Ninja Librarians and the Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw

The Accidental KeyhandThe Accidental Keyhand. Ninja Librarians Book 1. by Jen Swann Downey. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014.
Dorrie and Marcus, two stage sword-fighting siblings from Passaic, New Jersey, are chasing their friend’s pet mongoose through the local public library when they find themselves sucked through dimensions to Petrarch’s library. This turns out to be a magical library with doors to many different “wherens” (where and whens), through which trained Lybrarians travel to preserve threatened books and authors. This life sounds like a dream come true to action-and book-loving Dorrie, and teenaged Marcus has fallen in love with a beautiful apprentice and also wants to stay. But they are treated with suspicion because they arrived in highly unorthodox fashion through the roof rather than a door, and there are other things that make it look like they are connected with the enemies of the Library.

I loved the concept of the secret society working to prevent censorship, and Petrarch’s Library is filled with interesting historical characters (indexed in the back), including Hypatia and Cyrano de Bergerac. Dorrie is a character that reminds me pretty strongly of my own tween self. And yet somehow despite having so many elements that I love, this didn’t quite gel into a book that I loved. I found my mind wandering off in the middle and wasn’t entirely satisfied by the ending. The concept is cool enough, though, that I might try the second book to see if it pulls together a little more.

herooutlawHero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy. Walden Pond Press, 2014
This is the third book in the series – I read The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom when it first came out, skipped The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle and then read this one because it’s nominated for the Cybils in my category. In this entry, our friends in the League of Princes have been outlawed in all the kingdoms for the murder of Briar Rose, following Prince Liam and Princess Briar Rose’s divorce. The League will have to clear their own names by finding out the real murders, all while avoiding the bounty hunters on their trail and various other bad guys. Often separated from each other, the women form their own group – the Furious Female Fighters, or ffff for short. It’s more fast action with plenty of slapstick humor as our heroes work against bards and other villains to save all the kingdoms again.

Once again, there are a lot of elements to the story that I liked. It is laugh-out-loud funny, with the humor in action, dialogue and pictures. The combination of action and humor is one that keeps kids, especially boys, riveted. I love fairy tale retellings, and it’s fun to see the characters from different fairy tales interacting like this. This one even has pirates! It’s less fractured than the first book, since we know the characters already and they’re not off having adventures one at a time. In this book, too, the women are every bit as competent as the men, though they don’t all excel at fighting. I really appreciated not having the girls relegated to the sidelines just because it’s a book for boys. But it felt like with so many characters, all deliberately caricatured, they never felt real enough for me to believe in any of them. I’m also frustrated by the length of the books – 516 pages is an intimidating length for average to reluctant readers, even though the books otherwise have lots of appeal for kids like that. Still, if you’re lucky enough to be looking for books for an eager reader who isn’t as concerned with well-rounded characters as I am, this is a fine choice.

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The True Meaning of Smekday

Halfway through reading this book aloud to my son (423 pages, thank you very much), I read on Melissa of Book Nut listed this book as one of her favorite audiobooks… d’oh! We now own it on audio, and my love reports that he’s enjoying it very much. I’d initially brought this book home to read for myself because the Old School Wednesdays review on the Book Smugglers reminded me that I’d wanted to read it for a while, and with the movie coming out next year, I thought I should read it before it got hold lists on it. I should note that it also won the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy Cybils award when it was first published.

truemeaningofsmekdayThe True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Hyperion Books, 2007
The story is framed as a school report. Gratuity Tucci – Tip to her friends – is supposed to write an essay on what Smekday means to her. It starts out really short, with her memories of the day the alien Boov first invaded. But as her teacher repeatedly tells her she can do better, her essays get longer and longer, including both her sketches and drawn photographs of the events. Tip watches her mother get sucked up into the Smek ship and sets out in her mother’s car with their crotchety cat to find her – eventually accompanied by one of the invading Boov himself. J. Lo, as he’s decided his English name should be, has gotten in trouble with the rest of the Boov. She consents because J. Lo transforms the car so it can fly, which is necessary since most of the roads have been bombed out. Along the way, they visit the magical Happy Mouse Kingdom and Roswell. Tip is still working on ways to get rid of the Boov when another batch of alien invaders turns up, aliens who make the Boov look sweet and kind for leaving Americans a single state to live in.

