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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.
With Graceling, Kristin Cashore wrote a first novel that was a remarkably disciplined fantasy, with just a single magical element giving the story its premise (and title): the heroine Katsa, like only a handful of others in her world, is “graced” with one extraordinary power, in her unfortunate case, a grace for killing. While the book has intrigue and swordplay aplenty, it is also a juicy romance. This month, Cashore follows Graceling up with Fire, a prequel set in the same world but a generation earlier and featuring Fire, another charismatic heroine. (14 years and up)
1. If you could have one Grace, what would you want it to be?
Well, if you’d asked for my sci-fi superpower of choice, I would have said teleporting, hands down, but you didn’t, and teleporting isn’t realistic as a Grace. So I’m going to go with languages. One of my sisters has a language gift — after a few months of study in Finland, she was more or less fluent in Finnish — and I am definitely not like that! Give me the Grace of being fluent in any language after a day or two of hearing it in use.
2. Why do you think palace intrigue has become such a prominent trope in fantasy fiction?
Hmm. You know, I think a palace is the fantasy novel’s version of a boarding school — or college dorm, if you prefer. Everyone lives together in one big building or set of buildings. Everyone’s on top of everyone else; there’s a forced intimacy in relationships; secrets are harder to keep and it’s more important that they be kept; the tension never ceases, because no one ever goes home for the night; it’s easy to sneak between bedrooms. Plus: hidden doorways! Secret passages! Tapestries to hide behind! Dumbwaiters to send secret objects of dire importance from floor to floor! Walkways on the roof! Spiral staircases! Moats and drawbridges and walls made of shrubberies! I’m beginning to wonder how you could even ask this question.
3. What fantasy novel or series would you recommend to the unconverted or unconvinced?
If it’s a person who likes slow-moving, introspective novels, I might send them to Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, the first book in her King Arthur trilogy (told from Merlin’s perspective). If it’s someone who likes character-rich YA realism, I might give them Cynthia Voigt’s Novels of the Kingdom, because they aren’t typical fantasy — no one has magical powers — but they take place in a made-up universe and have the feel of fantasy. If it’s a reader who’s really, really resistant, I might take a sideways route and have them try some magical realism or softcore sci-fi. Maybe Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies or Peeps, or Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters. I would also recommend Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia books to just about anybody, but that may be the inveterate fantasy-lover in me speaking.
4. In writing Fire, did you find yourself wishing you could change anything in Graceling?
There are a thousand things I wish I could change in Graceling, but they’re more for the sake of my current work-in-progress or for Graceling’s own sake than for anything to do with Fire. Fire takes place in a different part of my fantasy universe, so I was practically able to start over and create a new world for the writing of Fire.
My current work-in-progress, tentatively called Bitterblue, is a whole other kettle of fish. Bitterblue takes place in the same part of the world as Graceling, and, honestly, I don’t even know where to start. Why didn’t I ever make up a unit for measuring distance in Graceling? Because I could really use one now, and the third book in a series is a weird time to suddenly say, “Ah, yes, it’s 100 killybongs from here to there; we all know how long a killybong is, don’t we?” Also, speaking of distances, there’s the little matter of an impenetrable forest and an uncrossable mountain range between Sunder and Monsea that were oh-so-convenient for slowing my intrepid heroes down in Graceling, but that are creating all sorts of headaches for me now as I write a novel in which various people of all stripes are constantly visiting Bitterblue’s court in Monsea. All the journeys have to take so ridiculously long and require many backbreaking supplies! Sigh . . .
5. The Horn Book is something of a proud parent of the Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature, with Horn Book editors Paul and Ethel Heins having been part of the Center’s founding in the 1970s. What was the value of their master’s degree for you?
I can’t overstate the value of my graduate experience at Simmons. Simmons is where I learned to think critically and creatively about books. The instructors are fabulous, the reading list is a joy, the classes are rigorous; I immersed myself in the experience completely, and the first thing I did after graduating was write Graceling. I would not be where I am now if it weren’t for the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature.
Watch for a slew of sequels coming your way this fall. These books may all be science fiction and fantasy, but that’s where the similarities end.
