THE LOST GIRL by Anne Ursu – Blog Tour (with a giveaway!)

What do you call a group of girls?

A giggle?
A gossip?
What about …

a force.

I was so excited to be asked to be part of the blog tour for the new Anne Ursu book The Lost Girl (which comes out this 
Tuesday, February 12th) I mean first of all, it’s a new Anne Ursu book AT LAST. But more than that, I read The Lost Girl in one long, delirious sitting, completely enthralled and swept away by it. I was expecting a lot from this book and it more than delivered. I am so happy to be hyping this book – a book that pushes boundaries, that takes readers on a real AND magical journey, that asks big questions about magic and friendship and girlhood. It is absolutely gonna be one of my favorite books of 2019 and I can’t wait for kids to fall in love with it. So yes! I am definitely glad to be part of this blog tour. AND Walden Pond is kindly going to give away a copy to one lucky person. (USA only)


The Lost Girl is about twin sisters Iris and Lark who are facing fifth grade being put in different classrooms for the very first time. And Iris and Lark are not sure who they are without each other. As fifth grade looms, odd things begin to happen around their town and in their lives as the girls are pushed into unexpected and untested waters that force them to reconsider who they are and who they can be.

One of the things I love the most about this book is how it takes bits and pieces of familiar situations – the twins facing their first time separated, the woes of fitting into a new classroom, the awkwardness at trying to make a new social group outside of school, the dawning awareness your parents might actually think they know better than you do – and wraps them up in the way the world can sometimes seem magical when you least expect it. Maybe it’s birds or weird thrift stores or or remembering what it means to be sisters or finding friends in places you didn’t think you’d ever fit in. Maybe those things can be magic. Maybe that’s what magic is.


Author Anne Ursu

But the thing I love the absolute most about The Lost Girl – the thing I think is so important and earth-shaking is how much it cares about girls and their power. All my life I have been surrounded and uplifted and supported by groups of women and girls. I have always had women and girls cheering me on and cheering for me. I have been close friends with two women for thirty years, I’ve vacationed with another group of women for a decade.

And yet.

And yet so often our society tells girls, especially girls in middle and high school, that they need to be enemies to each other. That, in fact, it’s natural if they don’t get along or inevitable that they’ll stab each other in the back or they WILL be envious of each other and competitive towards one another.

As we reject the detestable phrase “boys will be boys” we should also set aside the corollary: “well, you know how girls are.”

First: the gender binary is an arbitrary social construct, it is garbage and should be smashed. There are more than just two genders and no “right” way to perform gender.

And there is ABSOLUTELY nothing true about the idea that girls need be natural enemies. And guess what? The Lost Girl knows that. Rarely have I read a middle grade book that is so full of ebullient, overwhelming power at the bonds of friendship between girls. “You can have this,” Anne Ursu says with this book. “You can have a squad, a flock, a crew, a pod, a TEAM. And there’s no reason to believe you must sabotage each other or work against each other. You are more than that lie.” The Lost Girl says to readers: together, we can be a force. And that’s a message so many of our kids deserve to hear.

The Lost Girl is something rare and special. It is enchanting and empowering – my favorite of all combinations. It’s a love letter to finding the people who will stick up for you and come for you and care about you, even when you barf in front of your entire class, even when you’re so awkward you think you’re made up only of edges and too sharp for everyone around you. I want to give this book to every kid I know, especially the ones who are searching for magic and searching for themselves, even if they can’t quite put that into words. I think you’ll want to share it with your students and your patrons too because there’s so much to talk about (did I mention it also has a delightfully creepy villain, a mysterious shop of wonders, plenty of plot twists that keep you turning pages, and crows with secrets that deliver shiny gifts?) and so much to love in this book. It is, of course, recommended as a first purchase for libraries and classrooms.

And if you want to a chance to win your very own copy, leave a comment (including a way to contact you) on this post by 2/17 for a chance to win a copy of The Lost Girl or request a copy from your local library or purchase one at your local indie bookstore! And please stop by all the other blogs/posts on this tour:

FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1: Teach Mentor Texts
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2: About to Mock
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3: Novel Novice
MONDAY FEBRUARY 4: Maria’s Melange
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5: A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6: Bluestocking Thinking
THURSDAY FEBRUARY 7: Kirsticall.com
FRIDAY FEBRUARY 8: Unleashing Readers
SATURDAY FEBRUARY 9: Book Monsters
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 10: here!
MONDAY FEBRUARY 11: Word Spelunker
TUESDAY FEBRUARY 12: Nerdy Book Club

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

bgThere’s a slogan in London regarding their mass transit system that has become something of a rallying cry for various causes: Mind the Gap.  In London’s Underground this means make sure you pay attention when you’re disembarking.  It is this slogan that kept running through my mind when reading Laura Ruby’s masterful young adult novel Bone Gap. It wasn’t just the title that made me think of this slogan, it was the idea that at any time, this book could sweep me away.  That is the kind of book Bone Gap is: full of evocative imagery, innovative characters, and big questions.  I was always minding the craft Laura Ruby put into Bone Gap because it is my favorite kind of narrative: the more attention I paid to it, the more the story revealed.

Bone Gap tells several stories at once.  It is the story of a place – Bone Gap – where everyone knows each other but it doesn’t always mean they like each other.  It is also, on the surface, the story of how Finn sees his brother’s girlfriend Roza being kidnapped by a man he can’t quite describe and thus no one can quite believe him.  But, deeper than that, Bone Gap Roza’s story – between the gaps of here and there – of how she is learning to stand up for herself and not let the world define her.  Bone Gap is Finn’s story of growing up and falling into an intense, slow-burn romance with a girl named Petey.  Finn also has a disability – to say more would be to spoil some of the wonderful reveals of the story – and how this informs his character is also a small marvel of storytelling. Bone Gap is also Petey’s story and, just like everyone else in Bone Gap, Petey must figure out who she is outside of who everyone keeps TELLING her she is.

This is one of Bone Gap’s biggest strengths, and one of the things I think will draw teen readers to it the most: this is a story about defining yourself and not letting other people define you.  In a way, this is the ultimate struggle of adolescence and Ruby weaves this theme throughout every story.  Will you let people know you only as the ugly girl, the awkward weirdo?  Will you define yourself as the little brother who gets picked on, does everything wrong, and can’t take action?  Will you be only pretty, a beautiful girl who is only your face?  Or will you – can you – be more than those things?  Bone Gap asks the question I think almost all teens are asking in one form or another: who I am I really?

