Friday, April 21, 2006

The Sword of Straw

Nathan is traveling in his dreams again, but this time instead of a futuristic city, he visits a medieval-like kingdom with an invalid king, a lonely and desperate princess, and a plague of monsters. Could this place be the location of the Sword of Stroar, the second of the three objects of power? Meanwhile, his best friend Hazel is learning about the use - and misuse - of power, and the consequences may be more than she bargained for.

The Sword of Straw is, if anything, better than its predecessor, The Greenstone Grail, although it is a mite darker. It's one of those books that you just can't put down until you finish it. Many of the characters from the first book return. Bartlemy is his same, implacable self; I loved the scene where, after two teenagers break into his house and are subdued by Hoover, Bartlemy feeds them cookies and gently questions them as they sit nervously awaiting the police to arrive. There's not enough of Eric in this book, but I was pleased to see the return of Inspector Pobjoy, a character I really enjoyed in the first book.

There's plenty to appeal to teens in this book; besides the modern references to popular culture and text messaging, Nathan and Hazel experience the angst of teen crushes, peer teasing, and parental conflict.

My only complaint about the book is that apparently, the Grandir saves Nathan several times. I would rather see Nathan get out of these situations using his own wits. But this is a minor complaint, and didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book.

If you haven't started the Sangreal Trilogy yet, I highly recommend the series. Author Amanda Hemingway skillfully blends fantasy, folklore, and particle physics with a great insight into human nature into a fascinating story that will appeal to teens and adults. If you've already read the first book, The Greenstone Grail, then you simply must read The Sword of Straw.

The Edge of the Forest

The April issue of The Edge of the Forest is now online! In case you haven't seen it before, The Edge of the Forest is a great new online monthly children's literature journal, with contributions by many of the best writers in the children's literature blogging community. I'm honored that they included my article on Small Press Month in this issue. Be sure to check out the Fantasy section. Michele Fry of Scholar's Blog has a review of Anatopsis, by Chris Abouzeid, (which I haven't read but it sounds interesting) and an article about one of my favorite authors, Garth Nix.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Greenstone Grail

Science fiction meets fantasy in this remarkable book by Amanda Hemingway. At first glance, with its picture of the grail and the words “The Sangreal Trilogy” on the cover, it looks like just another grail book. But The Greenstone Grail is anything but that. This grail has little to do with King Arthur or the Holy Grail, although it does appear that certain themes, such as sacrifice and betrayal, resonate with truth across multiple universes.

Nathan Ward has a happy childhood, growing up blissfully unaware of the unusual circumstances surrounding his conception. All that changes, however, when he finds the ruins of an old chapel and has a vision of a grail full of blood. Soon after that Nathan begins visiting a futuristic city in his dreams. He soon discovers that the city is more than a dream; Nathan is actually crossing the multiverse in his dreams to a real city in another universe,: a universe in trouble. When an ancient grail with historical connections to his town surfaces, Nathan begins to suspect that the grail is an object of power in both universes. Nathan isn’t the only one with an interest in the grail, however; an interesting assortment of people from multiple universes are trying to get their hands on it. And some will kill to obtain it.

Amanda Hemingway deftly blends science with magic, particle physics with folklore, in this compelling story that spans multiple universes. The Greenstone Grail reminded me a bit of the early books in Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, not so much because of the grail connection as because it has that same sense of greater forces at work dimly understood by ordinary humans. It’s a compelling book with a fascinating cast of characters.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres

Kids will learn some French while they enjoy this fun story written and illustrated by Marie Le Tourneau. Le Bistrot des Sept Freres, or The Bistro of Seven Brothers, is famous for its cheese soup. Each year, Chef Marcel and his seven sons win the award for the best cheese soup in all of France. But then disaster strikes - the judge is due in an hour and the Bistrot is out of the secret ingredient that gives the soup its famous flavor! While Chef Marcel goes out to try to get some secret ingredient, the seven brothers run around frantically, running into each other and knocking things over. But amidst all this chaos, it is Petite Michelle, the sister, who keeps her head and saves the day. The Bistrot des Sept Freres becomes The Bistrot des Sept Freres et Une Soeur: The Bistro of Seven Brothers and One Sister.

