for me. The tension ramps up for Jack as his father orders him to mow down his mother’s treasured field of corn for feeding the poor, with the upshot that Jack is grounded for the summer. His big project is digging a bomb shelter and a runway for the old fighter plane his father is trying to fix up. This plane and destruction building the runway causes are symptomatic of the tension between Jack’s mother, who was born in Norvelt and loves it, and his father, who wasn’t and who considers it a dead-end town to be escaped. The only time Jack is allowed to leave the house is to help one of the original residents, the former town nurse, Miss Volker, type obituaries of the others as they pass, as Miss Volker is too arthritic to do so. Long ago, she promised to marry Mr. Spizz, the tricycle-riding town sheriff, when all of these ladies were dead, and he never lets her forget it. Additional color comes from the nosebleeds Jack gets whenever he is frightened, from his best friend Bunny, a fierce Small Person who is the daughter of the local mortician, and the unexpected death by truck of a strange Hells Angel. All of these elements weave together into a story that has lots of over-the-top gross humor combined with nostalgia and sorrow at the ending of a utopia as well as good old-fashioned kid fun. Spoiler – the old ladies turn out to be dying of unnatural causes, and somehow, this is mostly treated as something to laugh at. This treatment makes the book lighter for the grade-school readers it’s aimed at, but I still found the casualness the murders were treated with a little horrifying. For those who can get past this, this book has enough excitement to pull a reader in as well as enough meat to leave the reader with something to think about.

Cross-posted to and .
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This one was recommended by Colleen over at Chasing Ray – thanks, Colleen!

12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn 12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn by James Proimos Herc was nicknamed Hercules by his father when he was six. But his father has just died in a plane crash. He was a popular self-help expert, loved by his audience, but a terrible father. Herc, definitely up there on the difficult teen scale, gives this eulogy at the funeral: “He was an ass. My father was a complete and total ass.” Following this, and no doubt further trying incidents at home, his mother ships Herc off to his uncle in Baltimore for two weeks. In the train on the way there, he sits by a Beautiful, Unattainable Woman who is reading Winnie the Pooh. When she leaves the book behind, he determines to track her down to return it. Meanwhile, his uncle, busy working long hours, gives him, like the Hercules of legend, twelve tasks to accomplish: Choose a mission. Find the best pizza joint in town. Clean out the garage. Muck the stalls at Riverbend farm. Read a complete book under a tree. Go to a place of worship and pray. Go on seven job interviews. Spend the day thinking big thoughts. Write them down. Eat a meal with a stranger. Make your uncle something. Recite a poem at Blake’s Coffee shop Midnight Poetry Reading. Complete your mission. Somehow, the force of his uncle’s personality is enough that Herc goes with it, forming most of the book.

There are, in my opinion, way too many Dead Parent teen books, but this is one of the good ones. Despite the potentially depressing premise, this is hilarious, with short, active chapters. In fact, the whole book is really short at only 128 pages, which makes it perfect for reluctant teen readers. The tasks seem random and he accomplishes them in ways that are definitely more surface-oriented than serious - but Herc manages to sort through his tangled feelings for his father along the way. And who could resist his discomfiture at finding out that the woman of his dreams is named Thelma or the job interviews at entry-level jobs where he makes up different punning names suitable to the job for each one (wishing I had the book here for quotes now.) In any case, this is one certainly to read for pleasure and also to put in the hands of teens who need something fast and fun that still packs a wallop.

Cross-posted to and .
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Dear readers,
I very much apologize for my spotty posting as of late. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, but these three factors are probably influencing things:

1. My deep dark secret (but totally legal according to work) is that I write these posts in slow moments between patrons on the reference (or youth or reader’s advisory) desks at work. Slow moments seem to have been few and far between of late.
2. Various health concerns (but! Minor and ordinary!) have kept little L. up at night recently. Somehow, my brain seems to have a lot more difficulty putting a coherent post together on less than six hours of sleep a night.
3. Lightning Bolt has now officially been diagnosed with dyslexia, which means that my to-read shelf is now crowded with titles like The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child and The Twice Exceptional Child, as well as needing to re-read The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. I dunno – are any of you, dear readers, interested in reviews of dyslexia books? I was thinking not, but let me know.
4. Tiredness and reading more professional book blogs leading to inferiority complexes regarding my little hobby blog. I have more followers that I know about on my little new Pinterest account than on the blog I've been posting mostly faithfully to for the last eight years. Hard to even put that in print, but there it is.

Anyway, I have been reading some more fun stuff, so here’s a bit.

The Ruins of Gorlan

Ranger’s Apprentice. Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan. By John Flanagan. Narrated by John Keating. Will has grown up an orphan, raised in a group of foundlings sponsored by the Baron at Castle Redmont. Now all five of them are 15, and it is Choosing Day, time for them to be chosen as apprentices. Will is small and mischievous, but, believing that his father was a hero knight who died in the battle against the evil Morgarath, his dearest wish is to go to Battleschool and train to be a knight himself. All the other four foundlings are given their wishes, but Will is apprenticed to the Ranger Halt. Rangers are mysterious and much distrusted, even suspected of using black magic. Will is less than thrilled about this assignment, but as the alternative is field labor, he takes it. Of course the apprenticeship itself is lots of hard work, taking care of the menial tasks around the Ranger’s cabin as well as learning volumes of new things. He is learning things like tracking, how to stay hidden moving or holding still, how to use range weapons and to stay out of the line of battle if possible. The Rangers, it turns out, are spies of sort, spending their time in the wilds and small villages in and around the kingdom, keeping track both of political tides and the lay of the physical land. They are, in short, very cool, in a subtle way completely opposed to the flashy, bashy knights. Early on, Will’s story alternates with that of his rival from the castle, the big boy who made it to Battleschool. This boy is bullied very badly, and then takes it out on Will whenever they meet. In a plot turn that seemed inevitable from the beginning, events conspire to make these two the best of friends. Eventually he will proceed to help Halt and a former apprentice defeat some new monsters that Morgarath has sent forth in his latest bid for power.

I listened to this book on my own to see if it would be appropriate to share with my son, now seven, who loves all kinds of epic fantasy and battle-type things. And I came to the conclusion: he would love it. I am not comfortable sharing it for another couple of years at least, solely due to the strong and bullying subplot. That bullying was described in great and painful detail over multiple episodes. It was eventually resolved by Halt allowing Will to beat up on the bullies. While this is probably a very satisfying resolution for kids who have been bullied, it doesn’t seem a good solution to me. I don’t want to go on with the series myself without knowing that those types of unpleasant events wouldn’t continue. I felt with the five friends that Flanagan was assembling a crack gaming party, with a varied assortment of characters, each exceptionally good in a different area. None of these have yet been tapped in this first book, but there are ten books in the series, and I’m sure there are seeds for future plot points that I missed.

Despite my gut negative reaction to the bullying, it isn’t really any more violent than many other teen books, and there are a lot of good points to this book. It’s got constant action paired with a strong and likeable main character. Even though Will and his friends are all Above Average and it’s a fantasy, the skills are all ones that exist and could be useful in our world – no simple wand-waving. This series is aimed squarely at teen and perhaps pre-teen boys. Although most of the characters are boys, two of the five foundlings are girls, and they are given real, important careers as well, making it less gender-imbalanced than, say, LOTR. So far, there’s only the smallest hint of romance. All in all, not quite a series for me, but definitely one I’ll keep in mind for teen patrons and maybe even my son down the road a bit.

Cross-posted to and .


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