No, really, let kids choose what they read

In case you need something to tide you over while you wait for your copy of Reading Unbound to arrive, here are some more quotes about why we need to let kids choose what they read.

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potterrequired sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own.

I love that this quote illustrates the role that “gate-keepers” should have–opening gates rather than closing them. Once a kid has read through everything they could find on their own, teachers and librarians can help them find the hidden treasures that will still meet their needs.

Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers.  But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.

Again, people making these policy decisions know very little about children and child development; however, I do believe that Common Core, with its breadth of text types, actually encourages what I believe is important–giving children a wide variety of choices when it comes to what they read. Have you ever had it suggested that novels in verse are better for struggling readers because of the white space and shorter length? Then what about play scripts? White space abounds, it is mostly dialogue, and it very pointedly tells you what you’re seeing–but then again, it’s like a graphic novel without the images, and your imagination needs to fill in the pictures. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.


Years ago, I received a phone call from my godson’s mother. She said, “I know you told me to wait, but David is reading Harry Potter on his own.” David was in kindergarten. David read Harry Potter at 5 for the plot. He reread it at 10 for the plot, characters and emotional truths. He reread the entire series repeatedly the summer he was 13, to his mother’s dismay. “Can’t you get him to read something else?!” I didn’t even try.

NY Times Room for Debate

Yes. The importance of re-reading. I know, I know, there are so many books! But every time you re-read something, you gain something new. It’s magical.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children’s books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

“For us, choice is key,” said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. “When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they’ll be voracious readers.”

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers — those who read for fun less than one day a week — said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

Chicago Tribune

Review of Reading Unbound, with links to supplementary material 

Top 5 Reasons to let kids choose their own books


Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?





It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

In 2012, A Wrinkle in Time will be fifty years old, and I’ll be one of many people celebrating this marvelous, mind-bending, heart opening piece of children’s literature.

It’s been a dark and stormy week here in a Chicago, which makes it a perfect time to reminisce about this, one of my favorite books of all time.

It was 1988. I was in the fourth grade, I had English class with Mrs. Sandoval. I loved her name–it was pronounced “Sanduhvall” (rhymed with fall)–but when I saw it, I always imagined an oval shaped sand box. I loved her eloquent speeches, her expressive reading voice, her slightly bohemian clothing, and her ginger hair. I loved her classroom, full of books and rich with new ideas and words. One of her rules was to “finish assignments within the allotted time.” I had no idea what “allotted” meant or that it was an actual word, and I, in my over-read fourth grade know-it-all-ness, asked her, “Are you sure you don’t mean ‘allowed’?” She kindly said no, allotted is the word she meant to use, and she gave me the dictionary so I could look it up–and so began my love of dictionaries.

We read so many good books in that class, including A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. Half-way through the year our class reading assignment was A Wrinkle in Time. The edition we read had this amazing, wackadoodle, good show sir worthy cover:Isn’t that insane? It completely blew my nine year old mind. The wings for arms, the creepy red-eyed disapproving turtle face, the mountains…several kids in my class mumbled and groaned their displeasure when they saw the book (actually, they hated every book, and I hated them with equal fervor), but I could hardly wait to start reading.

And that opening line! Who else could get away with using that line outside of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest? Madeline, that’s who.

Here’s a synopsis from the publisher’s page, and the synopsis I remember from my youth, for you sad, sad people who haven’t read this book yet:

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

I immediately loved and identified with Meg Murray. Like Meg, I was an ugly duckling who had to protect herself and a younger brother from the cruelty of other children. I admired Meg’s hot-headedness and her willingness to stand up for herself and her beliefs. When I was faced with bullies, I tended to hang my head and wish for them to go away. I wished I had Meg’s foolhardy bravery and determination (I developed it as an adult, much to the chagrin of some of my friends, family and colleagues) instead of my low self-esteem and self-hatred.

I loved other characters, too: Charles Wallace, Mrs. Murray, the Ws, and I loved loved LOVED Calvin O’Keefe. What dorky, awkward girl didn’t love charming, awkward Calvin? He’s like the proto-Rory* (maybe that’s why I love Rory so much…) I loved to hate IT and its creepy, pulsing brain-ness, and the man with red eyes. I loved how Mr. Murray was real and flawed and yet Meg still loved him. (I myself had a real and flawed father who was proving to be less and less loveable every day, but that’s another story for another time).