In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins’s highly anticipated follow-up to The Hunger Games, tough-as-nails heroine Katniss has survived the Games only to find herself the symbol of a nascent resistance movement against the iron hand of the government. Her Victory Tour leads her out of the frying pan and into the fire, and another round of Hunger Games offer a cruel twist that amps up the action. (12 years and up)
If edgy is your thing, check out Sacred Scars, the second volume in Kathleen Duey’s A Resurrection of Magic series (which started with Skin Hunger). There are two interlocking stories: that of Sadima, a magically attuned servant girl held captive as her master Soumiss relearns how to use the old magic; and that of apprentice wizard Hahp, who two hundred years later plots a rebellion against Soumiss in a world where magic is now widespread. The question of how Sadima’s world becomes Hahp’s keeps the plot exquisitely suspenseful. (12 years and up)
Looking for a more traditional fantasy? In The Islands of the Blessed, Nancy Farmer returns to the world she created in The Sea of Trolls and The Land of the Silver Apples, drawing on Norse, Celtic, Scottish, Irish, and Pictish lore as well as British pagan and early Christian history to tell the continuing story of apprentice bard Jack and shield maiden Thorgil. This time they sail with Viking raiders, face a vengeful sea hag, visit Valhalla, and have a host of other rollicking adventures. (10–14 years)
Finally, Shannon Hale releases a fourth book in the Books of Bayern series, Forest Born. Exiled from her forest home, Rin travels to the city, where she gets a position as a lady-in-waiting to the queen and joins a secret quest to investigate an attack on the queen’s husband. The strong characters of the previous three books still have sizable roles here, and Rin, as she learns about her tree-speaking ability and develops her confidence by copying the queen, is worthy of their ranks. (12 years and up)
—Claire E. Gross
If fantasy and magic aren’t your bag, these chapter books for elementary-age readers feature regular kids with everyday problems.
Fans of Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things are treated to more of Alvin’s so-called “allergies” in this sequel, Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters. Second-grader Alvin is allergic to (actually, afraid of) almost everything; his fears this time involve the great (“What’s so great about it?”) outdoors. LeUyen Pham’s frequent illustrations convey the short chapter book’s humor and enhance readers’ enjoyment of Alvin’s hilarious predicaments. (6–10 years)
In Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), author Lisa Yee provides an entertaining story, illustrated by Dan Santat, about a boy-girl friendship doomed by fourth grade dynamics. Nine-year-old Bobby Ellis-Chan has been best friends with Holly since babyhood — how they lose then rediscover their friendship is told with plenty of Yee’s trademark comedy, and while the book rarely deviates from the boy point of view, both boys and girls will find much to relate to. (7–11 years)
Fifth-grader Julia Gillian struggles with trumpet lessons, her mysteriously distant best friend, and a new school cafeteria monitor whose rigid enforcement of the rules drains all the joy from lunchtime. Alison McGhee’s Julia Gillian (and the Quest for Joy) — sequel to Julia Gillian (and the Art of Knowing) — reveals a keen perception of elementary-school worries. Drazen Kozjan’s pen-and-ink drawings animate the characters as they fluctuate between the high and low notes of their everyday lives. (8–12 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
Two new picture books, a photo-essay, and a biography for older readers contemplate the scope of creative genius: an iconic Mexican painter, the author of Little Women, Depression-era photographers, and a Nobel Prize–winning American writer.
Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marín, offers a personal look at the artist’s life in My Papa Diego and Me / Mi papá Diego y yo. Her bilingual tribute portrays the legendary artist in a new light; he was not only a famous man, he was also a papá. Marín pairs thirteen of her father’s paintings with a brief first-person text in English and Spanish; Rivera’s down-to-earth art is particularly accessible to young viewers. More information about each painting and the handful of black-and-white archival photographs is appended. (8–11 years)
Author Martin W. Sandler’s photo-essay, The Dust Bowl Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster, is as much about a calamitous period in our nation’s history as it is about the power of a captured image to affect change. In spacious double-page spreads, Sandler covers events surrounding the drought that struck the Great Plains in the 1930s and describes how Farm Security Administration photographers introduced the rest of the country to victims of the Dust Bowl. Of course, arresting archival images appear on every page, giving history immediacy and dignity. (9–12 years)
Yona Zeldis McDonough’s Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott is a visually inviting account of the difficult and eventful life of the beloved author. McDonough touches lightly on tough issues, but she’s honest, overall, about Louisa’s struggles with poverty, her growing fame, and her loyalty to her family. In Bethanne Andersen’s impressionistic gouache and pastel art, Alcott exudes intelligence and spirit. Both the informative text and the sophisticated illustrations should appeal to readers who are nearly ready for Little Women itself. (8–11 years)
In Ernest Hemingway: A Writer’s Life, author Catherine Reef demonstrates for older readers the connection between art and life. She balances discussion of Hemingway’s masterpieces with chronicles of his formative youth, his roots as a journalist, his world travels, his friendships and feuds, his difficult relationship with his parents, his four marriages, his suicide, and his legacy as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Numerous photographs are included. (12 and up)
For those youngsters who feel timid about Halloween, here are some not-scary books about witches, owls, bats, and cats that will give them a little taste of the season — and, speaking of taste, one book to whet appetites for some homemade (recipe included) applesauce.
