Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Henry Holt
& Co
. 2009. Listened to Brilliance Audio version (2009), copy supplied by Brilliance Audio. Narrated by Natalie Ross. Middle Grade Fiction.

The Plot: It's 1899, and Calpurnia Virginia Tate is twelve. Well, actually eleven. But she's the type who thinks twelve is an acceptable answer. It's a hot summer in Texas. Calpurnia, sometimes Callie Vee, is the middle child, with three older brothers and three younger, most named for Texas heroes. Her family is well off; as the only daughter, her mother has plans for her. Plans that include cookery and knitting and housewife skills and possibly being a debutante. It's not what Callie wants. But what does Callie want?

A chance conversation with her imposing Grandfather Tate about grasshoppers leads her science. And studying nature. And to realizing that there is more to life than her corner of Texas. But is it realistic for a girl to dream of being more than what her family wants her to be?

The Good: A look at six months in the life of one girl, when she begins to leave childhood behind and become her own person. Told with a lot of humor and love, with details for the grown up reader to love, such as the warm, loving, physical relationship between Callie's oh so formal and proper parents.

How many times do kids in books (boys or girls) like, I mean really, really like, science? Science and nature and observation are all key parts of the story; scientists are mentioned, and a quote from Darwin starts each chapter.

Callie wonders why suddenly there are both green and yellow grasshoppers and asks her grandfather. Years before, Grandfather passed the running of the family business (cotton and pecans) to his son, Callie's father, and Grandfather now spends his days indulging in a love of and passion for science. He tells Callie to figure it out herself, and so starts what becomes a beautiful grandparent/grandchild relationship. Grandfather, who cannot quite keep track of all the children in his son's large family, slowly rejoins the family to become Callie's "Granddaddy" while Callie blooms as she turns her love of being outdoors and books and animals into something more than a passing fancy.

The supporting characters are fully drawn. Mother, who uses an alcohol-ladden ladies tonic to ease her headaches, wants for Callie all that Mother either had or wanted as a child. Which means cooking, and sewing, and embroidery, and perhaps being a debutante. Her mother fails to see that Callie has her own dreams; and Callie, just 11 (almost 12), doesn't know how to please her mother and follow her own desires. Cooking and "housewifery" isn't shown to be wrong; it's just shown to not be what Callie likes doing. Her friend Lula likes it; as does her mother. But it's not for Callie.

Likewise, Granddaddy, who spent his life doing what he had to do -- building a business and life for his family -- only now does what he wants. Granddaddy doesn't appear to give his full support to Callie. He points out that anyone should learn the basics of cooking and sewing, adding that when he was in the war the men cooked and sewed and take care of themselves. Part of me wonders if Granddaddy, having waited until he no longer had family responsibilities to become a self-educated scientist, just doesn't see scientist as a career, period, let alone a career for his granddaughter.

The Civil War, slavery, and race relations are hinted it. Adults talk of the hard times after the war, which is why Mother didn't "come out" into society. But somethings aren't explained; there are old slave quarters, but did the Tates have slaves? What happened? Viola is the family cook -- but what is her history? Kelly gives some details, hints of things, but never over explains or over describes. In other words, we are always told and shown things as a child would tell us, a child who sometimes knows (and sometimes doesn't) the importance of what she shares.

Callie is privileged. First, by her color. She tells of an "octoroon" who "passed" as white, only to be killed by her husband when found out. When it's time to pick cotton, "colored" children work along with the adults. While Kelly and Callie never say it, the adult reader sees this and thinks, Callie can pursue her grasshoppers and moths and read her books because she's the white child of a well-off landowner, even if her mother does want her to bake an apple pie.

Her second privilege comes from money. Off-hand, as the story develops, we learn that they are one of the most well-off families in town. Lula's mother would be happy if her daughter (only eleven, like Callie) landed one of those Tate boys. There are music lessons, a gramophone, new clothes, and when Callie rebels against cooking, her mother asks her, "who will cook for you when you are grown?" Callie, with the certainty of a child, answers "Viola," the family cook, with utter sincerity. She expects to always have those servants. If we don't learn more about Viola's family or personal life, it's because Callie doesn't know it and doesn't even think to wonder.

Callie never realizes her privilege; it's for the reader, and it's for the reader to contrast those two areas of privilege (color and wealth) with the area where she is not privileged: her sex. She is locked into only one possible future, and it's not a future of scientific study. Callie has food, clothes, school, lessons, but does she have a choice about her future?

What will Callie's future be? Kelly leaves this open; I, for one, think Callie will pursue her studies, stubbornly, with a bit of pigheadedness. To me, the end shows that Callie's dreams are achievable even if she's the only one who believes it.

One more thing: I was so, so afraid that there was going to be a Big Meaningful Death. I am happy to report -- not even a dead dog.

Also? The author's website says that she is a lawyer. You all know I have a soft spot for fellow lawyers.

Natalie Ross narrates. Granddaddy sounded like an old man; Callie like a child, sometimes old for her years, sometimes petulant, always eleven almost twelve.

For having such fully realized characters; and for Kelly not telling us everything about Callie and her world and family, and rather telling us just enough; this is one of my favorite books of 2009.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Brief History of Montmaray

A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper. Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy supplied by publisher. Young Adult. Fiction.

The Plot: 1936. Sophie FitzOsborne, 16, lives with her family on the small island nation of Montmaray. She's a princess, yes, but a princess who tends the chickens and helps keep the decaying castle in repair and takes care of her uncle, King John. Whatever fortune the family had is gone, but the titles remain, the island remains, the pride remains. How long can a royal family survive, when the the money is gone and royals outnumber the commoners?

The Good: Cooper spends the first part of the book casting the spell that is Montmaray. It's a time and place out of a story.

The cast of characters are slightly madcap, something out of a 1930s comedy. Her uncle, the mad King John. Cousin Toby, the heir to the kingdom, off at school in England. Cousin Veronica, smart, private, content to remain on the island. Tomboy younger sister Henry. Then there is the gruff housekeeper who bosses the children around as if she owns the place; her handsome twenty-two year old son, Simon, a solicitor in London; and the handful of villager who remain. Plus, of course, a dog. And chickens.

The FitzOsbornes (a family originally from Cornwall with ties to the Norman conquest) live in a castle, decaying and falling apart and full of leaks but also hidden passages, family crypts, forgotten Faberge eggs. An island, just big enough for castle and for the thousand or so villagers who used to live on Montmaray. As Sophie's journal slowly reveals, Montmaray is a unique country that was founded in the mid sixteenth century. Lives of past kings and queens are told, Montmaray's importance in international affairs revealed.

The FitzOsborne cousins are a small, tight, close family. They have to be. At first, the dangers are the ones they know all too well. The lack of parents: Sophie's parents are dead, Veronica's mother abandoned the family, and King John is mad. The fear of leaving the island: Aunt Charlotte, their wealthy aunt (she married well) lives in England and wants the children to be in England while they just want to be left alone. Lack of money: the decaying castle, the outgrown clothes, bad plumbing, limited food. And their own isolation, represented best in Veronica's refusal to leave the island while still hoping to see Montmaray take part in international affairs, like it did in the past.

The decaying of Montmaray and its royal family has happened for multiple reasons: deaths, the loss of villagers to the Great War and the influenza and emigration, loss of revenue from changing times, stock market loss, no strong leaders. A handful of teenagers are trying to maintain the only home they have ever known, not realizing how futile it is. It seems things only go from bad to worse; King John's declining mental facilities, Toby off at school, nothing left to sell for more money.