There is so much wonderful going on in this book – where to start? There’s Tip herself, a human girl of mixed African and European ancestry, very self-aware and unwilling to let anyone’s ideas about what these things should mean about her get in the way of what doing what she feels needs to be done. There’s J.Lo, who starts out annoying and grows on the reader much as he does on J.Lo. The adventure is absorbing, the details both of the invasion and Boov history and culture well done, and all the while this is going on, we the readers and Tip are uncomfortably aware that the alien invasion and treatment of humans isn’t really much different than any number of things that humans have done to each other. If that starts to sound like it might be too heavy, it’s not, because it’s handled so well and with so much humor that we were laughing out loud every time we read the book together.

Hilarious writing, good action, with real characters and Deep Thoughts. This is what a great children’s book should be. Well done, Adam Rex, and the 2007 Cybils Award committee.

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Guest Post from Cheryl Mahoney: Retelling “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces”

A couple of years ago, my friend Dr. M. and I started reading every retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that we could get our hands on.  It turns out we weren’t the only ones finding this interesting – my blogging friend Cheryl from Tales of the Marvelous has just published her own retelling, The Storyteller and her Sisters. I’m looking forward to reading it as I very much enjoyed her last book, The Wanderers. (Here’s my interview with her about The Wanderers.) She’s here today to talk about her favorite retellings – including a short story I haven’t read myself!

I’ve always loved fairy tales, in part because they usually don’t make a bit of sense! It makes them so ripe for retellings: stories that can pick apart those pieces that didn’t add up, and spin a new story around them. My latest book, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, is based on a fairly obscure Brothers Grimm story, “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces (or The Twelve Dancing Princesses).” Though most people don’t seem to be familiar with the story, there are quite a few retellings—but I think I have a unique angle on it!

Cheryl MahoneyWhen Katy offered me an opportunity to do a guest post, I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite retellings of what has become one of my favorite fairy tales.

The basic story is about twelve princesses who are wearing out their dancing slippers every night, even though they’re locked in their bedroom. Their father the king puts out a call for champions to solve the mystery. We eventually learn that the princesses are secretly leaving their chamber, passing through a magic forest of silver, gold and diamonds, and crossing a lake to a castle where they dance with twelve princes. And from that premise, many variations have arisen!

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier was one of my first retellings, although a very loose one. It’s about five sisters (not princesses) who go dancing at a fairy court that’s not as terrible as in most versions. This is one of my favorites, because it gives us a wonderful heroine in Jena. All five of the girls are fully realized characters, and they’re certainly not waiting around helplessly for a champion to rescue them. It also helps that this features one of my favorite love stories.

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George is a much closer retelling. It does better than most at developing the relationship between the final champion and the oldest princess–and I rather love that the hero is brave and strong and also knows how to knit (soldiers have to get socks from somewhere!) It also has some of the best-depicted princesses. Even though there are twelve of them, George makes it easier than in most retellings to keep them apart. She puts the most attention on just a few, and when others appear, it’s usually clear in the moment who they are. For example, Poppy is the boisterous one, and it was no effort to remember that because she’s always being boisterous whenever we see her.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Marianna Meyer and illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft is a very beautiful picture book. It’s a pretty accurate retelling without doing anything too excitingly different—but the illustrations are exquisite. Especially some of the pictures of the princesses in their gowns, and the magical settings.

Troll’s Eye View is a collection of short stories, including “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” by Ellen Kushner. Mostly pretty light and silly, this captured better than any other version how annoying it could actually be to have eleven younger sisters! The princesses are universally devoted to each other in other versions, and it was fun to see an oldest princess who finds her clamoring crowd of sisters overwhelming.

These are my favorite retellings, though I’ve read five others as well. One trend I’ve noticed is that, almost universally, the princesses’ father is well-meaning (or at worst, aloof or unaware) and the princes the girls dance with have ill-intent. But when I read the original Brothers Grimm, I’m not convinced that’s really how the story goes…so my unique angle took rather a different direction. I recommend all of the books above—and of course I recommend mine too!

