Word Play: An archive of past reviews
May 29, 2011
Consider this premise for a novel:
April 17, 2011
British children's fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones died last month while I was busy reading "The Emerald Atlas" for review, so it was inevitable that her spirit should haunt my reading. Jones is often cited as the forerunner of J.K. Rowling as the queen of contemporary fantasy for children, and "The Emerald Atlas" fits snugly in this category. Many think Jones a superior writer to Rowling, though she never enjoyed Rowling's popularity, nor gave the ecstatic experience of a vast community of like-minded readers that the Harry Potter books produced.
March 20, 2011
Do you think you might have, or might be, a pushy stage mother? Do you think you might have, or might be, a crazed sports dad?
February 20, 2011
"The guy looks tough, setting off my internal alert. Everyone knows a guiding principle of underclassman survival is identifying dangerous upperclassmen." (from "Leverage")
December 26, 2010
A large part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy lies in the imaginative worlds the authors create. In "Incarceron" and its sequel, "Sapphique" (Dial Books: $17.99, ages 12 and up), Catherine Fisher shows herself to be not only an expert world-creator, but also an accomplished juggler. In her story, two extraordinary worlds are in communication. One of the mysteries of the tale is where these worlds lie in relation to each other; another is how the author manages the intricate rhythm and tensions between the two.
November 28, 2010
It's hard to imagine that the reading of picture books could be controversial, but this fall saw a considerable kerfuffle over a story in the New York Times that declared picture books to be in decline. In the midst of a perfectly respectable news story about a business trend — fewer picture books are being published and sold — the tale took a dark turn into the dank woods of parental anxiety.
October 24, 2010
I am a latecomer to graphic novels. Years ago, my truly literary friends tried to turn me on to the groundbreaking art of the "Sandman" books (Neil Gaiman and various artists) and "Love and Rockets" (Los Bros. Hernandez). I admit I felt about those books the way I feel about great horror movies: I could admire the art, but they did not make my heart sing.
September 19, 2010
In "Knuffle Bunny" and "Knuffle Bunny, Too," readers fell in love with the highly expressive Trixie in her pre-verbal and preschool states. Along with her, we experience the drama of (temporarily) losing her beloved stuffed Knuffle Bunny, and we strain with the effort of giving proper vent to her emotions. A great part of the pleasure for adults is seeing the story also through the eyes of Trixie's doting but hapless parents. Mo Willems accomplishes this brilliant dual perspective through his complex illustrations (a collage combining photo and cartoon), in which we see not only Trixie at the center of the action but also her attentive grown-ups tenderly looking on or mired in various stages of panic in the background.
September 12, 2010
In young-adult fiction, look for the fall to squeeze every last drop of — excuse the expression — blood out of the vampire and supernatural creature trend. We've seen werewolves, ghosts, warrior fairies, zombies … where can we go next? Well, into younger age groups, for one. With her new novel "Radiance" (Square Fish/Feiwel and Friends, ages 9-12), for example, Alyson Noël spins off a new series about the ghostly younger sister from her "Immortals" books for ages 12 and older. This fall, Noël's book is far from the only one.
10:21 AM PDT, August 13, 2010
Francesca Simon is an international star. Her series of children's books about Horrid Henry (Sourcebooks: $4.99 each, ages 8-12) have sold 14 million copies in 24 countries. In England, where she lives, "Horrid Henry and the Football Fiend" was No. 12 on the list of 250 most-borrowed library books last year — and her books occupied 16 more spots on the list as well. There has been a "Horrid Henry" animated television series, even a stage show.
July 18, 2010
It's not hard to explain the appeal of magic. Got to clean your room? Wave a wand! Hungry? Utter a spell and a table appears, loaded with all the foods you like.
June 13, 2010
Francesca Lia Block's quintessentially Los Angeles spirit animates her fictional worlds, where incongruous things coexist and love bridges the most impossible chasms. Pearls and mosh pits. Fairies and soldiers. "House of Dolls" (HarperCollins: $15.99, ages 9-12) is, appropriately for a story named for a girl's plaything, a miniaturized version of Block's novels. (Note the age level designation, 9-12; although the story is accompanied by Barbara McClintock's drawings, "House of Dolls" is not a picture book for little girls.)
1:58 PM PDT, May 7, 2010
Isn't it thrilling when your favorite author writes a novel about his secret passion?
April 11, 2010
Is there anyone among us who does not know, or know of, a child with an autism spectrum disorder? Whether diagnostic criteria are allowing us to identify more individuals, or something in the environment is causing more autism, or our social habits and educational guidelines no longer encourage families to isolate kids with developmental differences, there are more children with autism and Asperger's Syndrome in our classrooms, on our sports teams and in our lives.