Montmaray was never big -- a royal family, yes; but no other important families or politicians. At the moment, there are about a half dozen commoners. It seems that at its most vibrant, there were over 1,000. Now, though...it's less than a handful of families struggling for every mouthful.

Basically, once King John led 150 Montmaray men to death in the Great War, neither he nor the island nation ever recovered and there was no one left to lead or take care of things. His wife fled the island, never looking back; Sophie's parents were killed; her aunt married a wealthy Englishman and kept away from the heartbreak and gentile poverty of Montmaray. Only a housekeeper, slightly less batty than King John, offers any adult supervision.

Why do I love this book?

Because Cooper has created a complex island history, and my trying to capture just a bit of the history and setting has turned this into such a long review.

Because the teenaged cousins, Veronica and Sophie, are trying so hard to make Montmaray work, despite their ages, their sex, their lack of any true knowledge of life outside the small island.

Because just when the reader is seduced into believing what Sophie believes -- that their island is isolated and the family alone -- that isolation is shattered by unexpected visitors. The visitors are there not only for plot (Nazis, need I say more that it cannot end well?); but also for metaphor. No matter how much anyone, Montmarayan or not, believes themselves alone, they are part of the greater world and cannot run and hide.

Because of the connection between the family and their island home. The family is clinging to each other and to an island in the sea. The importance of the country of the shores of Spain has declined, and so too has the country's wealth and the family status. They are so interconnected that to say one is metaphor diminishes the strong link between place and people.

Because you don't quite know what could be a happy ending for Sophie and her cousins; so instead Cooper gives us a realistic ending.

And so this becomes a favorite book read in 2009! And word on the street is that the author is working on a sequel. And for those of us who wonder how much of the book is real, considering Montmaray itself is made up? The author has a handy online reference guide.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

ARCs: Just Like the Hardcover, Only Free! Part 2

In December, 2007 and again in April, 2009 I did some guest blogging at ForeWord Magazine's ShelfSpace Blog. While ForeWord Magazine is going strong, they have discontinued doing that guest blogging. So, I am going to rerun those posts here at Tea Cozy. Any edits to remove confusion about things like dates is in brackets.

ARCs: Just like the Hardcover, only Free!

Part Two: What's the big deal?

Last week, I wrote about what an ARC is: an advance version of a book, printed to create buzz, reviews, and sales.

Let's talk about what an ARC isn't: the final published version of the book.

Once again, I spoke with Brian Farrey, a Flux Acquisitions Editor; Andrew Karre, Editorial Director for Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group; Sheila Ruth, Publisher, Imaginator Press; and fantasy author Sarah Prineas.

Despite the language that appears on ARCs, some bookstores seem to think an ARC is the final book. Stories abound of people who order a book via an online bookstore, and discover that they've been sold an ARC.

Some libraries, likewise, seem to think that an ARC is "good enough" for their patrons.

Keep in mind, I am not talking about informal galley groups with patrons and students. Sarah Prineas sees positives in sharing ARCs with young readers, as long it's not a formal sharing. "I think it's great when teachers and librarians share ARCs with their most enthusiastic kid readers, and with each other. They're the ones who fall in love with books, and their excited comments after reading an ARC can, in turn, get others excited. That's what "buzz" is all about!"

I am talking about libraries that make ARCs part of their formal collection, complete with spine label.

Oh, some librarians I spoke to said "never!" But others told me of seeing ARCs in collections, or waiting to be processed, and educating both directors and technical staff of why ARCs shouldn't be on the shelf. Suzi Steffen of Oregon is an avid library user. She checked out a recent nonfiction book from her local public library. "I was shocked & pretty annoyed to see it's an ARC."

On a professional library listserv, a librarian justified adding ARCs to her permanent collection because low budgets meant fewer materials. I wonder – as budgets continue to fall, with other people adopt this "but I cannot afford the final book" attitude?

And really, what's the harm? It's just a few typos, right? Isn't putting books – even if they are ARCs – into the hands of customers the most important thing?

Brian Farrey explains that "in theory, there aren't many substantial changes between ARC and final copy. Most changes are to correct typos, clarify text (eliminate confusing or inconsistent plot points/character traits)."

Andrew Karre says that while "ideally, very few changes are made--mostly proofreading and adding details like bios, art, design tweaks, dedications, etc. In practice, a lot can change. I've seen covers change, major plot points change, and even titles."

Publishing is a business; and like any business, many factors go into the process and a tight timeline exists. An ARC is needed at a certain time, ready or not. Andrew explains, "Book publishing can be a bit like that famous I Love Lucy episode in the candy factory. The conveyor belt generally does not stop for anything."

Typos do matter. Sheila Ruth agrees, saying "even such minor errors reflect badly on a book, because they make the book look unprofessional."

I've read ARCs with grammar and spelling errors, knowing that those things would be corrected in the published book. But to read them in what is the final version of the book can take the reader away from the story and creates the impression that the writer and publisher are sloppy.
One young adult author I spoke with experienced a mix-up with her publisher, when the wrong book file was sent to the printer. The author and publisher realized that some things just had to be fixed before sending out the ARCs. Italics had been left out that would have rendered the story confusing. The solution? Sitting down and underlining the necessary parts of the story in the ARCs – all 600 of them.

Sometimes, the changes are more significant than these "minor" typographical errors.

Sarah Prineas, the author of The Magic Thief fantasy series for readers ages 9 to 12, shares what happened with the second book in her series. "My situation with The Magic Thief: Lost was a little different than usual. I'd originally turned in the LOST manuscript much earlier and my editor and I finished our edits on the book over the summer. But then, sadly, my editor was laid off in June and I was assigned to a new editor, for whom I offered to do a new round of edits. I turned the book in again for her in September, and the ARC went out during the third week of October. That's a pretty quick turnaround, and as it happens, my new editor and I were not finished with our edits yet. Still, the ARC had to go out then because the book itself comes out in May, and the booksellers and librarians need that much lead time to place their pre-orders for the book."

Obviously, Sarah couldn't hand write in changes in the ARCs. "I've tried to offer caveats when I see that friends have gotten copies of the ARC--"beware, the final version of the book is very different!" Also, my editor wrote a letter that was included with the copies of the ARC that went out to reviewers and booksellers. The letter basically said that the ARC and the final book would be more different than usual."

When I was discussing this with Carlie Webber, young adult services librarian for BCCLS, New Jersey, she handed me the ARC and book of Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini. The ARC has a chapter not found in the book.

Reviewers and those who understand what an ARC is – and isn't – know that when they read the ARC, they are not reading the final book.

These differences between ARC and final version should be enough to keep that ARC off of a library (or bookstore) shelf. The library that has one in its collection is not only giving its patrons inferior service, they are also misleading the patrons into thinking the ARC is the final book. As Sarah Prineas says, "adding the ARC to a permanent collection isn't a great idea …. The ARC just isn't as nice a book as the final version. Most ARCs are going to fall apart after just a couple of reads, and this isn't a great way to promote love of books."

A bookstore or library customer who gets an ARC that they believe is the book is going to think less of a publisher who put out the "book." Imagine the student who does a report on Ned Vizzini's book and links an argument to the "missing" chapter. Or the reader of Sarah Prineas's second book, who think they know how it ends… but doesn't. Is this really giving customers the best possible service?