Cheryl Mahoney is a book blogger at Tales of the Marvelous, and the author of two books based on fairy tales. The Wanderers, published in 2013, follows the journeys of a wandering adventurer, a talking cat and a witch’s daughter. Her new novel, The Storyteller and Her Sisters, retells “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces,” with twelve trapped princesses who decided to take control of their story.

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Greenglass House

Not long after I finished reading the Kate Milford books the Book Smugglers sent me, her latest book came into the library!

Greenglass HouseGreenglass House by Kate Milford. Clarion Books, 2014
Milo has grown up in an old mansion in the smuggling town of Nagspeake that has long since been converted to a small hotel used mostly by smugglers. He’s an introverted type who takes comfort in his routines, so it’s very disturbing to him when their normally peaceful and empty Christmas break is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a whole lot of guests. Curiously, all of the guests seem to be inventing other business, but mostly interested in the house itself. There are so many guests that Milo’s parents call the cook back from her vacation. Meddy, the cook’s daughter, befriends Milo and introduces him to the concept of role-playing games. While they don’t start an official campaign, they make up characters for themselves – Negret and Sirin, blackjack and scholiast – specifically to investigate the mysteries behind the guests and the rash of stolen objects that crop up.

The role-playing with its sets of published books, 30 years or so old in the story when I know they first started being published like that in the 1980s, was the thing that set this story most firmly in about the present time for me, though it wouldn’t for those less geeky. Otherwise, it’s quite nebulous in that there are cars, telephones and electricity, but none of the other technological devices that change so quickly that they could date the story, a nice touch. But the role-playing is very important to the story. Milo himself has Chinese ancestry, though he was born locally and adopted by his parents. Though he loves them, he wonders about his birth parents. As he answers questions about the character Negret for Meddy and himself, he grows more comfortable with his relationship with his adopted father and what he might have inherited from his birth parents. Pretending to be a character who is confident around people winds up, perhaps predictably but very satisfyingly, making him more self-confident in general. It’s worth noting, too, that Milford manages to give Milo two living parents who love him and check in on him to make sure he’s all right, but still give him enough space to go having his adventures with Meddy.

The house is a delightful part of the story – large and complicated, with an attic filled with old and exciting treasures and stained-glass windows with secrets built into them. There is mystery and adventure with an underlying thread of magic and great characters, plus a twist that maybe I should have seen coming, but didn’t. Everything comes together just right, making this one of my favorite books this year.

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Two for Grown-Ups

Here’s a last couple of adult books before things shift over to a steady diet of middle grade speculative fiction.

The Book of LifeThe Book of Life. All Souls Trilogy Book 3 by Deborah Harkness. Viking, 2014
This is the last book in the trilogy that began with A Discovery of Witches. I won’t attempt to explain the plot, seeing as how it’s somewhat complicated and builds a lot on the previous two books. This one is framed around the zodiac entries from Diana’s Elizabethan commonplace book. I have really enjoyed these books so much for their combination of fantasy, plot and characters. It’s about the ages-old conflict between vampires, witches and demons, but also about our main characters’ personal growth, and Diana and Matthew’s struggle to learn how to navigate their marriage, parenthood and careers. And how often do history professors get to be the stars of the book? Harkness, a scholar herself, has a deep respect for scholars and librarians that I very much appreciate. This a fine conclusion to a series highly recommended for people who like their fantasy with depth.

LandlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press, 2014
I read Landline because I’d enjoyed both Fangirl and Eleanor and Park so much. Georgie McCool is a TV comedy writer. She and her partner have been working off of work time for years on episodes for their very own show – and now it looks like someone is interested in buying it. The hitch is that putting the proposal together as requested means skipping her husband Neal’s family Christmas in Iowa, missing the holiday with her husband and young children. She stays behind, but tries to call – only her husband won’t answer his cell. When she plugs in an old corded phone in her childhood bedroom, she makes contact with a Neal from years before, right before he proposed to her.

