Monday, July 31, 2006

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Book Review: Viking Warrior

OK, I get it: a Viking's life was violent. But was it really necessary to show quite so much hacking of limbs and cleaving of skulls? Still, surprisingly, I enjoyed Viking Warrior in spite of the excessive violence and high body count. The narrator was likeable and I found myself drawn into his world and his story.

Halfdan is a slave who belongs to the Viking chieftain Hrorik, who is also his father. Halfdan's mother is a slave who was captured in a raid in Ireland, and who caught Hrorik's fancy. Hrorik may be Halfdan's biological father, but to Halfdan he is just a master, and Halfdan has nothing to look forward to but a life of hardship and drudgery as a slave. But when Hrorik is mortally injured in a raid, Halfdan's fate is changed and in one night he is transformed from slave to lord. He loses the person he loves most in the world, but gains a new family who welcome him with loving arms.

Halfdan must learn to come to terms with his new life, as he begins learning the skills necessary to be a Viking warrior under the tutelage of his new brother. But just when he begins to embrace his new life, he comes face to face with an evil that threatens to take it all away.

Viking Warrior is historical fiction filled with interesting details about Viking life in the ninth century. The story is quite exciting, and the characters well drawn. Author Judson Roberts paints a rich and fascinating portrait of Viking society. A historical note at the end of the book gives some of the historical background, and there is much more information at the Strongbow Saga Website.

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book Review: The Lightning Thief

Greek mythology has never been this fun! As soon as you glance at the table of contents for The Lightning Thief, by Rick Roirdan, you know that you are in for a wild ride. With chapter titles like "I accidentally Vaporize My Pre-algebra Teacher" and "Three Old Ladies Knit the Socks of Death," how can this book be anything but good? And indeed, The Lightning Thief is one of the most original and entertaining books that I've read in a long time.

Percy Jackson has been kicked out of one school after another. With ADHD and dyslexia, Percy is not a great student, and always seems to get into trouble. But when a teacher transforms into a monster during a field trip and attacks Percy, strange things start happening. Percy soon discovers that he is a demi-god: half god, half human. The Greek Gods are alive and well and living above the Empire State Building in New York. Percy's mother is human and his father is one of the Olympians. Chased by monsters, and accompanied by his friend Grover, a satyr, Percy ends up at Camp Half-Blood, a haven and training ground for the demi-gods.

But Percy's adventures are far from over. For someone has stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt, and Percy is a prime suspect. Accompanied by Grover and a daughter of Athena named Annabeth, Percy sets off to find the lightning bolt. If he doesn't find and return it within ten days, war could break out on Mount Olympus, and when the gods fight, the consequences could be devastating.

I've heard so much about this book, and I'm glad I finally got a chance to read it. The Greek gods updated and modernized are quite amusing, and the story has plenty of action and excitement. Greek mythology is always a popular topic with kids, and anyone with an interest in Greek mythology will enjoy identifying characters and scenes from mythology transformed into the modern world. Kids who have problems with ADHD and/or dyslexia will be inspired to learn that those characteristics are common among demi-gods, although Percy warns on the first page to "stop reading immediately" if you think you might be a demi-god because it's a difficult and dangerous life.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Fifth Carnival of Children's Literature

Kelly Herold at Big A little a has done a remarkable job on the Fifth Carnival of Children's Literature. Head on over and check out the latest and greatest in the Kidlitosphere this month. But beware the witches!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Jonathan Stroud interview on

It's been a super busy week, and I haven't had much time for the kidlitosphere. But I did read an interesting interview with Jonathan Stroud, author of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, on

I hate spammers

Sad to say, I've had my first spam comment posted on my blog, so I had to change the settings to moderate comments. I hate spammers! They're ruining the internet for the rest of us. I hope there is a fitting punishment in Tartarus for the spammers!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Interview with O. R. Melling

Several weeks ago, David and I had the opportunity to interview O.R. Melling, author of The Chronicles of Faerie: The Hunter's Moon (book 1) and The Summer King (book 2). The interview took place in a delightful attic office at The Children's Bookstore in Baltimore, Maryland. We're grateful to the Children's Bookstore for allowing us to use their office for the interview. Melling was fascinating, and we had a lot of fun interviewing her.