In case quality service isn't enough, there is one more reason for not shelving that ARC. Simply put, it's stealing from the publisher.

Andrew talks bluntly about his concerns. "I hadn't heard of [adding ARCs to a library collection], and I'm a little shocked. It's not an exaggeration to say that shelving ARCs is an existential threat to the whole practice of distributing ARCs widely." Andrew later says, "there is almost nothing a librarian can do that's more damaging than shelving an ARC. Like I said, an ARC is expected to make a sale. If you shelve an ARC, then that ARC has the opposite effect. I think the relationship that's developing between publishers and libraries in YA trade publishing is very exciting, but misusing ARCs will kill it. I know budgets are tight, but shelving ARCs is stealing."

Are you thinking of adding that ARC to your collection? Don't. Pass it along to another librarian or a customer to create buzz and get input; but don't add it to your collection. Trust me – it's OK to throw it away. It's not throwing away a book.


This was originally posted in April 2009 at the ForeWord Magazine Shelf Space Blog. I also posted here at Tea Cozy my full interviews with Andrew Karre, Brian Farrey, Sheila Ruth, and Sarah Prineas.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Proposal


The Proposal 2009. PG-13. Via Netflix.

The Plot: Margaret Tate, powerful and successful NYC editor, just found out she's about to be deported to Canada because of a couple minor technicalities with her visa. What to do? Enter Andrew Paxton, her harried and put upon assistant who she bullies and blackmails into a fake-engagement to keep her in the country. The test of the fake engagement? She's meeting his folks in Alaska.

The Good: A romantic comedy that delivered everything I want in a movie. I laughed, I cringed, I rooted for Margaret and Andrew. It's got screwball comedy elements, with the whole "fake engagement" storyline; and Sandra Bullock does great physical comedy and isn't afraid to look silly or to be a mean bitca.

Margaret is a boss from hell (think The Devil Wears Prada); Andrew is driven, wanting to move up from being assistant to an editor (I was reminded a bit of Working Girl). At the beginning he loathes her and she is dismissive of him. But in true romantic comedy fashion, they grow to appreciate each other. Andrew stands up to her; Margaret's ice queen melts a little.

A film like this depends on the actors; Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have great chemistry. Margaret may be the devil, but it's Sandra Bullock! Bullock and the script allow the character to be strong, and good at her job; but realistically shows someone who is a little too removed and distant from people and connecting with Andrew? Not a bad thing.

Andrew, the assistant and younger man (and how cool is that, for the older woman/younger man not to be played as a joke), could come across as either weak (for letting Margaret push him around) or manipulative and mean (for bribing a job out of Margaret and then giving her a bit of a rough time at some points.) Thanks to Reynolds, from the start you see Andrew's strength and drive in pursuing his career, and he's been pushed around enough by Margaret that his pushing back makes sense.

Does this realistically show the publishing world? Who cares! Margaret has great clothes, Andrew is a cutey, and most of the movie takes place outside of New York City.







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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 28, 2009

Flash Burnout

Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2009. Reviewed from ARC borrowed from a friend. Morris Award finalist.

The Plot: Blake, 15, has a GF (girlfriend), Shannon; and a girl who is a friend, Marissa. It seems possible to have two women in his life, despite the jokes his brother makes, until he discovers a secret about Marissa that he promises not to tell anyone.

The Good: A perfect romance, written from a teenage boy's point of view. Blake really likes Shannon, even eventually saying the "l" word. He's trying to figure out how to be a good boyfriend, what to say, what not to say, to ignore the "advice" of his brother and friends that say, don't be so into her, ignore her sometimes.

Blake also really likes Marissa, but just as friend. And that's true; it's Shannon he is in love with, it's Shannon he cannot get enough with, loves her shoulders, the feel of her skin, the way she smiles just for him. Marissa is his buddy in photography class, a friend. Want to know the difference between feeling friendship for a person and something more? It's in the details of Blake's interactions with and thoughts about both Shannon and Marissa.

This is NOT one of those stories where the best-friend-who-is-a-girl becomes something more, or the girlfriend turns out to be a shallow undeserving bitca. It's about three nice, likable, teenagers: Blake, a photographer who is always cracking jokes; Shannon, who plays soccer and plays the piano and is strong and sort of confident but also not quite sure how to handle her first real relationship; Marissa, a photographer, living with her grandmother and haunted by her past.

Blake gets involved with Marissa's heartache inadvertently. He takes a photo of a homeless woman who turns out to be Marissa's meth addicted mother. Her mother, Anne, isn't evil or bad; she is an addict whose addiction and sadness overwhelms her and her family. If someone is drowning, when do you try to save them? When do you concentrate on saving yourself?

Blake promises not to tell anyone about Marissa's family, and this secret becomes a problem with Shannon. He cannot share with Shannon why he is there for Marissa, spending time with Marissa.

Flash Burnout manages to be both hilarious and touching, as Blake figures out his relationships with others and also how his actions have consequences.

Blake's parents are terrific; his mother is a hospital chaplain, his father a medical examiner. They are supportive but not pushovers. In addition to interesting career choices, both jobs add to the plot line. When Blake goes looking for Marissa's mother, his mother turns out to know about the homeless in town and where they may be because of her job. Likewise, his father's job also factors into the search for the missing woman.

I'm adding this to my favorite books read in 2009; and it's easy to see why this made the Morris Award shortlist. Yes, of course it's because of the plot, and the deft handling of serious issues and everyday issues, and supporting characters who are well rounded; but it's also (in my opinion, I have no connection to the Committee!) the character and portrayal of Blake. Blake is so real, from his humor, his point of view, his attraction to Shannon, that at times I thought Blake was real and the author had just invited him to his house, given him some cheese and caramel popcorn, and transcribed Blake's words.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas


The Twelve Days of Christmas by Gennady Spirin. Marshall Cavendish Children's Books. 2009. Review copy supplied by publisher.

The Plot: You know the song: A partridge in a pear tree.

The Good: The illustration of each verse adds to what is there. So first, a partridge in a pear tree. Next, partridge and pear tree still there and now there is also two turtle doves. More and more is added, until the entire song is represented. It can be almost a game, as the book advances, to try to find all the parts of the song -- especially towards the end, where the tree and birds have shifted to the background horizon.

Spirin's illustrations (water color and colored pencil) have the look of Medieval Art. You could imagine them hanging in a church or museum.

A note at the end of the book gives the history of the book, along with the lyrics and music.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook


The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
by Eleanor Davis. Bloomsbury. 2009. Review copy supplied by publisher. Official Secret Science Alliance website. All ages. Graphic novel.

The Plot: Julian Calendar, eleven, outwardly looks like a nerd and inwardly is actually an ultra nerd. He's smart, he's inventive, he cannot help or hide it, even in his attempts to make friends at his new school. When he stops pretending, he meets Greta Hughes, outwardly a bad girl, and Ben Garza, outwardly a dumb jock. Greta and Ben are ultra nerds like him, and together they form the Secret Science Alliance.

The Good: This better be the start of a series! We get the origins of the SSA, including what has to be one of the best top secret laboratories and workshops in the hideouts. It's full of stuff (including a bathroom!) and is neatly hidden from view because it's the forgotten basement of a long-ago torn down house on a vacant lot.

