V O L U M E 2 , N U M B E R 1 • J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 9
In this issue
For a list of books mentioned in this issue, see link below.
Masthead art © by William Steig, used with permission of Pippin Properties, Inc.
For this first month of the year and with a big First in the offing (Congratulations, Mr. President), we decided to focus this issue of Notes from the Horn Book on some other Firsts: novels, chapters, eggs, and groundbreakers. A big part of growing up is learning to negotiate all those first times: first step, first word, first BOOK. And while one might think that, like steps, the first book leads to the second one, a more frequent response to a satisfactory experience with a book is to read it again, or to read one just like it. While generations of teachers and librarians bemoaned the tendency of children to read the same book over and over or to be passionately attached to series books, they should have known better (and perhaps looked to their own shelves of Miss Marples). A first reading is an introduction, each page turn accompanied by the questions, Do I like this place? Am I still happy to be here? And if those questions get answered affirmatively all the way through, the only way to stick around is to go back to the beginning and take that first step again.
For her first book, Ways to Live Forever, a novel for eight- to twelve-year-olds, British author Sally Nicholls took on a tough subject — the death of a child — and an approach that was no easier: she narrates the story in the voice, ever genuine, of eleven-year-old Sam, who is dying of leukemia. The book is honest, heartbreaking, and richly funny, as Sam deals with his parents, his wishes, and the “Questions Nobody Answers.” Ways to Live Forever won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in the U.K. and was chosen as one of the best books of 2008 by the Horn Book. In keeping with this Notes theme of “firsts,” I decided to put five questions to this more-than-promising new author.
1. What’s it like to write about a character you know is going to die by the end of the story?
In one sense it’s helpful, because it gives the reader a reason to invest emotionally in the character, and it also gives the story a power and a momentum. It did mean that I was very aware of tone. All the time I was writing, I was thinking, “Is this too sad?” or “Is this too flippant?” — I really wanted Ways to Live Forever to be a funny book, and that’s hard when you’re killing off your narrator. I didn’t feel sad, because — and I know this sounds cruel — I knew he was going to die before I knew anything else about him.
2. What would make the top three of your own Questions Nobody Answers?
How did this world come into being?
3. Were you more of a brave kid or a scared kid?
I was brave about some things and nervous about others. I was a quiet, shy kid at school, because I didn’t really feel comfortable there. But with my friends outside of school, I was loud and adventurous. I used to climb out of windows onto rooftops, and my mother has a picture of me at the top of an enormous tree.
I don’t think it’s possible to be brave unless you’re also scared. There’s nothing brave about picking up a spider if you like spiders . . . it’s only a brave thing to do if you’re terrified of them.
4. What was the most difficult thing about starting your second book? [Season of Secrets will be published in the U.K. by Scholastic in April.]
Finding a story! Season of Secrets was the fourth book I started to write after Ways to Live Forever. The others . . . either I couldn’t get into them, or they didn’t really excite me, or I just got bored writing them. I started writing Season of Secrets and I thought, “Hmm . . . maybe there’s something here,” but it wasn’t until I got to chapter three that Molly’s voice suddenly came alive and I thought, “Yes! I've found it!”
5. What book do you think everyone should read now, in case they shuffle off tomorrow?
— Roger Sutton
Several promising first novels were released this past fall; following current trends, most were fantasy. Ellen Booraem’s The Unnameables is a witty paean to independent thought and art for art’s sake. In an isolated island community where everything is named for its function and Usefulness is paramount, Medford Runyuin can’t quite suppress his (strictly prohibited) artistic leanings. The arrival of the mysterious Goatman explodes Medford’s careful secrecy and brings the conflict to a head. Questions about naming and friendship are also explored in this gentle, highly accessible tale. (8–12 years)
In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, a small segment of the population is born with a Grace, or hyper-developed talent; protagonist Katsa’s seems to be for killing. Forced to serve as the king’s enforcer, Katsa rebels. This leads her to a romance with Po, a wicked cute, super-sensitive fellow royal (and Graceling) who helps her to assert her independence amidst international intrigue. With a butt-kicking yet emotionally vulnerable protagonist, this girl-power drama holds hefty appeal for graduates of Tamora Pierce’s fantasy adventures. (10–14 years)
There have been plenty of urban fairy fantasies recently (by Holly Black, Melissa Marr, Cassandra Clare), but what sets Lesley Livingston’s Wondrous Strange apart is her liberal use of Shakespearean allusions. Kelley Winslow, a seventeen-year-old actress playing Titania in a NYC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, discovers that she is actually the stolen daughter of Auberon, king of the fairies’ Unseelie Court. A star-crossed romance with Sonny, changeling guard of the gate between the mortal and fairy realms, raises the stakes in this clever, action-packed debut. (12–16 years)
For those who prefer realism, M. H. Herlong’s The Great Wide Sea is a page-turner. As if Ben’s mother’s death in a car crash weren’t hard enough for him to handle, his grieving father sells the family home, buys a boat, and announces that he’s taking Ben and his two younger brothers sailing around the Bahamas for a year. The deepening solidarity among the brothers coincides with their growing distrust of their father, all of which is juxtaposed against an increasingly urgent struggle for survival after Dad goes missing and a fierce storm strands the brothers on an island. Tense family dynamics and even more fraught natural dangers make for a gripping read. (9–12 years)