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres is a delightful picture book with charming illustrations. French words (and their English translations) are interspersed throughout the story. The illustrations are whimsical and child-friendly — the mice just look so appealing. Children will enjoy the chaos in the kitchens as the brothers run into each other and food flies everywhere. As for Michelle, one can't help but feel that it was an injustice that she was left out of the "boys club" and the name of the bistro to begin with, and readers will cheer her triumph.

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres will be published in June by Tanglewood Press.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The People of Sparks

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau started off a little slowly, and at first I thought that it wasn't going to be as compelling a book as The City of Ember. Boy was I wrong! The People of Sparks is a frightening look at how small misunderstandings can quickly spiral out of control and lead to violent conflict. It's also a look at how a charismatic leader can exploit events and people to his own benefit. It's a book about the roots of war and hatred, and about how even well meaning people can turn against each other.

Lina and Doon and the people of Ember have escaped the dying city to emerge in a beautiful but strange new world, the world outside. But as beautiful as the world is, the people from Ember have no idea how to live in it; they have no skills or knowledge that will help them survive in the wilderness. So when they find the village of Sparks, the people of Sparks agree to take the Emberites in for six months, even though it will essentially double the population of Sparks and put a severe strain on Sparks' food and other resources. The people of Sparks are determined to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors, whose conflicts led to the wars that almost destroyed mankind. But in spite of their good intentions, resentment builds as the two groups of people blame each other for their troubles. As the anger on both sides escalates, violence seems inevitable unless someone can turn things around before it's too late.

Jeanne DuPrau is a master of suspense. The tension starts slowly and builds gradually to an almost unbearable level before the book reaches its stunning climax. What makes it worse is that most of the people are basically good people caught up in events, and it's hard to see any way out of the situation that won't result in pain and suffering. There's no evil villain that can be killed to end the conflict. But DuPrau brings the story to a masterful and satisfying conclusion, and I had tears in my eyes at the end.

A prequel to the series, The Prophet of Yonwood, is due out May 9. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Alley Oops

J. J. Jax doesn’t mean to hurt anyone when he teases the new kid about his weight. He’s just trying to have fun. But his thoughtless words do hurt Patrick, and now Patrick has nightmares and is afraid to go to school. J.J. learns that actions have consequences when his dad tells him a story about encountering someone recently that he had teased as a child. But the real lesson comes later, when J.J. encounters Patrick. The two boys discover that they have more in common than they had thought, and from this encounter Patrick gains a bit of empathy and learns that you can’t judge people on appearance.

Teasing and bullying are no joke. As an adult I can still remember the pain of being teased as a child. Alley Oops is a funny, touching, and beautifully illustrated picture book that can help teach young children to be considerate of each other’s feelings, at an age when they are still young enough for it to make a difference. One book by itself may not be enough to stop teasing and bullying, but by reading this book aloud to a class and following up with a classroom discussion, elementary school teachers can help to teach children empathy, understanding, and respect.

Alley Oops was written by Janice Levy, illustrated by CB Decker, and published by Flashlight Press.

Wands and Worlds Small Press Month Blogfest

Small Press Month - extended

In honor of Small Press Month, I highlighted small press books in this blog throughout the month of March. I have a few small press books left that I wasn't able to finish in April, so I'm going to continue my salute to small and independent presses for part of April as well.

Destination Imagination

Today I want to share a personal note that isn't really related to children's literature. My son (age 10) participates in a creative problem solving and team building program called Destination Imagination. I'm the team manager, and we have a team of seven boys, ranging in age from 9 to 11.

Last Saturday was the regional tournament, and our team took second place in their category and will advance to the state tournament on April 22. I'm so proud of the boys and impressed with all the work that they put into their project. The project involved developing a story, creating sets, props and costumes, building a technical device that creates the illusion of bending one of the laws of motion, and performing the story within an 8 minute time limit. The kids have to do every part of this themselves; they can't have any help from adults or anyone not on the team. As team manager, my job is just to facilitate their progress; I can't do anything to help them or give them ideas. I'm just amazed with the things they came up with.

I wish the Kaleidoscope Homeschoolers' "Flaming Eggsplorers" the best of luck at the state tournament!