What's not to love about three kids who are outsiders who are brought together by their love of science, invention, and fun? The last part of the book involves their loss of their Invention Notebook, and plan to recover it and stop a criminal that is an Oceans Eleven caper for smart tweens. Bonus points because it's three kids, using all their smarts and invention and science skills.

See that cover? Diversity; and diversity that is included throughout the book. Any picture that is depicting the kids at school or other crowd event? Equally diverse, in terms of not only skin color, but also size and ability. Some kids are in wheelchairs; how often do you see that? Not often. The diversity also carries over to economics; one family lives in an apartment, one in a house, one in a duplex/twin.

The kids are eleven and twelve; and I'd call this an all-ages book. It has appeal for just about everyone, is fun, smart, and entertaining. Some of the jokes are for older kids (and grownups), such as Julian's name and the names of his siblings.

The artwork is full of details; you can see sample pages in the links given above for the official book website. It's also full color.

And finally...if MotherReader was using this for her Ways to Give Gifts posts, she'd say match it up with a chemistry set or any type of inventors set.

I'll be adding this to my favorite books read in 2009.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Steal Me Once, Steal Me Twice, Steal Me Once Again


Steal These Books, Margo Rabb's essay in The New York Times, explores people who steal books from bookstores -- sometimes, even, it is the author of the book who does the taking. I think my favorite part is the title of the most-stolen book.

No, I'm not going to tell you! Click through and find out.

Oh, and apparently? There is a hip factor to stealing book. Must be the reason I haven't stolen one.

Inspired by Rabb's essay, The Paper Cuts Blog at the NYT asks people what books they have stolen in Out Stealing Books. So far, 31 people have fessed up.

What intrigues me about the conversation at the blog is the people who mention stealing library books. Yes, it's always wrong to steal. Stealing from the bookstore is bad; if cuts into the profits of the store itself, and takes away from the royalties for the author twice (once because you didn't buy that book, twice because you prevented someone else from doing so.) It's a bit sad to read people happy to get back at "the man" with their book stealing. Or to read how they believe its OK because they like to read. I wonder who they think is to blame when stores go out of business, or book prices are increased to take into consideration such theft?

But stealing from a library means that you are now preventing so many other people from reading that book. What a selfish act, to think "my ownership is more important than your reading." With a bookstore, at least, the person who wants to buy that book will probably end up finding another copy or asking the bookstore to track down another copy. While at a library, chances are you took the only copy; it's out of print; and doing an ILL costs the library money. (No, really. See all the library news that mentions ILL in budget cuts, either eliminating or reducing the service or adding and increasing ILL fees).

By the way, Margo Rabb visited Tea Cozy back in 2007 when promoting her book, Cures for Heartbreak, which was one of my Favorite Books of 2007. And her 2008 NYTimes Essay, "I'm YA, and I'm OK," is a great essay about reading and writing YA books.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Everafter

The Everafter by Amy Huntley. HarperCollins. 2009. Review copy supplied by publisher. High school.

The Plot: "I'm dead." There is much she doesn't remember, not even her name. But she knows that once she was alive, with a body, and now she is dead. Objects are floating....keys. Pine cone. Bracelet. Sweatshirt. Touch the sweatshirt, and suddenly she is a place, a time, a when, a where, and finally, a name. Maddy. Madison Stanton. 17. She's dead. But why?

The Good: Each object, bracelet, keys, sweatshirt, is something that, when alive, Maddy lost. Touching the object brings Maddy back to that time, that moment, and she can relive that memory again and again and again. If, in that captured moment, alive-Maddy finds the object, the door is shut and that memory cannot be revisited.

So a ghost story. A dead girl revisiting her life story.

With physics.

Maddy, revisiting a physics class: "something can be two things at once, and that observing them influences which of the two they are... Ms. Winters has moved to talking about how everything in the universe is connected in ways that can't always be seen or understood. ...at the subatomic level no time has to pass for one particle to know about and be affected by what's happening to another." Maddy's head is about to explode, and so is mine, but what Huntley has done is taken the fantastical (the afterlife, ghosts, Heaven) and wrapped it in science.

Touch an object, visit that time, and so alive-Maddy and dead-Maddy are there, both at the same time. At some point Maddy realizes she can influence the past, her life; an object may be found, a bit of reality shifted. But no matter what little difference she makes, which gives her a feeling of disquiet as she erases one memory and creates another, the end remains the same. She is Madison Stanton. She never visits a time later than age seventeen. And the way this works and intertwines, changes, being and observing -- is all explained by physics.

Madison's journey through her life is not offered in a linear fashion; she jumps in time, back and forth, and we get a scattered feel for her life and family. She is in love with Gabe, happy to be wearing his sweatshirt; then she is meeting him at her sister's wedding. Madison plays with her friend Sandra, then she is six and in Disney World, then she is eleven. She is enemies with Tammy, then friends, then the slumber party that ended their friendship. Slowly, for both Madison and the reader, the puzzle of her life, her death, her afterlife is revealed.

Huntley offers a few possibilities as to why, and how, Maddy died. While not a classic whodunit mystery, there is suspense, and Maddy is trying to find out why she lost that which is most important to us all. Life.

Inventive story telling, beautiful language, a book that gets better on rereading, a narrator whose death you mourn and dread even though you know its unavoidable; it's easy to see why this is on the Morris Award shortlist.

As an adult reading this: I am almost semi-obsessed with the mother and sister she left behind. Madison's sister gives birth the day after Maddy dies; Maddy never learns whether she had a niece or nephew. All I could think was, please, let that child be welcomed with joy and happiness, rather than haunted by the tragic death of an aunt. Let the birthdays be celebrated fully.

And yes; a favorite book read in 2009.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 21, 2009

ARCs: Just Like the Hardcover, Only Free! Part 1

In December, 2007 and again in April, 2009 I did some guest blogging at ForeWord Magazine's ShelfSpace Blog. While ForeWord Magazine is going strong, they have discontinued doing that guest blogging. So, I am going to rerun those posts here at Tea Cozy. Any edits to remove confusion about things like dates is in brackets.

ARCs: Just like the Hardcover, only Free!

Part One: What is an ARC?

Lurk at a few book listservs or read some book blogs, and you begin to see one word over and over: ARC. Soon, you realize that people are reading books before the publication date by getting these things called "ARCs". What are they? And how come these people are getting them?

I asked several people to share their publishing wisdom about ARCs: Brian Farrey, a Flux Acquisitions Editor; Andrew Karre, Editorial Director for Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group; Sheila Ruth, Publisher, Imaginator Press; and fantasy author Sarah Prineas.

What, exactly, is an ARC?

At its most simple, an ARC is an Advance Reading Copy. Or Advanced Reader Copy. And it's also called a galley. Yes, even amongst the experts there are variations on this answer!

Andrew Karre explains that an ARC "is a promotional piece and a sales tool." Brian Farrey adds, "it's primarily a marketing/publicity tool aimed at generating advance interest and excitement for a forthcoming title."

Brian Farrey clarifies that technically speaking, a galley is a version of the book that is made up to six to twelve months before the book's release while the ARC appears four to six months prior to release. Farrey notes that many people use the terms ARC and galley interchangeably. "[Galleys] are for hot, hot, hot books where the publisher wants to generate buzz," Farrey says. "They're meant to get people talking about the book itself, not necessarily to generate reviews (although that does happen too)." With the recent cutbacks in publishing, Farrey speculates that we will start seeing fewer galleys and more ARCs; and that they will be done digitally, via PDF.

