Saturday, March 08, 2014
The UK based organization Let Toys Be Toys has started a petition on Change.org to ask publishers to stop gender-labeling books. The image above shows how such labeling can send a powerful message to kids about what's important: beauty for girls and intelligence for boys in this case. Granted, this image is an extreme example, probably selected for its provocative nature. But any gender labeling, even less provocative examples, limits children's choices and perpetuates gender stereotypes. Please take a few minutes and sign this petition.
Here's a great article about gender labeling on the Let Toys Be Toys website.
As a child, I always preferred books with robots, aliens, and adventure over cupcakes, flowers, and handbags. Books should expand children's horizons, not limit them.
Monday, February 17, 2014
by Alaya Dawn Johnson
June and her best friend Gil are thrilled to wrangle an invite to the official celebration of the newly elected Summer King, Enki. But they never anticipate that Gil and Enki will fall in love, or how much Enki will affect both of their lives. Although the Summer King has no real power, Enki, who comes from the lowest level of society, is determined to use what influence he has to help his people. June and Enki begin to collaborate on a big art installation, one that they hope will both send a message to the city, and win June the Queen's Award. But none of the three can forget that at the end of the summer, Enki will die. Because the real purpose of the Summer King is sacrifice in service of the city.
The Summer Prince is a brilliant book on so many levels. To start, it's an achingly immersive story set in a future Brazil. Added to that are elements from the Sumerian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh. Going deeper, there are the themes: power and sacrifice, choices and consequences, privilege and class, order and change. Finally, there is the writing: Alaya Dawn Johnson has created a beautiful tapestry so intricately woven that the patterns aren't always obvious on the first read-through. Even on my second read I'm not sure if I saw everything.
Palmares Tres is a gem of a city where past culture and future culture merge. It's a city where people still Samba and eat Vatapá stew, where grafeteiros create masterpieces and street gangs fight with capoeira. And yet it's a city with deep class divisions, where class hierarchy is literally expressed in the city tiers: the higher classes live on the upper levels and the lowest class lives on the bottom tier, where the the stink of the algae vats is ever present. This physical expression of class hierarchy is not a new idea in science fiction, but it's well done here. That stink, known as the Catinga, becomes a powerful symbol in the story, and in fact the higher tiers call the lowest tier "The Catinga."
Palmeres Tres is a city ruled by a matriarchy: a Queen and a council of women called Aunties. Many of them have forgotten the purpose of power, and while they, in their own way, seem to love the city, often their machinations seem designed to protect their own power rather than benefit the city. Most residents of the city live 200 years or more, setting up a situation where anyone under 30 is considered a juvenile, and not to be trusted to make good decisions. So we have class conflict, gender conflict, and age conflict, and with his election as Summer King, Enki becomes the touchstone at the center of all these conflicts.
I've seen this book described as dystopian, but I don't think that it quite falls into that classification. The traditional definition of a dystopia is one that seems utopian on the surface, but is later revealed to be oppressive and deeply flawed. I think that in some ways The Summer Prince turns that around: the flaws are fairly obvious early on, but as you continue to read it becomes clear how much the citizens of Palmeros Tres love their city with a genuine love, even in spite of the flaws. However, The Summer Prince is similar enough to dystopian literature that I think it will appeal to teens who enjoy dystopian books.
It's not necessary to be familiar with The Epic of Gilgamesh or to even recognize those elements are there to enjoy the story, but if you are familiar with the Epic it's a sheer joy to discover the iconic story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh wrestling in the streets transformed into a heart-stopping Samba when Gil and Enki first meet. The Summer Prince is not really a retelling of the myth, but there are some interesting parallels.
June is an imperfect character who struggles throughout the book to make the right choices. Her dream is to be recognized as a great artist, and when that dream comes into conflict with her awakening social awareness, she doesn't always choose the right thing. She blames her mother for her father's death, and because of that she's mean to her mother. All these things make her a believable, realistic character whom the reader can identify with as she grows through her association with Enki.
The Summer Prince does a great job of representing people who are underrepresented in YA lit. All the residents of Palmeros Tres have skin of varying shades of color, and Enki himself is described as being exceptionally charismatic and with very dark skin. Sexual relationships, both same-sex and opposite-sex, are depicted in a natural, unfettered way that's totally a non-issue. In Palmeros Tres it doesn't seem to matter whom you love.