I wanted to live in that rambling old farmhouse and eat tomato sandwiches and have an attic bedroom and a dog named Fortinbras. I was fascinated by how they made hot cocoa with milk, since I was used to powdered hot chocolate made with boiling water, usually in the microwave. I was as amazed at the mundane day to day details as I was at the time and space traveling aspects. This book was everything I needed and wanted.

I loved this book so much that not even hearing my fellow students reading aloud in their plodding monotones could hurt the story. While they stumbled along I was reading ahead, silently, desperately wishing to reach the end while simultaneously wanting the book to go on forever.

I cried when Meg saved her brother by loving him. I had never felt love like that from anyone, and I didn’t think I ever would. I couldn’t think of anyone in my life who would risk so much to save me, and I felt miserable, yet strangely elated—if brassy, bitchy, mousy, insecure Meg could find love, didn’t that mean that someday I could, too? I wished, that when I was cold and alone and scared, that I could crawl into the warm, loving arms of an Aunt Beast.

When I re-read this book, I experience my own wrinkle in time. I am simultaneously an adult, identifying a bit more with the adult characters in the novel, finding myself somewhat exasperated with Meg’s behavior, and a child, thrilling to the romance, danger, and overwhelming love of the novel the same as I did the first time I read it.

Someone recently told me that they’ve never read Wrinkle, yet they really enjoyed When You Reach Me. I said, I’m glad you enjoyed the book, but you only had half the experience.

You should fix that. Right now.

Especially if it’s a dark and stormy night as you read this.

hark! an arc!

I’ve come into possession of several ARCs recently, and normally I don’t give a frak about that kind of thing, and book-bragging fills me with an inexplicable rage, but I really have liked these books so Imma gonna tell you about ’em. However, I don’t do synopses because they bore me, that’s what we have goodreads and for.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, due September 2011.

My lovely coworker Miss Stephanie nabbed this at BEA, and Maureen Johnson signed it, along with the poignant inscription of Pizza. Judging by the cover, I thought a red haired girl went back in time and met Jack the Ripper, who ended up being sexy like Chuck Bass, and I was hella excited. While the book was nothing like that, I still enjoyed it. It reminded me a lot of Torchwood, in the best way. A++ would read again.

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, by Kenneth Oppel, due August 2011.

I got this by filling out a form through a website that I can’t even remember now, but I am glad I went into a fugue state and did so, because this novel is pretty well written, and it allows me to imagine young Victor and Konrad Frankenstein as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve only read the first quarter or so thus far but I am enjoying it immensely because, hello,”it’s my Cumberbatch imagination, running away with me…

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, due August 2011

I was introduced to Jonathan Auxier at the Newbery/Wilder/Caldecott banquet at ALA 2011 while I was traipsing about with James Kennedy. And by introduced I mean that James suddenly froze, sniffed the air, yelled “SCOP!” and bolted in the direction of a tall hairy man in the distance. When I finally caught up to the both of them, Jonathan (I discovered his name by reading his name-tag, because, unlike most librarians, I am thoroughly and utterly LITERATE),  was deftly juggling James’ collection of pocket kittens while James took painstaking and quite intimate measurements of the depth, width, and color of Jonathan’s beard. James dictated these measurements to me and I copied them down, because 1) his handwriting is atrocious and 2) like I mentioned before, I am a literate librarian and must show off at every opportunity. After this auspicious meeting, I sent Mr. Auxier a message on twitter asking for an autographed beard photo and was sent a copy of his book instead, which in the grand scheme of things is a-okay with me.

If you’re a fan of James Kennedy’s writing (which I am) I have a hunch you’ll enjoy Auxier’s book (an excerpt of which you can read here, and a Fuse#8 review of which you can read here). I myself have not yet begun to read, because once I begin I am sure I will quickly read it through until the end, whereupon I am sure I shall be sad, because you can never have the first read of a book again once you’ve done it, and there’s nothing quite like that first breathless romp through a truly wonderful book. Which is what I believe Peter Nimble to be, for a little Betsy Bird has told me that there will be Peter Pan references abound, and the only thing I love more than Peter Pan references are Alice in Wonderland references, and since Auxier’s line drawings are strongly reminiscent of Tenniel’s work (as well as a little Gorey and a little Blake for good measure), I am quite confident I will be satisfied on all counts.