Brian Farrey says that both galley and ARC are "typically printed on low quality paper and materials (they're not meant to last; they're meant to be read once and tossed)." Galleys often do not have any cover art, while ARCs usually do.

Sheila Ruth, Publisher, Imaginator Press, notes that technology has also impacted the production of ARCs. Full color covers are the "result of improvements in technology reducing the cost and improving the quality of digitally printed color."

It's more than just appearances and quality of paper. Andrew Karre explains that "the text can be at various stages of editorial development," observing that "ideally it's a close-to-final manuscript that's only lacking proofreading." Farrey points outs, "there will be typos and other errors." The ARC is not meant to be the final book, but rather "give a feel for the final book."

Fantasy author Sarah Prineas illustrates how the difference between an ARC can be more than a misspelled word: "the ARC quite often is an earlier iteration of the book, so might contain a lot of sentence level and continuity errors and infelicities of prose that will be caught in a later copy edit. Another difference is that if a book has internal illustrations, these will often be either missing from the ARC or present only as rough sketches."

How do you tell the ARC from the finished book? As Karre says, "All ARCs have some variation on a banner that says "Not for Sale: Advance Uncorrected Proof."" If that's not evidence enough, "instead of reader-focused backcover and flap copy, it … has details of release date and promotional plans as well as copy more akin to catalog copy, where the audience is librarians and buyers, rather than readers."

As explained above, at best the ARC is close to the final book. Farrey cautions, "sometimes there are significant changes between the ARC and the final copy (which is why reviewers are urged to check any quoted material against the final copy)."

Why use a "not final" copy of the book to promote the book?

Andrew Karre points out those things that cannot wait for the final copy of the book: ARCs help book designers fine-tune their designs and "authors and publishers send them out for blurbs. Sales people like to have them to show and perhaps leave with bookstore buyers. Foreign and subsidiary rights sales people use ARCs."

Sheila Ruth explains how originally, influential journals such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal/School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Foreword Magazine, would "only review a book if they receive it 3 or 4 months before publication date." Ruth continues, "Galleys/ARCs were used primarily for these prepublication reviewers and for other influential reviewers, like some of the major newspapers. In recent years, however, many publishers are printing larger numbers of ARCs and using them to generate wider prepublication buzz, distributing them widely at conferences and sending them out to bloggers in large numbers."

Andrew Karre points out another way that ARCs are used by publishers: "In [young adult literature], publishers also participate in [the Young Adult Library Services Association]'s excellent galley program, which puts ARCs into the hands of teens."

ARCs are not cheap; and publishers have to decide how many to create.

Sheila Ruth says it depends on the publisher: "In some cases, only a small number of ARCs are produced to send to the major journals and influences. In other cases, particularly for the "big push" books from the major publishers, hundreds can be produced."

Andrew Karre says, "the basic thing to know is that, the larger the print run, the cheaper any single book in that run will be to produce." Karre adds, "the ARC is probably going to cost more and maybe several times more."

Brian Farrey of Flux breaks down the price of the ARC (which, remember, is given out at no cost) to the final book: "we might print 30 ARCs of a book but 5,000 of an initial print run. Those 30 galleys, because they're so few, will cost us around $5-7 per copy. Because of volume discounts, the final print run might be between $1-2 a book." The publicity team at Flux "works to craft a very targeted list of media contacts who will receive ARCs."

If the number of people and groups who get ARCs seem long, remember the purpose. Andrew Karre is blunt: "Every ARC will earn its keep by creating a book sale or two (a librarian reads an ARC, digs it, talks about it to her teen reading group, buys copies of the real book for her collection, etc.) Let me repeat: ARCs must create sales of actual books."

Stay tuned for next week, when I delve deeper into the ARC versus The Final Book!

This was originally posted in April 2009 at the ForeWord Magazine Shelf Space Blog. I also posted here at Tea Cozy my full interviews with Andrew Karre, Brian Farrey, Sheila Ruth, and Sarah Prineas.





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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Carter Finally Gets It


Carter Finally Gets It by Brent Crawford. Hyperion Books. 2009. Audiobook (CD). Read by Nick Podehl. Brilliance Audio. Review copy supplied by Brilliance.

The Plot: Will Carter is starting high school. It's going to be great! He'll get a girlfriend. He'll have sex. Stuttering around pretty girls (especially ones who wear shirts that show their belly buttons) may be a problem. As is his ADD, which leads him to sort of zone out. But with his older sister Lynn making sure he doesn't embarrass her and ruin her high school years he just may survive high school. Or not.

The Good: I listened to this on audio.... I have never laughed so hard. Laughed out loud. A cop followed me for five miles, convinced, I'm sure, that something was wrong with me from the laughing.

Carter, Carter, Carter. I'll admit it; I didn't like the punk at first. I almost took the CD out during the first ten minutes. He was so annoying! Talking like a kid who has watched one too many bad music videos and believed they were real, about his boys, talking about girls like they were objects and not people.

But then... something happened. I laughed at something he did (the dumbass). I cringed as he walked into a situation that I knew would not end well. And I found myself falling in love with Carter. It's a good thing I have a 45 minute commute and kept listening, or I'd have lost out on the funniest book of the year and my Favorite Books of 2009 would be one book less. The narrator, Nick Podehl, is awe-some. His reading is energetic, totally capturing every emotion -- shock, lust, disappointment, excitement, with a reading that is off the wall.

You know Carter. He's like many freshmen boys -- insecure and overconfident, searching, a kid trying to grow up. And so does he do and say stupid things? Like telling one girl he loves her and then moments later asking someone else to a dance? Yes, yes he does. Does he talk as if he truly believed life is like a porno? Well... sometimes. But isn't that what a book is supposed to be about -- growing up? Realizing the truths about people and yourself? What fun would there be if Carter was perfect?

Carter's freshman year is a little bit of everything. He's a jock, on the freshman football team and JV swimming. His ADD makes it hard to concentrate, at times. He has his friends, and he cares what they think, so sometimes just goes along. But one moment he can be obnoxious as hell, and the next so sweet, like when he doesn't make a big deal out of a date throwing up. He's the tough guy who also still cries.

It's funny -- what I kept picturing as I read this book? Dazed & Confused, for some reason -- no drugs (Carter doesn't even like to drink beer), but there is something about the kids, the sports, their parties and interactions that made me think of Dazed & Confused. And, well, a lot of other teen movies, as well as movies that are a mix of gross and funny. I was also reminded of Doing It, except that I liked Carter much more than any of the boys in Doing It. Actually? I LOVE Carter.

I don't want to give too much away -- because part of the fun is Carter getting himself into and out of situations. So if I talk about this one great time when Carter... well. Then you'll know. You won't discover it for yourself.

The sports! I almost forgot. Carter says he doesn't care about sports, he does it for his Dad. Here's one thing: I'm never quite sure when Carter is telling the truth, or when he says what he means. I guess I'll need to wait for a sequel (there better be a sequel!) to see if he plays football next year. Because he does pretty well at football, when he pays attention. Your teens who play football or other sports? Will love this book, and the way it presents sports and competition and winning and losing.

One last thing. Yeah, Carter starts as a hound-dog, looking for sex. But this turns out to have a great romance.