Sheila: According to your biography, you were born in Ireland but grew up in Canada. How and when did you get interested in your Irish heritage? Or were you always?

O.R. Melling: Oh, always! Because I grew up in a big Irish family, my mother told us faerie stories. In the Summer King, my character Ian says “It’s an Irish tradition to scare your children to death before you go to bed,” and my mother would! She would be telling us about the death beetle that ticks in the wall, or the pooka which is this huge black dog with red eyes that can also be a huge black horse with red eyes, or the banshee which is a green ghost with long hair who combs her hair and wails to tell you that someone in your family is going to die. And this would be your bedtime story before you go to bed!

And then I was an Irish dancer and lived in an Irish neighborhood. And then when I went to college I ended up doing Celtic studies. The Irish are always aware of their culture and their background. Even though I grew up Canadian, and have many Canadian attitudes, rather than Irish ones. Sometimes when I say, “We do this, “I mean “We Canadians” and sometimes I mean “We Irish,” and they’re really quite different.

Sheila: What kind of research did you do for your books? Obviously with a background in Celtic studies you knew a lot...

O.R. Melling: And even the fairy stories, which would have come from my mum.. I would have read síscéal which is the Irish word for fairy tales, but in fact I would read them in Irish and English. I would do a lot of research in terms of fairy books. In fact you can see the influence of Brian Froud’s and Alan Lee’s Fairies, which I would have gotten in the early seventies, I have a really battered, tattered copy of it. I would look at modern versions of fairy tales. In fact in my books I list some of my research. So when they mention their favorite books, such as the series of books Granda lists in The Summer King, these would have been books that were part of my research. There are others such as The Other Crowd that are directly collected Fairy stories; they’re sort of the purest of the folk fairy stores. But I also used the mythologies as well. The Irish don’t quite separate the mythological cycles from the fairy cycles, because they do bleed into each other, where fairies show up in the mythological cycles. So even someone like John Stevens, and Yeats.

Some of stuff I make up. Now the Fir-Fia-Caw I made up, in The Summer King. The Raven People. The Raven does play a role in mythology, but it’s more a North American thing. The Boggles I made up myself, although not the word. In the third book, The Light-Bearer’s Daughter, there’s these little brown Boggles that are bog people. So even though the term Boggle goes with hobgoblins and boggarts, and all that clan, I actually did make up my own version of the bog people. So I do like to invent as well as use the traditional.

David: In your book, The Hunter’s Moon, you said the old Ireland was not gone, it was merely hiding. What I was wondering is, what happened to the old Ireland that you were talking about. Is it in museums, or is it out there?

O.R. Melling: When I say hiding, I don’t mean in museums, I just mean underneath things. For instance, you could go to a village that’s all very modern, but you could ask about the fairy fort and they’ll actually just point it out to you, outside the village. And you might notice that at midsummer, that the people go up there and light a fire on it. Even though, they wouldn’t tell you that they believe in fairies. So it’s almost like it’s a secret, but it’s an open secret that everyone knows about it. It’s like the thing where they wouldn’t cut down the tree. You ask the farmer, “Do you believe in fairies?” “Not at all.” “Well, would you cut down that tree in your field?” “Not at all.” [“Not at all” was spoken in a wonderful Irish brogue] A lone tree in a field is a fairy tree, and that’s why they wouldn’t cut it down.

Sheila: Getting back to your research, do you travel to any of these places?

