Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Varjak Paw

Okay, I'm a little behind this week. Put away those eggs. This is a good book; you're not going to want to miss it.

Book: Varjak Paw
Author: S.F. Said
Published: 2003

Barely out of kittenhood, Varjak Paw's in big trouble. His owner, the elderly Contessa, has died and now he and his whole family are in the power of the eerie Gentleman and his strange black-eyed cats. What's worse, he's the only one who understands the danger. His parents and siblings are content to be fed funny-smelling caviar and stay locked up in the house, petted and pampered like true Mesopotamian Blues. Only Elder Paw, Varjak's grandfather, will help him escape the house so he can find the one thing that might scare the Gentleman into flight: a dog.

Once Varjak hits the streets, however, nothing is easy. He can't hunt, he doesn't actually know what a dog looks like, and he keeps running afoul of the feline street gangs that have divided the whole city into war zones. The only thing in the plus column is his dreams, where he travels to Mesopotamia to learn ancient catly fighting secrets from his ancestor, Jalal Paw. Still, learning is nothing if you can't master them. Can he stay alive long enough to rescue his family?

Cat-on-the-street has been done by everyone from Disney on up, but Said's book stands apart from the rest with his addition of Far East mysticism to Varjak's tale of survival. Also unlike many other cat-on-the-street books, humans have little to no effect on the story, other than the Gentleman. This is all cats, all the time, and the complex feline warfare leaves no room for those pesky humans. Varjak's courage in the face of danger and his own uncertainty will strike a chord with young readers.

What really bumps this book up to a creepy, absorbing saga with a near-mythic sweep is Dave McKean's amazing illustrations. His cats aren't fluffy and whiskery--they're sleek, angular streaks of fur, claws, and teeth. One gets the feeling that this is the way cats see themselves. Actually, seeing McKean's name on the cover is what made me pick this book up in the first place; I love his work with Neil Gaiman, including Coraline.

Said's text is a worthy match for McKean's illustrations. And definitely don't miss the sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw.

Monday, January 22, 2007

John Green Gets a Phone Call

Remember how in the post below, John Green's An Abundance of Katherines got a Printz honor award?

Through the magic of Web 2.0, we get to see John Green's reaction when he got the phone call. That happy dance may become my screensaver. John, you have been warned.

Awards, awards, awards

It's awards season here in child and YA lit land, and so in lieu of a review today, here's the list, piping hot from the American Library Association's Midwinter Conference in not-so-sunny Seattle, Washington!

* - read it
# - already in my Blue Journal of Stuff I Gotta Read Before I Die. Although it goes without saying that anything that wasn't already in that book will be now.

John Newbery Medal (children's literature)
The Higher Power of Lucky - Susan Patron
(H) Penny From Heaven - Jennifer L. Holm *
(H) Hattie Big Sky - Kirby Larson*
(H) Rules - Cynthia Lord

Randolph Caldecott Medal (children's picture-book illustrator)
Flotsam - David Weisner #
(H) Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom - Kadir Nelson (auth. Carole Boston Weatherford)
(H) Gone Wild: An endangered animal alphabet - David McLimans

Coretta Scott King Award
Copper Sun - Sharon Draper
(H) The Road to Paris - Nikki Grimes #
Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People - Kadir Nelson (author: Carole Boston Weatherford) (also a Caldecott Honor book)
(H) Jazz - Christopher Myers (author: W.D. Myers)
(H) Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes - Benny Andrews (editors: David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad)

Seuss Geisel (for beginning readers' books)
Zelda and Ivy: the Runaways - Laura Kvasnosky
(H) Not a Box - Antoinette Portis
(H) Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride - Kate DiCamillo *
(H) Move Over Rover - Karen Beaumont

Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (for lasting contribution to children's lit)
James Marshall (posthumous)

Margaret A. Edwards Award
(for lasting contribution to YA lit)
Lois Lowry for The Giver

The Alex Awards (Adult books with YA appeal. This is awarded to 10 in all)
The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly
The Whistling Season - Ivan Doig
Eagle Blue: A team, a tribe, and a high school basketball team in Arctic Alaska - Michael D'Orso
Water for Elephants - Sarah Gruen
Color of the Sea - John Hamamura
Floor of the Sky - Pamela Carter Joen
Blind Side: The evolution of a game - Michael Lewis
Black Swan Green - David Mitchell
The World Made Straight - Ron Rash
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield

Michael L. Printz Award (for best YA lit)
American Born Chinese - Gene Luen Yang # (plus, this is a graphic novel! Woot! The revolution, it is here!)
(H) The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol. 1, the Pox Party - M.T. Anderson * (also the winner of the longest freakin' title ever)
(H) An Abundance of Katherines - John Green *
(H) Surrender - Sonya Hartnett #
(H) The Book Thief - Markus Zusak *

John Steptoe Award (for new talent in African-American children's lit)
Standing Against the Wind - Tracy L. Jones

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal (for nonfiction)
Team Moon: How 40,000 people landed Apollo 11 on the Moon - Catherine Thinmesh
(H) Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the front lines of the civil rights movement - Ann Bausam
(H) Quest for the Tree Kangaroo - Sy Montgomery
(H) To Dance - Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel (also a graphic novel!)

