Friday, December 30, 2011

Merry Christmas, Space Case

Is it too late to offer a suggestion for the best Christmas book ever? I’ve got a shelf full of Christmas stories, from The Nativity as illustrated by Julie Vivas to Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry. Some, like The Nativity, stick with the original story of Jesus, away in a manger. Others, like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and the evergreen Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, are modern updates that focus on the message of giving and acceptance.

But while you can place most holiday titles into these kinds of broad categories, there’s still one book that doesn’t quite fit: Merry Christmas, Space Case by James Marshall. Leave it to the Texas-born author and illustrator of the George and Martha books and Fox and His Friends to write a not-very-Christmas-y Christmas classic.

In Merry Christmas, Space Case, we meet Buddy McGee, a smallish, cat-hugger of a boy who learns that his family will unexpectedly be spending the holiday with Grannie. Buddy’s response is classic James Marshall:

“But we can’t,” cried Buddy. “My friend from outer space is coming here for Christmas.”
“Not that again,” said Dad.
“You can leave your little friend a note,” said Mom.
“But, but…” said Buddy.
But that was that.

Marshall never feels a need to explain why Buddy has a friend from outer space. He does, however, populate Grannie’s neighborhood with two of the ugliest bullies in fiction: the Goober twins. They promise to beat Buddy up unless he can produce his outer space friend on Christmas day.

The friend, called “it” or “the thing,” only remembers his promise to Buddy during a “wild party” “a few zillion miles away.” It is easily distracted but loyal in the end, turning up just in time to transform the Goober twins into twin snowmen.

I’m not sure what Merry Christmas, Space Case has to do with Christmas, but it was the perfect read for me and my kids this holiday season. If you haven’t discovered it yet, don’t wait until next year. Check it out now.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wanda Gàg would have loved BREADCRUMBS, by Anne Ursu…

Wanda Gàg—the pioneering picture book author and illustrator responsible for Millions of Cats—was raised on a steady diet of fairy tales. When her father died and her family descended into poverty, she probably got more fairy tales than food. 

Growing up  in New Ulm, MN, she heard these Märchen  (the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm) in her native German. Once she was grown and was confronted by Disney’s first big-screen tale (1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), she responded by writing and illustrating her own “free” translations of the Grimm Brothers stories.

Wanda’s fairy tales were never sweet or sanitized. They were true to the sometimes gory, sometimes frightening originals, which were, she maintained, no worse than the “steel and stone and machinery…bombs, gas-masks, and machine guns” of modern life. Stories like the Märchen were vital to children, Wanda believed, for they had the power to counter-balance real-life horrors.

Anne Ursu’s novel Breadcrumbs takes young readers into a fairy-tale world filled with dark and beautiful imagery. The story starts out in Minneapolis, during a heavy snowfall. The main character, Hazel, is soon to be abandoned by her best friend, Jack. To get him back, she must enter a terrifying forest. In other words, she must rely solely on herself.

In Breadcrumbs, readers will recognize traces of old tales from Hans Christian Andersen and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and of newer ones from C. S. Lewis. They’ll be drawn into a world in which Wanda Gàg would have been completely comfortable, for she believed that stories could transport readers to “the olden days, when wishing was still of some use.” The beauty of Breadcrumbs, and of Gàg’s fairy tales, is that these works offer readers hope while not stinting on harshness.


·      Readers of this blog probably know that when I started reading Breadcrumbs (in which a splinter of an enchanted mirror lodges in a character’s eye), I started having trouble with my eyes. Well, I’m happy to report that the eye doctor gave me a clean bill of health today!

·      Also, if you’re wishing you knew more about Wanda Gàg, then look for my slim book: Wanda Gàg: Storybook Artist. Gàg was not only a pioneer picture book artist and author, she was also someone whose life reads a lot like a fairy tale. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kevin Morrissey, December 19, 1957-July 30, 2010

Tonight, the story slinger departs from its usual terrain of young adult and middle grade fiction and nonfiction. Instead, I’m celebrating the life of a great bookman, Kevin Morrissey.

I first met Kevin when he was in charge of the wonderful series of author events at the late, great Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. By that time, he’d already worked as a sales rep for the University of Oxford Press. From Hungry Mind, he went on to manage another independent bookstore, do sales and marketing for presses large and small, work for a regional book distributor, and become the managing editor for a small literary journal. I know I’m leaving things out, but you get the idea. There was hardly any area in the field of books and literature in which Kevin didn’t have an amazing amount of experience.

He was, in short, a consummate bookman. Long after he stopped working retail, he was still hand-selling books, telling friends what titles we needed to seek out. Whatever story I was struggling with as a writer, he was there to offer encouragement.

If he were alive today, I’m sure Kevin would be a) giving me advice on sales & promotion for my next book b) urging his friend, Waldo, to shop around a proposal on The ‘Impossible’ Cheeseburger and c) sending picture books and Lego encyclopedias to his youngest friends.

Here he is with one friend, Helen—to whom he gave a copy of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon as a ‘just-home-from-the-hospital’ gift. The photo up top is from before I met Kevin, when he was living in Milwaukee, and had yet to begin his long career in books.

