August 2001 – Recent Reading

Book of the month:

Enchantress from the Stars, by Sylvia Engdahl

YA science fiction. A ‘first-contact’ story. Wonderful characters: the heroine Elana and her supporting cast are so skillfully fleshed out that I truly believed in them and their world. Newbery Honor book and Phoenix Award title. The Phoenix Award is given annually by the Children’s Literature Association to a book that has remained in print for at least twenty years and did not win a major award at the time of initial publication. I wish this award were better known; it seems a most worthy one, recognizing books that have endured with minimal fanfare, and this title is a great example.

  • Heaven Eyes, by David Almond. MG fable-esque tale about three runaways who meet a strange girl on the tidal flats of a river. I am an Almond fan and have loved his previous books (Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness); what I like most is the unique otherworldly quality of his work, quite unlike anyone else writing today.
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher. Contemporary YA. The first book I’ve read off the lists of ‘most memorable books’ from visitors to the site–many thanks to Toni Buzzeo for the recommendation! A boy-girl friendship between fat Eric and scarred Sarah. A little too much plot toward the end for me, but few writers portray teens as well as this author.
  • The Giggler Treatment, by Roddy Doyle. Younger MG, fantasy. My pick for summer readaloud. Doyle began as a playwright, and his adult books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha) contain some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read. He puts that to good use in this silly story of magic, hilarity, and dog poop– what more could a child want?
  • No More Dead Dogs, by Gordon Korman. YA contemporary humor. A great first-person voice and lots of laughs: If you know teens who are into football or drama club (an unlikely combination that Korman pulls off with aplomb), give them this book or read it aloud with them.
  • The Graduation of Jake Moon, by Barbara Park (no relation!). Contemporary MG. The author of the popular Junie B. Jones books for younger readers writing for an older crowd here, about what happens to a boy whose beloved grandfather develops Alzheimer’s disease. Park’s humor is still much in evidence here, but tempered by tenderness and compassion.
  • The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket. The first in the hit series. Not particularly memorable, but great fun. Three orphaned siblings face endless disaster: It never feels real, which is why it works.

Adult title: Home Body, by John Thorne. Brief essays on domestic surroundings by one of my favorite writers, who proves that food is not the only subject he can explore. Read this book and you will never see closets or cellars or a chest of drawers in quite the same way again.


2001 August

Lazy summer . . .

My recent reading has slowed a great deal due to attendance at approximately five thousand soccer games (OK, I’m exaggerating, but only a little . . .), a trip to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and work on a new project. Still, I enjoyed several titles:

What I read in July

Winners of the July book drawing! Sign my guestbook for a chance to win the next drawing.

If you read Cricket magazine, look for my poem “Cents-ibility” in the August issue!

I’m excited about my next book, which will be published by Clarion Books in April 2002. It’s called When My Name was Keoko, and is a historical-fiction novel for young adults and older middle-grade readers set in Korea during World War II. Many of the details in the story are based on my parents’ experiences. The writing is finished, and the folks at Clarion are putting together the book jacket and seeing to other production details. Now that my part of the work is done, it’s fun to sit back and watch the story become a book!


July 2001 – Recent Reading

This page will always focus on books for young people. At the bottom of each list, however, I will include the books for ‘old people’ that I’ve been reading–but only if they’re at least as good as the rest of the list.

Book of the month:

Forgotten Fire, by Adam Bagdasarian

Historical fiction YA. A teenage boy survives the Turkish massacre of Armenians during and after World War I. The evil depicted in this book would be impossible to bear except for the narrator’s voice: simple, unembellished, straightforward. I could not fully engage with the character, but even that is part of the point here: He lives through things that are inhuman. A book that will introduce readers to a chapter of history that needs to be known. National Book Award nominee, 2000.

