The Best Part is that the Title Can Be Sung to “The Monster Mash”

Yes!  This morning Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was awarded the John Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature. 


 That small handful of readers who follow this blog may note that I have stated on more than one occasion that it was my favorite children’s book of 2008, so it’s a rather pleasant surprise to see it win the big award.  Woop!*  I went to the King’s English bookshop this morning to pick up a copy for myself, but they were all out.  However, half of the reason I went there was to be able to gush about it with the booksellers — people who were just as excited about it as I was — so it was worth the trip.

The Honor books also included some familiar faces from my previous posts: Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, Jacqueline Woodson’s After Tupac and D Foster (what, is that her THIRD Newbery Honor?  Sheesh), Ingrid Law’s Savvy (a book which I read and enjoyed, but which I did not consider a serious Newbery contender.  More fool I, I suppose), and Margarita Engle’s The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (otherwise known as the token book I’ve never heard of).


The Randolph Caldecott Medal for best illustration in a children’s book went to Beth Krommes for her gorgeous work in Beth Marie Swanson’s The House in the Night.  I never got around to posting my list of favorite picture books, but can you all take it in good faith that this book is on it?  Check out the pretty lil’ thing:


Caldecott Honors went to Marla Frazee’s A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever! (and let me just say it’s ABOUT TIME Frazee earned some kind of shiny sticker), Uri Schulevitz’ How I Learned Geography (it’s on my unposted list of favorite non-fiction titles, okay?) and Melissa Sweet for her illustrations in Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: the Story of William Carlos Williams (also known as the book I’ve been waiting MONTHS for the library to FINISH PROCESSING and get ON the DARN SHELVES).


The Michael L. Printz award for best Young Adult literature went to Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road, which I’ve heard about but haven’t yet read.  It’s an Australian import that sounds kinda quirky but really good.  I’ve been meaning to read it for weeks, but now I REALLY need to get around to it, I guess.


Printz Honors included M.T. Anderson’s second Octavian Nothing book (such a gimme, I think everybody predicted this), E. Lockheart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (it’s a crowdpleaser), Terry Pratchett’s Nation (on my favorite books list as being the “story most likely to be told by a pirate”) and Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (also on my favorites list for being one of the best novelizations of a folktale of the year).

Speaking of novelizations of folklore, the William C. Morris award for best first-time YA novel went to Elizabeth C. Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold, which was also on my favorites list.  And if Ms. Bunce reads this as she did that last post, may I just say congratulations!  The Morris committee done chose right!

There were also a bevvy of other awards for best African American works, best nonfiction, best video, etc.  But I think I’m done posting for now.  Huzzah, it’s been one heckuva day, and I am pleased.

*Although, really — did Neil Gaiman need another big award?  And just how crazy will the June ALA conference — in which Gaiman will give his acceptance speech — be?  Crazy-go-nuts kinda crazy, that’s what.

Favorite Youth Literature of 2008: Newbery Contenders

Tomorrow morning, the American Library Association will give out its annual Youth Media Awards, otherwise known as “the children’s literature Oscars.”  There are a bevy of awards, and there’s a grand flurry of predictions that emerge in the kidlitosphere this time of year.  BUT — the one that gets the most attention, the most press, and therefore the most prestige, is the Newbery Award.  It’s supposed to be given to the year’s most “distinguished” contribution to children’s literature, but that usually translates to “best novel.”  It’s fun to try and read everything that might be a contender, but because the award committee is famously secretive, it’s always unpredictable.  Here are some of my personal ideas of what might win (in no particular order):

chains1Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson — It’s the story of a slave girl in New York City during the American Revolution.  Many people are saying that this is a lock for the win, but the competition is fierce.  I personally thought the protagonist’s voice was a little unconvincing, and the plot was way predictable, but it’s very good nonetheless, and it’s likely your children (if you have any) will be required to read it in school. 


underneathThe Underneath by Kathy Appelt — In Plot 1, kittens and a hound dog are caught in the clutches of a drunken, abusive owner.  In Plot 2, ancient Native Americans interact with a supernatural shape-shifting snake.  The two tales intersect in a bevy of shimmering, if sometimes repetitive, prose.  I call it the weirdest story you’ll ever love.  Others call it tedious and too dark for kids.  Read it and decide for yourself, eh?


porcupine-yearThe Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich — The third book in the acclaimed Birchbark House series, tracking the forced migration of an Ojibwe family, circa 1858.  Sounds sad, but Erdrich’s account of Omakayas’ day-to-day life is as uplifting, lovely, and funny as anything else you’ll read this year. 



