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Thursday, March 27, 2014

March Madness: Kids' Books Style

For lovers of children’s books, March Madness has had a whole new meaning since the arrival of School Library Journal’s Battle of the Books SLJsBoB) in 2009. That first year, SLJsBoB convinced me to try a book that sounded awful to me: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Kids killing other kids on television? I was so not interested. But once four different judges explained why they found it compelling, I changed my mind. Of course, when every child in the country wanted to read it, I was glad I already had!

Here’s the format: The Battle Commanders (Monica Edinger, Roxanne Feldman and Jonathan Hunt), children’s literature enthusiasts all, choose 16 of the best children’s and young adult books from the previous calendar year. Then they arrange the titles into brackets and recruit 15 celebrity judges, authors of children’s and young adult books.

SLJsBoB happens when the excitement of award season and its precise criteria has died down. Part of the fun of the contest is that the judges are given no criteria at all. They simply have to choose a winner between two outstanding books and explain their choice. Hilarity, agonizing and insight ensue.

These are the things I love about SLJsBoB:
  1. The Books - The Commanders do a fantastic job of selecting 16 titles worth reading.  The selections vary across the spectrum of good books from the previous year, including fiction and nonfiction, books for different age levels and books in different formats. You can think of it as a concise and readable best books list.
  1. The Judges - Oh, they pick such wonderful judges!  If my favorite book isn’t always included, at least I can always find some of my favorite authors participating. They’re good at writing books themselves; can they also analyze good writing? It turns out they can.
  1. The Commentary - What happens when you ask stellar children’s authors to choose between two outstanding children’s books – and explain their choice?  All kinds of creative things.
    • Adam Rex using footnotes to compare The Ring of Solomon to Sugar Changed the World.
    • M. T. Anderson revealing authors’ abstruse way of talking about books as they stroll together in their vast estates.
    • Vaunda Nelson explaining how an encyclopedic science book is similar to an atmospheric and poignant teen novel.
    • Mac Barnett explaining his background in pre-modern Scandinavian literature. (Who knew?)
    • In short, reading the judges’ commentary is almost as much fun as reading the books and certainly more easily done in breaks on a busy work day.
  1. The Competition - Okay, my favorite books don’t have a great record, but the competition aspect definitely adds to the excitement. It’s fun to try to guess which book the judge will pick and then discover you know less about the judge than you think you do. It’s fun to figure out which book I would pick and how I would defend my choice, if I were a judge. And it’s fun to cheer for your favorites, all the while knowing (as the judges keep repeating) that each of the books is outstanding, and evaluating books is a subjective process.  When favorite authors share my opinions it’s delightful, but it’s also fascinating when they approach a book completely differently than I do.
  1. The Comments - I feel welcomed as a commenter on Battle of the Books, and there is a sense that the judges’ posts are simply a springboard for hearing everyone else’s opinions.
This is book discussion in a lively, entertaining context. Come on in. Observe, comment. Join the Peanut Gallery! The more the merrier!

- Sondra Eklund, Fairfax Regional Library

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Great Pick for Book Clubs

Does your book club need a suggestion for a title sure to provoke a lively discussion? If so, I recommend The Dinner by Herman Koch, a Dutch author. This novel was a bestseller in Europe and won the Publieksprijis Prize, the Netherlands’ literary award, in 2009. It was published in the United States in 2012. This satirical tale revolves around two couples meeting for dinner at a chic restaurant in Amsterdam. Each of the couples has a teenage son who may have been involved in a horrific crime that is currently under investigation. Just who knows what, how they feel about it and what they intend to do are questions that slowly unfurl as the tense meal progresses. Even the husbands and wives don’t know quite where they stand in relation to one another.

The novel is broken into segments like a formal meal: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert and Digestif. There is a comical contrast between the ostentatious restaurant service and the seething tension building between the couples. As the buttoned-up waiter uses his pinky to point out each leaf and berry on the plate while detailing its origin and preparation, the four adults around the table plot against one another as if in a game of chess.

The husbands are also brothers: Paul, a former teacher who has been on extended leave after some odd behavior in the classroom, and the more charming and successful Serge who is running for Prime Minister. The novel is told from Paul’s point of view, so one naturally starts off with some sympathy for him as he discovers evidence of his son’s deeds and fears the end of his “happy family”.  Early on it becomes evident that Paul harbors a lot of bitterness towards Serge and is something of a misanthrope. How much of this he may have passed on to his son through nature or nurture is a question even Paul can’t answer. As the novel progresses and the depravity of some of the participants is revealed, it is hard to know where, if anywhere, to place one’s sympathies.

How far will a parent go to protect his child, even if that child has done the unspeakable? The Dinner leaves the reader with some chilling unanswered questions about how much each character knew and when. The nuances that are left open to interpretation are sure to spark some debate and speculation within your book group.

