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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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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Tween Tuesday: Doll Bones by Holly Black

dollbonesWhat’s the scariest thing you can think of?  A thing that is almost universally feared?  Spiders?  Clowns?  Public speaking?  What about … creepy dolls?  You know the kind, the kind that have heads that seem to sit uncomfortably on their cloth shoulders, the ones with porcelain arms and legs that bend in unnatural ways, the ones with too big smiles for their soft fabric faces, the ones with shiny eyes that blink slowly closed when you lay them down yet somehow still seem to be watching you?  Oooh, did you feel that little shudder?

Yup, that’s scary.  You know what’s scarier though?  What’s the scariest thing I can think of?  Middle school.

Many years ago during a high school assignment, my English class was given a piece of paper and told to draw pictures about our impressions of our life through four stages: before entering school, during elementary school, during middle school, and during high school.  We worked in solitude and then compared pictures.  Everyone had different drawings for before school and elementary school, though most of the “before school” pictures were just colors or flowers and hearts.  Our high school sections, naturally, had the most detail and even writing but they were all different too.  Only one thing was the same: our middle school sections.  Independently the whole class, from the most popular kids to the most nerdy, had colored their middle school section with black marks, scribbles, red Xs, scrawls and jumbles of the angriest, darkest, ugliest colors.  We laughed about it at the time but I never forgot that – for all of us middle school was a jumble of darkness, a scrawl of deep unhappiness.  All these years later this is still so revealing to me.

Is there a worse horror than middle school?  In Doll Bones, one of the most resonant and truly creepy middle grade novels I’ve ever read, Holly Black expertly uses the conventions of ghost stories and horror stories to argue that no, no there’s really nothing scarier than middle school.  Not even the ghost of a girl trapped in the body of a very, very creepy doll. But don’t get me wrong – that’s pretty scary too.  And thus so is Doll Bones, an ingenious and heartbreaking middle grade book about the powers of story and the pressures of growing up.

Doll Bones is the story of three friends, Zach, Alice, and Poppy.  They’ve grown up together playing “the game” – an elaborate make-believe game that uses their dolls and action figures to tell an extensive adventure story.  But now they’re in middle school, about to be teenagers, and Zach calls off the game.  It feels over … until Poppy tells Zach that the eerie, bone-china doll who ruled over the game as the Great Queen is really possessed by the ghost of a dead girl and the Poppy, Zach, and Alice must bring the game to an end with one last adventure: burying the Great Queen.   The three of them set off on a quest and an adventure that will change everything.

So, I think what you’ll hear about Doll Bones in reviews is that it’s scary and atmospheric.  That’s absolutely true, it’s creepy in the best way, the kind  you can’t shake, the kind that crawls up your skin and gives you gooseflesh.  I think you’ll also hear a lot about how Doll Bones is about the power of storytelling.  This is also absolutely true, it’s a narrative that, in the best ways, tells readers that imagination and play are important, can change your life, and have real value.

But what *I* want to tell you about Doll Bones isn’t just all that – it’s that this is a story about the rigid boxes of gender expectations our society tries to force us into and how the scariest part of adolescence can be trying to break out of those boxes.

You see, Zach doesn’t just call off the game – he calls of the game because his father throws away Zach’s players in the game.  His … well, his dolls.  Even though Zach is a popular basketball star, his father thinks he’s too old to be playing with dolls.  12 year old boys, after all, well they shouldn’t.  Without the dolls, the action figures, Zach can’t play.  And here’s a really nice touch: Zach is too ashamed to even admit this to his friends.  He’s been twice-shamed – for playing the game and caring deeply about it and for having to admit that his father thinks doing this makes him less.  And it’s more than just the dolls – it’s clear that what Zach’s father is also really talking about it PLAY.  The clear implication is that Zach, that boys, shouldn’t be playing make-believe and telling stories, which is exactly the kind of play and pastime encouraged by dolls and action figures.   That’s feminine which makes it weak and thus bad.  It’s these gender binaries and their associated societal punishments that will really grind your bones to dust and give you nightmares.  They are the scariest things of all.

I know!  This is some transgressive, brave, and quite frankly brilliant storytelling and plotting.

Doll Bones is an incredibly rich novel because of this and it’s also a lifeline to all the middle-schoolers, boys and girls, who are struggling with trying to fit into the boxes society creates for us about “girls do this” and “boys don’t this” and “this is the right way to talk to boys” and “this is the right way to be friends with girls.” Without ever being didactic and sentimental about it, Doll Bones says “It doesn’t have to be just one way.  It can be any way you want – it can be any story you want to tell.”