O.R. Melling: I do. For instance, for The Summer King, I twice went to Achill Island, which I adore. If you think Ireland is magical, Achill Island is even more magical. It’s a huge mountainous Island off the west coast of Ireland, and when you travel there, you feel like you’ve actually entered another world. And even the Irish say it as well. It can be summer in Ireland and winter on Achill, and visa versa. It has it’s own weather, different from the rest of Ireland. As soon as you are driving through it, or you’re walking through it, you’re just saying, “This is another place.”

So I went there twice in the course of finishing The Summer King, and hiking up the mountain - I had to get up Croaghaun - we nearly fell off Slievemore, that was quite dangerous the second time. They told us not to go up Slievemore, but I only had one day left I had to go up there before I wrote the scenes there. I’ll be putting that on my bookmark blog, a photograph of me standing beside the big white stone. [Editor's note: Since the interview she has indeed posted this picture on her blog.] Because I’ve been working so intensely on the books, I haven’t had the time to put a lot of the research materials on the blog. But that’s what I actually intend to do. That’s what the bookmark blog is for. There’s even one of the blogs on the bookmark blog where I listed all the books that I was reading for The Light-Bearer’s Daughter. But there’s even more I want to go back. I have material I that want to go back and put up. Because I know that kids are really interested in that and readers are really interested in that. As soon as I have a moment - as soon as I’m finished the set - I’m going to take a sabbatical for at least a year and I’m going to put a lot of that research material and photographs on the blog.

But yes, so I end up climbing the mountains, going to the places, and that often creates things that feed into the book. It was when my sister and I were climbing Croaghaun - it was really hard, hardly anybody climbs it, it’s quite steep, quite high, and the precipice that looks down is quite stunning. I have some amazing photographs. But it was when we were climbing down it that she goes, “This is like a ziggurat the way we’re going.” And I said, “You’re right! Ziggurat...ziggurat...ziggurat...” [mimes pulling out a notebook and writing it down]. And then suddenly the whole thing of the temple of the birds came up. I’d had a dream of the temple of the birds years and years and years ago and never had anywhere to put it. And my sister said, “You know there was something like that in Rupert the Bear.” And I haven’t found it but it probably is in there. Because I loved Rupert the Bear when I was little. So you don’t always know even yourself where all these things come from. But the course of the research often influences the book. So that’s where that whole thing came from, the ziggurat vision of it.

David: Have you even been to Inch Island?

O.R. Melling: Oh, yeah. I lived on Inch Island. The granny is based on Breege McCrory, who used to mind my daughter Findabhair when she was a baby.

David: Did you ever go in the fairy fort?

O.R. Melling: Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s quite a spooky little place. It’s very odd. Now Breege would have told me a lot of fairy stories about the island. And things like, Our Good Neighbor and the fairies talking, those would be bits of stories she had told me about Inch. And she brought me up to the fairy fort. We had to fight our way through the bracken to get up there. And it was really funny, because it was a warm sunny day, but it was quite eerie. You would shiver. It was quite otherworldly.

Sheila: I would imagine going to places like that, the fairies seem real.

O.R. Melling: Oh, totally, totally. But it’s not that they seem real...[long pause] If you’re staying around for the talk, I’ll probably talk about a few of my fairy experiences.

David: All the fairy forts and fairy groves and stuff like that, have you ever seen anything like that in any place other than Ireland?

O.R. Melling: Well, they’re certainly all over Wales and Scotland, as well. And in England where they haven’t put a motorway over them. In Cornwall, you know, where King Arthur’s Castle.

Sheila: You updated the books with modern references. Were you concerned that that might make them outdated more quickly?

O.R. Melling: The only references I make are to classical, things that I can’t imagine ever going out. I can’t imagine the Lord of the Rings ever becoming obsolete. So in that sense, I’m afraid that’s where newer authors wouldn’t get a mention, because you don’t know whether they’re going to stay or go. But certainly anything like the Chronicles of Narnia or Tolkien, I don’t expect them ever to go. Or if they’ve gone, mine would probably be long gone.