after-tupac-and-d-foster1After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson — Two best friends growing up with comfortable but strict families in 1990s Queens.  Enter a foster child with all the freedom in the world, triggering a search for personal identity and maturity.  Yeah, most of Woodson’s novels are difficult to summarize nicely.  You know why?  Because her writing is quietly brilliant, that’s why.



my-one-hundred-adventuresMy One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath — Horvath’s books have been described as “magic realism without the magic,” which is pretty apt.  This tale of a 12 year old girl’s last summer of childhood is packed with zany adventures but reads like poetry.  It includes a purple air balloon heist, a psychic evangelical minister, and someone described only as “the clotheshanger man.”  And yet I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.  Huh.


graveyard-bookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — It’s certainly the biggest crowd-pleaser on this list, and yet may be exempt from eligibility owing to a technicality (one chapter of the book began as a previously published short story, which is Against The Rules, meh).  If you haven’t heard my raves about it before, it’s like The Jungle Book, only it’s about an orphaned being raised by ghosts instead of animals.  And it features hilarious, Cockney-spouting ghouls and the most loveable vampire ever.  ‘Nuff said.


masterpieceMasterpiece by Elise Broach — James is a boy who lives in Manhattan; Marvin is the black beetle who lives in his wall.  Marvin also happens to be something of an art prodigy, and when he begins leaving beautiful, miniature ink drawings on James’ desk, it attracts the attention of adults, teachers — and eventually the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This is one of those broad-broad-appeal books, like The Cricket in Times Square crossed with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  However, it has kind of a weirdo moment with a turtle tank (yes, you read that correctly), so we shall see.


alvin-hoAlvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Leonore Look.  A novel about a 2nd grader facing a rather crippling shyness that is peppered with imaginitive wordplay and funny, funny situations.  (Funny.  Funny.  Funny.)  Alvin’s voice is clever without being precocious, and smart while still authentically child-like.  (This kind of writing is harder than you think.)  However, funny books and novels for younger readers rarely win awards, so We Shall See. 


trouble-begins-at-8The Trouble Begins at 8 by Sid Fleischmann — A rather cunning biography of Mark Twain, written in the jaw-droppingly clever style of Twain himself.  You’d think this would be grating, but instead it’s gratifying.  Fleischmann’s display of Sam Clemens’ metamorphosis into Mark Twain is downhome brilliant.  However — there’s been some talk about whether or not the period caricatures of Twain Fleischmann used for to illustrate the book may confuse some readers.  I think kids are smart enough to get the joke, but the award committee may not feel that way.


penderwicks-on-gardam-streetThe Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall — The second book in Birdsall’s contemporary riff off of Little Women, in which the four Penderwick sisters attempt to thwart their widower father’s attempts to re-enter the dating scene.  Their plan involves an elaborate web of lies, Latin insults, a play about Aztecs, frequent appearances by the high school football team, and Marianne Dashwood.  Did I mention the funny?  No?  Well, this book has it in spades.  Usually I tend to back off from books described as “charmingly old-fashioned,” but this book’s writing is so solid that I’m still smiling thinking about it — and I read it six months ago.


hunger-gamesThe Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — This book may seem out of place in a list of rather thunderous “emotional books,” but a fast-paced action novel requires a different set of gears than the realistic coming-of-age novel.  This book is about both wiley and whiney teens forced to fight to the death in a national park.  And despite that, it isn’t laughably cheesy, but a rather ripping good read.  Tell me that ain’t award-worthy, punk.


diamond-willowDiamond Willow by Helen Frost — in addition to the token funny book, non-fiction, and book for younger readers, every good Newbery prediction list should have its token book of poetry.  Or at the least, a novel-in-verse, which is what the lovely Diamond Williow is.  Frost has concocted a novel in concrete poems — or “shape” poems, embedding in each a second, smaller poem that reflects the thoughts or emotional state of the protagonist.  Oh, and it has sled dogs racing through the Alaskan interior, and plays with the idea of animals being the characters’ ancestors.  So, it could be a wild card.


I’ll chime in tomorrow with my thoughts about the real winners — I’m so excited, I can’t wait!

Blades of Steel

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m attempting to redeem my childhood failures through my kids, okay?  Okay?  That is, we’ve started them in skating lessons.

See? Not so bad.  Learning to ice skate is something I longed and yearned to do as a child, but my family never lived in a town with a rink.  So, who am I to pass up getting my kids to learn this sport when we now live 5 minutes away from a rink?

The Salt Lake City Sports Complex has two big ice sheets that were built for Olympic hockey games back in ’01.  They have children’s group skating lessons there taught by Official US Figure Skating People, namely, amazingly fit 18 year old girls who could probably skate on the head of a pin.  All at once.

Eleanor is in the “Snowplow Sam” course, designed for preschoolers.  Their main task is to learn how to stand up by themselves after falling down.  Sometimes they “march” from foot to foot, but mainly it’s all about the falling.

