books and cleverness

I read books of all sorts, but mostly kids' lit and young adult literature and speculative fiction for all ages—usually from a feminist perspective. 


I've adopted a personalized version of the CHOICE reviews approach to recommendations/star ratings:

***** = Essential, a.k.a. truly love, absolute must-read, buy it now
**** = Highly Recommended, a.k.a. this is a really good book; I would buy it as a gift
*** = Recommended, a.k.a. pretty good; worth reading
** = Optional, a.k.a. meh
* = Not Recommended; a.k.a. this is not a good book

Fall 2014 Children's Sneak Previews

From Publishers' Weekly, a cheat sheet to the highlights of the Fall 2014 season in children's picture books, MG, and YA.


Featuring! Quest, a followup to the very lovely wordless picture book Journey, by Aaron Becker, from Candlewick Press.

illustration from Quest by Aaron Becker



A new Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates book!

A new Septimus Heap series!

A 50th anniversary edition of The Book of Three.


From Eos and Mani, illus. by Lindsey Yankey (Simply Read Books)

From Eos and Mani, illus. by Lindsey Yankey (Simply Read Books)



  • The Isobel Journal, previously published in the UK by Hot Key Books, now gets a US edition
  • The second in the Lockwood & Co. series, by Jonathan Stroud
  • A new book from Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Love Is the Drug by the author of last year's The Summer Prince, Alaya Dawn Johnson
  • Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell, whose Rooftoppers just won the Waterstones Children's Book Prize
  • A new book from Scott Westerfeld


...and like a hundred more.


Basically, get excited.

Books for Editors' Buzz Panels at 2014 BEA Announced

Go ahead and pre-order all of them.

An Epic Chart of 162 Young Adult Retellings from Epic Reads

Don't know about you, but I want to read all of these. Also, this is wonderful.

"Not Just Child’s Play: A Fall 2013 Picture Book Preview"

From The Atlantic Wire, a roundup of some of the most anticipated picture books coming out this season, with beautiful illustrations. Here are a couple of my favorites:



Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (Little Brown, Sept. 3)

We're all excited for this one, right?



The Nowhere Box by Sam Zuppardi (Candlewick, November 12)

I love that the artwork uses the textures of corrugated cardboard.

Fall 2013 New Voices Titles

The American Booksellers Association has announced their picks for the upcoming season's New Voices titles.


Ages 8 – 12

  • After Iris by Natasha Farrant (Penguin Young Readers Group / Dial Books)
  • The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root by Christopher Pennell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
  • The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson (HarperCollins)
  • What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World by Henry Clark (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)



  • The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney (HarperCollins / HarperTeen)
  • How to Love by Katie Cotugno (HarperCollins / Balzer + Bray)
  • If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers)
  • The Paradox of Vertical Flight by Emil Ostrovski (HarperCollins / Greenwillow)
  • The Theory of Everything by Kari Luna (Penguin Young Readers Group / Philomel Books)


I don't know what the practical implications of this list are, but I loved The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot, have been meaning to read If You Could Be Mine, and am very excited about Rooftoppers.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom - Ursula Nordstrom, Leonard S. Marcus, Maurice Sendak

Overall Recommendation:

Essential reading for anyone interested in working with children’s books—writers, editors, publishers, librarians, and so on. I expect that others may not find it to be of too much interest (unfortunately for them).


What made me pick it up?

Recommended to me as essential reading by someone who works in children’s publishing.


What is there to like?