The other reason I haven’t read it yet is because James told me that every tenth copy is infused with fairy dust, and since I will be ever so happy while reading this book, once the fairy dust hits me I will most assuredly begin flying about, and since I am in the middle of summer reading right now and don’t really have the time to go flying about, I must postpone my reading until I am sure I will have flying time to spare, which will be soon, I hope.

boundtracks: any which wall & “summer evening”

Boundtracks, a music and book pairing for multi-media enjoyment:

Summer Evening” written by Greg Brown, performed by Gillian Welch*

“On a summer evenin’ when the corn’s head-high,/ And there’s more lightnin’ bugs than stars in the sky.
Ah, you get the feelin’ things may be alright,/ On a summer evenin’ before the dark of night.”


Any Which Wall, written by Laurel Snyder

“It was summer in Iowa…” and there was magic, and it started with a wall…

*The entire album Going Driftless would pair well with this book, in fact.

an open letter to Stephen King

aka Uncle Stevie.

Dear Mr. King,

One cold, dark night in my twelfth year, I had nothing left to read. I’d read through all of my own books, all of my assigned reading for school, and all of my father’s back issues of Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Desperate for a story, I began rummaging through my mother’s bookcase and came across an enormous book in a slip-case, bound in red. It was your novel The Eyes of the Dragon.

I took the book out of its case and saw that one corner had been chewed by something with sharp teeth. (That night I thought that it was part of the book’s design; it wasn’t until years later that I asked my mother about it and she told me our dog, Blackie, had chewed on the package left by the UPS man–shades of Cujo–when it had been delivered.) The illustration I remember most was the one of the mouse hollowed out by the burning poison. The stark, eerily beautiful black and white ink drawings were the perfect complement to that story I found there, and I read early into the morning, loathe to close my eyes and go to sleep.

That was the right book at the right time for me. I didn’t have the best of childhoods–farm life was hard, money was tight, and my parents were both struggling with personal demons–but when I was reading, none of that mattered. And when I was reading that book, that large, heavy book, so full of magic, I felt protected—like it was a shield that would keep me safe from my own life and take me to another world entirely.

I identified most strongly with Thomas. Poor, unloved, fat, manipulated Thomas, who loved the bitter taste of his own heart; Thomas, who tried so hard to do good but was so easily led astray. These lines about Thomas resonated with me deeply when I was young:

Thomas was not exactly a good boy, but you must not think that made him a bad boy. He was sometimes a sad boy, often a confused boy […], and often a jealous boy, but he wasn’t a bad boy.

I felt like Thomas most days. Sad, confused, jealous of my classmates who had normal households and normal parents who were able to hug them and tell them they were loved and take care of them. I watched them as cravenly as Thomas watched his father in his secret moments, wanting what they had, wondering what they had done to deserve such happy, pleasant lives, while I suffered in quiet misery. It was all too easy for me to understand how Thomas could do the things he did…it was all too easy for me to see myself doing such things, if the opportunity presented itself. That book showed me that my feelings didn’t make me a bad person, just a person whose feelings had been badly used.

I eventually read all of your books that my mother had, Mr. King, but that book–and the Dark Tower books*–always remained the most special in my heart, because it was there when I needed it most, and it had been something special belonging to my mother.

After she died in 2007, I often thought of that grand, beautiful copy of The Eyes of the Dragon that I no longer had; it had been lost when our house burned down the year I was fourteen. Instead I re-read my battered paperback copy, and cried for Peter’s and Thomas’ losses as well as my own.

I am writing this letter to thank you, Mr. King. Thank you for writing a story that saved my life. Thank you for all of your many other books that are an unbreakable connection to my past and my mother. Thank you, most of all, for teaching me that people who PEEK at the END of books are not to be trusted.


Miss Julie

*I waited so patiently for Thomas and Dennis to re-appear in a grand fashion; I will not be one of those beggars who makes demands of Uncle Stevie, but, oh, I am still so very fond of poor, sad Thomas, and fain would know how he fares these days.

Tales of the Madman Underground: a love letter

I fall in love with books the same way I fall in love with people– deeply, unabashedly and without any pretense of dignity. This post is a love letter, and like the gushing of any girl newly in love, it may ramble here and there, but I hope you’ll indulge me.

One book that I fell for, hard, during my youth, is John Barnes’ One For the Morning Glory, an utterly unique fantasy novel that will nevertheless remind readers of The Princess Bride and the Prydain Chronicles. Tales of the Madman Underground is nothing like that book, but I’ve still fallen head over heels for it, which is a testament to Barnes’ versatility and skill as an author.

I will admit that I actually haven’t finished the entire book; it’s a long one, and I’m taking my time with it. You might say that I’m enjoying the early stages of being smitten to the fullest. The novel is very episodic but cohesive, thanks to the strength of the main character’s voice. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a teen with an extremely fucked up home life, and the interconnected tales of other members of the Madman Underground, which is the nickname for a group of teens who attend therapy together during the school day. Karl is a brutally honest narrator who tells his story with black humor and a lot of profanity.

