Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee

Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Pheean Australian import, is one fabulous book.  I’d had the ARC for quite a while, but it took Betsy Bird’s rave review to finally get me to read it and I’m so glad I did. Twelve-year-old Candice is one of those delightful singular narrators — she is definitely different, but not in a way that can be nicely and conveniently categorized.  Classmates term her SN for special needs, but there is no sense that she is being provided any special support at all. She tells her story clearly, without discomfort, with thought, and with delightful humor. Her family is struggling emotionally for many good reasons, but Candice is keeping going even as her parents are barely able to do so. Candice knows herself, she knows she is different, and is completely comfortable with that. Occasionally there is a tinge of Pollyanna in her, say when she is paired for a school project with the classmate who seems to hate her most. Candice both knows Jen detests her and thinks that they will be great friends because of the project. Does the latter prevail? Sort of and sort of not. Read the book to see.

Jonsberg’s writing is a dream. He has structured the book as a school assignment Candice is given — to write an abecedarian  autobiography — one paragraph for each letter. Our girl takes it and runs with it, letting us know at the beginning that she is tossing the one paragraph rule, giving each letter a full chapter instead.  She loves the dictionary and Dickens and it shows. Hers (or rather Jonsberg’s) ability to write a scene is just delightful. I dare you not to be moved by those with her parents. Or intrigued by those with Douglas Benson from Another Dimension. Then there are those passages where Candice ruminates, say about trying to get her fish to become an atheist. Or about the death of her baby sister. Or about her Rich Uncle Brian. I’m a teacher so I have to say I adored Candice’s, Miss Bamford.  She just appreciates Candice and I appreciate her, pirate attire and all. (Read the book to see what that is all about.)

So go find and read this book — it is terrific.

Coda: The SLJ reviewer wrote,  “This is a strong readalike for Counting by 7s (Dial, 2013) and Out of My Mind(S. & S., 2010.”  I have to say this makes me very uncomfortable as it suggests there is a category of books of different, so identified because of unusual personality or severe physical differences. The girls in each of these books are each such distinctive individuals, their situations are not the same, and the writing is not the same.  The idea that young readers would read all three for the same reason disturbs me — it suggests they are looking for books about kids who are not them, who are fascinated by their differences. Sure they will admire these three girls, but why throw them together this way?

 

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Learning About Africa: Coping with Ebola in Kenema

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While Ebola seems to be off the  New York Times front page, the articles are still there.  “If They Survive in the Ebola Ward, They Work On” features some heroic people in and around Kenema, an area I knew when I lived in Sierra Leone. (For a different sort of context, this is center Mende country where the Amistad captives of Africa is My Home were from.)

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Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish

Who doesn’t enjoy a well-drawn curmudgeon? Children’s books are rife with them. From dour Eeyore moping about the Hundred Acre Wood to the irritable Mary Poppins, they come in all shapes and species. Proudly singular, such cantankerous characters are invariably exasperating, endearing and entertaining all at the same time. And now along comes Jennifer L. Holm with a doozy. Best known for her works of historical fiction, three of which have won Newbery Honors (“Our Only May Amelia,” “Penny From Heaven,” “Turtle in Paradise”), and the graphic novel series “Babymouse,” Holm uses a surprising twist to bring us a particularly memorable grouch in her latest, “The Fourteenth Goldfish.”

That’s the beginning of my very enthusiastic review of The Fourteenth Goldfish in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.  Read the rest of it here.

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BBC Television Series of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

I was a huge fan of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell and have been keeping an eye out on the progress of the forthcoming BBC seven-episode series.  I found this article about the filming with some images, one of which is below. There’s also  a facebook page featuring more images and stuff from the series filming.  Evidently the filming is done and they are into post-production.

Bertie Carvel plays Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan plays Mr. Norrell.

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Coming Soon: Katherine Coville’s The Cottage in the Woods

I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocrity and so when I come across something new I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale DetectivesChristopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series?  And if YA dark is it going to be a lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a  description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss,  I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations.  And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.

The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young boy’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy.  But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.

The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel.  I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.

There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting.  And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.

So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.

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Learning About Africa: The Realness of Ebola in Sierra Leone

This blog is a platform I normally reserve for the important issue of fashion in Sierra Leone, but this week, I’m struggling to find a fashion angle. Unless you’ve been living on mars, you will know that West Africa is suffering the worst ever outbreak of the world’s most deadly disease – Ebola. I traveled to Kenema district last week for an assignment to write about the outbreak. I live in Freetown and before leaving, the epidemic hadn’t really kicked off here. ‘EBOLA!’ (said with a loud voice and chuckle) was something that was happening in villages, places that didn’t affect the urban folk of Sierra Leone’s capital. I knew Kenema was a district suffering huge case numbers, but nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard in one of Sierra Leone’s most brutally affected areas.

From Human Tales of Ebola.

And here is a  New York Times video from one of the villages most affected.

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Learning About Africa: Ebola

Yet again Africa is in the news as the other, as a place of horror and misery.  So just a few reminders:

Ebola is not throughout Africa. You don’t need to worry when coming into contact with someone from the continent or someone who has been there recently. Africa is a big continent and Ebola is not everywhere.  In fact…

Ebola is currently in three West African countries:  Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. But…

Ebola is not an air-borne illness. You will not contract it by being in the same plane or auditorium or building as someone who has it or has come from one of the countries where it is prevalent. In fact…

you would need to be directly exposed to fluids from someone with the illness to be exposed. And that means that it is in the affected areas, in direct contact with those who have the illness, that you would be most at risk.  And that is just not true for those of us living in the United States. So stop worrying about getting it here. Instead worry…

that those in the affected areas do not have the basic health care we in the United States take for granted. And so while there is indeed not a cure for Ebola,…

with the sort of hospital care we in the US take for granted, treating the disease in early states, many who are dying would be saved.  But…

in the affected areas that sort of care is rare.

To learn more please read:

Stop Worrying About Ebola (And Start Worrying About What it Means)

As WHO Warns Ebola Death Toll is Underestimated, How Should Global Community Handle Dire Crisis?

 

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