Okay, I’ve held off writing about The Ask and the Answer, as it isn’t out till September. But it is, I assure you Ness fans, fantastic. I think it may even be better than The Knife of Never Letting Go if that is possible. (Here’s my review of that book if you are interested.) But now we’ve got something else to develop the Chaos Walking story even further. It is “The New World”, a short story Ness wrote for the UK Booktrust that is available starting today on their website. It is wonderful too — bringing out more of Viola’s backstory to great effect. I think, though, what I like the most is that it tells us more about Viola herself. Superb stuff.
Monthly Archives: June 2009
Katherine Sturtevant’s A True and Faithful Narrative was one of my favorite books of 2006 so I am delighted to see that The Brothers Story is coming out this fall. Here’s the description from her website.
The Brothers Story is set in the Great Frost of 1683-84, and tells the story of twin teenaged boys, Kit and Christy, who have grown up in poverty in their Essex village. Because Christy has been “simple” from birth, Kit has literally been his brother’s keeper. But the hardships that come to their Essex village with the frost bring Kit to frustration and despair. He abandons Christy and makes his way to London, seeking to better himself. There he finds much to take his mind from thoughts of all he has left behind: a master who paints pictures, a sharp-tongued serving maid, and a frost fair upon the frozen Thames. When the time comes that he can no longer evade the problem of his brother, Kit must make a choice between returning to poverty-stricken village life or seizing a lucky chance to advance himself–unless he can find a third way. The novel includes much authentic detail, including a frank portrayal of teen sexuality during this period.
A slow fade-in on my life.
So begins Nova Ren Suma’s Dani Noir, a gem of a first novel. Thirteen-year-old Dani lives in a small New York State town where, it seems, nothing much happens. She’s become addicted to the old movies shown at the local Little Art movie theater, in particular, those of the noir sort — The Third Man, Double Indemnity, Notorious, etc. Now I’m a big fan of old movies, but a kid today? Well, I was convinced immediately. A completely contemporary kid (with a crappy un-noirish pink cell phone ), Dani has for a number of very real reasons become fixated on these old films. And what a voice! Fresh, noirish as only a thirteen-year-old could be, I was quickly and completely drawn in.
Surrounded by a cast of well-rendered and often-but-not-always sympathetic characters, Dani is coping with life during a torpid summer, having been hit by a number of painful personal setbacks involving family and friends. As a result she becomes over-focused on film noir and, in particular, Rita Hayworth. Nova Ren Suma does an impressive job having Dani tell bits and pieces of her favorite films as they parallel, clarify, confuse, or otherwise bring out elements in her story.
This delightful book came out of the blue for me. I knew nothing about it when a publicist contacted me through this blog and asked me if I wanted a copy. The description intrigued me so I said sure and am very glad I did. A completely charming book, Dani Noir is due out this fall; keep an eye out for it.
Fever Crumb is a prequel to the series. Here London is still stuck to the ground, though it is already being menaced by a coalition of wandering, northern tribes called the Movement. Fever Crumb herself is a foundling who has been brought up in the rarified and ultra-rational atmosphere of the Order of Engineers, who live and work inside the head of a colossal ruined statue – an image that mashes “Ozymandias” with Planet of the Apes. When she is sent out to work on an archaeological dig, her composure and reason are tested, first by the madness of the city itself, and next by the emotional wounds she opens as she uncovers the mystery of her own parentage.
Most great stories of adventure, from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That’s because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale. But I think there is another, deeper reason for the reliable presence of maps in the pages, or on the endpapers, of an adventure story, whether that story is imaginatively or factually true. We have this idea of armchair traveling, of the reader who seeks in the pages of a ripping yarn or a memoir of polar exploration the kind of heroism and danger, in unknown, half-legendary lands, that he or she could never hope to find in life.
This is a mistaken notion, in my view. People read stories of adventure—and write them—because they have themselves been adventurers. Childhood is, or has been, or ought to be, the great original adventure, a tale of privation, courage, constant vigilance, danger, and sometimes calamity. For the most part the young adventurer sets forth equipped only with the fragmentary map—marked here there be tygers and mean kid with air rifle—that he or she has been able to construct out of a patchwork of personal misfortune, bedtime reading, and the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children.
I know that I am, like, annoyingly old-fashioned about this, but it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that we have lately empowered students to think that their reading of a book is inherently good and/or interesting.
Too often, we teach kids that all readings are created equal and that there are no bad ideas and etc.
But kids are not in school so that they can tell us what they think about Holden Caulfield. They’re in school to learn what to think about. And whether or not you like Holden is not, imho, the most important or interesting thing you might be thinking about when reading Catcher.
It’s not Holden’s fault if people read him poorly.
Those fighting words are from John Green in his response to a recent New York Times piece on kids’ dislike of The Catcher in the Rye and, perhaps more significantly, its main character. I recommend reading the article, reading John’s response, and then — most of all— the comments. For many of them are from high school kids and quite a few of them are fans of Holden.