  • Steal Away, by Jennifer Armstrong. Historical fiction MG. This story of two girls–one white, one black–making their way from the South to the North before the Civil War. An interesting structure, told from three points of view. The structural premise didn’t quite work for me, but the story itself is compelling and well-written.
  • Ajeemah and His Son, by James Berry. Historical fiction YA. In 1807, the British outlawed slave trading. The year before that saw slave-traders in a frenzy to do as much “business” as possible before the law took affect. Ajeemah and his son were kidnapped in Ghana, took the Middle Passage to the Caribbean and ended up as slaves on different plantations. An example of a book that “breaks the rules” and, to my mind, succeeds: very short, but YA, and a point of view that jumps all over the place–the two main characters plus omniscience. This took me a while to adjust to while reading, but I predict the story will haunt me for a long time.
  • A Step from Heaven, by An Na. Contemporary YA about a Korean immigrant family as told through the daughter. The book spans several years and the first-person present-tense voice ages with the character with great skill. No grand story arc, more a series of anecdotes, but beautifully written.
  • Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas. Contemporary YA. Diary-like entries of past memories set in Houston alternate with narrative of teen Steve York’s current life in San Diego. A hilarious, painful and accurate portrayal of contemporary high-school life. At times the humor seems a little too clever, but I cared about Steve so much that it’s a minor complaint.
  • The Truth about Rats, Rules, and Seventh Grade, by Linda Zinnen. Contemporary MG. Sharp and smart first-person voice. A girl learns the truth about the accident that took her father’s life when she was only two. Great use of setting here, refreshing to read about a Midwestern small town instead of a southern one!

Adult fiction: Life, A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec. Destined to become one of my all-time favorites: One hundred rooms in a Paris apartment building, each room holding dozens of stories. A brilliant insane romp of a novel that you will either love or hate.

Food writing: Pig Tails ‘n’ Bread Fruit, by Austin Clarke. A childhood memoir of life in Barbados. Do not look for recipes here; it won’t teach you how to cook, but it might just teach you a little bit about how to live.


July 2001 – Recent Reading

These posts will always focus on books for young people. At the bottom of each list, however, I will include the books for ‘old people’ that I’ve been reading—but only if they’re at least as good as the rest of the list.

Book of the month:

Forgotten Fire, by Adam Bagdasarian

Historical fiction YA. A teenage boy survives the Turkish massacre of Armenians during and after World War I. The evil depicted in this book would be impossible to bear except for the narrator’s voice: simple, unembellished, straightforward. I could not fully engage with the character, but even that is part of the point here: He lives through things that are inhuman. A book that will introduce readers to a chapter of history that needs to be known. National Book Award nominee, 2000.

  • Steal Away, by Jennifer Armstrong. Historical fiction MG. This story of two girls–one white, one black–making their way from the South to the North before the Civil War. An interesting structure, told from three points of view. The structural premise didn’t quite work for me, but the story itself is compelling and well-written.
  • Ajeemah and His Son, by James Berry. Historical fiction YA. In 1807, the British outlawed slave trading. The year before that saw slave-traders in a frenzy to do as much “business” as possible before the law took affect. Ajeemah and his son were kidnapped in Ghana, took the Middle Passage to the Caribbean and ended up as slaves on different plantations. An example of a book that “breaks the rules” and, to my mind, succeeds: very short, but YA, and a point of view that jumps all over the place–the two main characters plus omniscience. This took me a while to adjust to while reading, but I predict the story will haunt me for a long time.
  • A Step from Heaven, by An Na. Contemporary YA about a Korean immigrant family as told through the daughter. The book spans several years and the first-person present-tense voice ages with the character with great skill. No grand story arc, more a series of anecdotes, but beautifully written.
  • Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas. Contemporary YA. Diary-like entries of past memories set in Houston alternate with narrative of teen Steve York’s current life in San Diego. A hilarious, painful and accurate portrayal of contemporary high-school life. At times the humor seems a little too clever, but I cared about Steve so much that it’s a minor complaint.
  • The Truth about Rats, Rules, and Seventh Grade, by Linda Zinnen. Contemporary MG. Sharp and smart first-person voice. A girl learns the truth about the accident that took her father’s life when she was only two. Great use of setting here, refreshing to read about a Midwestern small town instead of a southern one!

Adult fiction: Life, A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec. Destined to become one of my all-time favorites: One hundred rooms in a Paris apartment building, each room holding dozens of stories. A brilliant insane romp of a novel that you will either love or hate.

Food writing: Pig Tails ‘n’ Bread Fruit, by Austin Clarke. A childhood memoir of life in Barbados. Do not look for recipes here; it won’t teach you how to cook, but it might just teach you a little bit about how to live.

 


June 2001 – Recent Reading

Book of the month:

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan

MG historical fiction. I’d never heard of the so-called ‘voluntary repatriation’ of Mexican and Mexican-American farm laborers during the Depression and am grateful to this title for introducing it in such a well-written, personal manner through the story of Esperanza and her family. Chapter titles are named for fruits and vegetables, a touch I found both charming and moving.

