Friday, October 26, 2007

Sugar Highs (and Lows)

I was intrigued to search out The Candy Darlings after reading a column by author Christine Walde in Quill and Quire (September 2007). She described her book as being pretty edgy ("It had sex. Drug use. Drinking. Violence, both physical and psychological. Not to mention torture.") I was intrigued, particularly because we were discussing in class how dark YA fiction can get. And this is pretty dark. Edgy, gritty, rife with mean, sneaky girls and teenaged angst.

Our protagonist -- who remains nameless throughout -- moves to a new neighbourhood after the death of her mother. Her father is emotionally distant, but she is happy to have a clean slate and only wants to fit in. She can't stomach candy because one of the last images she has of her mother was with a slow intravenous drip, which she describes being like sugar water. (Her aversion to candy did change, rather abruptly I felt. It didn't ring quite true to me.) At first she does fit in, with the popular (but uber nasty) clique of three girls. Things turn when Megan Chalmers comes to town. Megan couldn't care less about fitting in and maximizes her shock value (both in behaviour and appearance). Her background is mysterious and she periodically disappears throughout the book. Megan and our no-name gal bond and it becomes, predictably, but true to reality I believe, a great set up for a teen girl turf war, with all its nastiness and sneakiness and back stabbing. Megan is continually popping candy and each chapter is named as such (Astro Pop, Fun Dip, etc.)

I enjoyed the book, but have to say that I found it bogged down near the end, particularly when the girls become candy stripers (which seemed a bit out of character, except that they did it partially to gain access to their beloved candy) and befriend an elderly woman who also loves candy. This woman begins a rambling tale, told to the girls in parts at each visit. I found myself drifting from time to time at this point, but it comes together for a satisfying conclusion, and even leaves us wanting a bit more. A few things unresolved, but that didn't bother me. I did crave red licorice when I was done though.

A few reviews here: Canadian Materials and Quill and Quire.

Here's a little bit from the Quill and Quire piece by Walde where she explains how the story began:

"In the beginning, my first book was supposed to be a collection of postcard stories about candy. It all started while I was living in Northern Ontario and saw a teenage girl kiss her boyfriend after feeding him a blue gumball. That sparked a story called "Tear Jerker Guts," which was then followed by "Astro Pop," "Fun Dip," and "Lotsa Fizz," among others."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Just For Fun

PEZ reinvented! A short time-waster. Gotta love those PEZ. Thanks for Fuse #8 via Bookshelves Of Doom for the link. (Two great blogs by the way.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog for the Environment

It's Blog Action Day and today's focus is the environment. So in that spirit, today's entry Tree of Life: The Incredible Biodiversity of Life on Earth by Rochelle Strauss (Kids Can Press, 2004). This large format book uses the tree as a metaphor -- the family tree of life on earth if you will. Strauss opens by speaking directly to the reader and comparing a family tree to the "Tree of Life" for all living things. From there, she introduces the five kingdoms of life: Monera, Fungi, Protoctista, Plants and Animals. Each of the first four kingdoms gets its own spread before we get a more detailed break-down of the Animal Kingdom, with its approximately 1 318 000 species. (Or, as Strauss relates the information, animals give 1 318 000 leaves to the tree of life.) Given that animals are ultimately more interesting to young readers than, say, cyanobacteria (although cyanobacteria are pretty cool, and we probably wouldn't be living on this planet without them), this was probably a good move. Each of the larger categories of animals gets its own spread (reptiles, fish, mammals, etc.).

The book is visually very beautiful, with lovely illustrations by Margot Thompson. The images of the organisms are bright and engaging and she's chosen some great species to illustrate, such as the Jamaican leaf-nosed bat, the tardigrade, and the panther chameleon. On each spread, Strauss gives a general introduction to the topic at hand and then gives us the numbers. (On the page for vertebrates, for instance, we learn there are 25 100 fish, 9800 birds, 8000 reptiles, 4960 amphibians, and 4640 mammals, totalling 52 500 leaves on the Tree of Life.) After this introductory sections, Strauss narrows in on a few organisms in detail. (For example, on page 15 we learn: "High up in tropical rainforests, the bromeliad grows into a "bowl" of leaves attached to a tree. This bowl catches water and becomes a habitat for many species of frogs, insects, spiders and worms. The largest bromeliad is just a bit smaller than a backpack. It can hold nearly 7.5L (2 US gal.) of water.")

