Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saving the Best for Last: A Monster Calls

by Patrick Ness
Inspired by an idea of Siobhan Dowd
Candlewick Press (September 2011)
Ages 12 and up

I've waited months to read this book. I even pre-ordered it last July when I first saw the cover and thought, oh yeah, this one does not deceive. I was wrong. It does deceive. But in the very best way possible. A Monster Calls is not a horror story (as the title and cover suggest) so much as a haunting story of grief and denial, clinging and letting go, love and fear. There are so many layers to this book—stories within stories, the collision of the natural with the supernatural, truth and self-deception—it is stunning in its blend of ordinary and unhinged reality.

A Monster Calls unfolds slowly, seeping onto the pages with hypnotic cadence and shadowy, shapeshifting illustrations (beautifully imagined by Jim Kay). The truth of what's happening is revealed over a short span of weeks in the life of thirteen-year-old Conor O'Malley whose mother is nearing the end of her battle with cancer. Bullied and alienated at school, abandoned by his father who left England to start a new life and new family, and forced into the reluctant care of his very ungrandmotherly grandmother, Conor has nightmares. The monster is not one of them. The monster, which takes the shape of a yew tree, doesn't frighten Conor, but it does challenge him.
At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.
Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.
Here is what will happen, Conor O'Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.
And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.
The monster goes on to explain that the fourth tale will be told by Conor. And it will be the truth. The stage is set and the story unfolds, layers deep, alternating between everyday reality and the shadow world of grief, fear and denial. The tales told by the monster have unexpected endings, twisted meanings. Good and evil are not as clear cut as they seem. It's smart, sophisticated writing that does not cheat the reader by spelling everything out.

The language of the monster echoes the ancestral drumbeat of fireside storytelling. It's the perfect vehicle for this sort of tale, where the truth of real life is just too blinding and unacceptable to acknowledge. Instead, it pulses with words and smoldering images that bring to mind the way things look like other (more menacing) things in the dark. The ending is what every writer should be lucky enough to achieve: inevitable, but surprising. Knowing what's coming does nothing to lessen the blow of its impact.

A Monster Calls is self-identified as being for readers aged 12 and up. Many reviewers have categorized it as Young Adult, a strong contender for the Printz; however, I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Newbery announcement next month. Regardless of where it lands on the shelf, it's a winner through and through.

Source: I cashed in a gift card through mumbletysomethingazon and ordered my copy there because I wasn't going to let it go to waste and fill their coffers with an unused certificate. Otherwise, I would have purchased it from an independent bookseller, which is what I recommend to you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Move Over, Scrooge

My story, Move Over, Scrooge, is now live and online at the Los Angeles Times Kids' Reading Room. Check it out!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Nerdwurld Strikes Back

While the longstanding Star Trek v. Star Wars debate may never be settled (too bad because, duh, Star Trek: TOS is the clear winner), George Takei unites the nerdwurld in a battle against the true storytelling evil of our time:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Warp Speed

by Lisa Yee
Arthur A. Levine Books (March 2011)
Ages 9 and Up

Just when I thought I couldn't take another book that deals with bullying, up pops Lisa Yee's fresh, fast and witty take on one of the most insidious social cancers of our times. In Warp Speed, Yee pulls no punches when it comes to looking at life through the eyes of seventh grade lunch meat, Marley Sandelsky, a self-proclaimed AV nerd and Trekkie targeted by middle school neanderthals he nicknames the Gorn.

Marley's humorous first-person narration—present tense no less (kudos to Yee for pulling that off with ease)—absorbs the harsh blows of his sickening reality, as do his Captain's Log entries that cloak his emotional pain in Trekkie-esque lingo ("The enemy Gorn have infiltrated a satellite substation. Damage was minimal. However, the stigma of the attack remains.")