But there’s more going on with the updating. The books are almost half the size again than the original. These are like the extended DVDs. What happened is, when I first wrote the books, I didn’t think about where anything was going. I just wrote the stories. By the time I got to the Book of Dreams, which was the biggest book and the best written, I realized the effect of the first three, and I thought, “Oh, I’d really like to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Because this time I’ve finished the giant canvas, and I can see where the bits of the beginning need to be improved. And that coincided exactly - I had literally just published The Book of Dreams in Canada, just finished it, and promised myself a big huge break, when Amulet asked to take the books, and the Amulet editor said, “Would you do a little bit of editing,” and I said, “I’m not doing a little bit of editing, I’m rewriting these books!” The original Summer King isn’t half the book that this Summer King is. The story is there, like an outline, but the new version is a hundred times better. It’s also almost twice the size. The Light-Bearer’s Daughter will also be about twice the size. The Hunter’s Moon I think was a third bigger. So there are entire scenes in The Hunter’s Moon that didn’t exist. And Gwen, I think, is a better-developed character. Because by the time I had written her in The Book of Dreams as an older young woman, as a teacher, she had way more personality than she had. And I realized I should have shown that back in The Hunter’s Moon.

David: Right before they challenged Crom Cruac, when they go to their higher form, was their higher form designed to reflect their personality, and if so, in what aspect?

O.R. Melling: Yes, it was their ideal self. It would be as if they wore their soul on the outside. I thought of each character and what they were - not so much what they represented. You know how you describe your friends. If you said one word, there’s one friend you would think about, and if you said another word it’s another friend. So Findabhair did take on the aspect of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. As a teenager she is more interested in boys than anything else. And Gwen took on a much different aspect. Even though she liked the fact that she has her first boyfriend, that’s actually not the core of her life. Her life would have been something else - what she was searching for, what she was seeking. And Granny is like a shaman, a high priestess. And then of course when it came to the Fairy King, I thought, “What could be higher than a fairy king?” And then suddenly I realized, “Oh, of course, an Archangel.” Because the fairies, even though they’re magical, they’re not particularly better than human beings, in the way you consider angels to be better than human beings.

David: Mostly it seems that the fairies don’t have much different powers than the humans. They have the fairy glamour in their realm...

O.R. Melling: They can move around pretty fast, and shape shifting. I give them basically the powers they have in the fairy stories. And sometimes if they are contradictory, if it seems that they are powerful sometimes and powerless other times, that’s exactly their nature in the fairy stories. You cannot actually pin them down. Which is really great if you’re a fantasy writer, because you don’t have to worry about contradictions. The fairies do contradict themselves.

Sheila: We’ve taken up enough of your time, but it was really fascinating. Thank you for your time.

O.R. Melling: It was fun.

* * *

After the interview, we stayed to listen to her presentation. It was a fascinating presentation. She talked about some of the actual faerie experiences she has had, and she read sections of the books and talked about the things that inspired them. I won’t try to reproduce the entire presentation, but here are a couple of notes about interesting things she said during the presentation:

  • She doesn’t plan her books out in advance but just writes what comes out. She believes that there are books out there floating around that attach themselves to writers to be written.
  • There are four books in the Chronicles of Faerie series - “An Irish trilogy has four books.”
  • There is a book “soul” behind many of her books; the book behind The Hunter’s Moon is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the book behind The Summer King is Wuthering Heights.
  • Melling was grieving for her father’s death when she wrote The Summer King and it helped her to deal with the issue of death and what it means.
  • She wrote the series so that even though the books are linked, each book in the series can be read independently. She did it that way because she hates to get a book and then discover it’s part of a series and she needs to have read the earlier books to understand it.
  • She doesn’t like a clear cut division between good and evil in books. She much prefers the yin/yang concept, with black in white and white in black. “Things get really dangerous when we start saying I’m the good one and you’re the bad one. What happens in our world is that everyone is the good fighting the good because one side thinks they’re the good and the other side’s sure they’re the good and they’re both calling the other the evil. As far as I’m concerned, the only evil is what happens when that happens.” In The Hunter’s Moon you think of Crom Cruac as evil, but he’s not evil. He’s the universal force of things that happen to you that seem evil to you but isn’t evil, like cancer.