Goodnight, Kevin.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Andrew Karre Gets Right—and Wrong—about YA Books and Readers

Andrew Karre (editorial director at Carolrhoda Books) wrote an interesting post a few weeks back for HungerMountain ( He posits that all one really needs to do to drive traffic to a blog or site is to mention: A) a new Apple product or B) your disgust, distaste, or “half-baked analysis” relating to YA literature. While Karre initially made the comparison for a laugh, in this piece he delves deeper—and makes some very interesting and insightful statements about young adult literature and its readers.

So, what does Andrew Karre get right? He suggests that the genre is rapidly changing. “Ask anyone over thirty if they ever anticipated the release of a YA novel when they were a child or a teenager,” Karre writes, “and the answer will almost invariably be ‘no.’” The world has shifted,  he notes further, starting with the publishing phenomenon of the Harry Potter series and continuing through Twilight and the latest Diary of A Wimpy Kid book. I agree that young readers today are much more aware of new releases by their favorite authors—and that many kids have the buying power to pick up those books on publication day.

What does Karre get wrong? Well, it’s really just a matter of emphasis. Deep in his very well-written essay, he specifies that he’s talking about “affluent audiences of avid young adult readers,” not ALL readers of YA fiction. That’s an important distinction, one that demands another paragraph.

So, here’s that necessary paragraph, from my middle-school library lady perch: Even though kids today are more aware of new book releases, they still rely on the grownup in the library (should their school or community be so lucky as to have one) or the grownup in the English/Language Arts classroom. They still listen when we recommend books. They still sign up on “wait lists” for popular titles. Yes, I see a handful of possibly “affluent” audience members toting around their own heavy copies of The Son of Neptune at my middle school, for example. But I also have a long list of kids waiting to check out my one hardcover copy. For those who don’t have high-speed internet at home, who don’t friend their favorite authors on facebook, and who don’t have allowances that allow for hardcover purchases, librarians and teachers are still key players.

If, as Karre makes clear, “YA matters,” then these traditional gatekeepers and amateur book promoters still matter too.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Don’t injure your eyes in the middle of a good book, especially if it’s Breadcrumbs

I’m a pretty accurate touch typist, but today I’m also relying on SpellCheck and your patience. I am halfway through Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs and my left eye has gone wonky. So wonky that I spent an hour at Urgent Care last night trying to figure out what’s wrong.

While yellow dye whooshed through my eye, I kept having to fight off the urge to grab the doctor by his stethoscope (decorated with hippie beading) and yell, “BUT HAZEL IS LOST IN THE WOODS! AND JACK HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED BY A WHITE QUEEN—WHO OFFERED HIM TURKISH DELIGHT!!!”


Only later, after putting in drops, did I realize how strangely fitting this problem is. In Breadcrumbs a malicious mirror breaks, and bits of the glass fall to earth. One small bit lodges in Jack’s eye and changes him, much for the worse. Since I started reading the book, I’ve had the sensation that something’s in my eye.

Is something really in there? Or is it simply the power of well-written fiction?

I’m off to the optometry department to see.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011 Middle Grade/YA Favorites

CCBC, or the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison, WI, ( is having its annual discussion of the best books for kids, so it's time I chimed in. Here's the ever-changing list (in no particular order) that I'll soon be sharing with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at my school:

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick


Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
True (…Sort of)  by Katherine Hannigan
Small Persons with Wings by Ellen Boreem
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Bluefish by Pat Schmatz

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
The Big Crunch by Pete Hautman

Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg
Through No Fault of My Own by Coco Irvine

The idea is that after I give 20-second intros to each book (think speed-dating someone with a shiny paper jacket), I ask the students which books I should order. Also, come late January, after ALA announces the actual winners, we get to see if I was able to predict which of those shiny jackets will be sporting silver or gold medals.

By the way, the images are random: They're not necessarily my top choices for each category, but they're all of really great books.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hugo, in print and 3-d

Sixth graders are great. On a recent visit to my library, they said:
  • Hugo, the movie, is good, just not as good as the book.
  • The changes the people (guess that’s Martin Scorsese) made to the story were bad, like making the grown-up stationmaster more important in the movie. Why? Who cares about him?
  • Those who had read Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick’s latest illustrated novel, were thrilled that part of the story takes place in Gunflint, MN, but said that there were “some things that couldn’t happen.” (That’s sixth grader talk for “implausible elements.”) Still, it’s pretty good, too.
  • Both books were—according to what is admittedly a small sampling of the world’s sixth graders—nice and thick but really fast to read. 

Thank you, Brian Selznick, for nurturing the literary critic in every twelve-year-old soul. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Librarian's Dilemma

A Monster CallsUsually when I love a book, it's easy finding a way to "talk it up" with students at my middle school library. When I read The Wednesday Wars, for example, I skipped over the (not-so-kid-friendly) historical fiction part and focused on the rats. 