  • A large part of the reading pleasure is that it is something of a star parade for classic children’s literature. Ursula Nordstrom seemingly worked with pretty much everyone you read as a kid: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny), Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon), Maurice Sendak, E. B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan), Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy), and so many others.
  • As such, it’s a fascinating look at how this one editor worked with and encouraged artists and writers to fulfill their creativity in so many different kinds of works.
  • It may also remind readers of or introduce them to classic children’s books to read—I, for example, never read any Ruth Krauss as a kid, but she sounds completely insane (in the best possible way) and now I want to read everything she ever wrote.
  • Nordstrom’s sense of what makes a good children’s book comes across well through her letters, and she’s completely right and her ideas are worth absorbing. She was never one for coddling or talking down to children, or for turning them into precious, whimsical little sprites. She was all for helping them be themselves and listening to what they wanted, rather than what the overprotective adults in the industry wanted—and her body of work, her influence and legacy in children’s literature through the 1950s–70s, is shown in the quality of the books she published, and how many of them remain classics even today. As a reader of many of those books when I was a kid, I feel as though I personally benefited from Ursula Nordstrom’s understanding of good books for young people.
  • Reading her practical advice is fascinating, from the perspective of seeing exactly the kind of value that good editorial advice can have. There’s one in particular to Syd Hoff, the author of Danny and the Dinosaur, where she gets extremely specific about the diction and syntax so that the book both sounds authentic and is appropriate for an “I Can Read” book (a concept she invented), as well as her input on details of illustrations. It’s clear that she cared deeply about helping the book become the best it could be, and that she did just that.
  • She is inspirational as someone who stuck by her decisions and stood by her authors, whether in the case of Maurice Sendak’s illustration of a naked little boy (censored), the first YA novel featuring a scene involving a teenage boy’s homosexual experience, or Harriet’s family (condemned as being “more appropriate for a New Yorker story than for children’s literature”).
  • Nevertheless, she was receptive to genuine critiques, and engaged with the young people who wrote in to comment on the books. For example, one young reader objected to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s language implying that Native Americans were not people, and Nordstrom wrote back to express her horrified agreement, and a promise to change the wording in subsequent editions.
  • She’s also inspirational as a figure in the history of working women.


What is there not to like?

The letters are selected, not complete. This is certainly not an inherent flaw, but at times the reader gets only bits rather than the full arc of the editorial process behind a book.


Similar To:

Caldecott & Co., Maurice Sendak


The Screaming Staircase: Lockwood & Co. Book 1 (ARC)

The Screaming Staircase - Jonathan Stroud

Look, I'm just going to start with this: I love Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy. I recommend it to everyone I know who is interested in YA and kid lit as well as anyone who is interested in stories about class issues and systematic oppression. The world is so textured and deep, the dialogue is snappy and the story arc is extremely well developed over the course of the trilogy.


That said, I'm going to have to quote my friend Katie Coyle to say, about The Screaming Staircase, "you can appreciate how much I feel like a miserable troll when I say that I did not love this novel."


Did I like it? Yes. Does it have some interesting potential for future books in the series? Yes. Is it brilliant? No.


On with the review.


The cover art for the ARC.


What is there to like?

  • Lockwood & Co. is an agency consisting entirely of early-teenagers—no adult supervisors allowed. I love this; one of the great pleasures in reading stories about kids, when you are a kid (or teenagers when you are a teenager) is escaping to a world where people your own age are in charge, without grownups telling you what to do all the time.
  • No one knows how or why the Problem started—why, suddenly, hauntings became ubiquitous—and no one knows why kids can see Visitors and adults can't. Based on Stroud's previous books, I'm extremely interested in how he will develop and explain this in future books in the series, because he's very capable of coming up with a complex and satisfying history. I'm betting Stroud is going to do some interesting things with the different agencies, Fittes and Rotwell, in future books, and I'm looking forward to seeing how.
  • A girl protagonist with very much an "I'm a girl, and you are going to take me and my abilities seriously" attitude.
  • The dynamic between the three main characters—Lockwood, the charismatic leader; Lucy, the woman of action; George, the scientifically-minded researcher—is fun, as a trio of colleagues with complementary skills and as three teenagers who live together in a house, which of course involves bickering about things like jelly donuts and personal hygiene habits.
  • Creepy ghost hunting! (The Red Room was pretty horrifying.) (In an exciting way.)


What's not to like?