The Brazilian setting is a refreshing change from books set in European-based settings. I personally loved that the book represented a culture and people that you don't often see in American YA Fiction, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out this review of The Summer Prince by a native Brazilian, Ana of The Book Smugglers. I'd encourage you to read the review, but in short, Ana is concerned that the Brazilian cultural elements are not always used accurately, and don't go any deeper than those elements that outsiders identify with Brazil, such as samba, Carnival, and capoeira. To Ana, it feels like a stereotype.
I've been thinking a lot about Ana's review over the last few days. Does the book stereotype Brazilians? Maybe - it's hard for me to know since I'm not Brazilian. Should a writer be able to write about a culture as an outsider to that culture? This, I think, is the crux of the controversy, and I've seen good arguments on both sides. I personally think writers stretching to write about things outside their personal experience is a good thing, because it helps to bring those ideas and cultures to other people who are not familiar with them, but the outsider has to work harder to get it right. I found an interview with Johnson where she says about her research, "I read a lot of books, particularly about the history of the African diaspora in Brazil. Also got advice from my sister, who studied in Brazil and knew many sources. And sent it to Brazilian writers for help."
I totally understand Ana's frustration and annoyance with the book. It's not quite the same thing, but I studied a martial art for 18 years, and I get really annoyed when I read a fiction book that gets the martial arts details wrong. So I get how frustrating it would be to have your culture portrayed inaccurately. But it does sound like Johnson did try get the details right, and I hope that maybe it will at least it will inspire young people to want to learn more about Brazil and read up on it, as I did after finishing the book. In balance, I think that a book like this that encourages young people to think outside their comfort zone and learn about new ideas and new cultures is a good thing. There are no easy answers, but I think it's important that we keep having these conversations as we try to get it right.
The Summer Prince is the 2013 Cybils Awards winner for the YA Speculative Fiction category.
Who would like this book:
Science fiction and dystopian readers, as well as teens who like reading about other cultures.
Get it from:
Thursday, February 06, 2014
by Victoria Schwab
It hasn't even been a year since Ben died, and Mackenzie Bishop is already forgetting what her brother looked like. Her mother copes with the grief by throwing herself with artificial cheerfulness into projects, while her father copes by retreating into himself.
Mac knows something her parents don't: that all the memories of the dead are archived as Histories, which look and act like the living person in every way. Histories usually sleep, but sometimes one awakens and tries to get out; occasionally they're even violent. Mac is a Keeper, tasked with guarding the Narrows that border the Archive and returning any of the Histories who escape. It's a role that she inherited from her grandfather, and one that she must keep absolutely secret, even from her parents. Knowing that Ben's History is in the Archive should be a comfort to Mac, but even a Keeper can't see the Histories, and Mac fears that she is losing her memories of Ben.
When Mac's family moves into the Coronado, an old hotel converted to an apartment building, Mackenzie gets a new territory in the Narrows to patrol. But something is not right — the Histories here are restless, and Mac is busier than ever trying to return them all. What's more, it appears that a murder was committed decades ago at the Coronado, a murder that someone went to a great deal of trouble to cover up. Mac is determined to find out the truth, even if it means putting her life at risk.
The Archived is a moving exploration of life, death, and grief wrapped up in an intriguing, character-driven mystery. Mac is tough — she has to be, to deal with the sometimes violent Histories — and she has the scars to prove it. But even her toughness doesn't make her immune to grief, and like everyone else she'll need to find a way to deal with it and move towards acceptance.
The story has a strong sense of place, and the various locations are lovingly described: the elegant, library-like atmosphere of the Archives, the creepy hallways of the Narrows, and the faded glory of the Coronado, which really becomes a character in its own right. The characters are likewise vividly brought to life. Besides Mac, there is a teen boy, Wes, that she meets in the Coronado. Wes hides a surprising depth and empathy behind a façade of good-natured humor. Mac's relationship with her grandfather is developed through flashbacks. Other minor characters, such as the Librarians in the Archives, are less fully-fleshed-out, but still distinctively characterized.
The setup with the Archives is intriguing and pleasingly unique. The internal logic is pretty consistent and well-developed, with one exception that bothered me. What is the purpose of keeping the Archives in the first place? There doesn't seem to be any reason for it. Loved ones can't visit the Histories, and no one seems to read the Histories except for the occasional Librarian seeking relief from boredom, and even that seems to be discouraged. It seems like an elaborate setup requiring considerable secrecy and no small amount of risk, for no purpose. If you can suspend that disbelief, then The Archived is a pretty enjoyable book.
The Archived is a 2013 Cybils Awards Nominee
Who would like this book:
Although the setup is not strictly supernatural — Histories aren't really ghosts — it should appeal strongly to fans of supernatural fiction. Teens who enjoy mysteries or character-driven fiction may also enjoy this.