Bone Gap does that trickiest of all things: it is both literary fiction and has, I think, very high teen appeal.  As to the literary fiction part: Ruby’s writing is a punch in the gut.  It is perfectly crafted and well-calibrated for deliberate effect.  But I want to emphasize both the literary quality and the teen appeal because many reviews of Bone Gap might make it seem like it is the kind of thing only your high achieving non reluctant readers will pick up.  Now, while those readers will certainly love the craft and the writing in Bone Gap, I also think emergent readers will be drawn to the mystery of the story, the intense romance between Petey and Finn, and the undeniably creepy and downright scary horror world Roza is trapped in by a character who is pure evil. These things keep the pages turning even as you’re marveling at the way Ruby brought them all together. I’ve been telling people this is a horror story meets John Green and it just FITS.  Petey and Finn are a great YA couple – pulled together even when everyone says they have nothing in common and then thrown into the mix is the through-the-looking glass horror that traps Roza.  What a combo!

Bone Gap is also all about the male gaze.  It’s about how people think of Finn for being dreamy and different – how their assumptions of what masculinity are trap him in ways he can’t fully comprehend until he decides to disregard other’s opinions.  It’s about how what traps Roza (and even Petey) the most are men’s ideas of what she should look like and think like and be.  The biggest monster in this story is the patriarchy and oh, oh, the moment Roza decides to fight back!

I long for awards chatter to start over Bone Gap. It should, because this is a lyrical, haunting, meticulously crafted book.  That also means there will soon be chatter of “I just didn’t get it.” and “Teens won’t read this.”  While I can’t speak to the former – not every book is for every reader, after all – I think I can speak to the latter.  Teens WILL be drawn to this story and we, as educators and librarians, can promote and advocate for it, for everything original and exciting about it, by speaking about all the mysteries and wonder in this book.

Bone Gap is highly recommended for high school readers and as a first purchase for all libraries.  It is challenging and compelling and isn’t afraid to tackle head on hard issues of bodily autonomy, feminism, and self-perception.  Bone Gap is about seeing yourself as more than a face, more than what people say you are.  It’s empowering and exciting for teen readers and, y’all, there was a moment that literally made me punch my fist in the air with glee.  Bone Gap is also a great introduction to magical realism –as the worlds of plausible and impossible bleed into each other – this is the perfect way to introduce teens to a new genre. Though I am a public librarian, I think this would be an amazing book to do with a class or in a book group.  It is teachable and has lots of material to analyze.

Bone Gap is my choice for the 2016 Printz Award.  It is masterfully constructed and crafted and with off-the charts  literary merit that holds up on a re-read.  (And another re-read, just to be sure.)  My Printz pick last year was Grasshopper Jungle and there is plenty in Bone Gap that reminds me of that book – particularly the way they skirt the edge of real and not real and ask teen readers to really sit with how the world looks at them and what they can do about that.

Bone Gap is out now. You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library. If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it.

You won’t soon forget your visit to Bone Gap and the people you meet there.  Their journeys and growth will stick with you. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself “minding the gap” long after you have turned the last page.

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LOCK & MORI by Heather W. Petty

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Yes.  Yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking right now.  Yes.  It’s a broody, brilliant teenage Sherlock Holmes solving mysteries and sharing kisses alongside the troubled teenage genius Miss James “Mori” Moriarty.  I am guessing that your reaction is probably similar to mine the first time I heard about this book and then saw the delightful cover –

I must agree.  I tore through this book when I got my hands on the ARC and it fulfilled all my Sherlock/mystery/messed up YA romance needs.  I think teens are going to LOVE this book. When I was asked to be part of the book tour, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. SO this week I will be bringing you all the reasons you should pre-order this book (it comes out on September 15) and NEXT week I’m hosting an interview with author Heather W. Petty and Simon & Schuster is hosting a giveaway for one lucky reader.  Whooo-hooo!  So what’s so special about Lock & Mori? Let me count the ways …

THE MYSTERY

I am always glad to find a new mystery for my teen readers that is not historical or paranormal.  Not that there’s anything wrong with mixing up genres like that – but I have some teen readers that ONLY want contemporary action/thriller/mysteries and there’s NEVER enough for them.  More often than not, they’re also reading from the adult section because…well, there’s just not enough YA with contemporary, hard-edge mysteries with NO magic just clever, contemporary mystery solving with some ass-kicking and dangerous twists. Lock and Mori totally fills that gap – yes there’s romance, there’s personal/family trauma and drama, but at heart, it’s a crackerjack mystery with real villains and real stakes.

THE CANON

Yo – are your teens as into BBC’s Sherlock as mine are?  Yeah, I thought so. My teens won’t stop talking about Sherlock.  Is part of this due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones?  WELL SURE.  But another part is that the BBC’s Sherlock does a great job making Sherlock of the here and now.  Lock & Mori has that same vibe.  Sherlock is still his same old disdainful, unbearably clever self … but he’s also very much a teenage boy in London in the here and now.  It does a great job, just like the BBC show, of weaving in the same old story with something very contemporary.  I think teens will be drawn to that mix and find it a good match with the show.  And, like the show, Lock & Mori isn’t afraid to invent new ideas and new interpretations of Sherlock and the world he lives in – another thing teens who eat up fanfic and AUs will be surely drawn to.

MORI!

Yes, this story is narrated by Mori, not Lock and it’s fantastic to see him develop as a character through the eyes of someone other than John Watson.  BUT EVEN WITHOUT ALL THAT, THERE IS MORI.  She is fierce, smart, sad, dangerous, and on the precipice of … of … something very dark and alluring indeed.  It makes it nerve-wracking to read about her and her voice keeps the pages turning. (did I mention I tore through this book?) Lock and Mori have a steamy, passionate connection which adds some dimension to the mystery and makes everyone who knows how canon says their story will end wiggle their toes with anticipation.  It’s a smart move on Petty’s part as a writer, because it gives Mori some fallibility that still has you rooting for her and it gives the reader a delicious frisson of angst and suspense in a story that’s hundreds of years old and told over and over.

Mori is an absolute delight as a narrator and a YA treasure of a character.  She is female heroine who the text foreshadows will become an anti-heroine, oh my goodness what’s not to love!

more hearts in eyes

I think teens are going to love this book!  I’ve already started telling my most passionate fandom teens about it and they nod their heads with vigorous approval and anticipation.  I think you’ll be doing the same thing! I recommend Lock & Mori as a first purchase for libraries where mysteries, books with slightly amoral protagonists, and fandom followings are big draws.

And make sure you come back next week for my interview with Heather W. Petty and a GIVEAWAY!!

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The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate – review & a SIGNED giveaway!

John-Roy-Lynch-final-cover

What a lovely marvel this book is.