  • All of that said, it was just so very disappointing that Stroud leaned so much on chunks of description and exposition. For example, instead of having the heroes piece together what happened on their own, there's a regular old sit-down confession with the villain. It doesn't feel believable—there's no reason why the villain should want to confess—and it also feels rushed, as though the pacing of the book was off (the titular staircase is not even mentioned until page 222), and the plot suddenly needed wrapping up in a hurry. It felt like shoddy craftsmanship.
  • Likewise, there's a bit too much description and backstory-telling from Lucy that is set aside as such, rather than naturally worked into the flow of the story. And maybe it's not actually all that objectionable, but I expected a bit better from Stroud.
  • Also, maybe I'm too jaded compared to the real target audience, but the villain was really quite noticeably up to no good. Before his true nature is revealed, his actions are so patently ridiculous that my initial criticism was going to be that the plot was absurd; when I figured out what he was really up to, then, it did seem too over-the-top not to be suspicious. Lockwood has him pegged all along, we find out, but are Lucy & George (and the readers) really that thick? 
  • And then this is a criticism not for the author but perhaps for the manuscript editors: it seemed perhaps as if it had been overly Americanized? I'm not sure if it started out in England and then got adapted, or if this is an original that just has American language settings, but it is slightly off-putting to read what are supposed to be British characters, in London, using Americanisms instead of Briticisms ("cookie" and "flashlight," etc.). I think the editors overdid it here—in trying to make it easy for American kids to read, they've sacrificed authenticity. Anyway, they've all read Harry Potter, they can handle it! 


What made me pick it up?

This was an ARC that I picked up at BEA, because I will pick up pretty much anything written by Jonathan Stroud, so much do I love Bartimaeus.


Similar To:

The Archived, Victoria Schwab


Overall Recommendation: Recommended (with hope for future books in the series).

"Up All Night": An Online Gallery of the National Book Award in Young People's Literature


The National Book Foundation has compiled an online gallery of all the winners and finalists for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature, since its beginning in 1969. Lots of great books to read, if you haven't read them all already!


On Wordless Picture Books

"Told in Pictures," an article from Eye magazine, is a great examination of wordless picture books.


From the article: "Re-zoom, Istvan Banyai (1995). New York-based Banyai constantly changes viewpoint and scale in his books Zoom and Re-zoom (both 1995)."



My favorite part of the article is a paragraph about the way kids read them: 


"Observing a group of children reading wordless picturebooks, Judith Graham noted that, on the first reading, all the children ‘told’ the stories in the present tense, much like an oral storyteller, which she said was ‘not surprising as they have been put into the position of commentator on events whose outcome they don’t know’. She also remarked that they all seemed very tired when they had finished."


One beautiful and absorbing wordless picture book not mentioned in this article that I highly recommend is The Tree House, by Marije and Ronald Tolman.


It won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2010, so others might know it that way, but I discovered it by chance through volunteering at the library. I was totally captivated by the imagination and the beautiful illustrations, and checked it out to take it home with me immediately.

"They called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings.


"It's what most people call themselves, to begin with. And then one day the tribe meets some other people, and gives them a name like The Other People or, if it's not been a good day, The Enemy. If only they'd think up a name like Some More True Human Beings, it'd save a lot of trouble later on."


The Carpet People, by Terry Pratchett



(US edition forthcoming from Clarion Books in 11/2013)

The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot (ARC)

Magic Marks the Spot - Caroline Carlson

 Wanted: Pirate Crew

Established, respected freelance pirate seeking experienced crew members for upcoming voyage. Must be able to swashbuckle, swab decks, swill grog, fire cannons, and climb to the crow's nest. Successful applicants will sign contract for one round-trip voyage, with opportunity for further collaboration if merited. Voyage details to be divulged upon acceptance. Applicants trained in treasure location are of particular interest. Please apply in person to 25 Little Herring Grove, Wimbly-on-the-Marsh, at ten o'clock on Saturday morning.

Eye patches and hooks OK.

Please—no parrots.


Overall Recommendation: Maybe I am overexcited about this book, but upon first reading I think it’s pretty much a perfect middle-grade novel. I blazed through it, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.


What made me pick it up?