Mildred L. Batchelder Award (best translated work; award to the publisher):
The Pull of the Ocean - Jean-Claude Mourlevat and Y. Maudet (Delacorte)
(H) The Last Dragon - Silvana de Mari (Miramax)
(H) The Killer's Tears - Anne-Laure Bondoux (Delacorte)

Schneider Family Book Award (best book about a disability experience)
Children's - The Deaf Musicians - Pete Seeger and Paul DuBois Jacobs (deafness)
Middle Grade/Tween - Rules - Cynthia Lord (autism and paraplegia) (also a Newbery Honor)
Teen - Small Steps - Louis Sachar * (cerebral palsy)

May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture (a lecture about children's literature)
David Macauley

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children's Video
Knuffle Bunny, based on Mo Willems's book of the same name

Big congrats and major chocolate and champagne to all the talented winners. And I have to note that, thanks to the child/YA litbloggers community, I'd already heard about a good number of the books on these lists. We got good taste, y'all. Thanks to Elizabeth Bluemle on the Child-Lit listserv for being our gal on the ground! Sharon Levin, of the same list, also deserves props for providing the Alex Awards.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

You Know You Want To

You too have the chance to become a Dancing Pirate.

If you don't want to read Maureen Johnson's inspired lunacy, the bit about the dancing pirates is down at the bottom. But I don't know why you wouldn't want to.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Girl Named Disaster

Book: A Girl Named Disaster
Author: Nancy Farmer
Published: 1996

Nhamo’s name means “disaster” in the Shona language, and so far her life has lived up to this promise. Her father cut out before she was born, her mother died when she was very young, and now she lives under the thumb of her tyrannical aunt, forever compared to her saintly cousin and forever found lacking. When it looks like she’s about to be married off to a disgusting old man who has three wives already, Nhamo decides this is the last straw. Her father might have deserted her, but by the custom of the Shona, she belongs to his family and they have to take her in. They live somewhere in Zimbabwe, just a two-day boat trip from her home in Mozambique. Supported by ancestral spirits and depending on her own formidable survival skills, Nhamo is going to find her father’s family if it kills her.

And it just might.

While reading this book, I had to constantly remind myself that it takes place in Africa in 1981. Nhamo’s world is so different from that of the United States at the same time that it feels as if it takes place on a different planet. To her, njuzu (water snake spirits) and ngozi (zombies) are just as real as TV sets and airplanes are to us. Farmer brings out a rich and multi-textured place and culture without turning it into a dry lecture. While she uses a lot of Shona words, none are so out of context that they’re impossible to understand.

If her surroundings are exotic, Nhamo herself is someone every kid will be able to relate to. Smart, impulsive, stubborn, vulnerable, and brave, her quest for a place to call home will keep you turning pages.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Book: Backwater
Author: Joan Bauer
Published: 1999

Ivy Breedlove feels like she’s fighting a losing battle. All of her family are lawyers, and it's expected that she will be one too. But nobody's stopped to ask what she wants. She doesn't want a courtroom in her future, a career of arguing and debating and being on the stage. She wants to be a historian, one who observes and records and thinks about the past. But good luck convincing her strong-willed father that it’s a respectable career for a Breedlove.

Then Ivy discovers that she's not the only freak in this family. There's another--her father's crazy sister, who lives in the mountains, by herself, away from civilization. This is the key, she realizes. If she gets to know this mysterious aunt, to understand the strength that allows her to be different from the rest of her family, Ivy may find the same strength in herself.

But what will Ivy do if Aunt Josephine doesn’t have all the answers?

Except for Ivy’s wilderness guide, Mountain Mama, who is more caricature than character, I really like Bauer’s characterization. Ivy’s father isn’t just an ogre, but a man with his own layers and reasons, which Ivy discovers through Josephine’s memories of the past. Check out this book for a quick but not shallow story about what it takes to swim against the tide of family tradition.

Added bonus: while it's not laff-out-loud funny, there is a sly wit to this story that pops up at unexpected times, which works nicely to deflate Ivy’s teen angst.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Like I Needed More Books to Read

The Cybils have announced the shortlists for their first annual awards. In a testament to how many good books there are in the world, the only category in which I've read most (indeed, any) of the entries is young adult. I'm just gonna print out the list and take it to work with me.

In my defense, many of the books listed are already in my Blue Journal of Stuff I Gotta Read Before I Die. At this rate, I'll have to live to age 167.

Anyway, the big winners should be announced sometime in February, but check out the shortlist now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cybils Shortlists are Here!

Some of them anyway. Apparently, the competition for the shortlists in the Graphic Novels, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Non-Fiction MG/YA and Young Adult Novels categories is so fierce that they won't be posted until Jan. 7. Yowza!

Check out the currently-posted ones here.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Knights of the Hill Country

Happy New Year! Told you I was going to resolve to review a book, didn't I? There ya go, one down, and I feel like a better person already.

Book: Knights of the Hill Country
Author: Tim Tharp
Published: 2006

On the football field, Kennisaw High School senior Hampton Greene is a god. He is never confused about what to say or do next. He is sure of himself. He can think clearly and quickly. And it seems that whatever he does, he’s golden.

Too bad he can’t live his life on the football field.

Off the field, things are getting more complicated by the day. His best friend Blaine, once the star of the team until he blew out his knee junior year, is getting more and more jealous of Hampton’s rising popularity and better prospects with the college scouts. The girl he likes, Sara Reynolds, couldn’t be farther from the supposed ideal girlfriend he’s supposed to want. And his momma has suddenly stopped bouncing from fella to fella and settled on a man generally despised by the small town of Kennisaw, Oklahoma. Sooner or later, Hampton is going to have to make a choice about where he stands, but he isn’t so sure he’ll be able to do that on his own.

This is the second book I’ve blogged about football, which is funny, because as I mentioned in my post about Dairy Queen, I don’t know a tight end from a tent pole. But although certain football passages left me in the dust, it wasn’t enough of the book to spoil my enjoyment. The biggest charm of this story is a tie between sweet, quiet Hampton himself, and the colloquial, Oklahoma way he tells his story. Try out this book of a young man finding a place to stand and learning how to hold to it, no matter what, or who, he’s standing against.