Doll Bones is out today!  You can purchase it from your favorite local indie bookseller or check out a copy from your library.  If your library doesn’t own a copy, suggest they purchase one.  Of course, it is highly recommended as first purchase for middle school and public libraries and is the perfect book to booktalk to 6-8 grades in the lead-up to summer reading!   Also, I hope this is going to be in serious Newbery discussions this year.  It’s so finely crafted it really deserves to be.

Doll Bones isn’t just one of my favorite novels of 2013 – it’s one of my favorite middle-grade novels ever.  It makes the most of the potential of this genre; the way middle grade should use this confusing and overwhelming time of life to tell a story that young readers who connect with will keep with them always.   Doll Bones is that kind of adventure and that kind of story.

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Diversify Your Reading challenge/Middle Grade Roundup

First things first! The Las Conchas fire is 50% contained and the evacuation has been lifted, meaning I’m back at home and the library is back to business as usual.   They lifted the evacuation two Saturdays ago and we re-opened with normal hours and programs on Tuesday the 5th.  It was a truly crazy and lovely time seeing patrons again and doing programs and even catching up on paperwork.  There are still spot-fires in the mountains so we have a good bit of smoke still, which sucks in the early morning.  But overall it’s so good to be back I barely notice!  Last week at our baby dance program I did Laurie Berkner’s Airplane Song which ends with “come sit down in your own hometown” and you know, I got a little choked up as I sang it to this group of 55 toddlers.   It felt profound.

So, I want to THANK ALL OF YOU SO MUCH – all of you who sent messages, who tweeted me, who let me know you were thinking of me, who read my blog about the situation – words cannot do justice to what it meant to me, how great it was to know there was a whole net of people out there concerned about what was happening here.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Now onto the fun stuff!

I’m super excited to be participating in the Summer 2011 Diversify Your Reading Challenge.  This challenge is part of the amazing Diversity in YA, a movement created by the awesome YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon to help encourage diversity (of all kinds!) in fiction for YA and children.

The challenge is easy.  YOU (yes, you) should be participating.   You don’t even need to be a blogger, the challenge is open to librarians who create displays highlighting diversity in their collections.   You could win an amazing collection of FIFTY THREE BOOKS!! Want to participate?  It’s super easy.  If you’re participating as a librarian, you just need to incorporate diversity into your summer reading program.  It can be through a booklist, a display, an event, anything highlighting for your patrons the awesome diversity of your collection.  If you’re a blogger, you just have to read diverse titles throughout the summer and then write a blog of at least 500 words about your experience.  The challenge is open through September 1, so start reading and creating today!  You can read more about it, including more details and suggestions for diverse titles, on the Diversity in YA blog (one of my favorite blogs!)  I’m so excited to be doing this challenge, I’ve already started my reading!  I love stretching and finding new titles and, even more,  I love encouraging more diversity in YA publishing with challenges like this.  The more people using these titles and talking about them and sharing them with patrons and highlighting them in their library the more evidence for publishers that diverse titles can be meaningful AND they can sell!

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!  You can earn a chance to win FABULOUS PRIZES (eight ARCs!!!) just for blogging about this challenge and spreading the word.  All you have to do to enter is blog about the challenge and link back to the challenge page by July 31.

C’mon, it’s going to be great!  Who else is going to participate with me??

I was excited when I found out Malinda and Cindy had organized a summer diversity challenge (y’all are the best!)  but I was EVEN MORE EXCITED when I realized every single title in my middle grade round-up featured diverse characters!  It was simply meant to be.    So, with that in mind – here are three recent middle grade titles I read and truly loved.  All of these titles, different as they are from each other, are unique, powerful, well-written, hard-to-put down, and destined for success with your middle grade readers.

Where to even begin with The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang?!  This might be the perfect middle grade novel: it has a sharp, clear, original voice, the quintessential middle grade struggle to figure out who you are going to be as an adolescent, and the school and family situations that define a middle grade novel.  Let me particularly stress the family part.  Yes, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu is a “typical” middle grade novel about a girl who has problems with a mean popular girl at school, crushes on a boy she’s not sure likes her back, and worries about coming across as too nerdy.  But it’s so much more than that – because it’s also very much the story of Lucy accepting and embracing her cultural heritage as a Chinese-American girl.

Lucy thinks she has the perfect 6th grade year all planned out…until she realizes she has to share her room with Yi Po, her great aunt from China and she has to attend Chinese school on Saturdays.  Lucy, of course, resists, because she’s American, darn-it, and all that Chinese stuff isn’t for her.

There’s something genuinely moving about Lucy’s path to figuring out that being American doesn’t mean she can’t also speak Chinese and love Chinese noodles or that being good at basketball doesn’t mean she’s not Chinese.  Shang gets these messages across without being didactic (the worst!) but through a gradual and natural progression of events and realizations on Lucy’s part.  There are very few books that show multiculturalism as naturally as this one does and I think the key to success here is that this is a story of one girl realizing that “multiculturalism” isn’t some monolith or useless buzzword but is, instead, a way to fully express and describe everything that makes her strong and special and, well, great.