I actually was hooked immediately when HarperCollins tweeted Caroline Carlson’s post about the cover reveal months ago and I read that our heroine was a young lady desperate to become a pirate rather than attend Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies. I was completely delighted, then, upon attending the Middle Grade Editors’ Buzz panel at BookExpo America, to discover that this was one of the selected books and that I could get an advance reader’s copy. The HarperCollins editor spoke so well of what made this book stand out that my excitement only grew, and I was not one little bit surprised to find that the book was as funny and adventurous as it promised to be.


What is there to like?

  • As the title and the quotation above and the name of the dreaded finishing school suggest, the book is clever and funny with just the right amount of silliness.
  • Similarly ridiculous and likeable characters
  • Gently satirical, poking fun at bureaucracy through its use of silly forms—one includes checkboxes for those wishing to sail for “business,” “pleasure,” or “piracy”—and rules—such as the VNHLP’s rules for using a treasure map; and at the obtuseness of those in privileged classes, through “man-on-the-street” quotes as reported in gossip magazines.
  • The romance is in the right place! That is, not between Hilary (the main character) and some romantic interest, but between two of the grown-up crewmembers. Moreover, the gargoyle’s liking for soppy romances makes rather light of romance in general, which I think is entirely in keeping with the feelings of the intended audience and quite endearing. I also think it might perhaps be even necessary, given the many stories for young people that end in “happily ever after.”
  • A cast of men and women, boys and girls, and the female characters are all strong. And it is worth pointing out that this novel does the rare thing of not denigrating the young ladies who choose to focus on becoming proper society ladies rather than pirates. So often in stories about girls who reject traditional gender roles, it turns into an animosity between the two. However, Hilary’s governess demonstrates what skills she has gained from her education, and her friend Claire explains quite well to Hilary what advantages she stands to gain by attending such a finishing school, and I get the impression that Hilary learns from both.
  • The plot is exciting and smart. The characters all have good backstories, the motivations are all clear, there is high-seas adventure, and some clever action on the part of the mysterious character whom Hilary and the rest of the Pigeon’s crew are trying to outwit. 


Similar To:

The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdomsimilar tone of silliness and adventure and overturning conventions

Treasure Island—often alluded to in the book, and which I can now endorse heartily as a not-to-be-missed adventure story

The Felicity books—for a younger audience than this book, but Felicity is great about being more adventurous and brave than prim and corseted

The Leviathan trilogy—featuring a girl who wants to be a naval officer in a fantastic setting, defying her exclusion from the boys’ club, and lots of action. YA.


2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards Results


Check these out! I had not even heard of many of these titles before--which, actually, goes to show how valuable this kind of award can be, not only because of what you usually think of awards as doing--recognizing achievements--but raising the profiles of independent publications that can be overshadowed by Big Six bestsellers. They award gold, silver, and bronze medals in 75 categories, covering an impressively wide range of topics, so there are many, many books to browse and discover here.


Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures, by Maurice Sendak

Caldcott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures - Maurice Sendak

Today is Maurice Sendak's birthday, and people have been talking a lot about him on the internet. I read one person calling him a "magical grump." I had no idea about the grump part! In this collection of his essays and reviews, he is wholly sincere, passionate, and altogether wonderful in expression about children's literature.


Overall Recommendation: Essential reading for anyone interested in children’s literature, plus anyone interested in learning more about Maurice Sendak as an artist and craftsman.


Similar To:

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom


What made me pick it up?

I came across it at Caliban Books, a used-and-rare bookshop in Pittsburgh, while I was in the midst of reading Dear Genius, so it caught my eye, as Sendak was a protégé of Nordstrom’s (this book is dedicated to her, in fact), and I was more attuned to Sendakia than I might otherwise have been. As I continued to read Dear Genius I decided that I really needed to read some of Sendak’s words on his own work, since it plays such a prominent role in Nordstrom’s career as an editor—but Dear Genius, of course, only shows her side of things.


What is there to like?

I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I decided to begin reading this book, but I can say that any expectations I might have had, it far surpasses. Sendak is so thoughtful and conscious and knowledgeable about not only his own work but the work of great illustrators of the past and his own contemporaries, and about the craft of illustration, that the reader comes away from this book with a greater understanding of and appreciation for what pictures books are capable of, as well as feeling as though we are all incredibly lucky to have had Sendak both as an artist and a commentator on children’s books.