- Suzanne Summers LaPierre, Kings Park Library

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Must Read Teen Misfits

There are no misfits like teen misfits, and YA literature is full of them. Besides making us laugh, cry and cringe in self-recognition, many literary misfits show us our own societal and personal hypocrisies, prejudices, blind spots and failings. Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl features a sixteen-year-old girl who is an innocent misfit. She has the innocence and guilelessness of a young child. Having been homeschooled her entire life, she now attends public school wearing odd costumes, singing to people in the cafeteria, playing a ukulele, talking to her pet rat and sending birthday notes to strangers. The other teens tolerate her for a while before turning on her. Like most misfit tales, though, there are clues that her alienation by others isn’t final or irreversible. This is a wonderful, thoughtful story for middle schoolers, teens and adults.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon shows us the misfit who is extremely human, loyal and in search of meaning. Christopher is a completely different type of misfit than Stargirl. He is British, autistic, mathematically gifted and extremely disadvantaged at figuring out other people’s motivations and emotional states. His father’s troubled personal life is baffling to him; the reader, better at deciphering psychological nuance than Christopher is, sees that this is both a blessing and a curse. When he finds a murdered dog, he sets out to find the killer, even though the reader senses that Christopher would be better off leaving certain messes alone. In Britain, the book was marketed towards young adults, but it was marketed as adult lit in the U.S. This book has great appeal for older teens and adults.

My personal favorite misfit is Arnold Spirit, also called Junior, in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior, a Native American teen living on a reservation, has an abnormally big head (literally), a host of physical disabilities, alcoholic parents, no money and a sharp wit. He reminds us that he gets beat up at least once a month. After hurling an ancient textbook at a teacher in disgust, Junior is convinced by that same teacher to seek out hope – to get a better education by attending a predominantly white high school 22 miles off his reservation. It’s a given that Junior will be misunderstood, mocked and patronized. And he is. But Junior is also hilarious, tenacious and wise. He survives in spite of us, not because of us. For all the wrong that’s been inflicted on him, he’s resilient, loyal and lacking in vindictiveness. Junior is a misfit we should all aspire to emulate. I highly recommend The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for older teens and adults.

- Carey Hagan, George Mason Regional Library

Friday, March 14, 2014

Grapes of Wrath Turns 75

The Fairfax County Public Library isn't the only one celebrating a diamond anniversary this year. This April John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning saga of a migrant Dust Bowl family turns 75 as well. The Joad family's timeless search for social justice and economic security during the Depression still resonates with readers today. Even if you haven't cracked a page of The Grapes of Wrath since high school, there are a lot of interesting ways to take part in the 75th birthday of this classic.

If you’d like some company for the Joad family’s journey, consider joining NPR’s 'I Will If You Will" book club discussion. Several NPR staffers are reading it now for the first time. You can read their comments and learn how to join in the next online discussion scheduled for March 24.

For more information on the Dust Bowl, check out FCPL’s collection of nonfiction works. This includes two classic works, the Ken Burns documentary film The Dust Bowl and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Timothy Egan's book The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Both pieces bring to life the voices and stories of those who lived through this tragic time.

You may also enjoy learning about Depression-Era photographer Dorothea Lange who used her camera to bring a human face to the great Depression. Migrant Mother is perhaps the most famous of all the photographs to come out of her work in the migrant camps of California.

To hear Paul Hecht and Barbara Feldon read Steinbeck's personal musings while writing The Grapes of Wrath take a look at the Morgan Library and Museum’s offering of The Diary Podcast: Writing The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1902–1968). The actors give voice to Steinbeck’s doubts and challenges as he struggled to produce the novel.

The history of Route 66, dubbed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, is the focus of the online exhibit The People’s Highway produced by the National Museum of American History. It showcases the stories and artifacts of those who traveled the highway in the 1930s and 40s as a part of a larger exhibit America on the Move.

- Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Immersion in Murder

Penniless waifs, squalid streets, devious but colorful characters - there’s something about Victorian-era stories that I find irresistible. Add in brutal murders, determined detectives and surprising plot twists, and you’ve got a book that I can’t wait to read. Luckily for me, the top picks in the mystery category of the American Library Association’s Readers Lists for both 2014 and 2013 more than meet my Dickensian expectations. Although one is set in 1854 London and the other in 1845 New York, both novelists use richly-detailed settings to immerse readers in the time period. If gruesome crimes, fog-bound streets and grabbing historical context appeal to you, these two reads are definitely worth your while.

In David Morell’s Murder as a Fine Art, Victorian England is set on edge when an unknown killer bludgeons and mutilates a shopkeeper and his family. The murders appear identical to a series of violent crimes, known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders, that brought London to the edge of riot and insurrection 40 years earlier. The government worries that the Metropolitan Police will lose control of the panicked public if they don’t make a speedy arrest. Investigators from the fledgling detective branch first suspect Thomas De Quincey, who wrote a series of essays on the original murders. In order to prove his innocence, De Quincey, the infamous author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, must use his insights into the character of the murderer to help the detectives.