Melling’s Books:

The Chronicles of Faerie:
The Hunter’s Moon
The Summer King
The Light-Bearer’s Daughter (forthcoming)
The Book of Dreams (forthcoming)

Two Celtic Mythology books that will be brought out here after The Chronicles of Faerie series:
The Druid’s Tune
The Singing Stone

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A little brag

I just found out that my husband's first book, The Dark Dreamweaver won an Honorable Mention in the Hollywood Book Festival award. The festival honors "books that deserve greater recognition from the film, television, game and multimedia communities." So, any Hollywood types out there? Are you listening?

MotherReader is famous!

Imagine my excitement when I was reading School Library Journal's email newsletter ("Extra Helping") and discovered that they have a feature about MotherReader's 48-hour Book Challenge, which I participated in (although I took the alternative challenge for wimps). They interviewed MotherReader about the challenge. OK, so it's not People magazine, but I still feel like I know someone famous! The interview is here, although I'm not sure if you have to be a subscriber to read it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Oz and Ends Blog

I recently discovered J. L. Bell's wonderful Oz and Ends blog. Right from the start, I love a guy who is an expert on all things Oz. I've been a lifelong fan of the Oz books, and I had no idea that there was an Oziana magazine, much less an International Wizard of Oz Club. In the Oz and Ends blog, he writes not only about Oz, but about children's fantasy literature in general. Oz and Ends is both informative and entertaining. If you're not reading it already, this is one you'll want to add to your RSS aggregator!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Book Review: Stormwitch

Stormwitch, by Susan Vaught, is an amazing book. Set in the context of Hurricane Camille and the civil rights movement in Mississippi in 1969, it has elements of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Ruba lived in Haiti with her maternal grandmother, Ruba Cleo, who taught Ruba the traditions of the women warriors of Dahoney, Africa, from whom they are descended. But when Ruba Cleo dies battling a storm sent by the Stormwitch, Zashar, Ruba has to move to Mississippi to live with her paternal grandmother, Maizie Jones.

But the Mississippi of 1969 is a far different world than Haiti. It’s an explosive world of civil rights and desegregation and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a world where a black person could be killed for crossing the wrong person. And Grandmother Jones is very different from Ruba Cleo, or at least she seems to at first. She wants Ruba to become a good Christian and to give up the “witchcraft” she learned from Ruba Cleo. She also wants Ruba to keep her head down and say “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” when talking to a white person. But Ruba, a descendent of proud African warriors, can’t do either, as much as she wants to please Grandmother Jones. Soon, Ruba finds herself fighting evil on two fronts, as she runs afoul of the local Klan wizard, just as the Stormwitch approaches with the most powerful storm that Ruba has ever known.

A powerful story told in an accessible way, Stormwitch brings to life both the devastation of Hurricane Camille and the horrors of segregation. It’s a stroke of brilliance to show a segregated Mississippi through the eyes of a strong black female, who not only grew up away from the culture of segregation and discrimination, but who has the pride that comes from knowing that she is descended from a long line of female warriors. The contrast makes the horror of being a black person in segregated Mississippi that much more real. And through Ruba’s grandmother and friends, we also see the perspective of the people who did grow up there, people who are trying to change things in their own way.

And in the wake of last year’s Hurricane Katrina, the story of another hurricane that devastated the Gulf coast is so much more meaningful than the author could have envisioned when she wrote this book. I recently read several reports from librarians who attended the ALA conference in New Orleans. The stories that they told of the destruction of the area, and the stories of the courage and dedication of the residents who are trying to rebuild, brought tears to my eyes. Stormwitch tells a parallel tale, of another devastation and another rebuilding, almost 40 years ago.