Sendak is exceptionally wise about childhood experiences, and the great and crummy things about being a kid, and where kids draw their creative power, and what they’re looking for. What I find especially relevant is the way he talks about how destructive and oppressive and simply false it is when adults romanticize childhood in such a way that strips it of its darkness and potential. Particularly striking is what he has to say about Peter Pan in the essay "Maxfield Parrish," and Little Nemo in "Winsor McCay."


Another insightful point that Sendak makes (and I suppose this qualifies as a “spoiler,” if such a thing were to exist for this kind of book), is how the text and the illustrations of a picture book have to work together to be successful. That is, an illustration can’t simply present a literal portrayal of what is described by the text, and the text can’t be so didactic that the illustrations must reproduce it exactly. In a really good picture book, there must be room for imagination—on the part of the reader as well as the illustrator and writer—to make connections between what is happening in the story and what might or must have happened to create what is taking place in the illustration. Sendak is especially illuminating on this point when discussing his favorite illustrator, Randolph Caldecott, and and in the essay "A Conversation with Walter Lorraine."


What is there not to like?

It is out of print, which may make it hard to get and/or expensive.

Upcoming NYPL Exhibit: "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter"


Going to be in New York City sometime between June 21 of this year and January 19 of next? Check out this exhibit at the New York Public Library, and take some pictures of it for me:


From the page:

"The ABC of It is an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how do they teach children, and what do they reveal about the societies that produced them? Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time.


"Our first books stir and shape us as few books ever again can. Goodnight MoonAlice in WonderlandA Wrinkle in Time! For three centuries and more, books made especially with the young in mind have served as indispensible gateways to literature, art, and knowledge of the world. Viewed historically and across cultures, the sheer number and variety of such volumes is apt to amaze. If, however, as adults we find that our own childhood favorites remain as thrilling or funny or heart-stoppingly beautiful as ever we should not be surprised. As W. H. Auden wisely observed: 'There are no good books which are only for children.'”


Sounds wise and wonderful.

Summer 2013 Kids’ Indie Next List

I've been looking forward to If You Want to See a Whale, The Day the Crayons Quit, and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library for a while, and I'm excited to have more titles to be excited about this summer.

Treasure Island

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson, John Seelye

At last, I've read Treasure Island! It was such a treat. I usually don't like to give ratings to classics because I don't see the point, but I enjoyed this very much. Highly recommended!


I think I had never read it until now because I thought it would be like Robinson Crusoe, which is rambling and imperialistic (and so, kind of boring), or like The Swiss Family Robinson, which is preachy (and so, kind of boring). But Treasure Island is just straight-up solid adventure times.


What is there to like?

  • Jim Hawkins is a believable boy, and a likeable one—I especially like that all the major plot points, and all the ways in which the gentlemen crew evade the pirates, happen because Jim doesn't do as he is told. He acts honorably, but he takes risks, which is the perfect adventuring ethos.
  • The plot is fast-moving and exciting (the book is actually a lot shorter than I expected).
  • Long John Silver is a truly excellent villain, and thoroughly deserves his place in the classic villains hall of fame. He's not a frightening monster; he's an expert code-switcher and actor, an intelligent, canny businessman, able to think on his foot (sorry, couldn't resist!) and calculate the best likely outcome for himself at every quick turn of events.
  • Good inept rookie-pirate comedy.


What is there not to like?

  • A few uncomfortable-making comments about "Negroes" but it's pretty tame—again, especially considering Robinson Crusoe as a point of comparison.
  • Ben Gunn is a bit of a troubling figure. I'm not quite sure what to make of him and his fate, but he ends up basically okay, so I'm not too worried about him.
  • Might make you sad that swashbuckling is not a legitimate career path these days.


What made me pick it up?

I was on a trip and had finished the print books I had with me and, lucky for me, found this pre-loaded as a Google Book on a (hand-me-down) tablet I had just recently been given.


Treasure Island poster/cover art

The very cool cover art used for the e-book version I read.