So, there you have it. Sports, friendships, girls, guys, hooking up, some parties, something unexpected, driving trucks, diving, and so much more. Great for boys who will see themselves and their friends in Carter; great for girls who will finally know what their "Carter" is really thinking.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Saturday, December 19, 2009

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship

If you're an author of at least two children's/young adult books, I know what you can do this snowy on the East Coast day!

Put together your application for the PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship of $5,000.

Who is eligible? "A candidate is a writer of children or young-adult fiction in financial need; candidates have published at least two novels for children or young adults which have been warmly received by literary critics, but have not generated sufficient income to support the author. The writer's books must be published by a U.S. publisher."

The PEN website has full details on how to apply. The deadline? January 14, 2010.

So go, go, go!




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nikki & Deja: The Newsy News Newsletter


Nikki and Deja: The Newsy News Newsletter by Karen English. Illustrated by Laura Freeman. Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. January 2010. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Nikki and Deja decide to start a neighborhood newsletter. Problem is, what types of things can two third graders report on? Especially when they may not know the whole story?

The Good: Nikki, Deja, and their classmates are typical kids, in dialogue, characterization, classroom antics, and as portrayed in the realistic illustrations throughout the book.

Children will readily identify with the school dynamics and recognize themselves and their classmates in the too zealous lunchroom monitor, the teasing notes despite the teacher's instructions to treat one another with respect, the gray line between not having permission but not being told not to do something.

While Nikki and Deja do learn a lesson about their newsletter (not to jump to conclusions and to really investigate something), everything is not tidely resolved.

A great fit for children who are beginning to read chapter books: illustrations, short chapters, realistic stories, familiar friends and surroundings.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Teaser: A Conspiracy of Kings


A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of Harper Collins. April 2010. Young Adult. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

My reviews of the first three books in this sequence of titles, and yes, spoilers: The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia. The spoilers are if you click to previous reviews, not what is here.

My nonspoiler teaser. Which, really, is just me telling you: these books are fabulous on every level: plotting, characterization, setting, theme, writing. I say "sequence" because I will argue until hoarse that A Conspiracy of Kings sufficiently stands alone to be considered for those prizes and awards that demand a book not be dependent on other media, including previous books. Yet, while arguing that, I would advise those who have not yet read these books that they are best read in order. It is a deeper, richer, reading experience.

Turner's sequence of books is set in a fantasy world, influenced by Greek mythology, landscapes, and history and set during a time where battles are with swords, pikes, crossbows; guns and cannon exist, but do not really rule the battlefield. Gods exist; but in an almost magical realism, in your dreams type of way. In other words, "but I don't like fantasy" doesn't really work as an excuse here -- no dragons, no spells, no Mary Sues. It's more of a historical fiction series set in an alternate Greece.

Three countries are at the forefront of these books: Sounis, Attolia, Eddis. In the first, a thief in one country (Sounis) is recruited to steal something of political importance from a second country (Attolia) to help the king of the first force the ruler of a third (Eddis) into an alliance. The second, third, and now fourth book continues to look at the politics and machinations as three independent countries compete for power and dominance while at the same time fighting against a fourth country, the Mede Empire.

Nothing in politics or war is straightforward or easy; and so, too, nothing in these books is simple or to be taken at face value. Part of the joy of the later books is trying to anticipate the intrigue, the plotting, the machinations, and Turner being such a gifted author that she is always one (or two or three) steps ahead of you.

The fourth book, A Conspiracy of Kings, comes to bookstores and libraries in April. More than enough time for you to read (or reread) the first three books.

What age group is this for? It's marketed for young adults; the first one was a Newbery Honor book. The complex story telling, full of shades of gray and no easy answers, will appeal to adults making this an ideal "crossover" title. The main characters are in their late teens, perhaps early twenties -- Turner avoids exact numbers except to point out that they are young, younger than the generals, kings, and advisors who surround them, young enough to discover truths about themselves, yet old enough to control the destinies of nations. It's a book that yes, a twelve year old will enjoy; but so will someone who is sixteen, twenty six, thirty seven, well, you get the picture. Bookstores and libraries should shelve these books in YA and in their science fiction/fantasy sections.

What else? Gen, the Thief of book one, remains my book boyfriend. Wow, do I love him. He's the perfect bad boy, with hidden depths, humor, and smarts.

Yes, I know I've said very little about A Conspiracy of Kings itself. Sophos, the heir to the king of Sounis, is a reluctant heir. He (and everyone else) knows he is not king material. Fate, circumstances -- perhaps, even, the gods -- have a way of answering prayers and arranging things they way they should be. Sophos struggles with what he wants versus what is best for Sounis versus his friendships with the rulers of Eddis and Attolia. And yes, there is Gen. And that's all I'll say... for now.

By the way? Author interview at HipWriterMama. Two more books. Giggles like a schoolgirl.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

UPDATE: YA In the Classroom

In November, in What Do You Think? I wrote about a situation where a school superintendent removed and prevented some young adult titles from being taught in the Montgomery County High School in Mount Sterling, Kentucky.

Well, one of those books was Deadline by Chris Crutcher. And I have an update. And anyone familiar with Crutcher, and how seriously he takes teenagers, can guess what happens next.

Yes, Chris Crutcher is coming to town. Not MY town, silly; to Mount Sterling, Kentucky.

From Crutcher's website:

"Senior MCHS students Diana Banderas and Stephanie Bellot coordinated the rally and invited CC to attend. He enthusiastically agreed to back them up, so we hope you'll show up to lend your support, too. You'll not only have the chance to meet Chris and hear all about the issues that caused the controversy, you'll also have a chance to speak your mind. That's what free speech is all about.
WHEN: Friday, December 18, 2009 at 6:00 pm
WHERE: Gateway Regional Center for the Arts
101 E. Main Street, Mount Sterling, KY 40353
WHY: Because all voices should be heard!"


Steph Su Reads blogged about this situation, in Discussion: Does YA Lit Belong In the Classroom? It's a great post with many points about education, and seriously looks at what happens in the classroom, and towards the ends she asks "I think the biggest--and most important--voice missing from this debate, however, is the voice of those Kentucky high school students in Risha Mullins' class."

Two Montgomery County High School have organized this event, including getting Chris Crutcher involved. The voice of the students is present. And they have organized something to encourage more people to speak up.

Given the articles and comments I've read at the newspaper and various blogs, I think Diana Banderas and Stephanie Bellot are two brave young women. I hope their event is a success. And I wish I lived close enough to attend to support what they are doing.



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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Dinotrux


Dinotrux by Chris Gall. Little Brown. 2009. Review copy provided by publisher.

The Plot: Dinosaurs that are trucks. Or is it trucks that are dinosaurs?

The Good: Combining two subjects beloved by many children: dinosaurs. trucks. Or Dinotrux.

The front matter of the book provides us with helpful information about the illustrations: "The artwork for this was created using bearskins and stone knives."

Vibrant, colorful illustrations show the dinotrux as they roamed the world 1,000,000 years ago. My favorite? "There goes Rollodon! He NEVER watches where he's going. Roll it out! Roll it out!" And as he rolls over a snake, you see a long snake now rolled flat.

Yes, it's silly; but it's also fun. There's plenty provided for the adult reading this book to ham it up, from "roll it out!" to "hooooooonk" to "burp burp burp."