The last page in the overview of the Tree of Life, finds us with 1 species: humans. This is an important page as children will learn that we are just 1 of the 1 750 000 leaves on the Tree of Life. As Strauss says: "Yet, with a population of over six billion, humans have the greatest impact on the Tree of Life." From there, readers learn about habitat loss and endangered species as well as some ways to help preserve habitats and our earth's biodiversity.

Children hear enough about global warming and recycling and turning off the lights to help "save the world." I'm not a fan of telling kids they can save the world, frankly. They've got enough to worry about without that weight on their shoulders, yet, I think it is very important they know where they fit in the scheme of things on our planet. And, hopefully, if they become more aware of the incredible diversity of life and habitats and cultures and religions and music and food and books ... well, just the diversity of life on our planet, they will learn to respect and care for all life. To that end, The Tree of Life is a wonderful tool -- it's not preachy, but it fuels the wonderful childhood quality: curiosity. Share the book with a child (or 30) and then get out there and discover the incredible diversity in your neighbourhood (even a yard or a ditch or a vacant woodlot can usually yield some treasures if one's willing to slow down and look).

The final spread in the book is an excellent Note to Parents, Teachers and Guardians, with more detailed information on the classification of living things as well as some more suggestions are exploring biodiversity with young people.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Kayaking and Cemeteries

A few weeks ago I was asked to tag along on a kayak trip to talk about local history. My eldest daughter and joined the group and had a wonderful time on a beautifully sunny fall day paddling through the harbour islands. I write about local history in our local monthly and write columns like this on local place names. We ended our trip at an island locally called Cemetery Island, where many of the pioneers are buried. Lovely, lovely island. When I die, bury me there.

ABC Spook Show

This is the Halloween book I'd really like to get my mitts on: ABC Spook Show. Who can resist an ABC book with entries "from Apparitions to Zombies." This title is created by the wonderful Vancouver artist, Ryan Heshka.

Here's a peek inside at the "M is for Mad Scientist" page, which I plucked from his web site.

And this is what The Georgia Strait magazine had to say about his book:

"Vancouver artist Ryan Heshka's love for old horror movies, 10-cent magazines, and stuff you send away for from the back pages of comic books is obvious in this Halloween-themed ABC book. Every page is beautiful, and the expressions of the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are priceless. See the Mad Scientist pull the lever on the red alien squid ("Boys, this is it!")! Quake at the terrible hunger of the Imp ("Red-Itchy-Scaly")! Tremble at the electric-voodoo beams from the eyes of the Bat ("High-Voltage Fun")! If only the pages were twice as big…"

The Georgia Strait has reviews of a slew of other kids' books here. I'll be saving my pennies for this keeper.

Second Hand Score: Georgie

Halloween's a comin' and what better way to celebrate than to dust off this score I picked up for 25 cents. I remember Georgie by Robert Bright from when I was a kid. It was published by Scholastic in 1944 (the cover price then was 45 cents), and it has that very nostalgic feel to it -- single colour line art (blue) and fairly child-like art. Who can resist a town where every house has its own ghost in the attic? Georgie was having a gay-ol' time "spooking" the Whittakers, in a gentle sort of way, where spooking means creaking a loose floor board and a squeaky door so the Whittakers would know it's time for bed. Oooooh, scary. Life changes though, when Georgie has to look for a new home because Mr. Whittaker has decided to get out his Mr. Fix-it Kit and repair the floor board and oil the door hinge. Poor Georgie needs to find a new house to spook. Of course I won't spoil the ending and you can find your own copy!

Here's a peek inside.

Author and illustrator Robert Bright went on to create 12 more Georgie books after this initial offering -- Georgie and the Robbers, Georgie and the Little Dog, Georgie and the Magician, etc.

WE: Evolution in a Picture Book

I've been stewing over WE by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Kenneth Addison, trying to sort out my thoughts on this interesting new picture book. This is how the publishers describe this book:"In WE ... Alice Schertle brings to young readers the fascinating story of the common origins of the human family. In spare, lyrical verse she traces the evolution of human development from its beginnings in Africa seven million years ago to modern times, highlighting the emergence of diversity among peoples and the spread of culture, technology, and our ability to form complex, and sometimes troubled, societies."