Now, however, I'm facing a dilemma: I loved A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Candlewick Press). It's based on an idea that a favorite author, Siobhan Dowd, was developing when she died of cancer. Ness took Dowd's kernel of an idea and transformed it into a gripping, stomach-punch of a book. It touches on bullying, anger, isolation, pain, and fear of loss. 

So what's my reservation? I'm not sure how (and to whom) I should book-talk A Monster Calls. The kids who really need this book (those who struggle with pain and isolation) may find it overwhelming. And anyone who's picking it up for an escapist monster read will find themselves tugged into a violent, sad, and sometimes hopeless world. 

So, don't get me wrong...I LOVED THIS BOOK...I'm just not sure how to share it. Any ideas?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pretty cool, huh?

It's not often that I see a cheery picture from World War One. But the one chosen for the cover of my next book (to be published by Capstone in early 2012), is pretty darned upbeat for a "war to end all wars" image. See what you think:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Small Persons with Wings

Mellie Turpin has loads of troubles, not the least of which is that until she was midway through kindergarten her best friend was a tiny, winged man named Fidius. Having a tiny winged friend isn’t in and of itself a problem. But when Mellie tries to bring her fairy to school, a) he abandons her and b) her classmates see her as a freakish, fairy obsessed fat kid. Not good.

After her grandfather dies and her father inherits the family inn a few towns away, it seems as though things are looking up for Mellie. Now at last she can forget about her classmates, who un-phased by bully prevention week are still chanting “fairy fat” whenever she’s in earshot. But things don’t work out quite as expected.

The greatest strengths of this novel are the well-drawn and fully realized world of the Small Persons with Wings, or Parvi Pennati, and the breakneck pace of the action. Author  Ellen Booraem keeps the plot twists coming and the fairy magic mostly plausible, unexpected, and always fun.

This would be a great book to pair with Mary Losure’s forthcoming nonfiction title The Fairy Ring, or Elsie and Frances Fool the World ( Candlewick Press, March 2012). It’s a rollicking ride of a book with enough detail about fairies and enough fairy lore to make even a non-believer want to believe.

Small quibble: I was able to easily suspend disbelief when reading about fairies in Small Persons with Wings, but had a harder time believing the school scenes. Had I been wearing the Turpin family’s moonstone ring—which allows the wearer to tell truth from illusion—I might have seen that the school scenes simply weren’t as “true” as the rest of the book.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Through No Fault of My Own

 Coco Irvine is my new hero. She absolutely shines in the pages of Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl’s Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). The diary, found and introduced by journalist and author Peg Meier, encompasses one year in a girl’s life. It’s 1926, and Coco is nearly 13. But this is no shadowy figure from the past. Coco comes through as real, living and highly unpredictable person.

She has all the problems that seem (and actually are) immense at 13. Early on, Coco recalls how as a child she learned that her real first name was Clothilde: “I have never forgotten this gruesome experience.” In winter, she must wear long underwear—one of her especially “humiliating problems.” Her plan to improve lunch fails when she and her friend are caught trying to carry away all the school’s forks and spoons. (“We were planning to hide them, not steal them and sell them or anything like that…” she writes, “so we would have to go home for lunch until they could afford to buy new ones.”) And in the summer, she takes her tiny rowboat onto the vast waters of White Bear Lake only to caught up in high winds. Her solution—to jump into the lake and tow her boat to shore—doesn’t quite work out as planned. Through no fault of her own.

Coco’s diary is full of mentions of real places that would interest Minnesotans, and the house she lived in on Summit Avenue is now used as the governor’s mansion. But this book will appeal to any reader who, like Coco, has to wear “humiliating” clothes, simultaneously hates and loves her mother, is mostly fascinated but sometimes horrified by boys, has “fiendish” teachers, occasionally and inadvertently tells off-color jokes, and loves to go the movies but thinks Mary Pickford could use a new hairdo (“I bet she’s 25 and still wears curls…”).
A quick and delightful read. A fascinating glimpse of a real girl from the past.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


A review of Unforgettable by Loretta Ellsworth

After Baxter Green injures his head at the age of three, he has a perfect photographic memory. In fact, he can't forget things--even when he wants to. He'd really like to forget about Dink, his mom's old boyfriend who's just been released from prison. He'd like to forget about how being Memory Boy made him a first-class nerd at his old school, especially when he's trying to start out fresh in Minnesota. But even though having a perfect memory makes it easy for Baxter to ace tests, it doesn't make it any easier for him make friends or figure out how to do the right thing, when Dink tracks him down.

Baxter is a fresh and believable male character. The problem of having a photographic memory is unusual, yet the repercussions (having difficulty fitting in at school; not knowing how to deal with mom's boyfriend) are universal. This character has strong appeal to both male and female readers. Also, the Minnesota setting adds unusual depth. Baxter is drawn into a fight (led by a very attractive fellow student) to make taconite (iron-ore pellet) mining safer for workers and for people in the surrounding community--many of whom are suffering from a rare form of cancer.

Strange but true Minnesota connection: While reading this book, I heard a story on the radio about a new study of mesothelioma, the cancer Baxter's pretty girlfriend is interested in. Without being a spoiler, I can say that Baxter wouldn't be at all surprised.