This is a picture book biography of John Roy Lynch, who was freed from slavery at 16 and within ten years was elected to the United States Congress.  The book doesn’t try to cover Lynch’s entire life (though there’s great back matter including a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and detailed author and illustrator notes) but instead traces his childhood, early life, and the period he becomes involved in politics and a passionate promoter of the Civil Rights Act of 1865. It puts all of these events in Lynch’s life in the larger context of Reconstruction in America. And two key questions that come up when considering this book are: why Reconstruction and why John Roy Lynch?

I believe because this is a story from over 140 years ago that is still relevant in all the things that are happening around us every day. This is a story that will challenge young readers to think about America and opportunity and history in new ways. This is not an easy read – but it’s engaging, compelling, and perfect for starting discussions with kids. Not only do I believe children can handle tough discussions, I believe we owe it to them to teach them to think critically about hard issues. What I love about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is that it shows children a hard period in American history and doesn’t flinch away from it.  More than that, it asks the reader to think about how these systems of inequality impact the world we live in today.

Lots of this is due to Barton’s clear-headed and even-handed writing.  John Roy Lynch is not held up as a perfect person, instead he comes across as someone hungry to learn and honest at all costs.  He seems real.  We meet him as a young boy, enslaved and already clued in to the racket of slavery.  We follow him through his time growing up and gaining freedom in many senses of the word.  And as the reader learns about Lynch’s life, Barton also shows us what reconstruction was like – the great strides in freedom and equality that came for many African-Americans is shown alongside the fierce retaliation from white Americans.  This is no easy biography – by choosing to put Lynch’s life in context, Barton not only shows how truly amazing his life’s journey was but how brutal the backlash to Reconstruction was. (and slavery is also shown as a brutal institution perpetuated by white people, specifically in Lynch’s case his master’s wife, who hid behind Christian dogma. Again, this is a clear-headed choice which makes the narrative stand out and ring true.) This is a book that elicits discussion with kid readers:  what could have John Roy Lynch’s life and career looked like without the backlash against Reconstruction?

The other stand-out element in this book are Don Tate’s illustrations which, like Barton’s text, are clear-headed and sharp-focused.  Tate’s illustrations are beautiful, there’s that.  There are a few scenes-  Lynch standing on a hill in the silhouette of a sunset, Lynch orating to a crowd of mostly African-American men that are just beautiful and inspiring in the purest sense of the word.  But Tate’s illustrations are also very smart and, let’s be honest, brave. It’s brave to show the KKK in full terror mode on the ride in a children’s book, it’s brave to show black men being whipped and threatened during slavery and afterwards.  Brave because there are going to be many people who say, “That doesn’t belong in a children’s book!” and brave because there are going to be people who say, “Yes, racism was bad but there’s no reason to be so GRAPHIC about it.”  But Tate knows that’s a lie.  There IS a reason to show these things – because children deserve the truth, because John Roy Lynch’s story isn’t complete without this, because these are the things John Roy Lynch and his contemporaries lived through and it informs their struggles and their triumphs and kid readers should know and think about that.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite illustrations.

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This is a two-page spread looking at the reaction in Mississippi to the days after freedom.  I love how Tate has chosen to show the whole landscape here – the fury on the face of the white people, the sorrow on the face of the African-Americans.  There is a lot happening here, it’s not all easy to see, but it’s important. And again, this is a picture that shows the reader the depth and stakes of a story.  Great stuff.

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I think this is one of the smartest pictures in the book – a class of white children learn in a public school … and in the background, we see a small window of John Roy Lynch listening and learning.  Tate lets readers see how Lynch was excluded from so-called public institutions but how his curiosity and hunger to learn were unstoppable.

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Another favorite: Barton’s text talks about John Roy’s rise in both politics and his personal life.  This description of John Roy’s determination is perfectly illustrated by Tate, who gets across the charisma and force of presence John Roy would have certainly had to have.  And oh my goodness how fabulous is THIS image of African-Americans – an almost entirely African-American crowd is enthralled by John Roy – showing the reader a lot about the strides happening for African-Americans in the era, with John Roy Lynch leading the way.

Everything about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is special.  It’s a book that asks children to think big thoughts and ask hard questions about eras of history that are too often glossed over and about the era we live in now.  It’s ambitious, interesting, original and very beautiful.  It’s meant to be shared and discussed with kids and I recommend it as a first purchase for public libraries looking to enrich their children’s non-fiction collection and especially for elementary school librarians and classroom teachers working with 3rd-6th grades. It’s a great supplement for history lessons and will hopefully make young learners even more curious about our country’s history, all the parts of it – the amazing and hard ones.

AND I’M GIVING A COPY AWAY!
Not just a copy but a copy signed by both Chris Barton and Don Tate.

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog by Friday, June 5th. 

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The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is out now and if you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your library. If they don’t own one, request they add it!

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The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick – an interview & a giveaway!

ghosts of heaven

I honestly can’t think of anyone in YA who does what Marcus Sedgwick does.  Perhaps this is why I am so entranced by everything he’s ever written.  Sedgwick won the Printz Award last year (that is the highest honor in young adult literature) for Midwinterblood, which remains one of the most atmospheric and overwhelming YA books I’ve ever read.  Since then he also wrote an amazing book about a blind girl who is not defined by her disability but by her will (She is Not Invisible) and created this week’s new release – The Ghosts of Heaven.

ThenGhosts of Heaven is one of my favorite books of 2015.  I know, it’s early.  But I also know that this book is special. I could give you a summary of The Ghosts of Heaven, I suppose.  It’s four stories told in four different styles that can be read in any order or not even necessarily together at all. (But once you read one, you’ll want to read them all, I promise.)  The one thing they have in common is Sedgwick’s unbelievable sense of pacing – this man can wind a story like no one else around. The second story, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is about a witch hunt and much more and the sense of impending malice and tension in it was so perfectly created that I honestly had to put it down a few times to take a breather from it. The last section, The Song of Destiny is a mystery set on a spaceship sent out to colonize a planet and it was so beautifully crafted it made me cry with joy. Now THAT is some writing.

These Ghost of Heaven is also united by the image of a spiral, which is found through-out all the stories and weaves them together in the smallest and yet also most significant ways. It’s haunting and subtle and just a little brilliant to wind a story around a spiral.  And the use of the spiral is a great narrative device that makes it easy to step into any of the four stories and follow the thread of them.  The spiral is a little creepy, yeah, but also totally beguiling – which is the perfect combination in a book for teens.