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The infamous J. K. Rowling interview

You've probably heard by now that J. K. Rowling did an interview last week in which she discussed deaths in Harry Potter book 7. I finally got around to reading the transcript of the interview, and I have to say that I got a very different impression from reading the complete transcript than I had from reading the various quotes that have been taken out of context and bandied about.

First of all, the quotes that I had seen before made it seem like there was a good chance that Harry himself would die in book 7, which made me upset because I felt like Rowling had lost touch with her audience. I mean, heroic death is one thing, but there are millions of kids who have literally grown up with Harry and identify with him strongly. For Rowling to kill Harry would, I think, be cruel. But on reading the entire interview, although she never said one way or another, I was left with the strong impression that Rowling also thinks it would be a bad idea to kill Harry. Her responses to the initial questions on the topic were ambiguous but sympathetic. But the interviewers wouldn't let it rest and kept badgering her, and finally she said that she could understand why an author would want to kill off their main character, so that no one else could write about him. That's a far cry from saying that she feels this way.

Secondly, on the subject of other deaths, people have been quoting her as saying that two "main characters" would die. Actually, that's not exactly what she said. She said that two characters die who originally weren't supposed to die, and she implies from the answer to the next question that they are "well-loved" characters. Well-loved characters are different than main characters, and so it would seem that these two characters can't be Draco, Percy, Snape, or Voldemort himself. But she doesn't say that only two characters die, just that these two weren't originally intended to die. So there could be more deaths, of well-loved or of not-so-well-loved characters.

If you've seen the quotes and commentary, but haven't read the interview, I urge you to read the entire interview and make up your own mind.

And, if you're not tired of reading Harry Potter speculation, here's mine. I think Snape will die heroically; I think she's set things up so that there can really be no other outcome for Snape. I don't think that Dumbledore will come back, except maybe as a wizard photograph, because it would invalidate the message that Rowling has reiterated over and over about death being natural. And I've been saying for several books now that there is more to Petunia than meets the eye; HBP would seem to confirm this. I think we'll see more about Petunia in book 7.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Book Review: Grail Quest: The Camelot Spell

Grail Quest: The Camelot Spell is an entertaining, if somewhat formulaic, quest story. During the feast to celebrate the start of the quest for the Holy Grail, all the adults in Camelot are mysteriously put to sleep. Only the teens and children are left awake. Fearing that Camelot will be invaded if Arthur's enemies learn that he and the other knights are asleep, three teens set off on a quest to find Merlin, while the remaining teens remain behind to organize the defense of Camelot. Gerard, as a squire who is almost ready to become a knight, sees himself as the de-facto leader of the expedition, but he has to learn that Newt, a stableboy, and Ailis, a maidservant who hears voices in her head, also have something to contribute to the quest, and the three children have to learn to work together to save Camelot.

My son and I agree that Grail Quest is the kind of book we call a snicky-snack: enjoyable light reading that doesn't have a lot of depth but is entertaining when you don't want to read something more challenging. The characters are likeable and the story moves along pretty well. I like that the children are on their own and have to deal with things without adult assistance; there is some fighting, but they also have to use their brains and teamwork to succeed in the quest. The plot seems a bit contrived; almost as if the whole thing was set up just to give the teens a chance to save Camelot. Even so, it should make great summer reading for preteens who enjoy fantasy.

There is some violence, and one particularly gory scene involving a fight with a troll.

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Some Pig! Wilbur gets a reprieve

The pig that played Wilbur in the Charlotte's Web movie was about to be sent to market, but he got a stay of execution when the farmer who owns him started receiving telephone calls from all over begging him to save Wilbur. The farmer apparently had never read the book, and it never occurred to him that there would be a problem with making bacon from the little piggie. That's what farmers do, after all. But now that he's wiser, he has decreed that Wilbur will live out his natural life in a specially built pen.

See the complete story on AP