March 21, 2010
In "The Sky Is Everywhere" (Dial: $17.99, ages 14 and up), Lennie Walker has spent her life being the invisible younger sidekick to her more outgoing sister, Bailey. When Bailey is killed in an accident, Lennie doesn't know what to do with herself. To begin with, there is the fact that boys, no longer dazzled by Bailey's presence, are suddenly noticing her. Soon Lennie has not one but two potential first loves -- the horn-playing new boy at school, whose talent and spectacular looks have overwhelmed the entire high school band while she was out mourning her sister, and her sister's abandoned, grief-stricken boyfriend.
February 14, 2010
How can paranoia be so appealing? I was struck by this conundrum while experiencing a frisson of equal parts dread and pleasure on reading "Incarceron" (Dial: $17.99, ages 12 and up), a new young-adult novel by Catherine Fisher.
January 17, 2010
With the battle over California's Proposition 8 in the headlines this week, it's worth taking a look at children's novels that consider the subject of gender and sexual diversity.
December 20, 2009
There are loads of kids brought up with the idea of Santa Claus -- or some version of Father Christmas -- who start doubting his existence early on. These kids ask their parents questions such as: "He couldn't really visit everyone in the world in one night, could he?" and "Aren't you really Santa Claus?"
December 13, 2009
My pick as best picture book of the year, "All the World" (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster: $17.99, ages 3-7), could easily replace the traditional holiday greeting card as a perfect expression of peace and goodwill. Liz Garton Scanlon's lilting rhymes about a family's activities in a single day, combined with Marla Frazee's by turns intimate and expansive paintings, convey a sense of contentment, simplicity and completeness.
November 22, 2009
Children's books translated or imported from other parts of the globe can be, well, a bit odd. Even the beloved Roald Dahl, a widely recognized classic in the world of children's literature, can be, for many American readers, an acquired taste -- less so for kids, to be sure, who eat up his peculiar brand of British gruesomeness more easily than their more squeamish grown-ups do. Books from other places do stretch the sensibilities; if you find it important to expose your children to a wider world, consider also looking up some children's books in translation.
October 25, 2009
Is there anything more provocative than a teenage girl's sexuality? Who has not looked at a 14-year-old girl and wondered: Does she know how much invitation is in that look? Or, from the teenage girl's point of view: I'm like a snake charmer to this guy. If I shift, his eyes follow. How can I resist the temptation to test that power?
September 27, 2009
It's not quite fair that a novelist who has had such success in the adult world -- among many awards, Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Thousand Acres," her novel based on "King Lear" -- can shift gears apparently effortlessly and write for middle-schoolers. "The Georges and the Jewels" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.99, ages 10 and up) bears none of the signs of a literary writer slumming it for the kids -- no condescension, just the keen interest in what makes life tick that animates all of Smiley's fiction, but with a seventh-grade narrator. I have never admired her writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children.
August 23, 2009
A hungry Fox spotted some grapes dangling plump and ripe from a vine overhead. Though he stood on his hind legs and stretched forth his long muzzle, he still could not reach them. As he slunk away he was heard to remark: 'Those grapes are probably sour anyway.'
July 26, 2009
Toad looked at the sunshine coming through the window.
June 28, 2009
Summer: Those 10 weeks that can change your life -- when your time is your own, when you might fall in love (or lust) for the first time, or first make your own money, whether it's with a lemonade stand or a job with a paycheck. The endless possibility (with the start of the next school year as a built-in time limit) offers a great form for drama, and young-adult novelists exploit it to great effect. Here are three new novels that each take place over the course of a single summer and leave their heroes altered in ways they couldn't have imagined a short while before.
May 31, 2009
Don't you just hate people who wake up cheerful? Give me a Grumpy Birdanytime:
May 10, 2009
I've been an unabashed fan of the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series by Rick Riordan from early on. But one thing bugs me as I consider "The Last Olympian" (Disney/Hyperion: $17.99, ages 10 and up), the fifth and final book in the series: I am flummoxed by my inability to keep straight the plots of the five books (hereafter called "PJO").
April 5, 2009
If "Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History" (thank you, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, for the title that made your scholarly book famous), well-behaved girls seldom make literature, either. The drama in female characters usually comes from their rebelliousness, their inability to follow rules, their feistiness, their refusal to settle, their hot tempers, at the very least their tomboyishness or mischievousness. There's a reason why Scarlett O'Hara is the heroine rather than Melanie; Jo March rather than her sisters; Ramona Quimby rather than Beezus; Laura Ingalls rather than her perfect sister Mary. Junie B. Jones. Clarice Bean. Shy, awkward Bella in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series may be a nice girl, but she is, after all, determined to marry a vampire.