Teens – yes, there’s that question you’re dying to ask.  Sure, Sedgwick’s books are smart and LITERARY~~ but, I mean do teens like them?  Yeah, they sure would.  Look, I’m not telling you every reader is going to be on board with Sedgwick’s books – but there’s NO book that “every” reader is on board with, no matter what you’ve heard.  But I don’t even think his writing is just for the NON reluctant reader (one of my favorite concepts) I think there’s something haunting, creepy, compelling, and ENTICING about Marcus Sedgwick’s books.  They whisper of things just out of sight, things in shadows, things you feel dance across your skin in the quiet.  C’mon now – that’s perfect for teens. And for that teen that just keeps BEGGING for something new, something else, something different, something more (you know the one) … Marcus Sedgwick is perfect.

With that, this is highly recommended as a first purchase for libraries. It will appeal to a wide section of teen readers, from those looking for a challenging read to those looking for a quick short story, especially if you give it the kind of booktalk that highlights the mystery and original atmosphere through-out time.

When I had the chance to participate in the book tour for this title, I jumped up faster than Katniss at the Reaping. ESPECIALLY when I was told that I’d have a chance to ask Marcus Sedgwick some questions about the book.  One of the best things about Ghosts of Heaven is that it’s simply meant to be talked about – there’s so much to be discussed!

Not only that, the awesome publishers are giving away a copy – perfect for adding to your library!  All you have to do to enter is leave a comment on this entry by January 19. (US residents only)

The whole tour is pretty cool: there are reviews, more giveaways, and more interviews so you should check out the whole schedule to find out more about the book. You can also read a summary and the first forty pages.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE QUESTIONS I ASKED MARCUS SEDGWICK THAT HE ANSWERED IN THE BEST WAYS POSSIBLE THAT MADE ME JUST WANT TO RE-READ THE WHOLE BOOK OVER AGAIN BECAUSE THEY WERE JUST THAT FASCINATING?! Read on!

BLOGTOUR

 

Like Midwinterblood, The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of intertwined stories that COULD be read alone but work together to create a fuller picture. What draws you to writing this kind of narrative?

If it’s a truism to say that all writing is trying to work out what it is to be human, then there are perhaps broadly two ways of doing that – by working from the individual to speak of the universal, or by working from the universal to speak about the individual, because both are part of being human. With these two books I was attempting to look at things on a larger scale than the individual, to talk about large and eternal subjects, and yet, the paradox of that is, as I just said, that the way to do that was by using the individual. By using stories about several individuals across different times, I was hoping to convey a large feeling, an eternal atmosphere.

Can you talk about the specifics of how you wrote this narrative? Did you write it “in order” or create the order after the individual pieces were written?

I planned the four stories (and planning for me is half way towards the finished writing anyway) in bits and pieces, flitting backwards and forwards between the four ideas in my head as I felt like it, or as I found a particularly interesting thing in what I call research, or as something randomly pushed me in one direction or another. Once I had finalized things (as far as I was going to finalize things, at least) in my head, I wrote the stories in the order in which they appear in the book – a physical book being limited in this way of course, and though this order is important, there is another one that I feel is of equal importance, but I’m keeping what that is to myself. I would like each reader to feel for themselves how the story might alter if the four parts were taken in a different order.

I am fascinated by the different narrative forms in the book – including verse to diary entries. Was this a deliberate choice to make each section have an even more unique voice?

Yes, partly, but it also stemmed from a very conscious choice about the section called Whispers in the Dark. Having decided that I wanted to set a story in a Neolithic period, in which we are witness to the very earliest origin of writing, I felt I had a problem. I cringe when I think of certain books and films that try to be authentic with stories set in prehistory. I’m thinking of films like One Million Years BC and so on, where cave men ‘ugg’ and ‘agg’ at each other and all have names with at least one K in them. The view of this stage of our history seems to require that we spoke in harsh and guttural tones. For all we know, we spoke in a mellifluous and beautifully lyrical language. But I would have had no more reason to create a language or accompanying atmosphere in that fashion either. The solution I felt was to write that part in free verse, to distance us somewhat from the world, and give it a remote and foreign feel. It meant I could basically avoid dialogue and direct narrative thought, which I felt would have been inauthentic, no matter what I did. So having one part in verse, I thought I should give each quarter a distinct narrative approach.

What are some literary inspirations for this work? Tonally, the third part, The Easiest Room in Hell, reminded me of Lovecraft and the second section, The Witch in the Water, reminded me of Hawthorne. (Maybe I’m totally off-base, but I loved the way each section seemed to allude to other classic works of literature.)

You’re spot on! Lovecraft was a big influence on the feel of Easiest Room – I’d been making some road-trips through New England, and it brought back memories of reading Lovecraft as a teenager. As an Englishman, I love seeing all the English place names transposed to New England – we have such a shared history and I feel fond of it. Lovecraft of course then did his own thing on top of that, and my character Charles Dexter is a direct reference (for those who know) to Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. That meant I got to write some poetry in the style that Lovecraft might have done, which was great fun. Witch in the Water has a feel of Hawthorne, I see what you mean, but that wasn’t conscious, though may have come through. I was trying to recreate the tone of classic accounts of witch trials – although I set my story in England, Diane Starkey’s fantastic book, The Devil in Massachusetts, captures what is scariest about all witch trials – the combination of claustrophobia and violence that propels their inevitability. I was also driven for this section by an obscure 60s thriller called Ritual, by David Pinner, from which the classic British horror film The Wicker Man was derived (and no, I’m not talking about the Nicholas Cage version!)

You never seem to write the same book twice! Even this book, which shares traits with Midwinterblood is different in pacing, setting, tone, and even theme. Are you consciously trying to innovate in your writing? Do you just get bored easily? 🙂 Where does the constant innovation come from?

Yes, yes, and I don’t know. Perhaps I should elaborate on that a little bit. Yes, I am consciously trying to innovate, and yes, I do get bored easily. That’s a direct way of saying that I’ve been writing for a reasonably long time now and I nearly stopped two or three times because I didn’t know where to go next. I don’t want to write the same book every time, but that makes things hard because there must be a finite number of times that I can do that. But that’s what I really want to do, and it’s important because to keep on doing things this way means I have to continually find something new to be excited about, and some new way of working. But I’m not complaining, I love a challenge when I’m writing and this makes sure that I keep setting myself new challenges. Where does the innovation come from? I’m not really sure, I think the only thing is that I try to be influenced by as wide a range of books, films and ideas in general in order to keep things fresh. So I don’t know what’s coming next. If I can’t set myself a new challenge, there may be no new books at all, but if there are, I can promise they will offer something new, or something new to me, at least.