While the work is fictional, Thomas de Quincey is a real historical character who did write essays on his use of laudanum and the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders. De Quincey’s lurid works shocked and scandalized Victorian society and Morell uses his character convincingly. While other characters, including de Quincey’s independent, outspoken daughter, are not as richly drawn, his use of historical detail is compelling. Morell takes you on a grand tour of Victorian London, from streetwalkers and chimney sweeps to the heights of British government. The thread holding these disparate elements together is the glistening, ruby-colored opiate known as laudanum.

Lyndsaye Faye’s The Gods of Gotham takes place in 1845, when New York City was struggling to put together a police force while dealing with a huge influx of Irish Catholic immigrants. Timothy Wilde is forced to put on a copper star after losing his job and his savings in a massive fire. While he owes his job policing the poverty-stricken 6th ward to the political influence of his brother Valentine, Timothy is a rare voice of honesty and fairness. One dark night he discovers a fearful, blood-covered child on the streets who has escaped from a notorious brothel. The child tells Wilde of a black-hooded man who comes in the dark of night to kill children. Unrest rises when rumors spread that a recent Irish immigrant is responsible for the death and mutilation of neglected children in the area. In the course of his quest for truth, Wilde will uncover rot and deception deeply rooted in every aspect of life in the 6th ward.

Faye's mesmerizing characters bring to mind both Tammany Hall and Gangs of New York. Wilde's morphine-addicted brother Valentine is a corrupt, larger-than-life star in police politics and views Timothy's scruples with disdain. Timothy balances the depravity he sees around him with a Madonna-like devotion to the charity worker Mercy Underhill. Faye complements her vivid characters with equally vivid descriptions of the city, the product of long hours spent researching New York’s historical archives. As a result, the story oozes authenticity and atmosphere.

In Murder as a Fine Art, Morell suggests that the closed curtains in a Victorian home hide the dark secrets of the souls within. Draw back the curtains of history with these two novels. Their sinister insights into the human experience, however distant in history, are worth examining in the light of day.

- Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library

Friday, March 07, 2014

Nostalgic for Childhood Favorites? Then Read These

Did this fun article from Buzzfeed show up on your Facebook newsfeed last week, too?

22 Books You Should Read Now, Based On Your Childhood Favorites by Arianna Rebolini

If you liked Lois Lowry’s The Giver, for example, then your adult self will enjoy Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Rebolini says. “Both novels tell of sheltered future societies gone wrong: the “Sameness” paradise of The Giver and the isolated boarding school of Never Let Me Go, Hailsham. But each of these supposed utopias harbor secrets, and the significance of Hailsham’s own “sameness” is the darkest of all. What happens when the residents grow up and figure it out?”

And working backward, you can find great reads in the children’s and teen sections by reading Leslie McDunn’s About Books post, Release Your Inner Child – she gives recommendations based on books you loved as an adult.

Either way, we’ve got you covered.

- Ginger Hawkins, Centreville Regional Library

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Release Your Inner Child

There’s a feast of good reads awaiting readers in our Juvenile and young adult collections. Release your inner kid and read some of these classic fiction titles that you might have missed. With any luck you’ll never be too old to enjoy well written and thought provoking titles purportedly written for children.

I feel sorry for Tolkien fans who haven’t read the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander, for example. Now is the time! Taran, assistant pig keeper to the wizard Dalben, stumbles into the adventure of his life when one of his charges, HenWen, escapes and nearly leads him to his death.

Sheri Tepper is known for strong female characters struggling in patriarchal societies. If you like similar story lines, try the Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce. In these books, Alana disguises herself as Alan in order to become a knight-in-training and attempt to succeed in a man’s world.

The Tripods series by John Christopher is a timeless story of alien invasion and human enslavement. The White Mountains introduces Will Parker who is about to be “capped” and thus bound to Tripod control. Follow Will as he tries to escape the destiny already shared by so many humans. Kate Morton, a popular adult author, writes engrossing fiction set in pre-WWII England. So does Lucy Maria Boston, who authored the Green Knowe books, and Arthur Ransome of the Swallows and Amazons titles. Visit pre-WWII England, experience the freedom of school vacations, meet ghosts and relive childhood courtesy of these writers.

Marguerite Henry won the 1949 Newbery medal for King of the Wind, though she seems to be better known for Misty of Chincoteague. Try Born to Trot, Justin Morgan had a Horse and other non-Misty titles to satisfy your horse cravings.

It is worth noting that while these books will appeal to adults, I’m pretty sure you would have liked them even more when you were 10. Maybe we should encourage children to linger just a little longer in JP, JR and JFIC as their reading ability progresses. For instance, a 13 year old may technically be capable of reading the Odyssey or the Iliad but prefer an adaptation of the stories—such as The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey or Black Ships before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe.

Looking for more suggestions? Be sure and ask a librarian at your local library. They will be delighted to share some of the gems in children’s section with you.

- Leslie McDunn, Centreville Regional Library