Phew, that is a tall and very ambitious order for a picture book with, on average, fewer than 50 words a spread. Schertle is, no doubt about it, a very accomplished and talented poet. I have no quibble with her poetry, my concern with WE is the subject matter and the target age group. Evolution, human origins, human history...however you want to describe not an easy topic for the "average", not-too-science-literate adult, so I think this book, as presented, could prove confusing to young people.

Here's an example of what I mean. After an introductory spread showing the changing landscape in Africa, and reference to the formation of the Rift Valley, we see two apes illustrated and this text:

African sun warmed us
African winds blew through our thick hair
We cooled our feet and our throats in the river
and ate what we could catch or find
in Africa

On the next page:

And we changed slowly
as the river-washed stones grew smooth as moons

We were brainier now
and our hands fingers and thumbs so clever

Okay, so in one page we've blasted through hundreds of thousands of years of minute changes at the hands of natural selection. And so it goes. By the next page, we have upright Homo sapiens. From there, the book goes into the the technological advances ("So we built boats/ and made sails to catch the wind/ and were lost on the vastness of the sea"), settlements ("We built cities with strong walls/ and machines to knock down the strong walls of cities/ We made war."), and diversity of human existence as we learn through the text and pictures the diversity of religion, art, landscapes, etc. A huge, and very brave imho, amount to fit between the covers of a picture book.

My conclusion about this book is that it is only as successful as the person reading it is skilled at interpreting the information to children. How well can they expand on the ideas presented within to children? It could be a fabulous starting point for all sorts of discussions, but I just don't think that children will grasp the idea of human evolution as it is presented in the opening pages. For a child, "slowly" means the amount of time it takes for the school bell to ring at the end of a day. I can only imagine what they might be thinking when presented with the idea -- probably for the first time -- that humans evolved from apes. And, as a science educator who has written about evolution, I know how lacking most adults' understanding of this topic is. I would love to be a fly on the wall to see how this book is used by parents, teachers, and librarians and hear the questions children ask (and the discussions that result).

Having said all this, I do think that once you get past the first few pages and are into fully evolved Homo sapiens and the story of their dispersal across Earth, you're into a very different story. This one tells of how we spread across the planet and created societies, cultures with varying religions, music, art and technologies. This is more straightforward stuff with no end of starting points for wonderful discussions.

So, these are just my thoughts. I'd love to hear yours if you've read this book. A note on the art by the late Kenneth Addison. At first I thought the collages were too busy and confusing, but the more I looked over the book the more I liked the style. There is lots for children to pore over and the art would be a good jumping off point for activities on collage. Here's a good blurb on Alice Schertl on the occasion of her birthday from the blog, Poetry for Children. You can also read more about the book, including an interview with Schertl, here.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Human Flipbook

Okay, this is too fun. For some reason, I can't seem to get YouTube movies to post to my blog, despite having done it before. So, go to this link for a bit of distraction.

Endpaper Eyecandy

Check out these wonderful endpapers. Older books certainly did this feature well. I wonder why so few new books use them? (On that note, I forgot to mention in my post on Adele and Simon on September 25 had great endpapers which show the route Adele and Simon take through Paris overlayed on the Paris may from the 1907 edition of Paris and Environs by Karl Baedeker.)

What My Mother Doesn't Know

In my constant search for verse novels, I have just finished What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, published in 2001. Short, pithy poems of a young girl's first loves and trying to fit in make this story zip along. Nice to see that Sophie wades through the morass of trying to be one of the cool kids to find what really matters. This is the blurb from the jacket cover:

My name is Sophie.
This book is about me.
It tells
the heart-stoppingly riveting story
of my first love.
And also of my second.
And, okay, my third love, too.

It's not that I'm boy crazy.
It's just that even though
I'm almost fifteen
I've been having sort of a hard time
trying to figure out the difference
between love and lust.

It's like
my mind
and my body
and my heart
just don't seem to be able to agree
on anything.

Sonya Sones has a great web site, including a blurb on the cover design as well as the idea behind the little flip book (that ends with a kiss), which runs from pages 231 to 259.