To me the missing ingredient in this discussion is the teacher. A great teacher can make most books interesting. (Mind you — I’m not saying likable. You can enjoy the experience of reading and talking about a particular book — say Catcher — without necessarily liking it.) Now I know that all too often teachers in schools sadly make the experience of reading a book together as a class a misery. But I have to say that I believe that done right it can be transcendent. With a great teacher a group becomes a community discussing and considering and wondering and thinking hard about all sorts of stuff by way of a great book. It bugs me that there is such a negative view about community book readings — IN SCHOOL SETTINGS. After all, people are big on book groups and whole towns and cities reading a book together. Yet too many of these same folks tear up and spit out teachers and schools for doing something similar.
Good teachers guide and prod and get everyone thinking hard. I teach 4th graders and I like to think I’m able to do this with our study of Charlotte’s Web and am arrogant enough to think I could do it with Catcher in the Rye. It doesn’t always have to be just personal. Sometimes reading is about something else — about ideas, about the world, about all sorts of stuff. When we do a close reading of Charlotte’s Web we consider the circle of life, irony, nature, death, and tons more. The kids move outside of their personal response to consider those of others and whether those change their own. The conversation is exhilarating. For the kids and for me. As wonderful as when I first did a close reading of the book with U.C. Knoepflmacher at Princeton in 1990.
I don’t think every book in the classroom needs to be done by the whole class, but I think it is a shame if some aren’t. Be it Catcher or Charlotte’s Web or another book that is full of meaty stuff to tussle with, to consider, to rail against, or to love. Books and teachers and students together can create extraordinary classroom communities. Don’t rule them out.
Some recent posts about summer reading reminded me of mine from a couple of years ago; since my feelings are the same I’m reposting it here for anyone who didn’t see it back then (or via my twitter update of today).
To require, or not to require, that is the question:
Whether 'tis safer for the child to tackle
The tomes and texts of summer reading,
Or to rest after a year of standards,
And by resting be just fine? To bore: to make tedious:
No more; and by saying no required reading we end
The heart-ache and the hundreds of pages down
That eyes are following, 'tis a consummation
Urgently to be wish'd. To bore, to make tedious
To read: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
for in required reading what dreams may come
When they are reading not what they chose,
It must give us pause: there's the worry
That makes calamity of so long a summer;
For who would otherwise bear the scores of tests,
The teacher's wrong, the greater authorities correct,
The pangs of summer fun, the sandlot game's delay,
The insolence of NCLB and the spurns
That patient scoring of the unworthy tests,
When the grader himself might his intellect make
content with a book? who would a library visit,
To read and turn pages under a flickering light,
But oh that dread of something after Labor Day,
No matter the undiscover'd book in whose pages
No child is lost, or left behind
And indeed makes us happier for we have
played with others and enjoyed the sun!
But required reading make cowards of us all;
Teachers and parents unresolved
Are sicklied 'oer with the pale cast of thought,
Is casual fun of greater import and meaning
In this regard than our children's future?
And so we go --- required summer reading all!
The fair child! Innocent, in our eyes
Be all our beliefs --- read required, read.
New York Times science writer Benedict Carey, in his first book for children, fills a unique niche in the mystery genre. He packs The Unknowns with drama, excitement, pulse-racing action and some pretty serious math too. I was a bit skeptical going in, but there is a lot to this book and the author pulls it off.
The story takes place on an island that contains Folsom Energy Plant and Adjacent trailer park. Carey does a superb job evoking this place — the trash, the kind-but-down-and-out inhabitants, the ways of trailer park living. As Deborah Stevenson noted in the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books, “Carey takes the puzzle-book format, familiar in works from Raskin’s The Westing Game (BCCB 9/78) to Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer (BCCB 7/04), and gives it a rawboned and rich human story with a vivid sense of place.”
The two main characters, Di and Tom, are appealing 7th graders — smart and marginalized. When they discover a local resident, their math tutor Mrs. Clark, has gone missing, and clues that suggest she wanted them to find something major to do with the plant— off they go. Pulling in a few other kids, supported by other adult eccentrics, the kids do math, have adventures, and save the day. Carey’s remarkable portrayal of Adjacent and its inhabitants, his endearing protagonists, and several edge-of-your-seat situations completely won me over. The math puzzles are fun (and become more complex as the story goes on) and there is excitement and drama aplenty.
While The Unknowns was written for and is bound to particularly appeal to young mathematicians, I’m pretty lousy when it comes to math yet I enjoyed it tremendously. I recommend it to anyone who likes atmospheric stories, mysteries, and puzzles-not-easily-solved.
For another enthusiastic review see Erin Fry’s at the LA Times.
The book’s designer, Chad W. Beckerman has a cool post on the evolution of the book’s cover.