Get it from:
Monday, January 13, 2014
Shadowsby Robin McKinley
It's not just that Maggie misses her father, or understandably resents her new stepfather, Val. No, it goes beyond that: Val has too many shadows. Whenever Maggie looks at him, she sees him surrounded by wiggly shadow shapes with too many appendages. It can't be magic, because there is no magic in Newworld. Anyone with the potential for magic must have a procedure to snip the gene before they reach puberty, and even though Val is an immigrant, he wouldn't have been allowed in if he had any magic.
Maggie tries not to think about it, and avoids Val as much as possible by throwing herself into her work at the local animal shelter, which isn't hard, since Maggie loves animals anyway. Then a cobey — a "coherence break" in the universe — opens nearby, and with one revelation after another, Maggie begins to discover that the world — and Newworld specifically — is full of surprises, among them that Val is not such a bad guy. When the situation goes from bad to worse, Maggie and her friends set out to set things right, accompanied by five very large dogs, a cantankerous Maine Coone cat, a friendly shadow named Hix, and one stubborn algebra book.
Shadows is a fun book with loads of teen appeal. Maggie's voice as the narrator is authentic and entertaining, if a bit rambly in parts, and there's gentle humor woven throughout the book. The pacing is excellent, perfectly balancing character development, excitement, humor, and reveals. All of the characters are interesting and well-developed, including animals, shadows, and semi-animate objects. Even the dogs each have distinctive personalities. Although Maggie finds she has some unusual abilities, she can't do it alone - it takes the combined efforts and abilities of everyone to succeed. There is romance, but it's not overdone and I like the direction that McKinley went with the it.
There are dystopian elements, such as soldiers in the streets with scanners, roadblocks, and forced genetic manipulation, but I wouldn't call this a dystopian book. The focus is not on fighting against a dystopian government, although there is certainly some of that. Instead, it's more about finding yourself and discovering that the world is a different place than you thought.
Shadows is a 2013 Cybils Awards Finalist in the YA Speculative Fiction category.
Who would like this book:
Readers of both traditional fantasy and dystopian stories will enjoy this, as it has elements of both. Dog lovers, cat lovers, and origami artists will also find a lot to appreciate.
Get it from:
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
I'm so excited to share with you the seven fantastic books that my fellow judges and I selected as the finalists! A hat tip to my smart, fun, and wonderful fellow judges: Leila Roy, Tanita Davis, Patrice Caldwell, Sarah Mulhern Gross, Hallie Tibbets, and Karen Jensen. Also be sure to check out the Cybils finalists in all the other categories!
Here are the 2013 Finalists for Speculative Fiction: Young Adult!
In late fifteenth-century Brittany, Sybella is sent from the convent of Saint Mortain to her ancestral home, where her faith will guide her in the assassination of her father, the horrible Count d’Albret. She is ready withcrossbow, garrote, even poison—but she cannot see the marque of death that allows her murder to be sanctioned by her god, and cannot decide whether or how to act. Throughout Dark Triumph, the sequel to Grave Mercy that can be read as a standalone, Sybella struggles with dissonance: mercy and justice, fate and free will, betrayal and loyalty, vengeance and forgiveness, family and freedom, faith and skepticism. And there’s no time to delay, no time to consider, because France could invade at any moment. Dark Triumph is a grim but hopeful fantasy that blends intrigue, danger, and a little romance into a real historical setting.
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
- 150 Ways to Give a Book: Every year my friend MotherReader posts this list of gifts which pair a book with something fun related to the book. Check out the updated 2013 list here.
- I've been involved with the Cybils Awards since the award was founded in 2006. Our goal is to honor those children's books which have both literary merit and child appeal. The Cybils lists are great sources of ideas for book gifts. Go to www.cybils.com and check out the 2013 nominations lists by category in the middle sidebar. The nomination lists include links to judges' reviews for many of the books. You can also check out previous years' finalists and winners in the right hand sidebar.
- I've also been doing some web development work recently for the Mom's Choice Awards, making enhancements to their web store. Here you can shop for books, toys, and other gifts that meet the Mom's Choice standards of excellence. (My husband's book, The Dark Dreamweaver, is a Mom’s Choice Awards® Gold Recipient)
- Don't forget your local independent bookstore! Independent booksellers are knowledgeable resources who can help you find the perfect gift. You can find a local bookstore or search for books through the IndieBound website.