The book is full of likable characters, chief among them Yi Po, who is fierce and wise and there for Lucy in a way that changes everything for her.  I also loved Talent Chang, the good girl from Chinese school Lucy doesn’t want to be friends with.  The book has lots of Chinese phrases and words throughout the text, but Lucy is struggling with the language herself, so it’s not overwhelming.  This is a really great book, funny and well-paced, and full of things middle grade readers are looking for.  I serve a huge Asian population, so this book is a book I’ve long dreamed of, but even if you don’t, you should have The Great Wall of Lucy Wu on your library shelves because it’s a genuinely fantastic middle grade novel.  (my only complaint is I’d love to see an actual Asian face on the cover.  Maybe for the paperback??)

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney takes place in 1937, when America was in the middle of the depression and in love with a boxer by the name of Joe Louis.  Louis, the first African-American heavyweight champion, was an American sensation of the era. Bird in a Box is the story of three children, Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, who have one thing in common: they love Joe Louis.  By following his fights, the three become allies and eventually best friends as they learn to deal with the significant challenges in their respective lives.

What makes Bird in a Box work is how little I knew about boxing.  How’s that?  Bird in a Box works because I know very little about boxing but, like Otis, Willie, and Hibernia, I was hanging on every move and every word of the fight scenes.  Pinkney, using actual radio commentary from Louis’s fights, does a fantastic job showing just how much Louis and his fights meant to not just America, not just the African-American community, but to these three characters in particular.  As you read Bird in a Box, you’re not JUST cheering for Joe Louis or holding your breath wondering what the next punch is going to bring, you’re caring and investing that much in Otis, Willie, and Hibernia too.

This is top-notch historical fiction which uses the details of daily life in that era to really create a believable setting.  The way Pinkney uses the radio broadcast of Louis’s fights, even the way she establishes the radio as an essential part of daily life in the 1930s,  not only shows you what it means to the characters, but helps you feel what it must have been like to hear the world coming through your radio speakers.

This book skews to a little younger middle grade audience, but I think it’s going to be a huge hit with your fans of historical fiction or sports stories – Joe Louis and his dazzling fights are an essential part of the story.  Pinkney never makes the metaphor of “being knocked around by life” overly explicit, but it’s woven, skillfully into the story.  Otis, Willie, and Hibernia have had some hard knocks but they keep going – there’s something that’s inherently appealing about that in books for the middle grade audience and readers, I think, are going to be drawn to that.

Where to even begin with Karen Schwabach?!  The Storm Before Atlanta is her third historical fiction title and it, like the other two A Pickpocket’s Tale and The Hope Chest, is just simply marvelous.  There’s no other word to describe how skillfully, how richly, Schwabach crafts each novel.  The Hope Chest, which is the story of an eleven year old who joins her older sister on the frontline of the suffragette movement is, hands-down, one of my favorite historical novels of all time.  The Storm Before Atlanta doesn’t disappoint.

It tells the brutal, realistic, unblinking truth about war – as learned by 10 year old Jeremy, who runs away to die on the Union field of glory.  Of course, on his way to what he assumes will be his glorious demise, Jeremy not only has time to see what war is really like he also makes two friends: Dulcie, a runaway slave and Charlie, a Confederate soldier who doesn’t seem so darn hostile or out for blood.

Of course, you will have guessed that dying on a field of glory isn’t all that Jeremy thinks it might be, that war is hell, etc. etc.  What makes The Storm Before Atlanta so special is that Schwabach knows that even the youngest readers can grasp these obvious truths – she’s more interested in the truths behind those.   War is hell but so is slavery, the experiences of Dulcie make that perfectly clear.  What are wars fought about?  Is there such a thing as a worthy cause?  If there is, doesn’t that mean one side has to be only right and one side has to be only wrong?  If Confederates are the “bad guys” then can a Confederate solider still be a good person?  Now THOSE are  BIG questions, questions about who you are and what you believe  – they’re exactly the kind of questions that middle grade fiction should be asking.

The Storm Before Atlanta not only poses those questions to readers but does it in an exciting, well-crafted, vivid style.  As our characters approach Atlanta, there is plenty of action, bloodshed, and and adventure to go along with all the deep thoughts.  (this book does have intense and accurate descriptions of warfare and wartime medicine of the era, just so you’re prepared.)  This is a rich, rewarding, and totally absorbing read.  It’s highly recommend for all middle grade collections and is sure to be popular with readers who like action, historical fiction, and, yes, even for fans of war stories – because they’ll come away asking hard questions.

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