Madman reminded me strongly of The Catcher in the Rye, but while I can’t STAND Holden Caulfield, I would love to have Karl as my secret mentally disturbed high school boyfriend. For teachers who want to explore those classic themes of alienation and teen angst, but can’t stand Holden either, I think Madman would be an excellent substitution or alternative for any curriculum or reading list. The book’s profanity might make it a hard sell in schools, though, which is as shame.

There’s a great scene with a teacher explaining about how to read Huckleberry Finn that I think should become a mandatory introduction during any study of that novel. The teacher, Gratz, says that there are wrong ways to read Huckleberry Finn, one of which is the Hollywood way, which portrays the story as being about “[…] all=American boys on a road trip on a raft (211).” The second wrong way to read it, Gratz says, is as a racist novel:

‘[…T]here is a very important character in the book called Nigger Jim. And because of that fact we will say the word ‘nigger’ pretty often in this class. And when you talk about Jim and the way he is treated, sometimes you’re going to have to say the word ‘nigger.”

‘So understand me. First of all and mot important, we don’t ever call anyone a ‘nigger.’ Not in this class. Not anywhere. When we have to discuss the idea, we always quote the word ‘nigger.’ […] It is okay to say that thus and so is what those very prejudiced white people meant when they said the word ‘nigger,’ and that they meant it about Jim. […]’

‘[…T]o show the evil of racism to anyone, you have to use the words that the racists use. And some groups out there insist that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, and that a teacher who teaches it must be racist, and even that the students who read it will automatically become racists, all because’–he whispered dramatically–‘it…has…that…word!” (213-14).

I read that passage (which I’ve vastly abbreviated) shortly after the “search and replace” Huckleberry Finn debacle, and I put the book down so I could clap. This is an extremely brave statement to make, and I applaud both the author and the fictional teacher for taking that risk.

We talk a lot about keeping kids safe. We put them in booster seats, we keep them away from plastic bags, we rate our movies, and we bowlderize great fiction for their benefit, because apparently exposure to ideas is equivalent to being thrown through a windshield or choking on a hot dog. But you know what? We can’t keep kids safe. We can try, yes, and we should, but sometimes they need to be exposed to danger. Until I read Don’t Hurt Laurie!, I didn’t know that anyone else knew the pain of being physically abused by someone they loved and who loved them. I didn’t know that help was available. I didn’t know that I was alone, until I found that book, and took solace in it. I read that thing to tatters, and it helped me survive. Some people want to label literature that explores difficult topics as triggering and not think any more about it. In my case, triggering literature may very well have kept me from pulling a trigger.

Not every book is suitable for every reader. While I eagerly seek out and devour tales of the broken, beaten, ravaged and raped, and find solace in accompanying them on their difficult journeys, others may not find comfort in those journeys, and might wish to avoid them. That’s why we have book reviews and blurbs on the back covers, so that readers may make informed choices. That’s why people curate lists on a given topic, to point people in a direction. That’s why most lists have a focus and a theme and criteria to be followed. That’s the sort of list that is useful to readers, and the sort of list that librarians excel at making.

Love is rare enough in this world. We should do all that we can to give the right book to the right reader at the right time, and avoid, at all costs, keeping books from readers, even in the most passive of ways. Without lists, blog posts, and professional reviews, I wouldn’t have found my new favorite book, and my life would be poorer for that.

I’ll end with a short list of  books that have broken my heart, in the best way possible:

  1. Tender Morsels
  2. Deerskin
  3. Blue Plate Special
  4. Jacob Have I Loved

backlist beauties: One for the Morning Glory

One for the Morning Glory by John Barnes.

It was 1996 or 1997  and I was in the Hallmark Waldenbooks in Clinton, Ia, with my mother and most likely my sister. Even though our small family farm never brought in a sizeable or steady income, one thing my mother always allowed us to buy was books. I was scanning the paperbacks in the science fiction section when this cover caught my eye:

I was still deeply in love with The Phantom of the Opera ( the Leroux novel, and the musical, and Susan Kay’s “sequel” Phantom) at the time, so I was first drawn to the Twisted Man, up in the corner. He was so…brooding. And creepy. I also loved the rest of the cover, with its classic fairy-tale illustration style. My mom bought it for me, and I was ready to read.