  • Half-Magic, by Edward Eager. Middle-grade. My daughter is participating in her school’s “Battle of the Books,” so I’ve been re-reading some of the titles with her. One of my all-time fantasy favorites: Four children find a magic coin that grants wishes–sort of. A great summertime readaloud.
  • The Book of the Banshee, by Anne Fine. One of England’s best-known children’s authors, and recently named “Children’s Laureate” there. Funny contemporary MG portraying a girl’s difficult adolescence through the eyes of her younger brother. I especially liked the scenes depicting the boy and his other sister, a four-year-old, a relationship not often seen in children’s fiction. Another good YA read by this author: Flour Babies, in which a boy must take care of a bag of flour as if it were an infant.
  • Stuck in Neutral, by Terry Trueman. Printz Honor title for 2001. Part of the function of literature–in my opinion, of course–is to give voice to those who have none. This book gives voice to a severely handicapped boy, a victim of cerebral palsy who has no muscle control–he can’t even direct his eyes. A slim book with a lot of ergs per page. Don’t skip the author’s note at the end.
  • Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger. YA must-read, Printz Honor book for 2000. John is one of the realest characters I’ve met in quite a while–a boy who tries to deal with his feelings of alienation by producing a homemade magazine, and meets a fascinating girl along the way. A story of unrequited love, with the realness carried through right to the lasst page.

PLUS two adult titles I read this month and can’t resist recommending:

  • The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. A book about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary? It may sound like a snooze, but trust me on this one–whether you’re a nonfiction lover, a history buff, a word maven, or simply a story lover, I think this nonfiction tale will have you riveted. For me it was a two-sitting read. (Published in England as The Surgeon of Crowthorne.)
  • Pot on the Fire, by John Thorne. The latest from my favorite food writer. I’m obsessed about the role of food in culture, history, people’s daily lives; Thorne goes everywhere in his kitchen and takes me with him. I love his meditations on breakfast; the potato in Irish cuisine; not one but two essays on rice… he’s quirky and opinionated and a terrific writer.

May 2001 – Recent Reading

Books of the month (two, because I couldn’t choose between them):

Owl in Love, by Patrice Kindl

YA fantasy. Girl by day, owl by night. Owl has a marvelous voice–wise, dry humor, yet replete with teenage vulnerability. This book should appeal to those who like romance and mystery, as well as fantasy.

Make Lemonade, by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Contemporary YA written in ‘poetic prose,’ which looks like free-verse poetry on the page. LaVaughn works as a babysitter for a teenage single mother to earn money for college. Voice and story seamless, with characters who will seem like neighbors to those who live in a big city.

Other recommended reads:

  • The Wanderer, by Sharon Creech. One of this year’s Newbery Honor books. Sophie sails the Atlantic with three uncles and two cousins, telling her story alternately with cousin Cody. I especially liked the resolution of the relationship between Sophie and her grandfather Bompie. Note to self: Learn juggling.
  • My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George. Another golden oldie that I’m rereading along with my daughter. City slicker Sam Gribley tries his hand at living off the land. Never mind that he’s a little too successful–it’s a compelling story that reads just as well now as it did thirty years ago. (Am I really that old!?)
  • Kamikaze, by Yasuo Kuwahara and Gordon T. Allred. Memoir of a teenage kamikaze pilot. A remarkable story.
  • Looking Back, by Lois Lowry. Memoir with photos. A re-read of one of my favorite authorship titles, and a must-read for Lowry fans.
  • Journey, by Patricia MacLachlan. Journey and his sister live with their grandparents– because their mother abandoned them. MacLachlan examines the relationship between memory and experience through the motif of photography. I continue to be amazed at her ability to pack so much into so few words; she seems incapable of writing anything less than wonderful. If you know a kid who likes photography, give them this book.
  • True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. The sequel to Make Lemonade. Going against the received wisdom here, I think the first book is stronger–a more unusual storyline. This one has a much more standard plot, but the same compelling un-put-downable style, and you can’t help but cheer for LaVaughn.

Dec. 2000 to March 2001 – Recent Reading

Book of the Month:

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

YA novel that defies description: It’s a sports book, a mystery, a problem novel, and a school story, with a little multiculturalism thrown in as well. All elements deftly handled, with a great protagonist in sixth-grader Paul Fisher.