Here’s me after reading Marcus Sedgwick’s answers and feeling like I understood the book so much more/wanted to read it again/got the literary moods and references right:

Actually, those are just my faces in general when it comes to Marcus Sedgwick’s books. (I could talk for a thousand years about Midwinterblood – perfect choice, my Printz friends.  What a stunner.) If you haven’t read a Sedgwick book, The Ghosts of Heaven is the perfect place to start.  Buy a copy, check it out from your library or recommend they buy a copy or …. leave a comment to enter to win one!

In any case: read it as soon as possible so we can discuss it and you can share it with your teen patrons!

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Far From You by Tess Sharpe – a review & giveaways!

far fromA few weeks ago there was a longform article in the New York Times about scientific studies being done with the goal of proving that bisexuality exists.  I suppose it was interesting enough, reading about the motivations of the researchers, hearing about the history behind studies like this.  And yet.  And yet at the same time … it also felt brutally dehumanizing.

How demeaning – how beyond demeaning – to have your identity up for “scientific debate” like this.  Studies like this?  Real, academic studies and articles about them in a paper as significant as the NY Times?  They are the embodiment of WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

When you see portraits of yourself – your life, your feelings, your struggles – when you see those in the world around you, in popular culture, in mass media: that matters.  It tells you that you are not alone, that you have a right to exist, that people before you have felt this very same thing.

Those of us who work with books for children and teens – we can NEVER forget this.  We can never get tired of sounding like a broken record, of buying and promoting and discussing these books and demanding more. Never, ever, ever.  Because they bring the truth to light.

The truth in Tess Sharp’s masterful debut Far From You is a slippery thing and that is part of what makes this story so very compelling.  What’s true is that Sophie, our main character, used to be an addict.  She got hooked on pain pills after a bad accident and has only recently been clean.  What’s true is that Sophie’s life-long best friend Mina was gunned down right in front of her in shattering, traumatic event.  What’s true is that everyone, even Sophie’s own mother, believes Mina was killed during a drug deal gone bad when she went with Sophie to score. What’s true is that Sophie has just returned home after Mina’s murder and after another stint in rehab.

But everything else, well, that’s not as clear.  Sophie knows the truth is that she was clean and she and Mina were following up on a lead in a story Mina was writing for the paper, which means that Mina was the target not the collateral. But Sophie doesn’t know who attacked them and doesn’t know the lead Mina was chasing And Sophie also knows that, no matter the cost, she is going to get to the bottom of what happened to Mina, no matter what anyone else believes.

One of the things I love the very best about this book (and I love so much about it) is that while there are multiple threads happening at once, it never feels overstuffed or distracted.  Instead, everything comes together to tell the singular story of Sophie finding her own path in the world.  Of course, this is a classic YA narrative and that’s part of what makes Far From You so satisfying – it is familiar and yet very fresh.

Far From You is a mystery: what happened to Mina and why?  How is all connected to the story Mina was digging into?  Sophie knows the scariest thing of all: whoever committed the crime is from their town and knows their stories because they planted drugs on her to throw the investigation off. Far From You is a story of recovery and addiction.  Sophie became addicted to painkillers after she was in a terrible accident that left her in agonizing pain and left her disabled.  How she copes with this and how it changes the person she was is fundamental to the larger elements of the story and her character development.

And I truly believe that beyond all that – Far From You is a love story. It’s a love story about the deep love between friends, between someone you have known for a long time and who has held your hand through the worst of your life.  Definitely.  And it’s also a love story between two teenage girls who have been friends for a long time but are on the cusp of finding themselves drawn to each other in a whole new way.  Yes, Far From You is a bisexual teen romance – one that is tender, tragic, a little swoony in parts, and, yes, very, very real.

I had to literally set the book down to blink back my tears at the moment Sharpe makes it clear that Sophie is bisexual. She doesn’t just like girls and she doesn’t just like boys.  She doesn’t like “only Mina” but then totally boys!  She is drawn to, romantically and physically, both sexes.  This realization is not dismissed, not disbelieved, not over-explained.  It just is.  It’s just part of who Sophie is.  And while it’s an important part of who Sophie is, it’s not the only defining one.  Just as important is the fact she’s a recovering addict, a girl who wrestles with chronic pain, a person mourning loss and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery.  I know it seems like so little but that moment, the moment when it all clears in Sophie’s head that she likes boy and she likes girls – she just doesn’t like this one particular boy … it just took my heart with all it meant. Being bisexual doesn’t mean you’re attracted to everyone.  Being bisexual doesn’t meant you’re attracted to just anyone.  It just means you’re attracted to members of both sexes.  In Far From You it is that simple and that simplicity is beyond. powerful. 

I think teen readers will LOVE Far From You.  The timelines shift between the “now” of Sophie’s life and investigation and the “then” of everything that brought her and Mina to their fateful final night, which creates natural cliff-hangers that keep you turning the pages.  And Sophie is a great lead character: her faults make her feel real and her determination to chart her own course makes her both sympathetic and someone you root for. It’s also the just right mix of sad and mysterious and romantic, with no one element overshadowing the others, giving it wide appeal across readers.

But more than that – I think teen readers NEED Far From You.  It’s a book we’ve been asking for. It’s a book that brings the truth to light, that gives faces and hearts and loves and losses and real damn life to bisexual girls and lesbians.  These are portrayals teens need.  This is a book that matters.

Far From You is out today!  You can pick up a copy at your favorite local indie bookstore or online. You can also check out a copy from your local library.  If they don’t have one, suggest they purchase it. Far From You is highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and high school libraries.  It’s a book that should be widely shared and widely known. And that’s why I’m giving two away.

How To Win A Copy of Far From You

I know not all library budgets might have the cash in them they deserve.  So since I want YOUR library to have this book on the shelves, I’m giving one away JUST FOR LIBRARIES.  To enter THIS drawing you must be working in a library and you must make sure your copy ends up on your library’s shelves for circulation.  Far From You should be in as many teen hands as possible and the goal of this drawing is to make sure it ends up in your library.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!  I’m giving away another copy … that’s signed by Tess Sharpe!  Tess has awesomely agreed to sign a copy for my other winner.  You can keep this one, share it with a lucky teen, give it away as a drawing prize, whatever you’d like.  THIS drawing is open to everyone.

All you have to do is comment on this post (with a working way to contact you) and mention which drawing you are entering.  I’ll choose two random winners on Tuesday, April 14, so make sure you’ve entered by then..  Sorry, no international entries.

I am so glad I had the experience of Far From You.  It was an amazing read that was also a humanizing moment of recognition.  Far From You is the truth and, more than that, it’s the way into the light.