I loved this book when I first read it, and I love it still. It’s been added to my bedside reading pile, because it is due for a re-reading soon. Does anyone else do that? Re-read books? It’s like visiting an old friend, and if the book is good enough, deep enough, and rich enough, you find new things to uncover with every reading. Also, you’re coming at it from a different age, a different physical and mental space, so different elements will jump out at you than before.

This book is a fairy-tale in the vein of A Princess Bride, and has been compared to that title often. The tale is very self-aware, and plays on fairy-tale conceits with skill. As a child, Prince Amatus drank some of the wine of the Gods, and thereafter was only half a man–literally*: half of his body suddenly disappears. A “year and a day” later, the Prince is joined by four mysterious companions who will prove to be the key to his fate and the restoration of his missing half. Before he can be restored, he and his companions will have to save innocent maidens, befriend mythical beasts, and uncover frightening truths that might better stay uncovered.

Enough with my crap-tastic summary. I can’t say enough good things about this book. Barnes is an author known for his hard science fiction, or so the internet tells me–I haven’t actually read any of it–and recently his book Tales from the Madman Underground was selected as a Printz honor book, which goes to show you that he is a versatile and well-respected author.

But I don’t really care about those books (although Tales is definitely on my tbr list as well); I completely agree with the writer over at Steely Pips, who wrote, “A [..] mystery […] I’d badly like to see solved, is “how can we get John Barnes to write more books like this one?” I’m not wild about his other books, but this is really good stuff.”

If you’re a fantasy fan, or a fan of sly humor and malapropisms (there’s a character named Pell Grant for f’s sake!), or a fan of rich, lovely books, please do yourself a favor and find a copy of One for The Morning Glory by John Barnes.

Recommended if you like: The Prydain Chronicles, The Princess Bride, the Narnia books.

*I mean, really literally, not literally in the way that everyone seems to be misusing it these days

related links:

It was reviewed on a Fantasy Friday Review over at Literary Transgressions.

Review of the book and a little bio of Barnes from SFSite.

Steely Pips wrote about it on his book log.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

That line, from Whitman’s “Song of Myself“, popped into my head as soon as I finished reading James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish, which I shall be reviewing forthwith.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I have met James Kennedy. We were both standing beside the treacle well. I was drawing treacle; he was drawing pictures of Richard Nixon wearing iconic costumes from famous movie musicals, such as Anna’s ball gown from The King and I and Eliza Doolittle’s black and white ensemble from the horse racing scene in My Fair Lady. You can’t deny that what James lacks in understanding he makes up for in inventiveness.

“That’s some nice cross-hatching on Nixon’s jowls,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied.

After a bit more drawing, he said, “If you like my pitiful art, you should really see the work on the cover of my book. Now that’s some drawing.”

“You have a book?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, tucking his pen behind his ear. Not the best idea, really, since it was a fountain pen; ink immediately began trickling down his temple and running into his mouth. “I have a book. The Order of Odd-Fish.” He paused, dipped his finger into the ink running down his face, and proceeded to adorn himself with a small Charlie Chaplin mustache. “Have you read it?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve only just heard of it.”

“A likely excuse!” he said, adding to his face an impressive pair of side-burns. “Too busy drawing treacle, were you? I suppose you can be forgiven….a dying art, is treacle drawing. I should commend you.”

“Perhaps I would read it, if I only knew a bit more about it.” I was contemplating whether the best way to order odd-fish was alphabetical or numerical; or, perhaps, if one should order odd-fish before or after the soup course.

He tucked his sketchbook away and motioned for me to follow him to the gate enclosing the treacle well. He perched upon the gate and I sat down upon a nearby rock. He harrumphed and said, “I’ll tell thee everything I can. It begins with a baby in a basket….a very DANGEROUS baby. Jo Larouche, to be precise, raised for thirteen years by a fading Hollywood starlet. One night, during a party, a Russian General appears….”

He prattled on for quite a while; I missed much of it, since I was thinking of a plan to dye one’s whiskers green, and always use so large a fan that they could not be seen. Fortunately, it has all been written down; and I heard and retained enough that I knew I wished to read this book.)

Kennedy’s book is large. It contains multitudes. The cast of characters is vast. The humor is painted in broad strokes. The journey is epic. It is part steam-punk, part urban fantasy, part fairy-tale, part bildungsroman, and part romance (in the Hawthorne sense of the word).

Within the main character of Jo LaRouche, there are echoes of Alice, Milo, Wart, and Dorothy. In the world,  there are homages both subtle and obvious to Lovecraft, Stephen King, Monty Python and Moby Dick. Yet from these many and diverse influences, Kennedy has created something unique.