The daily abuse of being shoved in his locker, spit on and beat up is something Marley has come to expect, but it's also an ugly truth he hides from his parents and teachers. I initially had a hard time with the fact that he treats his situation lightly, but then I realized, duh, I was looking at this through an unrealistic adult's viewpoint and needed to get over myself. From Marley's perspective, humor is the best way to cope. So is running....really avoid the Gorn. It's his running away, which turns into running for the joy of it, that's his saving grace.

As a writer, it's incredibly difficult to place your character in a situation that no one has figured out a way to resolve in real life and, well, figure out a way to resolve it. Then, to do it in a way that puts the power in the hands of the main character and not some intervening authority figure. Although, to his credit, Marley tries to enlist the help of an outside force—the Star Trek action figures from whom he draws strength to face his tormentors. The crew of the Enterprise isn't much help, however, when it comes to wooing Emily Ebers, the girl he's beginning to think likes him for more than his garbage gown modeling skills. Honestly, the scenes with Emily in which Marley spontaneously erupts in Klingon are about as painful to read as the ones in which he's being pummeled by the Gorn. In spite of all he has going against him, however, Marley has guts when it comes to surviving love and war at Rancho Rosetta Middle School.

A nice subplot to Marley's story is his family's struggle to maintain their historic movie house, the Rialto, which Marley fears his parents will have to sell. They're kind people, his folks, and their love for each other and Marley offers a solid anchor to what could have become a lopsided bullied nerd saga.

Warp Speed is a well-rounded novel with great pacing, humor and appeal for kids in the upper range of middle grade readers. The best part is that it picks up where three of Yee's previous Rancho Rosetta Middle School novels left off. It reads just as well without ever having read the other books, and will make readers want to go check them out to see what they've been missing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Lucky Cap

by Patrick Jennings
EgmontUSA (April 2011)
Ages 8-12

Patrick Jennings has got to be one of my favorite writers, not just because he writes in such an easy going carefree style, delivered with engaging humor and peppered with pathos, but because he takes risks. He does his own thing, regardless of conventional expectations. Case in point: Lucky Cap, his latest novel for middle grade readers.

In Lucky Cap, eleven-year old Enzo Harpold goes from average to amazingest in the blink of an eye when his father takes a management position with the ultimate sporting goods company, Kap, and off they go on a summer tour of Kap outlets, complete with personal lessons by sports legends and an all around can't-be-topped experience. The story opens just as Enzo's fantasy summer is coming to an end and he's faced with the horror of starting sixth grade. His biggest fear is that he'll go from top of world to bottom of the heap just as quickly as he ascended to glory.

Except for one thing: Enzo has a special prototype cap given to him by his dad's boss at Kap. Enzo is convinced that this cap has imbued him with some sort of magical middle school mojo. Given the phenomenal good luck he has on his first day of sixth grade (being nominated class president, attracting girls left and right, getting in with the cool kids), Enzo's confidence runs amok. Read: this kid has an out-of-control, over-the-top ego. And this is where Jennings takes his biggest risk. Creating a character/narrator that's, well, rather hard to love.

If Enzo's ego and good fortune hadn't been so over-the-top, it would be difficult to justify an entire novel in his defense. But since it is over the top, and there's no defending the way Enzo treats his best friend from elementary school (not to mention girls and kids who get in his way), by the time he loses his cap and spirals out of control, it all starts to come together.

In a way, Enzo's story reads like a deal with the devil, in which the devil's abode looks and functions a lot like middle school and survival of the best-dressed/most-glib/social climbers—in fact, a microcosm of the larger world we all live in. His dad's boss at Kap behaves a lot like a silver-tongued emissary from corporate Hades, plying young Enzo with a philosophy of accumulation and egocentrism. This kid goes completely off the rails, thanks to the fine makers of athletic wear and cold-hearted competition. Some readers might miss this, thinking Enzo is just a jerk, but I've read enough of Jenning's work to know he's not one to promote the slope-headed mentality of commercialism and convention.

The proof is in the ending, which I won't give away. You'll just have to read it to find out. Lucky Cap is not for readers expecting to cheer for a beleaguered underdog, but it shines as a tale of middle school madness.

Source: Copy provided by the publisher.