In Tim Hopgood’s Wow! Said the Owl, a curious little owl takes a nap one night so she can be awake during the day. “‘WOW!’ said the owl . . . The sky was a warm and wonderful pink.” “WOW!” is her reaction to each new colorful object she sees, including a yellow sun, blue sky, gray clouds — followed by a spectacular rainbow. She is even more wowed when night falls, because “the nighttime stars are the most beautiful of all.” Hopgood’s multimedia illustrations contain vivid colors but delicate lines and textures; a final page featuring a color wheel invites viewers to go back and find each color. (2–5 years)
Alison McGhee’s rhythmic verse in Only a Witch Can Fly describes a girl’s desire to fly: “If you were a young witch, who had not yet flown, / and the dark night sky held a round yellow moon . . . would you too, begin to cry, / because of your longing to fly?” Wearing a witch costume, the girl slips outside at night with her broom, and while she and her black cat attempt to fly, her younger brother, a bat, and an owl urge them on. In Taeeun Yoo’s linoleum block prints the limited-color palette foregrounds all the black-cloaked action with a moonlit, sage-colored sky and lawn; the cheerful art adds a contrasting lightness to the sophisticated, mysterious text. (4–8 years)
Award-winning artist Cynthia von Buhler concocts a slightly spooky, shadowy setting for her story of a mouse and bat friend in But Who Will Bell the Cats? Mouse and Brown Bat live in the drafty cellar of a castle; in the castle live a princess and her eight cats. Mouse dreams of belling the cats so that he can venture upstairs safely. Spreads depicting cutaway views showcase the vast differences in life above, in the elegant castle, and below, in the dingy cellar. Von Buhler’s photos of her intricately built miniature scenes are the real draw here, offering pictures that will charm dollhouse lovers. (5–8 years)
In Applesauce Season, Eden Ross Lipson’s warm portrait of family and food, a boy and his grandma buy six pounds of apples for sauce and another six for “eating out of hand.” Then Mom joins them in the kitchen to help cook. Though the whole family loves homemade applesauce, the boy is clearly the one whose passion equals Grandma’s — a connection emphasized in Mordicai Gerstein’s insouciant illustrations of the boy and grandmother wearing matching eyeglasses, frames round and red as apples. Lipson’s appetizing look at a cherished family tradition — plus her appended recipe — makes it an easy seasonal custom for others to adopt. (5–8 years)
—Jennifer M. Brabander
When we finally got to visit grandson Miles out in California, Richard and I saw that the bookshelf in his nursery was well-stocked with the de rigueur baby-book presents: Goodnight Moon, On the Day You Were Born, etc. We had brought along a few books that had been autographed to Miles — Who’s That Baby?, A Good Day, The House in the Night, but at three months, there was only a single picture that grabbed — magnetized would be a better word — his attention:
I knew, professionally, that babies liked faces but had never seen it in action before. While he seemed to greet the rest of the book — largely abstract patterns and pictures of objects — incuriously, Miles could not get enough of Natasha. He did that bouncy thing babies do, gestured and reached toward the picture, and stared. Stared, hell. He was reading. While a baby’s instinctual attraction to faces seems natural, because a baby needs people to survive, I was amazed that a two-dimensional cartoon representation of a face could also elicit recognition and devout attention. But then, one thing I did know from my years of working with children, kids are almost always smarter than we think.
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