There were parts of me that had no sympathy for Georgie – what kind of parent skips out on Christmas with their kids, especially when it obviously means so much to the partner as well? And part of me had trouble with Neal, too, who wasn’t willing to verbalize his objections and didn’t answer his phone when Georgie called. And then, looking at past and present, I did understand Georgie at least (not Neal, but we see so much less of Neal), and this rings so very true to the difficulty of marriage, the way you can be both completely familiar and strangers at the same time, wanting to know everything and still keeping secrets. It all happens in the context of Georgie’s quirky family – her mother, married to the former pool guy Georgie’s age, and Georgie’s much younger sister, who orders pizza every day because she’s too shy to ask the delivery person out. So, yeah: funny, a tiny bit irritating, and some thoughts on relationships that resonated pretty deeply with me.

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The Fourteenth Goldfish

It’s Stephanie Burgis’ Hot Chocolate Day! Which means you should all take a break and drink some hot chocolate to celebrate the release of the Kat, Incorrigible boxed set! (This is on my wishlist… I will have to buy it for myself if nobody else does, but my birthday is coming up!) In honor of Hot Chocolate Day, here’s a recipe for Spanish Hot Chocolate with Churros, as I was bowled away by the delicious thick hot chocolate when I was in Spain myself.

I read this book because Netgalley thought I should, and I thought they might be right – we’ve very much enjoyed the Babymouse and Squish graphic novels Holm writes with her brother.
The Fourteenth GoldfishThe Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm. Random House, 2014.
Ellie comes home from school one day to find a teenage boy at her house. He looks like a teenager, but he’s dressed like her grandfather. It turns out that he is her grandfather, who’s done an experiment to reverse his own aging. Now Ellie’s mother makes him go to school with Ellie, while he’s trying to break back into his own lab so he can publish his groundbreaking research.

Even though the premise of this book is pure science fiction, what it brings out is a lot of relationship issues. Ellie has just lost her best friend due to shifting interests, and has to work to build new ones. Ellie’s mother and grandfather have always been in conflict over her theater work versus his scientific approach, and living together again brings this to a head. Ellie herself learns to appreciate her grandfather in a new way.

I keep wanting to say that the characters are “learning” such and such, and they are, but it’s the kind of learning that feels genuine and truly heartwarming, and there’s plenty of silliness mixed in as well. Even as Ellie’s mother and grandfather find science and art at odds, Holm pulls pieces from both to blend into a meaningful look at life. It’s also really nice to see Ellie getting more interested in doing science and learning about scientists herself. This is a really delightful book that feels like it will appeal most to fans of contemporary realistic fiction.

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I’ve enjoyed both Smile and Drama, and was very excited to see this coming out! (Also, Raina is really nice in person – you should go meet her if you have the chance!)

SistersSisters by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix, 2014.
Telgemeier tells the story of her relationship with her sister. It’s set within a frame of her mother taking the three children – Raina, Amara, and their little brother – on a week-long drive from California to a family reunion in Colorado. (As a mother, I can think of about a million things I would rather do than take three kids on a camping road trip with only one adult – but this will probably not occur to kids.) In between, we see little Raina asking Santa for a baby sister, quickly followed by Raina getting bored and then annoyed with the sister with whom she has to share a room. The birth of their brother doesn’t improve things. At the family reunion, though, both girls see things that make them reassess their relationship: cousins not wanting to play, their mother still fighting with her own siblings, and worst of all, signs of their parents’ marriage failing.

The part of the story where the sisters are trying to get along, while touching, is very small. Mostly, I think what younger readers will take away is the very realistic portrayal of the arguments between siblings. Even though Telgemeier is chronicling her grievances, it’s easy to see how she’s just as annoying to Amara. It brought up a bunch of memories of arguments past with my own little sister, and kids will find the stories even more sympathetic. They are also a whole lot funnier when looked at from the outside.

As always, Telgemeier’s art is essential to the story. Her characters are expressive and easy to follow, with just the right level of detail to set the scene clearly without bogging things down. It’s mostly told in straightforward panel sequences, with the occasional full-page picture. The one that sticks out the most in my memory is the diagram of van set-up for their car trip, with each kid’s zones and key items mapped out. The pictures are so appealing that I’ve yet to see a kid of any age pick this up without wanting to read it. This is perfect realistic graphic storytelling – great for kids, teens and adults.

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Cybils Nominations are Open!

It’s official! You can now go in and nominate your favorite kids and teen books to be considered for Cybils awards. The more books judges have to read, the better the choices, so don’t feel you have to be an expert in a category to nominate something you loved!