Jo’s companions also echo Tock and the Humbug, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter and the White Queen; her foster mother echoes Merlin and another faded starlet, Lily Cavanaugh; her foes, the Belgian Prankster and the Silent Sisters rank among the best villains of children’s literature such as the Jabberwocky, the Terrible Trivium, and Shere Khan, to name just a few.

Kennedy’s companions sparkle because of their oftentimes pathetic absurdities (a cockroach butler bemoans being smeared in the press, but when the press ignores him, he tries doubly hard to be worthy of their write-ups) set them apart from more noble examples of the archetype, and his villains feel all the more dastardly because of the sheer goofiness with which they practice their evil, such as writing musicals to thwart one another and filling the Grand Canyon with pudding.

The world of Eldritch City, which we reach by means we don’t really understand but go along with anyway (hint: it involves the Moby Dick reference), is incredibly bizarre but functions with a logic all of its own, and it obeys its own insane rules, as all the best fantasy worlds do. The characters are iconic but have been imbued with qualities that make them stand out from those who have come before. The plot, which its standard fantasy trajectory of a quest and an evil that must be defeated*, familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, is told with such singular style that the well-worn path seems freshly paved.

I could blather on and on, but there is no reason to; this book is worth reading, and if you love any of the books or characters I’ve mentioned during this review, you will love this book as well. This book is not for every reader, nor should it be. As Ranganathan taught the librarian so long ago:

  1. Every reader his [or her] book.
  2. Every book its reader.

I am obviously one of this book’s readers. If you think you might be, too, do yourself a favor and go read it now.

Reviewed from a library copy.

A couple of other internet references to The Order of Odd-Fish:

Robert Paul Weston

Large Hearted Boy

*And yet the journey is also inverted, which I will not discuss further lest I ruin the tale for you.


*cue the theramin, followed by the pounding of hoofbeats*

Good golly, sci-fi and fantasy are my favorite genres as a reader, which is the main reason I wanted to attend the Children’s Literature Conference at NIU this year, seeing as their theme was all about science fiction and fantasy.

Thursday evening the speaker was Tamora Pierce. The theme of her speech was being a pirate–a literary pirate. She spoke about how as a child her favorite tv show was about Robin Hood, and she would wrest control of the tv away from her sisters so she could watch it. Her interest piqued, she looked up Robin Hood in the encyclopedia, then followed the “see also” references to learn about Richard the II and Medieval Europe.

When she began writing books, she unconsciously used this childhood research to construct her fantasy worlds. From there, she began researching more, using stacks of foreign language dictionaries to cobble together new languages for her worlds, and photocopying, cutting out, and rearranging maps of the middle east to create new geographies.

Despite having a cold, Tamora was very eloquent and spoke at length with each person who came to get a book signed by her.

Before she spoke, the winners of the Monarch and Caudill awards were announced in an extremely anti-climactic way. The authors had been called the day before (I think), so there was no giddy phone chat or anything. Just…”Here’s the winners. Whoo.” They didn’t really talk about the new Bluestem award, either, which I thought was disappointing. I wish that they’d’ve let Melanie Koss and Andrew Medlar announce the winners; the booktalks they did the following day were incredibly charming and engaging, and I’m sure they could have added some pomp and circumstance to the announcing of the awards. I mean, I know it isn’t the Oscars or anything, but a little fanfare, please?

The speakers on Friday were Jill Thompson, Nnedi Orokafor, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, along with Andrew Medlar and Melanie Koss booktalking award winners and some “best of”  books from late ’09 / early ’10.

Jill Thompson did some of the art for IRead’s Scare Up a Good Book reading theme, so I was fairly familiar with her work. As she spoke, for a while she casually painted a watercolor picture for an upcoming book WHILE TALKING, which blew my mind–straight up watercolors, no inking, and she was doing a fine job. I was very impressed.

Nnedi told an excellent story about stopping to use the restroom during a family trip, and their only option being a hole in the ground that led to hell, being guarded over a woman with a big knife chopping up lots of meat. The meat was covered in flies, and every time the knife came down the flies went up, and ohmigod people if that’s not a great, disturbing image than I don’t know what it.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal was very darling, per usual, and of course showed a short five minute film about making things that made me a little weepy.

The booktalks by Melanie and Andrew were very well done. There was some acting, some throwing of beads, some hula-hooping. I’ll add a bib of the books they talked about soon (if only one were posted online already).

I have some pictures and  video that I need to upload…will update when I get around to that.