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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Poison by Bridget Zinn, a review and a GIVEAWAY

I am part of the Poison blog tour, dedicated to spreading the word about the amazing work of the late Bridget Zinn, librarian and YA author.  There are dozens and dozens of blogs participating, and I encourage you to visit them all to read more about Poison.  You can also go to Bridget’s site to read more about Poison and about Bridget. (Many authors have also written wonderful pieces about Bridget, one of my favorites is by E.M. Kokie, I really urge you to read that!)  Now, onto the review!

poison

The thing about Poison is: I can’t remember the last time I had this much FUN reading a book.

I suppose I should mention that while I really am genre-ventrous (my made-up word explaining how I really will read any genre) I do read a lot of YA that’s much more … intense, let us say.  Part of this, I think, is because that’s the majority of what’s being published in YA in the first place.  Sometimes it feels like it’s back to back end-of-the-world-fight-to-the-death-sacrifices-suffering-dystopia-murder-rape in YA.  Which, ya know, is kind of brilliant,  because teens love high stakes and honest conversations about their world.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact, I think it’s something for the genre to be proud of: YA tells the truth, it doesn’t back down. and it means something.  That’s awesome.

BUT WHAT ABOUT FUN, ALSO?  Reading Poison reminded me of how rewarding that element of YA can be:  the delightful whirl of adventure and magical creatures and banter between two utterly charming leads.

I read Poison with a grin on my face that never stopped.  It was pure delight.

What I Love About This Book

Kyra, a potions-master, thinks she’s the only person who knows that her kingdom in about to collapse, so she’ll do whatever it takes to save it – even if it means killing the future queen, the girl who used to be her best friend.  But!  It all backfires and Kyra is soon on the run, still determined to finish her mission. In short order she finds herself saddled with a pig who can sniff out targets (said pig is not adorable!  Kyra will not be charmed by said pig!) and an obnoxious guy named Fred who just won’t leave her alone to finish her murderous quest in peace.  In hot pursuit are the entire royal guard and Kyra’s ex-boyfriend and fellow potions-master, Hal.  Twists, turns, magical creatures of all sorts, bandits, and undeniable pig adorableness soon ensues.

In short, what’s not to love?  I love everything about our heroine Kyra.  I love that she is clever but not perfect and a bad-ass but not super-human.  I love that she is not only skilled with poison darts but with making the potions as well, this is a great touch, she knows all the complicated chemistry to make the BEST potions, not just how to fling them about.  Kyra is highly skilled, intelligent, and completely capable – a dream YA heroine!  I also love Kyra and Fred.  They have banter worthy of a screwball comedy from the 1940s and one of my all-time favorite meet cutes.  They’re a great pair, full of whiz-bang chemistry that reminded me how truly satisfying a light-hearted romance can be.

I can’t stress enough how much FUN I had reading Poison.  I just flew through it. Zinn did a great job structuring it – you’re pulled into the mystery of Kyra on the run from the first page and you don’t want to stop reading until you find out the ‘whole’ story of how we meet up with her, breaking into her old living quarters, seeking out deadly poison.  The chapters are short and each have a cliff-hanger ending, throwing you headlong into the action chapter by chapter. Another strength of Poison is that not only does it have huge appeal (fans of humor!  fans of romance!  fans of adventure! fans of fairy tales! fans of fantasy!) but it’s high-interest for even younger readers – this isn’t high YA, middle-schoolers are sure to be fans too.  Because of this, and so many other factors, Poison is highly recommended as a first purchase for public libraries.

Poison is, I know, I keep using this word delightful – but it is!  In so many ways, it reminded me of The Princess Bride.  Like The Princess Bride, Poison is full of adventure, swashbuckling, hidden identities, magic, plenty of humor and heart; something that feels old-fashioned and yet modern too.

I’m so glad Bridget Zinn’s Poison is out in the world and once you pick it up and start reading (and trust me, you’ll have a hardbridget_zinn_photo time putting it down) you will be too. And I know you’ll want to share it with your teen readers too.

So, because I want to share the sweetness of Poison with as many people as possible, I’m giving away a copy!  All you need to do is leave a comment on this post by April 2 and I’ll choose one random winner. If you don’t win a copy, think about purchasing one. If you can’t purchase one, go check out a copy from your local library and if they don’t have one, request they add it to their collection!

I mean, don’t you think your life could use a little more delight?  Thank you, Bridget, for the all the wonder and fun and joy and, yes, delight.

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Blog Birthday! (and a chance to win “Ruby Red” by Kerstin Gier!)

Yesterday was my  blog’s first birthday!

Happy birthday, blog!

It’s been a really great year, even though I am the world’s slack-iest blogger.  (my excuse for not being more present in May is that I was moving.  Yeah, that’s it.) I couldn’t even begin to list the highlights, there were just too many to list.  Thank you so much to everyone who reads and comments, whether you’re in the library/publishing world or not.  (but especially if you’re in the library/publishing world, as you’re my peeps! ♥)

So, in honor of my blog’s birthday I thought it was the perfect time to give you, dear readers, a present!  YAY!

The awesome folks at Macmillan contacted me about hosting a giveaway for Kerstin Geir’s Ruby Red and I was excited to say yes because this book has been at the top of my TO BE READ list for months!  How to count the ways I am excited about it?  It’s the first in a series, originally published in German, it’s already a huge international bestseller, and it’s about a time-traveling society and a girl who has untapped powers.  Need I mention there’s a charming fellow time-traveler?  Um, hello.

Here’s the official blurb from Macmillan, which I hope will make you as giddy as it made me:

Gwyneth Shepherd’s sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!

Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon–the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.

You can find lots more goodies at the Macmillan page for Ruby Red including an audio excerpt and the first chapter of the book.