Friday, November 15, 2013
Kidlitcon has always been a small conference, and that's part of its appeal. This year was even smaller in terms of attendance numbers than the last few, but what it lacked in size it made up for in heart, spirit, and community. I felt that the smaller size was an advantage; I think I talked to everyone there at some point, and all of us there formed such a strong connection.
It would be impossible to try to recap everything about the conference, so I'm just going to hit some of the highlights. For more recaps of Kidlitcon, see the round-up post on the Kidlitosphere.org website.
ThemesSeveral themes recurred throughout the conference:
Kindred SpiritsI'm not sure if the actual words "Kindred Spirits" came up until the final session, when Sarah Stevenson asked everyone for one or two words that summarized what the Kidlitosphere meant, but the feeling was definitely there throughout the conference. We all felt an instant connection created by a shared passion. I think it was Jen Robinson who said that what makes us different as a community is that we all care deeply about children and reading, and so we connect on a deeper level than other blogger groups, whose primary connection is about the blogging and financial aspects.
AuthenticityFrom the keynote speech by Cynthia Leitich Smith to the last words in the "Past, Present, and Future of Blogging" session, authenticity was an idea that came up over and over again. Our authenticity as bloggers and/or as writers, authenticity of characters in books, and our authenticity as a community.
- To MotherReader Pam Coughlan, for being such a terrific host. As an extrovert in a group of mostly introverts, she was the glue that held us together.
- To Jackie Parker-Robinson and Tanita Davis, and anyone else who helped with the planning but couldn't attend. I can't imagine anything worse! Thank you, thank you, to everyone who worked to make this conference a success.
- To Charlotte Taylor, a special friend who is incredibly funny and intelligent. I enjoyed hanging out with you and comparing books on the flight back. I hope I didn't talk your ear off.
- To my roommate Maureen Kearney, who was as great a roomie as you could ask for. We both gave each other space when we needed down time after the excitement of the day. Even if she was playing Candy Crush when I thought she was reading.
- To Jen Robinson and Sarah Stevenson, who have been Kindred Spirits for a long time.
- To Lee Wind, for being funny and fun and for your special talent for making people feel at ease. And for reminding us how important it is to be upstanders, not bystanders.
- To Sherry Early and Camille Powell, both longtime friends online whom I finally met in person.
- To Molly Blaisdell, who was a fascinating person. I learned a lot from listening to her.
- To Allie Jones, for sparkling dinnertime conversation
- To everyone else! This list is already longer than I meant it to be, and I feel bad about the people I didn't mention.
Thoughts and Quotes from the Sessions
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Cynthia Leitich Smith
—Unknown, Blogger Burnout Session
—Sheila Ruth (me)
—Unknown, Critical Reviews Session
—All of us
And finally, I wanted to leave you with a thought from Lee Wind that I can't stop thinking about. I feel like this one idea profoundly affected my thinking:
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Last Friday, at the pre-con leading up to Kidlitcon, I met author P.J. Hoover, and I took the chance to interview her about her new book, Solstice, and her writing life. This post was also used as an example of the techniques I taught in my Kidlitcon session, "Don’t fear the code: spice up your blog with HTML and CSS."
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
BUT - if you're thinking about attending my session, I have HOMEWORK for you! "Whaaaaa?... I didn't know there was going to be homework," I hear you say. But this is going to be fun, help the cause of kidlit, and hopefully leave you with a great, shiny blog post you can show off.
Because this session is hands-on, you need to have a blog post to work on. Rather than just having you make up a nonsense post just for the class, I want you to have a real post to play with. The interview format will be perfect for what I have in mind, so I ask everyone who is thinking of attending my session to find an author (or another blogger) at Kidlitcon and do a short interview sometime before Breakout Session #4. It doesn't have to be a long interview; two or three questions will be sufficient. If you're going to the precon, that will probably be a perfect opportunity, but just try to do it (and type it up in draft) sometime before the session. If you know someone who will be attending, you could even do it remotely before the conference, but I want your subject to be another Kidlitcon attendee.
Also, if you will have one with you, please bring a tablet or laptop to the session! If you don't have one, you can still attend, but you won't be able to do the hands-on part. A phone might work, but I suspect it will be too difficult to do it on a phone, and I'm not sure the blog editors will let you work in source code on a phone.
If you're still on the fence about attending Kidlitcon, get yourself over to the site and register! The deadline to register is this Friday! You won't be sorry, I promise you. If you need more convincing, check out these posts from MotherReader, Jen Robinson, Kelly Jensen, and Leila Roy. Also see the schedule and partial list of attendees.
See you in Austin!
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
Pfeffer, Susan Beth
Gill, David Macinnis
Update: Has been nominated!
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos