Friday, December 29, 2006

Guess what I've been reading this week? That's right -- poetry. This week I've been reading several excellent (and instructive) poetry books by Paul Janeczko. Regular readers know that I rhapsodize about his excellent collaboration with Chris Raschka, A Kick in the Head, and, more recently, about Seeing the Blue Between, which I mentioned wanting for the holidays, so I ordered it for my very own.

Well, the past few days I've been reading these delightful Janeczko tomes from my lovely local library:

The Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Work is an anthology edited by Paul Janeczko that came out in 1990. In it, he collects poems from 39 poets, plus their thoughts, ideas, and some advice on the writing of poetry. An interesting way to learn about poets through their work and their account of their history (how they came to writing poetry, primarily). The balance of rhyme and free verse, simple poems and more complex ideas, is spot on. And this book is 16 years old already, yet you'd (almost) never know it. I added the qualification because some folks will see that the fashions are a tad dated, or, if it's of someone they know, that they are older than that now.

Poetry from A to Z: A Guide for Young Writers

Organized alphabetically, for each letter the book includes a poem that has something to do with the letter (a poem called "The Question" for Q, a poem about extinction for E (even though it's called "The Animals are Leaving" -- this particular one made me stop and think for a wee bit), a poem called "Which" for H (the content is about horses), etc.) And in some places, types of poems are examined: Acrostic poems under A, Clerihews and Curse poems under C, Shape poems (aka concrete poems) under S. There are practical exercises for folks who'd like to give some forms a try, and wonderful poems to look at. As always, Janeczko balances rhyme with free verse, and includes some poems in forms as well. Nice!

How to Write Poetry is the final Janeczko book I read this week. It's organized as a primer for young people who are interested in writing poetry. While instructive, it's never didactic -- something very hard to pull off, I think, yet Janeczko's managed nicely. In the first chapter, he discusses the tools needed in order to write, the usefulness of keeping a journal and word banks, and notes on how to observe, what to observe, whether to hide your journal, and --oh yeah-- a directive on the importance of READING, most particularly of reading other poetry. Chapters Two through Four are focused on writing different types of poems, with examples interspersed and useful tips interspersed. Chapter Five gives you some idea of what to do with your poems once you're finished, including advice on submitting poems for publication.

The exercises could, I suppose, easily be used in the classroom, although the way the book is written it's more like kindly advice from one poet to another, and less teacherish. And that makes it the perfect gift for a budding young poet you know. Or even an older person who's just getting started. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Winter-Time: A Poetry Friday Post

No, the weather outside isn't frightful. Yet. Although it is a bit dreary today and the forecast says rain is on the way. It is, however, officially winter, what with the solstice occurring yesterday evening and all.

In honor of the turning of the season, I thought I'd post a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson -- yes, he of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But hey, he also wrote The Land of Nod. and other poems as part of a collection called A Child's Garden of Verses. He later issued a second collection of poetry in two volumes -- one in English and one in Scots -- called Underwoods.

The following poem is from A Child's Garden of Verses. The entire volume of poems was dedicated "To Alison Cunningham, from Her Boy" in a poem of the same name. Alison Cunningham was not his mother, but his nurse (these days, we'd use the term "nanny")hired to help care for young Robert from the time he was eighteen months old. Like his parents, Cunningham was a Calvinist, and told him many stories about hell-fire and damnation. She also included stories about witches and ghosts, which doubtless influenced his later writings, particularly Jekyll and Hyde, written long after he'd repudiated many of the tenets of his Calvinist upbringing. But I digress.

Here, in celebration of the Solstice and the turning of the year, is a fine example of Stevenson's poetry, written from a child's perspective (hence the reference to his "nurse" bundling him up).

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I've read terrific reviews of this little brown boxy book on several other blogs, most notably Mother Reader, and was therefore prepared to be wowed when I read it. And at first, I wasn't. But in retrospect, I was.

Allow me to elaborate:

This book features a dialogue between an "off-screen" character (undoubtedly an adult), who repeatedly asks the little line-drawing bunny why he/she is doing various things with a box. And the little bunny repeatedly answers, "It's not a box." On the asking two-page spread, we see the little bunny doing something in, on, with or to the box. On the next two-page spread, we see by the addition of red lines to the original drawing what it is that the little bunny is imagining, and that in the bunny's mind it is, indeed, not a box.

Kids will love hollering "It's not a box" along with the little bunny. Adults may or may not "get" the true appeal of this book, which has an insidious message indeed: adults are dense and unimaginative, and children are resourceful and clever. In the end, hours after reading it (twice), I concluded that this book was sheer genius and that I loved it, and that's because of its clever use of what appear to be simple line drawings (although I couldn't manage them myself when I tried), it's cardboard-boxy goodness (the jacket even feels like a box), and the triumph of smart children everywhere over the adults who try to box them in. Kudos to Antoinette Portis for this fun and clever little box book.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Let's go on a house tour.

Why the title? Allow me to explain:

A poem is frequently made up of stanzas.

The word "stanza" is Italian, and means "room."

Therefore, a poem is made up of rooms.

Conclusion? A poem is a form of house.

Thinking of a poem as a house to be toured is actually not a bad idea. When you enter a house for the first time, you get your first impression of the home. A lot of folks make sure that their foyer or living room or whatever it is that you see looks terrific. In the same way, the opening of the poem should grab your attention and give you a feel for the particular poem. If the poem is short, with only two stanzas, then the first stanza has to be more of a "great room," with sufficient content to really pull the buyer in. If it's one of four or more stanzas, then it can be the foyer -- a small room that clues the buyer in to the house she's entered, but doesn't show all that much.

An experienced realtor leading a tour will move a buyer through the house in such a way as to see everything, but will build the tour to an outstanding feature of the house so the buyer ends on a high note, and takes away the best possible impression of the house. In the same way, the poem will move you through its content. If it's a two-stanza poem, then everything will be more compact -- the tour will move more quickly, so to really "wow" the buyer, the rooms have to be impeccable. If it's got several stanzas, then the tour might be a bit more leisurely, but it doesn't mean that any of the rooms can be a mess. And the ending has to really make an impact on the buyer, or else they will resent walking through all those rooms just to end up looking at your unfinished firepit.

Let's have a look at this lovely "house" called Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare. It is not usually broken into separate stanzas in format, but I've done it here to echo the internal stanzaic form, and so that you can see that last "room" in all its glory, small though it may appear:

Sonnet 130

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

See how he impresses with his first room, where he appears to insult the woman who is the subject (or is she the object?) of his poem. And then he tours you through a few more "rooms," each of which appears to view this woman unfavorably. It not only holds your attention, but it builds tension -- why this laying on of insults and slights? And then, he shows you that last room -- it's small, but it's spectacular: a rhymed couplet, where he notes that he loves her tremendously, and that she doesn't need false comparisons. Happy sigh.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Last night, I read Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper, thereby completing my first-ever reading of The Dark is Rising sequence.

By the way, I know I haven't mentioned it before, but I find it way cool that it is called "The Dark is Rising sequence" and not a "series." Somehow, sequence is a much cooler word. Also, you can pretty much read the first two books in either order and not be confused in the slightest, which makes "sequence" a better term anyhow. Given the slipperiness of time within the books (and boy does it get slickery by Silver on the Tree, with everyone falling through centuries almost randomly at times), you could theoretically read them in any old order, but I would have to say that reading Silver on the Tree anywhere but last would make a reader's head explode. Or implode. Either way.

A quick recap of the sequence: Will is the last of the Old Ones to be born. He's an immortal associated with the Light, who seeks to banish the Dark forever. And, lest you have any doubt, the Dark is rising. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are normal kids (who have well-developed premonitory skills, an abundance of curiosity, and, in Jane's case, some latent magical quality that goes unspecified and unspelled-out (yeah, pun intended) throughout the entire sequence). Merriman Lyon is the oldest of the Old Ones (and is known to readers by at least one other name as well), and is a mentor to Will and a "great-uncle" to the Drews. The Drews had found a chalice hidden Over Sea and Under Stone, Will has found all of the Six Signs in The Dark is Rising, the Drews and Will have salvaged a secret from the Greenwitch, and Will has met another key kid, Bran, who is an albino with a wild family background. Bran, it turns out, is the Pendragon, although the meaning of that term is never, ever given in any of the books, which I found annoying and frustrating because the author makes a big deal out of it, but never ever explains it to her (presumably) young readers. And expecting young readers (or, in my case, not so young readers) to be fully versed in Arthurian terminology and lore is unreasonable. But I digress.

We met Bran in the fourth book, The Grey King, in which the story was as much about discovering Bran's true identity as it was about waking the Six Sleepers from the Welsh hills. And now, in Silver on the Tree, we've rounded up all the players from all the books for a final showdown between the Dark and the Light. Will starts slipping between centuries on a hillside in Buckinghamshire, and that's his cue that it's time for the final countdown. That, and the appearance of a mink (and later, stoat-like pole cats). The ominous use of weaselly creatures by the Dark is let go, though I'd have liked to see them come forward throughout the book. Will heads off to Wales for a visit, and so do the Drew children. They all meet up on their latest adventure -- a quest to find a crystal sword.

Jane interacts with the Lady, who is imbued with High Magic as well as the Light. Will and Bran enter the Lost Land on a very long and at times bewildering quest for the sword. They meet Gwion, who I really, truly loved -- he's part of the Wild Magic, which isn't supposed to aid the Light or the Dark, but Gwion doesn't roll like that -- he's pro-Light, anti-Dark. Meanwhile, back in modern Wales, Jane, Simon and Barney slip back through time somehow and end up in an earlier time. This is where I think the book got tricksy, to borrow a term from Gollum for a moment. The fact that not only the Drew children, but also John Rowlands, start time-slipping makes the whole book have a different feel than the others. Sure, Jane saw apparitions in Greenwitch, but she wasn't an active participant in what she saw. Somehow, this makes a difference.

One of the true heroes of the book is, in my opinion, the good John Rowlands, a man who knows Will is an Old One, and wants to help the Light, but doesn't really want to know what's going on. He acts nobly and well throughout. He is called to make a decision that will affect the Light's ability to vanquish the Dark, and he does so in an admirably well-reasoned way, and with great personal sacrifice. He also steps in at THE critical moment in the battle between the Light and the Dark, allowing Bran to cut the silver on the tree. And yet none of the reviews I've found thus far really focus on this good-hearted soul who repeatedly does what he can to protect the children he's grown fond of (from jumping in the water to standing by the tree). So here's to you, John Rowlands!

Silver on the Tree is far more disorienting than any of the other books, or perhaps than all of them put together. There's a lot of time-slippage, as I already mentioned, and a lot of Arthurian and Welsh history and folklore, only some of which will be familiar to the readers, and there's a lot of whirling, swirling goings-on that are hard to get a clear handle on. The text can literally make your head spin, so that you experience the confusion and pandemonium that the characters are undergoing. Which is, on the one hand, a great bit of writing and a nice trick, and is, on the other hand, a bit confuzzling and potentially bewildering. Also, there's a lot more "big words" in this book. More eloquently written passages, more lyrical examinations of the mental conditions of the characters in the book, etc. , but it's interspersed between action passages. The result is that it reads like an adventure/quest interrupted by esoteric ruminations. That sounds like a negative criticism, probably, but I didn't mean it to be -- I quite enjoyed the book, although I think it's "higher" literature than the other four books because of the bigger philosophical/theological/ideological issues and whatnot raised in the book.

I very much enjoyed the time in the Lost Land, a place of Wild Magic. It included a mirrored maze, a beautiful fountain, a hideous horse skeleton-beast and more. And it was creepy and beautiful and wonderful and wild. And the people of the Land were noble and good and true (a series of qualities that we've seen in some of these books before). And as I already mentioned, I loved Gwion, also known as Taliesen. Taliesen, I have learned, is the earliest known Welsh poet, and the namesake for a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin. Again, I digress.

As a writer who sometimes has a down day, I was particularly taken with this description of the King of the Lost Land, now living in a "paralyzing melancholy":

"So the Dark did a simple thing," he said. "They showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing -- fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth -- fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds."

It sounds like several of my writing friends, and probably like several of yours as well. Having completed a book/sold a book/won an award for a book, they sit in fear that they cannot write/sell one again, ever. Fight the Dark, my friends. You can do it, even without 6 signs, 7 riders, and a crystal sword.

Here endeth the sequence.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Last week, I read The Grey King by Susan Cooper.

The copy I read, being from the library and the original hardback, had the original cover with a dog's head on it. It looked like a dark grey German shepherd, which of course made little sense since the key dog in the book is white, but hey, whatev, and on with the review.

The Grey King won the Newbery when it came out (noteworthy because it is in the middle of a series, folks, although in fairness, one of Lloyd Alexander's did that as well seven years earlier). I believe that one of the reasons it succeeded in winning the award was that, although it is book four in a five-book series, it is also a self-contained story. Were you to pick it up first and read it all by itself, you'd still have a pretty good idea what's going on -- at least as much an idea as a person would have, having read it all. Although you'd be a little freaked out by the time-travel bit, you'd be able to deal because it's explained briefly in the book.

I found myself wishing I could speak Welsh as I read this one, since it seems like such a cool language. Still, there was a lot of time devoted to pronouncing a complicated "L"-ish sound that still doesn't help the novice Welsh student. But it was nice of her to add the lessons in if she was going to use so much Welsh in the book.

In this story, Will (first introduced in The Dark Is Rising) is sent off to Wales to recuperate from a terrible illness. He's forgotten the prophecy that was the key discovery in Greenwitch, but he's working on figuring out what it is that he's forgotten. When he arrives in Wales, he learns that he's truly on his own for this particular quest -- there's nary an Old One around, although there is a strange person about: a young albino boy named Bran who Will can't really "read" the way he can Old Ones, the Dark or humans. Bran is a bit of a conundrum, and his identity turns out to be a large part of the mystery of this book.

The thing is, when I finished reading, I was still a bit mystified about Bran. Like "why did he have to be an albino? Is there significance to that?" and "isn't he just a human? Sure, I know who his parents were, but weren't they just humans?"

The Grey King is by far the most "Arthurian" of the series thus far, and I'm truly hoping that the final book will tie that up neatly in a bow for me. I know my basic stories of King Arthur, but somehow I believe that Ms. Cooper is much more deeply steeped in that tradition than I. I "get" where Merriman Lyon fits in (since that was done rather heavy-handidly at the end of book 1), and I now know who Bran and his parents are/were, but I still feel I'm missing a key puzzle piece.

I shall read book five and see if that clears it up. I very much look forward to spending more time with the Drew children, in any case. And my final thought? I liked The Grey King just fine, but so far, Greenwitch is the one that sings loudest to me, with The Dark is Rising a very close second.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Long live the Greenwitch! If you believe that I am, perhaps, on a tear through a "new" series, then you're correct -- I've only recently discovered The Dark Is Rising Sequence, and I've been working my way through in my own fashion (2-1-3 thus far). Here's what the cover looked like on the book I read earlier today:

That would be Greenwitch by Susan Cooper. In which the Drew children from book one meet Will from book two, and two out of three Drew children display some sort of telepathic abilities (Barney and Jane, in case you were wondering. Poor Simon seems doomed to be kind, good, true, clever and responsible, but perhaps nothing more -- I'm sure time will tell, however.)

I had thought perhaps that the title referred to an actual witch, and perhaps it does, but if so, it's a reference to a very old kind of magic that can't be contained inside a person, which makes it spookier and wilder and cooler than the sort than can be, if that makes any sense. The Greenwitch turns out to be a sort of sacrificial offering woven by the women of Cornwall from local greenery, including rowan and hawthorne. Most of the current weavers don't understand, appreciate or believe in the old magic, yet they maintain the tradition, which is detailed in a wonderful way because Jane gets to see it come into being -- and makes a wish that is clearly portentous, although it is not at first clear whether it will turn out for the best in the end.

The children are in Cornwall (and back in Trewissick) because the object that the Drew children found in book one has been stolen from the museum, and they know why -- and are trying to prevent the Dark from winning this particular battle. An evil artist is about the town, causing trouble for the kids and for Merriman Lyon and the good Captain whose house featured so prominently in the first book.

I loved the interaction of magics in this book -- not just Light versus Dark, but Old Ones versus Wild Magic. Very, very cool. I can't wait to read The Grey King, which I have been promised by reliable sources is a masterwork.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Last night I finished reading Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper.

I borrowed it from my library, and that's the exact cover art that was on it.

While I enjoyed this book, which is a part of The Dark is Rising sequence, I have to say that I enjoyed The Dark is Rising a bit more. A good friend of mine says it's because there was a gap in between the two books, during which Ms. Cooper found her true voice. I'd have to agree. Although Over Sea, Under Stone was good, it wasn't GREAT in the way that The Dark is Rising was. And I'm told that book four (The Grey King, which won the Newbery) will blow me away. As I'm reading Greenwitch next (which was once recommended to me by none other than Linda Sue Park at a conference, I'll have to wait. Ooh, the anticipation. But I digress.

In Over Sea, Under Stone, a family with three children head to Cornwall for a four-week visit with Great-Uncle Merry, sometimes called Gumerry by the kids. They stay in the seaside village of Trewissick in an old house, where the kids hunt about and find a treasure map of sorts. Smart as they are, they quickly figure out that someone else is looking for their map, and they choose to confide in their Great-Uncle, who turns out to be more than he appears. In fact, he is the one character from this book that appears in the second book in relatively the same for: Merriman Lyon, fighter of the Dark.

Barney, Simon and Jane prove to be clever and brave and true. Their actions and their intuitions remind children to trust their own "spider-senses," too. It's one of those books where you can bet that if the kids are suspicious about someone, they're correct. In today's world, I think that's a valuable thing for kids to know -- that not all strangers or even people that your parents think are okay are actually, well, okay. Not sure that was an intended life lesson in the book, but it's there nonetheless.

This book includes one of my favorite landscape/settings -- the tide that goes out so far that you can walk someplace you usually can't get to, but you might get trapped doing it when the tide comes rush-rushing back in. I read at least two books with that same sort of device years ago, and I love the idea -- it sounds so wild, and yet is so readily summoned to the mind's eye.

This is a nice adventure/quest story, only without some of the larger issues raised in The Dark is Rising, although as Paul Simon might say, there are "hints and allegations." I'm glad I read it, and would recommend it. I do think, however, that I'm happier for having read The Dark is Rising first, then going back to this one, since it's more in the nature of a bit of backstory on Merriam Lyon. But the payoff info you get about Mr. Lyon at the end is so worth knowing going forward. Or so I'm thinking.

I'm still baffled as to why I didn't know about these books when I was a teen. Fortunately, my inner twelve-year old is alive and well and making most of my reading choices these days, proving that it's never too late to discover a great book (or series).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Sorry to be posting so late, but this post has taken far longer than its length would indicate, as I've been on a quest for a very particular quote. Only in finding it, I've found another so much the same that I will venture to say that the image I'm about to present you was probably not independently arrived-at by Ms Plath.

See, what happened is, I got to thinking about the nature of poetry. And I vaguely remembered a Plath quote about "glimpses." I recalled it being about a door opening, then closing, and the poet catching a glimpse in between, and that is the essence of a poem. I wasn't far wrong. Frequently the Plath quote appears as follows:

"A door opens, a door shuts. In between you have a glimpse of a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city. So a poem takes place."

But that isn't the whole of it. In 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote an essay on poetry that was later included in The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Women Poets. Here is more of what she had to say, with the elements of the above quote within their original context:

How I envy the novelist!

I imagine him - better say her, for it is the women I look to for a parallel - I imagine her, the novelist, pruning a rosebush with a large pair of shears, adjusting her spectacles, shuffling about among the teacups, humming, arranging ashtrays or babies, absorbing a slant of light, a fresh edge to the weather and piercing, with a kind of modest, beautiful X-ray vision, the psychic interiors of her neighbors - her neighbors on trains, in the dentist's waiting room, in the corner teashop. To her, this fortunate one, what is there that isn't relevant! Old shoes can be used, doorknobs, airletters, flannel nightgowns, cathedrals, nail varnish, jet planes, rose arbors and budgerigars; little mannerisms - the sucking at a tooth, the tugging at a hemline - any weird or warty or fine or despicable thing. Not to mention emotions, motivations - those rumbling, thunderous shapes. Her business is Time, the way it shoots forward, shunts back, blooms, decays and double exposes itself. Her business is people in Time. And she, it seems to me, has all the time in the world. She can take a century if she likes, a generation, a whole summer.

I can take about a minute.

I'm not talking about epic poems. We all know how long they can take. I'm talking about the smallish, unofficial garden-variety poem. How shall I describe it? - a door opens, a door shuts. In between you have a glimpse: a garden, a person, a rainstorm, a dragonfly, a heart, a city. I think of those round Victorian paperweights which I remember, yet can never find - a far cry from the plastic mass-productions which stud the toy counters in Woolworths. This sort of paperweight is a clear globe, self-complete, very pure, with a forest or village or family group within it. You turn it upside down, then back. It snows. Everything is changed in a minute. It will never be the same in there - not the fir trees, nor the gables, nor the faces.

So a poem takes place.

I love the idea of a poet catching a quick glimpse of something through an open door, then writing about it. About that idea or image or moment in time. And I thought Sylvia was a genius for her explanation, and still do. But I no longer think it was her original idea, because take a look-see at the last line of what Carl Sandburg had to say about poetry in 1928 for a work called Good Morning, America:

Poetry is a projection across silence of cadences arranged to break that silence with definite intentions of echoes, syllables, wave lengths.
Poetry is a journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly the air.
Poetry is a series of explanations of life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanations.
Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at barriers of the unknown and the unknowable.
Poetry is a theorem of a yellow-silk handkerchief knotted with riddles, sealed in a balloon tied to the tail of a kite flying in a white wind against a blue sky in spring.
Poetry is the silence and speech between a wet struggling root of a flower and a sunlit blossom of that flower.
Poetry is the harnessing of the paradox of earth cradling life and then entombing it.
Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.
Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.
Poetry is the opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen during a moment.

I love his many definitions, each of them perfect, yet perfectly flawed. Because no one phrase can sum up what poetry is, although the question from "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" comes close: "How can you hold a moonbeam in your hand?"

I leave you now to try to catch a glimpse between the opening and closing of the door.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Today I read GOLDEN by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

An upfront disclaimer of sorts: I "know" the author, who has her own blog over at Live Journal. And she's a doll. But that in no way affects my opinion that this book rocks. Let's take a quick look at what it has to offer, shall we?

1. Great voice
2. Cool MC who must face moving to a new town and heinous almost-cousins
3. Supernatural powers
4. Cutest younger sister character ever. Or at least almost-ever, since I'm still pretty keen on
"Boots" from the Gregor the Overlander books. We'll call it a draw.
5. Cool new best friend
6. Cool old best friends
7. Cool Dylan
8. Cool antagonists, and how often do you get to say that?
9. Wicked cool Grandmother ("READ!")

When this book arrived at my house many months ago, I did the dance of joy and intended to read it right away. I was thwarted in this, however, by the diabolical thievery of S, my older daughter, who snatched it away to the great abyss that is her bedroom. I only recently managed to stage a rescue, and boy am I glad I did.

In this oh-my-god-what-happens-next-no-I-don't-want-to-look-nevermind-yes-I-so-do story, Lissy and her family move from California to Oklahoma after Lissy's mother runs into some difficulties with the folks in Cali. Lissy is a Seer, who can see what colors people's auras are. More than that, she can see how they react and interact with the auras of others. It sounds like it'd be sort of cool, except that you can readily see how distracting it is because the book is told from Lissy's viewpoint, and sometimes she has a hard time following conversations because she's trying to juggle what people are saying with what their auras are doing. Compounding her uneasiness at being the new girl in school are all these whirling auras, and the "Goldens," a group of really popular kids, some of whom are linked to Lissy by almost-marriage.

Lissy is particular disturbed by an aura she calls "Garn," which is either a really horrific color or a visible absence of aura -- either way, it's BAD. And her math teacher is totally Garn. Not. good. Fortunately Lissy has her new friend Dylan who is willing to assist her, in no small part because of the intervention of the cutest little sister ever, Lexie. Let's just say that things ramp up to pretty disastrous proportions before the end of the story.

The only down-side to this story, if it is one, is that it is unputdownable. You've been warned. If you start it late at night, you won't be able to go to bed without finishing it. Fortunately, I started it this morning at the orthodontist's office, so I was, well, GOLDEN.
Today I read Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns' Music, edited by Judith Chernaik, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

The poems are all based on the "zoological fantasy" that is Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals. Trivia alert for music lovers: during his life-time, Saint-Saëns refused to allow a performance of the completed work, and only its most famous movement, "The Swan," was performed in public. The entire musical composition is included on a CD that accompanies the book, as are spoken performances of the poems in the book.

The poems in this book are the sort of poetry for children that I really enjoy: smart, thoughtful poems that are not "dumbed down" for an underaged audience. Many of them work on multiple levels -- "Personages with Long Ears" by Gerard Benson comes to mind in this category. On its surface, it's about donkeys attending a concert. Given the description of these particular donkeys, however, I believe it's also a sly criticism of critics everywhere, whether at a concert, at the theatre, or in print.

I also particularly enjoyed "Tortoise" by Judith Chernaik, which was short but sweet. It reflects the pulsing beat of the movement in the Carnival of the Animals opens with these lines:

Under the mottled shell of the old tortoise
beats the heart of young dancer.

The accompanying illustration shows tortoises dancing on oval platforms. The tortoises aren't truly anthropomorphised -- they look like tortoises standing on their hind legs. And yet how happy they look.

Another of my favorite poems was "Elephant Eternity" by Adrian Mitchell, in part for its imagery and in part for its repetitive use of the word elephants, as in "elephants elephants walking like time," and "elephants elephants bathing like happiness."

Although by the same artist, the illustrations, like the poems, are in varied styles to reflect the feel of the poem -- or is it to reflect the feel of the music? Similarly, the fonts used for the poems varies as well. "The Swan" is in a flowing script; "Lion" in a jagged-edged type.

A lovely book full of rich language and images, this one would be a perfect choice for young music fans as well as those who love poetry.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Today, I've been reading Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by one of my favorite poetry editors, Paul B. Janeczko. Why is he one of my favorites? Because he likes it all, all of the poems, whether they are concrete poems or free verse, haiku or sonnets, rhymed couplets or found poems.

Why I like this book: It is a marvel. It includes letters and poems from thirty-two renowned poets. Each poet has written a letter to the budding young poets who are the intended audience for this book. And then, each poet has provided (or had chosen for them, I'm not sure) one to three poems of theirs. Not poems about writing poetry, either. Poems that show them at their finest, singing stories and sharing experience with their readers.

And the best news of all?

This book came out in paperback earlier this year, with a slightly modified cover. I believe I will buy myself a copy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

So. This morning I read The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

All I can say is "Where has this book been all my life?" Because seriously? Someone should have shoved it in my hot little hands back in 1974 when it first hit the U.S. I would've read it. And read it again. And then, I'd have read the rest of the books. And again. Of course, this is the same sort of comment I have about Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quartet, although really that's slightly premature of me since thus far I've only read A Wrinkle in Time (twice) and A Wind in the Door. But I so loved them that I can't imagine the other two being bad. They are safely stowed somewhere in the aforementioned gigantic pile of books to be read. But I digress.

If, like me, you are a complete nincompoop who somehow managed not to read Cooper's The Dark is Rising yet, then you must immediately smack yourself soundly in the forehead with the nearest book run out and get a copy. I got mine from the local library, bearing the original cover, btw, which is no longer visible on most websites. Of course, I didn't realize at the time that it was, in fact, the SECOND book in the five-book Dark Is Rising Sequence. I will be returning it to the library today, and then finding Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book, so I can learn more about one of my favorite characters from The Dark is Rising, Merriam, since I understand that the first book is about him.

The Dark Is Rising tells the story of a young boy named Will Stanton, who lives in Buckhinghamshire, England in the early 1970s with his large family. We meet Will on Mid-Winter's Eve, the day before his eleventh birthday, just as Will begins to notice that odd things are afoot. The animals are all weirded out, and a tramp has been following Will, and even some of the local folks that Will has known for years are acting strangely and offering ominous advice.

When Will wakes to a different world on Mid-Winter's Day, he begins to learn his own story. Although still fairly young, Will is one of the Old Ones -- immortals who exist in order to keep the world out of the clutches of the Darkness. (And no, I'm not talking about The Darkness.) Will has about 2-1/2 weeks to learn all he can about who he is, and to collect Six Signs to help ward off the Darkness, which is set on preventing his success.

Fantastic, in both senses of the word. And to think, the only reason I picked it up is because of this post by J.L. Bell at Oz and Ends, coupled with The Mighty Dotificus's excitement over Susan Cooper being at the upcoming SCBWI conference in NYC. And now I so understand her excitement. I may even have to attend, just to hear Susan Cooper for myself. And to meet the Mighty Dotificus, of course.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Looking for holiday presents for boys and girls? Check out these two books!

For boys

MANGA CLAUS: Honor*Loyalty*Tinsel: The Blade of Kringle by Nathaniel Marunas, artwork by Erik Craddock.

That's right, folks, Santa has some seriously ripped abs under the suit. And with his training as a samurai more than a century and a half ago and the Miuaguchi Daisho, two swords given to him from a knowledgeable sensei, well, Santa's ready to respond when things go wrong.

In this episode, which I will assume will be the first in a series, Fritz, a disgruntled elf, decides to use some magic to turn a robot-like nutcracker into a ninja. His goal? To cause a bit of fuss that will allow him to showcase his mad magic skillz and save the day. Maybe his plan would've worked, too, if things hadn't gone horribly wrong. When nutcracker-robot-ninja falls into a furnace and coals spew into the nearby teddy bears . . . well, let's just say it's not pretty.

When Santa is first alerted that there's a problem, he decides to find out "what in the name of the Big Benevolent Buddha is going on around here." The comedy doesn't stop there, as Santa guesses that the ninja bears are on their way to the power plant, saying "that's where I'd go if I were a deranged ninja teddy bear." Will Fritz arrive in a bin full of elf knickers in time to deliver the samurai weapons to Santa? Will Santa be able to deliver the toys in time for Christmas, leaving from the Clement C. Moore Sleighport? I'll never tell. Er, unless you've already sorted it out.

The humor in this one is genius, from the map of the North Pole facilities inside the front cover to the black-and-white-and-red all over illustrations to the really funny text and asides, this is one bit of manga that you've gotta see. It's got a hard cover, and reads in the way of a usual book in English, making it an easy entrée into manga for the uninitiated.

I leave you with a shortened version of the copy from the back cover:

A disgruntled elf, dark magic, and a horde of possessed ninja teddy bears threaten to put an end to the holidays . . . To battle the evil teddies, Santa himself must break out his ancient samurai swords, imbued with the spirit of the season, and become MANGA CLAUS, guardian of giving and protector of presents! Santa's blades are swift and his bujitsu unmateched, but will they be enough to save Christmas?

And for girls?

While on vacation in D.C. with my hubby, I finished reading Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller. And now I am wishing more than ever that I could have fully realized my own plans to be a teenage sleuth/spy with amazing technology at my disposal, because it would have been so much fun. And apparently, it would have rewarded me with interesting confederates, pulse-pounding adventure, and riches. I knew it, and yet I did nothing. Le sigh.

The true MC of the book is not the fabulously glamorous title character, Kiki Strike, but rather the narrator, Ananka Fishbein. Her development throughout the course of the novel is the encouraging, empowering stuff that every young girl needs to read. Not just her flab-to-fab physical transformation in middle school, but also her mental accuity and her sense of self-confidence. Holler it with me, ladies (and men, too, but please use full voice and not falsetto here): GIRL POWER!!

Ananka first notices Kiki Strike at the private school that Ananka attends in New York city. Nobody else seems to notice Kiki at all, really, but Ananka tries to sort out who she is and, more importantly, figure out what she's up to. When the Princess (who is really a princess, we're told, and not just your everyday upperclass Ms. Snooty-pants) accuses Annanka of stealing a valuable ring, things really get interesting -- for the reader, as well as for Annanka, who now gets to know the elusive Ms. Strike a bit, as well as meeting a handful of other interesting young girls, each with their own particular sets of skills. One is already a master chemist; another is a master of disguise; yet another is the queen of forgery (particularly documents, but she's knowledgeable about quite a few art objects, etc., as well), and another girl who is an incredible engineer. Kiki turns out to be an excellent sleuth and a black-belt in karate, as well as having many, many secrets (none of which will you learn here).

Pick this book up for its rollicking good plot. But what will sell you on it isn't the fun plot and all the gadgets and cool clothes -- it's the narrator's voice and her journey that will sweep you up and carry you along. And you will be glad you went for the ride.

Coincidentally, BIG A little a posted a review of Kiki Strike over at her blog the other day. I agree with her age recommendation for the book, btw. It's marketed as YA, but because the book starts with Ananka being 12 and ends with her being 14, I really think this one is fine for girls age 9 and up who are independent readers. The girls who read The Lightning Thief and wish that Percy Jackson were a girl will adore Kiki Strike. And so will you.

P.S. - This one's on the CYBILS list for middle grade fiction, which is where I agree it belongs.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An update

I continue posting over at my other blog of the same name Writing and Ruminating, including several recent book reviews and Poetry Friday posts.

In other news, I'm pleased to be one of the judges for the Poetry category in the 2006 CYBILS Awards, short-hand for the 2006 Children's and YA Bloggers' Literary Awards. I hope you'll stop over before November 20th to nominate your favorite books in each of the categories. To be clear, that's one book per category. And do check first to be sure it's not already mentioned.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

As I said before, I'm quite happy you stopped by. If you're interested in what I'm up to, please check out my posts on Live Journal.

If you'd like to visit me at my website, then scoot on over to Kelly

See you around!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Howdy folks. How nice of you stop by my new Blogger digs. I'm not sure how it'll be used, but hey -- welcome!