What else? The endpapers cleverly match up the dinosaur with its matching dinotrux, such as the firesaurus and firetruck.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Do You Read That Book?

In December, 2007 and again in April, 2009 I did some guest blogging at ForeWord Magazine's ShelfSpace Blog. While ForeWord Magazine is going strong, they have discontinued doing that guest blogging. So, I am going to rerun those posts here at Tea Cozy. Any edits to remove confusion about things like dates is in brackets.

How Do You Read That Book?

This past year [2008], I read a lot of Young Adult books. How many? I lost count. Any number would be a bit meaningless, because I read many of those books multiple times.

This wasn't just any reading; I was on the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. The Printz Award is awarded annually by the American Library Association; it is for "a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature."

I read fabulous books and worked with brilliant librarians; and this past January [2009], we met in Denver during the ALA Midwinter Conference and discussed books in person and ended up picking one Award Winner, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, and four Honor Books, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson; The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart; Nation by Terry Pratchett; and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. After the Awards were announced, I returned home, took a deep breath, and – didn't read a thing for two weeks.

Being on the Printz Committee was awesome. A dream come true. But it was reading unlike any reading I've ever done before. The first and most important thing, it wasn't about me and what I liked or didn't like. The Printz is about literary excellence, not "Liz's Favorite Books". Now, a year later, I have the award criteria memorized; but at first, I didn't. So in addition to printing out the criteria, I had post-it notes with short reminders of what to look for when I read the books. Now? I have those paragraphs memorized.

Second, the book mattered. Yes, upon occasion I read an Advance Reader's Copy. Sometimes I just couldn't resist and didn't want to wait months for the final book! ARCs are not the final books; spelling and grammar may be corrected, passages rewritten or changed. The copy that was read and reread, with marked pages and highlighted passages? That was the final copy, not the ARC.

Third, my time was not my own. There were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of YA books published last year. Every time I wasn't reading one of these books, I felt guilty. I ignored the new Nora Roberts; my issues of Vanity Fair piled up, without even a glance at the photographs. "Do I dust, or read a book?" The answer was – read a book.

Fourth, rereading is important. Luckily, I've never been the type of reader where knowing the ending "spoils" the book for me. I've been known to read the first chapter of a book, and then the last, and then the rest of the book. On the other hand, I don't usually reread books. Oh, sometimes I'll revisit a childhood favorite to see if it holds up; or see if a book I read in high school or college is different from an older perspective. Other than that, I'm not one of those people who will read Pride & Prejudice every year. This past year, that all changed. I'd read once for me. I'd read again for the criteria. I'd read again, using fellow committee members' input. And again, and again.

Finally, all books and no breaks makes Liz a tired reader. Don't get me wrong; I love YA books. The first book I read after my two week break? YA. But, given how intense my reading was, I found that I needed something to give my mind a break so that I could jump into each book, fresh and ready to appreciate the new story and writer. So what did I use? TV. Not just any TV; reality TV. Watching a little America's Next Top Model or House Hunters was the perfect minivacation for my brain.

Now I'm back to reading for me. Not for a committee. Not for an Award. I can read whatever I want, including adult literature or books written 20 years ago. As I read my first book, I realized that my Printz reading habits were still with me. I noticed how the book met the Printz criteria, marked passages to share, wondered how a reread would be. I thought that being on the committee would end after a year; but instead, the deeper reading experience continues.

So how was being on the committee? Tiring. Exhausting. Time consuming. And awesome.


This was originally posted in April 2009 at ForeWord Magazine's ShelfSpace Blog.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 14, 2009

When You Reach Me


When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Copy from ALAN. Middle Grade.

The Plot: New York City, 1979. Miranda, 12, is finding out that life isn't what you expect it to be. One moment, you have a best friend; the next, for no good reason, he doesn't talk to you. Mira starts to make friends with others, but the loss of her best friend, Sal, for no good reason haunts her. Soon there is another mystery to solve -- mysterious, cryptic notes that appear in odd places, urging her to do something -- to write a letter. Which will somehow save a life.

The Good: When You Reach Me has received a ton of attention; from a New York Times review to being on the Kirkus Best Books for Children 2009, with a side helping of Newbery buzz over at the School Library Journal Blog Heavy Medal. That is a lot of hype to live up to, and it's sometimes unfair to the book that you go in expecting greatness instead of just hoping for a "good read." So when the book DOES deliver everything people said, and more? You know it's a damn good book. (Heh. That's one quote that has no hope of every being used by the publisher: When You Reach Me. Tea Cozy says, "it's a damn good book.") This gets added to my list of "favorite books read in 2009".

In part because this has been discussed everywhere, this is more an essay than a recommendation so spoilers are everywhere. Read at your own risk.

Miranda and her mother have a wonderful parent-child relationship; it isn't perfect, but it is healthy and happy. Miranda's mother became pregnant back in law school, dropped out, and now is a single mother, working as a paralegal. They live in a run down apartment, and Miranda's mother is hoping to hit the jackpot -- she just got accepted to be on the gameshow The $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend, Richard, spend hours practicing. The mother is an incredibly strong woman, shifting her dreams of law school to simply being able to support her daughter and -- very important to my reading -- not using Richard, the well off lawyer, as her Prince Charming to save and rescue her. She dates him but doesn't see him (or use him) as her future or her hope. And Richard feels the same way: he offers emotional support but not financial. He is a strong, positive influence in Miranda's life but he isn't there to rescue either Miranda or her mother.

On the surface, this is typical school story centered on the dynamics of friendship: old friends lost, new friends made. But it's more about Miranda being able to see things outside her original narrow viewpoint. The cause/effect she saw behind what caused Sal to stop being her friend? Wrong. The "rich girl" in class being mean to her? Wrong. When You Reach Me is about that journey to seeing the bigger picture behind what an individual sees and believes; a journey that some adults never seem to have made.

While Stead has Miranda reading A Wrinkle in Time, the L'Engle book I was reminded of is Camilla, not only because of the New York City setting but also because at one point Camilla talks about when she realized there was a world outside her own head: "What did other people think? What did other children think when they weren't with me?" It is this process Miranda is moving through.

The intricacies of friendship, of making friends, being friends, other people's motivations, all come back to the realization that it's not all about you, or as you originally see it. Miranda not only doesn't realize the real reason Sal stopped walking to school with her; she also doesn't see the truth of the friendships around her, viewing them as mean girls. She finds out -- and comes to terms with -- the knowledge that others may see her, Miranda, as being the "mean girl."

How we see things, how Miranda sees things, makes When You Reach Me not just a mystery of notes left, but also a mystery to solve in how we navigate the world, how we see others, and how we link events to create cause/effect that are not necessarily accurate just as how there may be unintended consequences to thinks we do or don't do. Neither the reader, nor Miranda, fully understands or sees what the story really is until the end of the book. This is true both for the mystery of the notes and the mystery of friendship.

Miranda's mother drops out of law school when she gets pregnant; since this book is set in 1979, that means the mother was in law school in the late 60s. Having spoken to the lawyers who were in law school at that time, women were viewed as not quite belonging in our club. That years later, when I was in law school or having just graduated, they still spoke of those women with disrespect, with being "the others who didn't belong," speaks volumes to me, and made me nod -- yes, in that time, in that place, Miranda's mother would have had extreme difficulties continuing her law studies. (Rebecca Stead is a lawyer; as a former lawyer myself, I love knowing about and meeting other "members of the club", those who went to law school and practiced and now do something else.")