— Claire E. Gross
Four recent novels for younger middle-grade readers start off with a bang. In Patricia McKissack’s The Home-Run King, set in 1937 Nashville, baseball devotees Tank and Jimbo sneak into a Negro Leagues game, only to be nabbed by the stadium manager. Then — a towering home run by the boys’ hero Josh Gibson provides a momentary distraction, and they manage to escape. This attention-grabbing beginning will draw readers into an easy-to-read novel that touches on the challenges faced by African Americans in the Jim Crow–era South. (8–11 years)
Janet Taylor Lisle’s Highway Cats features unusual main characters: a community of tough-talking feral cats. The first chapter is a riveting account of three kittens, abandoned on the median strip of a busy highway: can they make it across four lanes of traffic to safety? This fablelike novel goes on to challenge the cats’ law of “everyone for himself” as the outcasts, inspired by the kittens, fight corruption, greed, and the coming of a ruinous shopping mall. (8–11 years)
You can’t pack much more intrigue into a first chapter than that of P. W. Catanese’s Happenstance Found, in which a boy wakes, “fully conscious and wholly formed” but with no memory of his past, and immediately discovers that he and his companions are in danger from a wormlike beast, that he’s in a tunnel under a mysterious lost city, and that he has in his possession a cryptic message . . . was that an earthquake? Things only get more exciting from here in this inventive fantasy, first in a projected series. (9-12 years)
Louise Erdrich’s “Birchbark House” books typically deal with the daily joys and devastating tragedies of an 1850s Ojibwe community near Lake Superior, but the first chapter of this third installment is pure adventure. Omakayas and her annoying little brother Pinch are night hunting in a canoe when they are swept out into a spring-thaw-swollen river and must negotiate terrifying rapids — in the dark. Their resultant, newly close relationship sustains them through the ups and downs of The Porcupine Year. (8–12 years)
—Martha V. Parravano
Second- and third-graders are always being called upon to give reports on people who were the first to do this and that. Here are four picture book biographies that offer lively portraits of some undersung pioneers. Wangari Maathai had a simple idea — to plant trees to save her native Kenya from becoming a desert. Her plan would ultimately win her a Nobel Peace Prize, and her story is simply told and illustrated in a rainbow of colors by Jeanette Winter in Wangari’s Trees of Peace. (6–9 years)
Born in Louisiana in the late nineteenth century, Clementine Hunter didn’t know she was an original; she just wanted to paint. Self-taught and using leftover paint on any flat surfaces she could scrounge, Clementine painted her memories of hard work and good times. Art from Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter, by Kathy Whitehead and illustrated by Shane W. Evans, captures the spirit of this African American artist. (6–9 years)
John A. Lomax loved the cowboy songs of his native Texas with a passion, one that he would turn into his life’s work as a collector and disseminator of American folk music. In Home on the Range: John A. Lomax and His Cowboy Songs, Deborah Hopkinson offers a fictionalized picture of Lomax’s ramblings, recording horn in tow, through the great spaces of the West, a landscape illustrator S. D. Schindler captures in all its rustic beauty. (6–9 years)
Before it was a car, Honda was a person — Soichiro Honda, who found his life’s work when he saw his first Model T in 1914, when he was seven. At fifteen, he moves to Tokyo and gets a job sweeping up at a garage, his persistence and mechanical genius eventually bringing him to invent the low-cost Honda motorcycle and, later, the omnipresent Honda Civic. In Honda: The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars, Mark Weston and illustrator Katie Yamasaki bring the man and his machines to life. (6–9 years)
Whether it was the chicken or the egg, picture books make first-rate use of both as fodder for stories. In The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett all the birds have laid their eggs — except Duck. He (yes, he) is delighted when he finds an egg to call his own, but the snooty bird-moms-to-be laugh as he sits astride the giant, green-speckled egg. Everyone’s in for a surprise. (4–8 years)
Dave Horowitz hatches a brand-new tale in Humpty Dumpty Climbs Again. Chided by his doctor for rock-climbing (“For Pete’s sake — you’re an egg!”), Humpty trades in his passion for a couch-potato existence. Only when the king’s men and horse need rescuing does he climb again. This tongue-in-cheek treatment features characters from other nursery rhymes, and the humor of the text is aptly echoed in the art — kids will love Humpty in his underwear. (3–7 years)
In Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken by Kate DiCamillo, barnyard hen Louise longs for adventure. Leaving home, she’s captured by pirates, chased by a lion, and kidnapped at a bazaar. She ultimately returns to tell her tales, and the book ends with all the story-fed hens sleeping “the deep and dreamless and peaceful sleep of true adventurers.” Louise’s escapades are dramatically captured in Harry Bliss’s sweeping watercolors. (5–9 years)
Two kids, Earl and Pearl, plant pumpkins, then shoo dirt-scratching Chicken (“Cluck! Cluck! Cluck!”) from the garden. When grasshoppers arrive and prove un-shoo-able, it’s Chicken to the rescue. Aimed at the earliest of emerging readers, Chicken Said, “Cluck!” by Judyann Ackerman Grant nevertheless contains conflict and resolution, action and emotion; Sue Truesdell’s illustrations add both humor and characterization. (3–5 years)
If chicken and egg stories have your kids raising some egg-cellent questions, Eggs by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Emma Stevenson, is your answer. In-depth explanations and beautiful field guide–like illustrations bring a naturalist’s perspective to the topic of eggs and their role in animal reproduction. (6–10 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
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