Also worth your reading time: this awesome interview with Tess on Diversity in YA

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Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin – review & a SIGNED GIVEAWAY!

“Give me some genuine emotion. Challenge yourself to be honest instead of merely clever.”

Wise-Young-FoolI read Wise Young Fool for the first time months and months ago.  I have read many and many books since now and then.  And yet.  And yet Wise Young Fool has stuck with me through all that. And yet Wise Young Fool is a book I can’t get away from when I start thinking about not just my “favorites” of 2013 but the books I read in 2013 that I admired, deeply, on a craft level and was, to no small degree, awed by.  Wise Young Fool is a work of art – no really – that is about the power of art, it’s a book that is profoundly sarcastic and mean but also deeply moving.  All these months and months later I am still thinking about how all the pieces of it fit together. THAT is the kind of book Wise Young Fool is.

In a simple summary: Wise Young Fool is the story of how Ritchie Sudden ended up serving 90 days in a juvenile detention facility and, more specifically, the 90 entries in the “diary” he is forced to keep inside said facility, detailing how it is he ended up there.  So, it’s a frame story: the frame of the juvenile detention facility journal revealing the larger story of Ritchie’s life leading up to it.  It is also a frame story about how the completed journal has, ostensibly, ended up at Little, Brown and is now being published.  I know, that feels gimmicky, but Wise Young Fool is really about performances, both the deliberate observed on a stage kind and the deeper, sadder kind we sometimes do to keep people at a distance, and so this second frame story – the idea that Ritchie’s journal, not Sean Beaudoin’s novel, is now being published by Little, Brown – is actually essential to the story Beaudoin is telling about art and performance.  I do not at all think that Beaudoin believes he is “tricking” his teen readers into believing this is “all true” – that’s lazy.  I think, instead, he is asking something bigger of them; he is asking them to observe a story about performance as performance and to believe in the legends we tell.  And he is asking them to step outside the story and consider it as story.  This is ambitious and clever and it really works because it makes you, the reader, believe in Ritchie Sudden as a whisper and a possibility; a kid you might know and a song you might be humming.

Wise Young Fool, then, is a frame story inside a frame story – the journal from the juvenile detention facility framing the story of the year that got Ritchie there and then the larger frame of the manuscript making it to Little, Brown.  I love this kind of daring, I love this kind of craft. Beaudoin’s intricacy and care with the narrative is one of the things I admire most about the book.  But, oh, there are many others.

For instance: I love that this book is all about relationships … but not in the way you think.  This is a book about an extraordinarily close friendship between two slightly off-kilter guys, Ritchie and his bandmate and best friend El Hella. (Elliot to you) I love a friendship in YA done right: not perfect, but about how a real friend is there through all the mess of your life.  This is a book about the relationship Ritchie has with Looper, the woman who is his mother’s new girlfriend. (Looper showed up when Ritchie’s dad left.) Looper doesn’t cut Ritchie any shit and, better still, she talks to him not like an adult but like an adult talks to a teenager that they respect and care for.  It’s a really fully realized relationship and a great example of an adult who is present and there in a teen’s life – can never get enough of that in YA, after all.

And of all the great relationships in this book, best of all, this is also a book about the relationships between Ritchie and two girls: Ravenna and Lacey. Ravenna is the girl Ritchie has always loved from afar and Lacey is the girl that likes him more than he likes her.  And in a lesser book these girls would be lesser characters.  Yet in Wise Young Fool, Ritchie learns how wrong he was about both Ravenna and Lacey and, more than that, they are completely realized characters with their own agency and with their own selfish wants.  Ravenna isn’t just the luscious, sex-bomb dreamgirl Ritchie has lusted over.   Lacey isn’t just the complacent nice girl who pines for Ritchie.  They have their own wants and they make their own mistakes – they connect with Ritchie and even change him in some ways but they do not revolve around him. He is not their whole story and, by that same token, they are not his whole story either.  Ravenna and Lacey are fully realized characters who make the narrator richer and more complicated and they just happen to be girls that he is involved with, drawn to, and compelled to know. Ain’t that a kick in the head?!

Wise Young Fool is exceptionally clever and exceedingly funny.  Ritchie has a smart mouth that never quits and Beaudoin has a particular gift for the kind of high school boy shenanigans that make you wince and grin at the same time.  There are genuine laugh out loud moments laced through a book that is also about serious pain and loss. Ritchie’s loss and pain are great and not so easily escaped.  When Ritchie finds himself in the juvenile detention facility, he thinks that all he needs to do is keep his head down but the brilliance of Wise Young Fool is that it’s really a book about finally taking action in your life and finally confronting the grief and pain you’ve just been trying to keep your head down about.  Ritchie’s journal, his time in the juvenile detention facility; that’s all part of his song and all part of the way Ritchie learns it’s time for him to become active in his life again, to start healing and start coping and, yeah, start living.

There is darkness, grief, and loss in Wise Young Fool but also such damn resilience. It’s a book about how we survive and how we tell our stories through art and creation. And maybe more than anything, Wise Young Fool is a book about finding the right sounds for YOUR life and YOUR family and friends and YOUR story.

Without a doubt, it’s one of my favorite books of 2013.  All these months and months later and I am still thinking about it.  And I feel sure that if you give it a try, you will be too. It’s highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries and as the exactly perfect book to suggest for your teens that love music, art, sad stories, funny stories, and something so real and true it aches. It’s on sale now and if you can’t buy a copy, go check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have copy, suggest they purchase it.

BUT ALSO!  Because he is the best (and possibly because one night I fangirl’ed over him so hard I scared him a little?)

the awesome and amazing Sean Beaudoin has agreed to give away A SIGNED COPY of Wise Young Fool to one lucky reader.

All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment and I’ll select a random winner. (Recent winners include Lauren of The Raucous Librarian, who won the Meg Medina books and  Karen from Yorkville, IL, who won the Anne Ursu book.  You could be next!)

Wise Young Fool and Ritchie Sudden – the way he gets lost in his pain but pulled back into the world through the strength of the people who believe in him and the power of the music he hears and strums out – they are the song.  I know, if you hear it, you’ll sing along.

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Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy – artwork reveal and SIGNED book give away!

Where to begin?  Where even to begin with a book this finely crafted, this breathtakingly realized, this clever, this full of love and aches and metaphors and, yes, magic? (but not the magic you’re thinking of – not the easy kind, not the kind that comes without consequences.)