March 8, 2009
It's late winter, and apparently every fourth- and fifth-grader in California is reading historical novels. My son has been slogging through books on pirates and World War II and whatnot, trying to find some way in to the study of another time period. There are many wonderful historical novels for kids; his lack of enthusiasm has to do only with its being an assignment, and with the burden of knowing he's beginning the study of that weighty subject, history.
January 11, 2009
Certain animals seem to dominate children's literature. Surely, somewhere in the Winnie-the-Pooh/Peter Rabbit era, bears and bunnies had a meeting and divided up the territory. ("OK, you take cute and fuzzy, we'll take clever and mischievous. Bedtime stories are up for grabs.") Ducks muscled their way in somewhere along the line ("Make Way for Ducklings!").
December 14, 2008
When a tide of popularity rises, it erases all boundaries. The first sign that "Twilight" was a pop-culture phenomenon was that teen girls who hadn't talked to their parents in years were dressing up with their mothers in vampire costumes and attending midnight book parties together. By last summer, when the marketing for the fourth and ostensibly final book in the series reached the proportions of hysteria (and that was a mild dress rehearsal for the movie release), it had become de rigueur for any self-respecting female reader of any age to read the books. Not only to read them, but to swoon over them, to be overwhelmed by them; to find, as 10-year-old Lyla Polon of Santa Monica wrote, "It's hard for me to face the fact that [the characters] are not real."
November 16, 2008
On Oct. 18, the Santa Monica Public Library hosted an unusual interactive event called "The Living Library," in which people were the books and could be checked out for half an hour's conversation. Borrowers were instructed that "the Reader must return the Book in the same mental and physical condition as borrowed. It is forbidden to cause damage to the book, tear out or bend pages, get food or drink spilled over the book or hurt her or his dignity in any other way."
October 19, 2008
Alphabet books are a secret passion among book lovers. The sheer number of ABC books published demonstrates that they hold a special place in the world of children's books. Entering the term on Amazon.com delivers 13,089 results (and that was a few days ago -- it's probably up to 14,000 by now). Almost any author you can name has done an ABC book, from Edward Lear to Maira Kalman, from Beatrix Potter to William Steig, from Edward Gorey to Chris Van Allsburg, from H.A. Rey to Mitsumasa Anno, from Jon Agee to -- drat, I can't find a Z! -- Jane Yolen.
September 21, 2008
Here's what we know about the end of the world: It will be televised, and if the reality TV people can get hold of it, it will be spectacularly staged and styled.
August 24, 2008
"Mr. Ambassador" as a title sounds dignified, statesmanlike. But for Jon Scieszka, it's all about anarchy. As national ambassador for young people's literature, a position instituted jointly this year by the Library of Congress Center for the Book and the Children's Book Council, he considers it his job to bring craziness to his domain, to shake things up a bit. "Crazy" is one of his favorite words, and it means something good, something unleashed: unfettered and uncontrollable creativity.
July 27, 2008
You don't hear much about James Thurber (1894-1961) anymore, and it's not just because the glory days of the New Yorker as a humor magazine are many decades in the past. His work is perennially in print, and his "Writings and Drawings" have merited a Library of America edition. But Thurber aficionados do not present a united front because usually people are devoted to a single aspect of Thurber's comic genius: his dogs, noble animals carrying on with dignity in a world gone mad; the stories in his hilarious gem of a Midwestern memoir, "My Life and Hard Times"; his cartoon characters, brilliantly described by Neil Gaiman as "lumpy men and women who looked like they were made of cloth, all puzzled and henpecked and aggrieved." We Thurberites would need a convention to honor all our different passions.
May 4, 2008
By Sonja Bolle
April 6, 2008
There are lots of novels about what happens on the baseball diamond, and lots more with baseball as the background to drama off the field. Mike Lupica's particular genius, though, is for getting on the page how sports are not just the games guys play, but the air they breathe and the blood in their veins. A newspaper and magazine sports columnist with a devoted following, Lupica has written successful children's (and adult) books about various sports, but as a Chicago Cubs family, we've found his books set in the world of youth baseball most compelling.
March 9, 2008
By Sonja Bolle
June 1, 2008
Usually when I go out to interview authors, I don't feel as if I've stumbled into a slumber party. As soon as I turned up in Duke's Coffee Shop on the Sunset Strip to meet Emily Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski and Lauren Myracle to talk about their joint novel, "How to Be Bad" (HarperTeen: $16.99, ages 14 and up), I was immediately immersed in a discussion about the relative sexiness of men of different nationalities, just because of my Dutch last name.
June 3, 2007
Q & A with Rick Riordan
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