There’s also the super-sweet book trailer …

I KNOW, RIGHT? So, I know you are dying to have your very own copy and, thanks to the kind folks at Macmillan, I have one to give away. What a great birthday present! 🙂

All you have to do to enter is:

  • Be a resident of the US or Canada
  • Comment on this post no later than June 15th
  • Wish my blog happy birthday!
  • (and, for fun, you can mention one of your favorite books featuring time travel. But that’s not required!)

Thanks to Macmillan for the giveaway and THANK YOU, each and every one of you, for reading and being part of my radical first year. I hereby resolve that year 2 shall be full of even more posts, reviews, prizes, and fat acceptance. I can’t wait and I hope y’all stick around!

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There Are No 50 Books “Everyone” Should Read (Give Away post!)

After our teen group meeting, a group of boys split off and starting playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl and a group of teen volunteers came into the room and started eating leftover cake and ice cream.  It was a fun atmosphere.  One of the teen’s boyfriend arrived and looked around.  “Um,” he said slowly, pointing at the boys playing video games.  “Doesn’t this, like, go against the point of, um, book club or whatever?”

Another boy jumped in.  “No.  It’s not about – it’s like.  This is our big-party-fun-time.  It’s – this is where – we can – ” he couldn’t seem to get the right words out.  I tried to help.

“It’s that the library is about fun,” I supplied, smiling.  “You don’t have to think about school or homework or getting into college if you don’t want to.  You can just come and hang out and enjoy yourself. ”

The TAG kids nodded emphatically over the smashing sounds of Mario.  That’s it exactly.

Fun.  Remember that?  Enjoying yourself?  Remember that?  Last week, I returned to my alma mater for my favorite, hands-down my favorite, professional conference: Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival.  Lots of amazing things, more amazing things than I could imagine, happened.  I had the chance to interview Gary Schmidt for half an hour for an article for VOYA and David Diaz gave me a packet of cherry Pez for blow-drying one of his paintings.  I also had the chance to hear Roger Sutton give the Ezra Jack Keats lecture.  The lecture was a lot about how Harry Potter changed the field of children’s publishing.  This part was fascinating, of course, and I can’t wait for The Horn Book article that’s sure to result.  BUT it was also a chance for Roger to speak up about the importance of pleasure reading, defending children and teen’s reading choices.  I don’t know how I managed to resist standing up and shouting AMEN!

I was tweeting throughout Roger’s lecture and here are some highlights from my notes:

  • “Reluctant reader often means they are not reading what we want them to read.”
  • “Kids have always fallen in love with terrible books, libraries need to have them too.”
  • “In my dream library, no one ever says that’s not good enough.”
  • “A librarian’s job is to get out of the way and let the reader choose.”

AH, ROGER, YOU’RE THE BEST!

This all reminded me of the recent flap about the The Independent‘s recent article about “The 50 Books Every Child Should Read.”  While this is a noble effort to be sure it’s also … frustrating and, well, silly.  There are no 50 books “every” child should read.  This is just as silly as that Facebook meme about the BBC’s list of books.  Why should you feel guilt about what you have and haven’t read?  Who came up with that list anyway?  Who is judging you?  When did reading become a chore or a competition or (shudder) a requirement?  Reading is supposed to be fun, remember?

And, with that in mind … here’s the GIVE AWAY part of the blog, huzzah!

A few months ago, Simon & Schuster offered me a chance to do a giveaway on my blog.  I told them heck yeah, because giveaways are awesome.  They’ve given me FIVE signed copies of Elixir by Hilary Duff to give away and I couldn’t be more excited.

Yes, Elixir by Hilary Duff.  Yes, that Hilary Duff.

Are you rolling your eyes yet?  Maybe you are.  But let me tell you – this book might not win the Printz but it’s a fun time.  It really is.  I read it in one sitting and I enjoyed the heck out of it.  It’s soapy and ridiculous and full of details about everything from rainforests to red carpets.  The story involves Clea, a socialite without a care in the world.  Everything changes when her father disappears in the rainforests of Brazil and she decides to go off and try to solve the mystery of what’s happened to him.  This is the first plot element I loved: Clea getting out there and doing something herself, a plot that kicks off without a boy pushing her along.  Hurrah!  (don’t worry, we get to the triangle later.  It’s my favorite kind, too: the best friend or the mysterious stranger.)   Once she gets to Brazil it gets all supernatural-y and there’s reincarnation and a mysterious stranger who Clea can’t help but be drawn to and adventures in the jungle. Now come on.  That’s a fun time, especially for teen readers.   The plot doesn’t quite all hang together and the reincarnation stuff gets a little confusing but, really, I wasn’t reading it for plot, I was reading for jungle adventures and longing looks and a female protagonist with a mind of her own.   This book delivered that in spades.  I wasn’t reading because I wanted to impress anyone (like the BBC) or because someone who doesn’t know anything about my life or my tastes was “requiring” me to.  I was reading for pleasure.  And you know?  That’s required reading to me.

So, thanks to the awesome folks at Simon & Schuster, YOU can win your own signed copy of Elixir.

You can keep it for yourself, add it to your library’s circulating collection, or use it as a prize giveaway.  This really would make a great teen giveaway:  this book was a fun time for me, but teen readers that gobble up paranormal-romances will like it EVEN MORE.  AND it’s signed.  My teens treat signed books like gold.  Better still, I have five of them to give away and the contest is open internationally.  All you have to do is leave a comment saying you want to be entered and, at the end of this week, I’ll do a random drawing and notify you if you’ve won a copy.

There are no books “everyone” should read, not every child, not every teenager, not every adult.  All of us, every single one, should read what we want.  And we should treat reading like what it IS: a big-party-fun-time.

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