The Real Boy is the story of Oscar, a shop’s boy for a magician in a land where magic and charms are bought by the very rich for their every little whim.  Oscar is no apprentice, mind you, he’s a boy who doesn’t know how to interact with people – who stays in the shadows and quiet to feel safe.  The “real” world, the world outside his plants and his companionship with his cats, is sometimes so scary and overwhelming to him that Oscar sometimes wonders if there’s something wrong with him.  But he doesn’t have to think of this much, not as long as he stays safe and tucked away, not as long as the magic works and the kingdom where he lives, the lovely Aletheia, stays protected and blessed by this magic.  It’s only when things start going wrong, very wrong, with the magic, with Aletheia, with everyone around Oscar that he is tasked with finding out the truth about the world he has taken for granted and the truth about what makes him so different. 

The best stories, the ones we tell over and over again, the ones we hug close, the ones that connect with something deep inside us, the best stories weave magic without ever once showing you where the seams are.  To be more precise and less florid about it – the best stories never show you their tricks and they never make their metaphors obvious.  This is what I love about Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy and *this* is what makes it one of the best stories: she takes what is such a thudding obvious metaphor (a boy who feels “wrong” and “not real” learns that he is in charge of his own identity and even destiny) and uses the magic of craft – rich language, fully-rounded characters, a well-paced, well-realized plot, to never once let you see it showing.  Instead, when all the pieces of The Real Boy click into place, you suddenly understand what story you’ve been hearing all along, and in that moment it all hits in the right places.

I’ve read The Real Boy three times since I received my first advance copy from the publisher months ago.  Every time, I have found some new detail in the way the story is put together.  Every time, I have found another passage of simple, clear, evocative writing. And every time I have admired the way it all clicks: the coming of age elements, the subtle jabs at using “magic” to escape the hard work of living, the way lies so often go unspoken by those in power because they make it easier to live with selfish actions and retain their control.

Since my first read of The Real Boy I was in love with the geographic reality of Aletheia.  Great fantasies have great fictional worlds and that’s what Ursu creates here.  Aletheia has magic forests, a vast terrain of mountains and rivers, blighted Plaguelands, and a city ringed with magic.  After much begging, the kind people at Walden Pond Press agreed to let me be part of the artwork reveal for The Real Boy.  In an instant, I asked if I could feature the map of Aletheia because, to me, it’s the perfect invitation to the wonder of this world. They agreed!  So, today, I am so happy to be able to bring you a glimpse at Aletheia.

Aletheia

All artwork copyright © 2013 by Erin McGuire

The Real Boy is a not always a nice, safe story.  Characters, characters central to the story, are killed.  Adults do terrible, selfish things and let children down.  In fact, in many ways this story reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series – where children are used and disguarded by the powerful adults in their universe; specifically by adults who are grasping at some kind of ephemeral magic.  And The Real Boy is scary in other ways too; ways about how frightening it is to know there’s something different about you, ways about how hard it is to step out of the safety of your childhood and into the wide, often harsh world.  These are themes that will resonate with children even if they aren’t fully conscious of why and how.

Really, there are so many elements of The Real Boy that are resonant with childhood’s struggles and triumphs: that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months and months.  The Real Boy asks children BIG questions: how do we know who we are?  How do we “fit in” if we’re different?  What price would you pay for the simplicity of magic … and would you still pay it if you discovered that simplicity wasn’t so simple and cost more than you’d ever imagined?  There are no easy answers to these questions and this book doesn’t pretend to offer them.  To do so would betray the very things Ursu works so hard to create in this narrative.

What power there is in this story, what painful beauty. As Oscar unravels the very unpleasant secrets that live in the very soil of his country, of the shining city on a hill that he thinks he understands, he comes, through learning, challenging himself, and creating a support network, to discover the best of truths:

it is being different that makes us real.

The Real Boy is one of my favorite books of 2013 – heck, one of my favorite books of ever.  It’s currently longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and it is my dearest wish that it’s in serious discussion for the Newbery.  It’s out now and you can buy it!  If you can’t buy it, check it out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they purchase it.

AND because Walden Pond Press is so completely amazing, they not only let me share some art from the book but they’re giving away a signed copy to one blog reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment on this post before October 18th.

The Real Boy is highly recommended for readers aged 7-12 who like fairy tales with deep thoughts, heroes and heroines who step up and stand up, and, well, for any children you know who are different.  It will help them to know that their life, their real life, is theirs to experience on their own terms.

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Banned Books Week: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

It all starts with a buzz that high school student Piddy shrugs off – “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass!” She doesn’t even know Yaqui so why would she want to fight with Piddy?  It’s probably a case of mistaken identity or no big deal.  And, anyway, what’s the worst this total stranger could do?

This is the start of Meg Medina’s powerful Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass, one of my favorite YA books of 2013.  I’ve been in love with this book since it was first released back in March.  It’s received four starred reviews. I’ve booktalked it to my teens, featured it in my displays, and promoted it on our library’s teen Facebook page because I think it’s truly special.  Why?  Before anything else, what a delight to see a diverse cast of characters dealing with a universal story – this is always such a treat in YA.

Next is the way Medina structures the escalation of bullying.  Rarely, if ever, have I read a book that so accurately portrays the intensity and the slow build and burn of high school bullying.  I want to pull my hair out when I read stories about teenagers who are bullied and see school administration responding with “Well, but does it happen on campus?”  As if the insidiousness of bullying doesn’t follow teens; sink into every moment of their life, as if saying that gets administrators off the hook for not helping teens. Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass is flat-out brilliant at showing how bullying isn’t the kind of thing teenagers can just walk away from, even when they try.  Medina knows that bullying is a campaign of harassment that builds and builds – that’s what happens to Piddy.  She thinks things with Yaqui are silly or, at least, can be ignored.  But they can’t – Yaqui isn’t going away, if anything she is escalating her behavior against Piddy.

This escalation, and this understanding of bullying behavior, gives Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass not just a claustrophobic sense of reality but also makes it a page-turner.  As Piddy looks for a way out, Medina uses this as a way to let us into Piddy’s whole world; her interactions with her mother, her burgeoning relationship with a boy, and the way this bullying blows apart her well-ordered life. You’re rooting for Piddy but you, like her, are also not sure what the “right” solution is.  Again, what a beautiful lifeline in literature Medina has created here: she doesn’t lie to the young readers of this book, she doesn’t make it seem as simple as “Piddy should just tell!” That would only be the beginning of a whole new set of problems – Piddy knows that and so will teens.  Understanding this, unraveling this pain, is more than that and this book doesn’t shy away from that truth.  It’s what makes it work and it’s what makes it unique.

This is a very good book, a special book, and, yes, in some spots a very hard book to read.  But it’s also the kind of book I think can matter in teen’s lives – help them actually see the shockwaves of bullying, help them know they aren’t the only person who has felt their whole life spin out over something they can’t control, maybe even help them feel not just a little empathy but a little less alone in a dark time.