  • Sunset in a Spider Web, by Virginia Olsen Baron. Translations of sijo, a traditional Korean verse form.
  • On My Honor, by Marion Dane Bauer. MG/YA about a boy who gets into terrible trouble through disobedience.
  • Morning Girl, by Michael Dorris. MG historical fiction: a sister and brother alternate first-person chapters in an account of their lives as Tainos just before Columbus’ arrival.
  • Fiddle Fever, by Sharon Arms Doucet. MG period fiction: A boy in Louisiana’s bayou country dreams of becoming a fiddler.
  • All is Well, by Kristine Litchman. MG historical: A girl comes of age in turn of the century Utah. Presents the old Mormon practice of polygamy without sensationalizing.
  • Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, by Leonard Marcus. Adult book. Fascinating biography of the acclaimed picture-book author.
  • Yang the Second and her Secret Admirers, by Lensey Namioka. Younger MG: The second in the series about a Chinese-American family.
  • A Child’s Delight, by Noel Perrin. Adult book. Brief essays about the author’s favorite children’s books, some famous, some not, a delight indeed. The companion to Reader’s Delight, by the same author, about adult titles.
  • The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. YA fantasy, third in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Imaginative and compelling.
  • At the Sign of the Star, by Katherine Sturtevant. MG historical fiction set in medieval England–a girl who wants to become a bookseller. If you like Karen Cushman’s books, try this title.
  • Miracle’s Boys, by Jacqueline Woodson. MG/YA, this year’s Coretta Scott King Medal winner for fiction. Three brothers in present-day Harlem. A slim volume that packs a big punch.

 

February 2001

The announcement of the annual ALA awards always kicks me into high gear reading-wise. Starting this month, I’ll choose a “book of the month,” and add brief notes to my titles list.

My book of the month:

The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

A YA time-travel adventure story, set in 16th- and 21st-century England, with a vulnerable and interesting heroine. Winner of a Guardian prize for fiction in the UK.

Also recommended:

  • When Jeff Comes Home, by Catherine Atkins (contemporary YA, the harrowing story of a kidnapped and returned teen)
  • A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond (MG fantasy–time travel set in Wales)
  • The Quiltmaker’s Gift, by Jeff Brumbeau, illustrated by Gail de Marcken (PB, an original fairy tale a little heavy on sentimentality but lushly illustrated)
  • Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life, by Russell Freedman (MG biography by a master)
  • Shizuko’s Daughter, by Kyoko Mori (YA coming-of-age set in contemporary Japan–a young girl deals with the aftermath of her mother’s suicide)
  • Ties that Bind, Ties that Break, by Lensey Namioka (early 20th-c. period fiction, set mostly in China and centered around the traditional practice of footbinding)
  • Yang the Youngest and his Terrible Ear, by Lensey Namioka (younger MG, contemporary family story)
  • A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck (2001 Newbery Medal, Depression-era in a small town in Southern Illinois)
  • Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli (contemporary YA about teen peer pressure)
  • Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild (classic MG, three orphan girls who train in the theatrical arts)
  • The Queen of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner (MG adventure set in ancient Greece, sequel to the Newbery Honor title The Thief)

January 2001

  • Go and Come Back, by Joan Abelove (MG/YA)
  • On a Wintry Morning, by Dori Chaconas (picture book)
  • What Jamie Saw, by Caroline Coman (YA)
  • The Ballad of Lucy Whipple, by Karen Cushman (MG)
  • The Everything Book, by Denise Fleming (picture book)
  • Snowdrops for Cousin Ruth, by Susan Katz (MG)
  • Anastasia Krupnik, by Lois Lowry (MG)
  • The Ruby in the Smoke, by Phillip Pullman (YA)
  • The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner (MG/YA)

December 2000

  • Kit’s Wilderness, by David Almond (MG/YA)
  • Matilda Bone, by Karen Cushman (MG)
  • Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo (MG)
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, by Russell Freedman (MG)
  • Silent to the Bone, by E.L. Konigsburg (YA)
  • John Riley’s Daughter, by Kezi Matthews (MG)
  • Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel (MG)
  • Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen (MG/YA)
  • Freak the Mighty, by Rod Philbrick (MG)
  • Never Trust a Dead Man, by Vivian VandeVelde (MG/YA)