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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

It’s just a few short hours until the Cybils nominations open at midnight PST on October 1! Be thinking of your favorite children’s books from the last year to nominate, and take a look at the rules on the Cybils blog! (Thanks for making me laugh out loud at work, Anne!)

How could I resist another 12 Dancing Princesses retelling?
The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubThe Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. Atria Books, 2014
In 1920s Manhattan, there is a group of glamorous girls who show up at the speakeasies for dancing. People call them all “Princess”, as they don’t tell anyone their names. They don’t put up with any misbehavior on the part of their dance partners – but can they ever dance!

From an opening with a mythic feel describing the sisters from the point of view of the men in the clubs, we turn to the background story. Joseph Hamilton, a self-made addition to Manhattan’s upper class, needed a son to secure his legacy. His wife bore him daughter after daughter until she died. As his disappointment mounted, he got more and more restrictive, firing the governesses and no longer letting them go for walks (only ever permitted in groups of two or three) so that no one would comment on his large family. Jo, the oldest daughter, sensed her rebellious next older sister about to crack at the sounds of the dances next door they weren’t allowed to attend. Terrified that she would do something that would bring their father down, Jo started taking them out dancing, looking carefully for clubs where they wouldn’t be photographed. What started with just the oldest sisters going out expanded as the younger sisters grew old enough to come along. Life was tenuous, but bearable, the glitter of the nights balancing the bleak days.

Then their father decided to marry them off.

I’d heard good things about this, and I was not disappointed. 1920s Manhattan, dark and glittering, torn between old and new attitudes towards women, was brought to life. I was literally lying in bed at night worried about the characters, even when I’d last read about them over my lunch break. The hardest parts of any 12 Dancing Princesses retelling are keeping the large cast from blurring together and giving them real motivation for all that dancing. This was a great success on both counts. There are also some good men to balance out the abusive father, but – thankfully – they are not rescuers of helpless girls. This might not work for fans of fairy tale retellings who want actual magic in their retellings – but it is gorgeous dark historical fiction.

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The Eighth Day

Here’s a contemporary fantasy with an Arthurian twist. I was happy to win an ARC from fellow book blogger Akossiwa Ketoglo.
The Eighth DayThe Eighth Day by Dianne K. Salerni. Harper Collins Children’s, 2014.
Recent orphan Jax Aubrey, 13, through some legal manipulation he doesn’t understand, is stuck with 18-year-old stranger Riley Pendare as his guardian. Riley is often gone and there’s never enough food in the house, so Jax is doing everything he can to move back in with some cousins. Then he wakes up one morning to find that all the people have vanished, leaving him alone in an abandoned world. After making his best preparations for disaster survival, he wakes up the next day only to find everything normal again.

Finally, Riley starts to give him some very limited explanations: Jax has inherited his father’s ability to live through the Eighth Day, an extra day magically sandwiched between Wednesday and Thursday. There are three types of people in the world: normal people; transitioners like Jax and Riley who experience all eight days; and the Kin, forever exiled to just the eighth day. The magic dates back to the time of King Arthur, when Merlin created the spell. In the modern era, this results in a culture where swearing fealty is still an important part of everyday life and people get tattoos featuring their family crests to enhance their magical powers.

Jax finds himself caught up in a war between factions. The only person he really trusts is Evangeline, the teenage Kin girl whom Riley has been keeping locked up in the house next door to theirs. But Jax’s ignorance of his new world and his determination to free Evangaline start things spiraling quickly out of control. Soon they find that they will need to save not just themselves but the whole world!

This is an exciting, action-oriented book, which I wanted to like more than I did. A lot of the problems could have been avoided if Riley had just been upfront with Jax at the beginning, always frustrating. The connection to Arthurian legend was tenuous enough to be disappointing to me, since I really like that. A love triangle that was introduced at the last minute felt out of place, and in general, I prefer more character focus in my reading. On the other hand, the idea of the eighth day is fun and original, and Jax and Evangeline are likeable characters. I could really see Percy Jackson fans getting excited about the possibility of being part of a society where magical family daggers are still important. I’d happily give this to readers, middle school or so, who want an adventurous contemporary fantasy book.

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