Yaqui_frontcoverfull (1)

This is also a book that, you may notice, has the word ASS in the title.  Which, ostensibly, is what got Meg Medina uninvited from speaking at a middle school in Virginia.  I say ostensibly because, while I am sure the word ASS was part of it?  I also know that it was something deeper – it was the way books like Yaqui Delgado Wants To Kick Your Ass make adults uncomfortable – the way it makes them confront the dark realities of life as an adolescent.  Those are scary things for adults to have to face and those are the kind of things that pull books off shelves and out of children’s hands.

It’s words like ass and it’s worlds where girls you don’t even know can determine to make your life a living nightmare while adults in your world stand powerless that make books disappear from public and school library shelves. A challenge here, an uninvited author there, a concerned parent with a letter to a principal, a board – these things not just erode the intellectual freedom of children and teens but take something life-saving, life-changing from them – books, stories, words, a hand in the dark.

THIS is why we, librarians, educators, teachers, writers, fight challenges and raise awareness about them.  It’s why we want to get people talking about them and being outraged about them and fighting them.  That’s why we have BANNED BOOKS WEEK.

We do not, make no mistake, celebrate Banned Books Week.  Throw that out the window.  We celebrate a commitment to defending intellectual freedom, we celebrate the fight, we celebrate everyone who does not go quietly.  We do this because we want you, the general public, we want you to know this is happening all over this country and it MATTERS.

I wanted to boost the signal on what happened to Meg Medina and what it reveals to us about how easily books are pulled away from the very readers who might need them the most.  I wanted this year’s Banned Books Week to be a time for all of us, from those of us active in this field to the friends you have on Facebook who shared that video of the cat librarian in Russia, to let people know that challenges like this are happening all across this country and we do not agree and we will not be silent.

This Banned Books Week: Stand up for Yaqui Delgado.  

How?

Take this pledge with me:

We will talk about challenges, about climates that discourage intellectual freedom.  We will share it.  We will be outraged about it, we will encourage others to be outraged about it.  We will tell the story of how books matter, about what they can do for teens. Moreover: we will tell teens about these books. We will BUY THE BOOKS.  We will ask the libraries in our communities, the public libraries and the school libraries, to BUY THE BOOKS for our communities. We will not let all the readers who see their story in Piddy’s story be silenced and made invisible.  We will insist their voices count.

To further boost the signal, I also reached out to Meg to see if she would do an interview with me about what happened and what she’s learned from it.  She graciously agreed and then gave me some amazing, insightful answers.  Tomorrow, to continue this campaign to stand up for Yaqui, I will not only post the interview, but everyone who comments will have a chance to win a hardcover copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass AND a signed copy of Meg’s novel The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.

Let’s boost the signal.  Let’s raise our voices.

Let’s kick some ass.

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The Center of Everything by Linda Urban Tween Tuesday

center of everything“The hole is what lets it change.”

What a moment it is – the moment of recognition, the moment when you feel like someone has seen you.  For me, this moment of connection sends an almost physical jolt through me.  One of the things I loved the most about Linda Urban’s artfully crafted, painfully beautiful book The Center of Everything is how accurately it captures that moment of recognition and belonging. There is a moment when our main character, the unforgettable Ruby Pepperdine, is surrounded on both sides both physically and mentally by the love and support of two friends and you, as the reader, feel as embraced as Ruby.  You are able to stop and listen even as you are reading.  I felt that jolt of recognition in this text in this wonderful moment and, maybe even better, I felt a jolt of pleasure too.

Why I Love This Book

Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  Craft.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most well-crafted children’s novels I’ve ever read.  Yes, but what does that mean?  For me, that means that everything in The Center of Everything is deliberate; that great thought and careful work has gone into weaving the story together so that it forms a unified, powerful  narrative, a story where all the threads come together in a way that is subtle and moving on several levels at once.  Craft, to me, means that this is a story that moves you without pushing you.  Craft is the way this story uses circles, math, and physics as a narrative device about learning and healing and the way the story simultaneously uses the simple, physical shape of a doughnut – the shape of, you guessed it, a circle – to represent connection and unity.  Craft is the way none of this SHOUTS at the reader, the way, instead, it just all fits together, works together, and makes each other element richer and more resonant.  Craft is the structure of sentences, the use of point of view, both of which are stylistically advanced.  And craft is the very artful way Urban chooses to make the chapters short and move the action in them between the present and recent past, thus making the reader feel the sting of pain and the breathless yet hopeful confusion that Ruby herself feels.   This is a well-crafted story and it shows on every page.  Young readers might not pick up on every one of these subtleties but that’s part of the  beauty of this craft – young readers don’t have to analyze it, they’ll just enjoy it and be completely enchanted by it.

The Center of Everything is very much Ruby Pepperdine’s story: the story of how she is dealing with grief in the wake of her grandmother’s death, the story of how she is navigating new and old friendships, and the story of how she’s trying to figure out what she believes in and why.  BUT The Center of Everything is *also* the story of a place, a very specific place, a small-town in New Hampshire called Bunning.  Bunning is a place where everyone knows your name, where there are acapella groups, amateur stargazing groups, and yearly essay contests about the town’s founder for schoolchildren.  Bunning is the type of town where you can have friends for your whole life and things like parades are whole-town-wide shebangs. Because of all this, Bunning is as much as character in this story as Ruby and the lessons she learns about loving and understanding your place are essential to her healing AND her sense of identity.  I live in a place like Bunning, so this was ESPECIALLY special to me (“That’s my town,” I wanted to shout over and over,) but I think you could live anywhere and still connect to Bunning and recognize it as as a fundamental element of this story’s success.

The Center of Everything is on sale now.  If you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your local library.  If they don’t have it, request they buy a copy.  I think The Center of Everything skews a little bit younger than some middle-grade books (Ruby has just turned 12) but I think it still has lots of appeal to more sophisticated readers because it is so well-written.  It reminded me of Gary Schmidt’s work: thoughtful and really emotionally moving.  I highly recommend this for readers aged 9-12 and, particularly, the readers you have (oh, you know the ones) who hunger for books that are more – the readers who want books that will jolt them with moments of recognition.

The Center of Everything made me cry.  It also made my heart flutter with happiness as I saw all the pieces of it come together with such deliberate plotting and, yes, such love.  The Center of Everything is a lovely piece of art for many reasons but perhaps most of all because it’s a book about how the hole, the thing you think is missing, can be the thing that not just turns your life inside out but also shows you everything strong, good, and kind in your world.

And in you.

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