Which brings me to 1979. I'm about a year older than Miranda was then; and I enjoyed the references to the late 1970s and also liked how Stead didn't overwhelm with pop culture references. But why, I ask myself -- as I always do with books set during the author's childhood -- why 1979 and not now? I think Miranda's mother is part of the reason; a pregnant law student today would have different resources and different options available to her.

The New York of the 1970s is different from the New York of today. In Miranda's Manhattan (like the Manhattan of my mother's childhood, twenty years before), kids had the freedom of the city provided they were a little street smart; and everyone, parents, teachers, adults, children, were fine with that. Miranda has rules about how to react to someone hassling her on the street; my mother, growing up in the same general area of Miranda's neighborhood, was told to ignore those men exposing themselves in the playground at Central Park. Yet, there was also an innocence still, in the pre-Gossip Girl days.

The economics of it all also seem distinctly 1970s. In school, there are kids like Miranda, children of working parents (Miranda's mom is a paralegal; Sal's mother is a nurse) and children of wealthier parents (Julia has traveled to Europe, Annemarie lives in a fancy doorman building). While I'm no expert on NYC today, my guess is that a single mother with an infant, just getting a job as a paralegal, with no additional family support, would not be able to afford a two bedroom apartment, no matter how crummy, dirty, and run down that apartment is. Sal and Miranda would be priced out of NYC; and unless the local school was a charter one, I'm guessing Julia and Annemarie would be at private school.

While this is not a time travel book, it is a book that includes time travel. That brings another reason to set it in 1979, and perhaps the most important of all -- because the reader, just like time traveler in the book, goes back in time to 1979. This shift, of the present being the past for the reader, adds to all the time travel elements discussed in the book. We may not be as scrambled as the time traveler; but we are slightly off in where we are because it is 1979, not the present. The past has already happened, and we know it has already happened because right now, this moment, it is not 1979. Time is set; so no, the time traveler cannot decide to do anything different than what was done. Setting this in the past allows the reader to be both in the present and the past as they read the book.

The time travel is not fully explained; a choice that some have seen as a negative. Personally, for me, it was enough to say that sometime in the future, a form of time travel was worked out that allows a person to travel back in time, unable to bring anything, and with a scrambled up mind as a result, was enough. The "naked time travel" trope is one I encountered first in 1984,* with the first Terminator, and, as I said above, Stead sticks to the facts of time being unchangeable. If something happened in 1979, it always happened in 1979.



*Note I said when I first encountered; I am not expert enough in the history of time travel in books and movies to say when naked time travel first was proposed.




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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Saturday, December 12, 2009

We Don't Need No Stinking Librarian

Or do we?

Librarian in Black and The M Word - Marketing Libraries are talking about a "staffless" library has opened in Kings County. There is interesting talk, pro and con, at those two blogs, so click on through to add to the discussion. The story the blog posts are based on is at Library Journal.

My first thought: good on that library system! The staffless library is basically a branch in a larger system, and that system actually did what libraries usually just talk about: they listened to what their customers wanted and gave it to them. What I've seen/heard in libraryland is often a "ask customers, pretend to listen, and in the end give them what we think the library thinks they need" philosophy. So yay for that library system for listening rather than paying lip service.

My second thought: just because you cannot see the person doing readers advisory doesn't mean it doesn't happen. (Actually, I owe you all my two cents worth on how RA and libraries is criminally undervalued. Maybe I'll have time in February.)

In having this type of "staffless" library, what the community, the library, and librarians need to remember is that it is NOT staffless. The Librarian in Black listed all the building costs and some of the services that staff a staffless building.

I saw that list and thought, "but wait! There's more!"

So here is what staff is still doing for this customer base -- and what, truly, all libraries should be doing well because we all have people who just want their materials. Disclaimer: include me in that. I work long hours, I get home, no, I don't want to go to a library program and don't care what they offer. I want my books, thank you very much.

Professional services that are still being done and need to be done very well:

Catalog. About five years back, when I was complaining about catalogs and poor cataloging so it was so damn hard to find books and DVDs and music on it, I was told by muckety mucks in the library world that it is a well known library fact that patrons don't use the catalog to find the books they want. They browse. Conclusion unsaid: so it doesn't matter that something is hard to find in the catalog.

I'm sure you can point me to those studies. I browse myself. But with the advancement of online searching, and Amazon, etc., the truth is people are used to going to a computer and using it to find what they want -- with a different set of browsing expectations. Expectations not of the shelf but of the catalog. If you have people relying on placing holds to get materials, a library has to pay attention to its catalog and what is in it. A valuable professional service right there, done by a professional librarian who is savvy enough and customer-friendly enough to create the online public access catalog that is about finding books rather than organizing and classifying them.

Website. As a member of the book blogging community, I can tell you -- websites matter. Readers Advisory is not about the check out person noticing someone with Nora Roberts and recommending LaVyrle Spencer (and, sadly, too many librarians believe this.) It's about the reviews and booklists and information you provide on your website. Call it handselling, call it booktalking, call it readers advisory -- book blogs are doing this every day and our readers love it. I'm not saying the library website should look like a book blog; but it is so 2001 to believe that your patron won't get suggestions on what to read next from your website.

The important thing, as with everything else about your library, is it has to be done well and it has to be kept fresh. This alone could be a full time job for a librarian. I, for one, would LOVE that job. Right there -- another professional staff for the staffless library.

Collection Development. Kirkus has left the building; and sadly many libraries think this is an area that can be outsourced to someone else. If Collection Development was a science, perhaps it could be, but I see it more as an art. I think Collection Development done with librarians who staff the libraries is important and critical. Note I say done with -- delegating, say, purchasing all the New York Times bestsellers or certain top authors makes sense. So, too, does centralized purchasing for large systems. But local staff should still be empowered to have the input to say "this series does well at my branch," "this genre sits on the shelf," "people are looking for x and we don't have it."

How to do this when you're not seeing the patrons? Analyze what is being placed on hold, both from a pure statistical approach (individual titles, genre, author, age) as well as from a holistic approach.

Example: Twilight is being check out, along with a lot of vampire books. Doing just a math approach, collection development adds more teen vampire books. WRONG. The skilled librarian who is up on their literature -- the librarian who knows books -- knows the Twilight inspired reading also includes paranormal romance and straightforward romance and buys those titles, also. Easy? No. Impossible? No. Requires a whole new skill set and way of thinking? Yes. Requires staff? Yes.

A Loud Mouth. Marketing, advertising, press -- none of those are quite the words I'm looking for so I'll just go with "loud mouth." The "staffless" library still requires promotion, letting people know it's there and what it offers. In a way it will require a louder mouth, so that the taxpayers and budget makers don't think, "staffless" means staffless. The library has to let people know, there is staff -- professional, educated, skilled, talented, staff -- and the patrons at the staffless library benefit from the expertise of that staff. So no, you cannot fire them; no, this isn't the answer to your budgeting dreams. And as with everything else -- being loud is a talent. Doing it right matters. So yet again... here is another place where staff is needed to make the staffless library work.

You don't need a building to be a library. Garnet Hill may lack a traditional store and still be a store; it still has staff selecting clothes, marketing clothes, advertising clothes. So, too, can a library lack a "library" yet still be a "library." And you still need staff.


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Cross posted at Pop Goes the Library.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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