Jeffrey is in the “Basic One” course.  The kids in this class actually scoot around the ice a bit.  Jeffrey even engages in the occasional game of “Red Light, Green Light,” when he isn’t chewing on his gloves.

Both children really enjoy the skating.  Jeffrey has NO FEAR — it doesn’t phase him one bit when he falls, he just gets right back up and keeps scooting.  He idolizes the hockey players who practice on the sheet next door, which makes Mommy nervous. 

Eleanor gets a bit more shaky on the ice, but she loves doing it anyway.  Rather, she especially loves putting on the layers of stretchy pants and knitted gloves which we set aside for skating sessions.  It’s all about the clothes, people.

For years, I’ve had a fantasy of having whole-family outings on the ice.  Brian can handle himself pretty well on the ice, so that leaves just William and myself to figure it out.  I’m going to predict that William will learn to skate before I do (and keep in mind that they don’t let kids on the ice until they are 3). 


I made a feeble attempt at skating during a public skate event last Saturday, and Chaos Ensued.  Let’s just say that I fell down and couldn’t figure out how to get up.  With skates on, my bent knee came up to my ears, and my wimpy legs couldn’t push hard enough to get me into a standing position.  Or rather, my wimpy brain was afraid my wimpy legs would cause me to fall foward onto my face.  (Hey, falling on my behind is one thing, falling on my face quite another.)  After kneeling feebly on the ice for a few minutes, one of those 9-year-old wunderkind skaters — a little Asian girl with an Official Figure Skating Jacket — came over and told me how to do it.  And thus ended my skating session for the day.

So: squats first, then skating.  You hear that, legs?

Fun in the . . . Brrr

One of the things I promised myself when we planned to move back to Salt Lake is that I would get the family to participate more in winter sports.  I love sledding, sure, and backyard snowplay is positively excellent behind our house, but I felt that we needed something more — specifically something that engages the grown-ups.  Brian and I  — especially I — tend to turn in to big, galumphing atrophied bears during the wintertime.  This behavior was a tad more excusable in Pittsburgh — Brian was a time-crunched med student, I was nursing newborns, and while we did get bits of snow in western Pennsylvania, it never stuck around for more than a couple of days.  The city didn’t have much by was of winter sports facilities, and the high humidity and ice storms made spending more than twenty minutes at a time outdoors akin to taking a mudbath in a refrigerator. 

But in Salt Lake — ahh, nice winter!  Nice winter!  It gets into the 50s in the daytime, there’s plentiful snow (seriously, I haven’t seen grass since November), pretty mountains for exploring, and all kinds of state-of-the-art rinks and luges and what-have-yous left over from the 2002 Winter Olympics.

BUT — we’re still living on the cheap nowadays.  So instead of pitching in for lift tickets, we do this:


Whee!  That’s Brian and Jeffrey about to sled down a dry creekbed on Little Mountain, my favorite scary/extreme sledding spot up Emigration Canyon.  (There are gentle slopes, too.)  We took this trip on New Year’s Day.  Jeffrey had NO FEAR — he marched straight up to the tallest hill and took off — while Eleanor was content to just go about a quarter of the way up with me and slowly drift down on her penguin tube.  She yelled “I’m having fuuuuuuun!” all the way down.


My family and Brian’s came along with us on the trip, which was very fun.  Afterwards we went back to Retro Acres for hot chili, corn bread, and outrageously thick Spanish-style hot chocolate with homemade churros.  (Mmmm!  Deep fried blissss!)

March of the Snowasaurs


When the snow is a few days old it becomes nice and wet — perfect for building things out of snow.  Brian has always enjoyed making whimsical snow creatures — I remember him building hearts and Easter Island heads for me when we were first dating — and this year, he’s making dinosaurs.  Hence the cool spiky Stegasaurus on our front lawn.  Alas, the icicles were removed by our children a few days later, so it now looks like some other kind of -saur.  I still love the snowy guy anyway.  Brian is especially proud of the fact that the dinosaur looks as if he is munching on our shrubs.


Brian just finished this T-Rex last night, created in honor of the first full sentences Jeffrey wrote by himself at school: “I am T rex. I am smiling at you.”  We are quite proud of Mr. Rex; you can’t quite tell in this picture, but the icicle claws are slightly curved — they were formed by water dripping down some leaves.  This sculpture is positioned in our yard in such a way that he looks as if he’s just about to chase the steg-less stegasaur, who, owing to some warm weather, looks rather dismayed about the loss of his spiky stegs.  But that’s natural selection for you.

Edit 1/11/09:

Brian made a THIRD snowasaur just this afternoon, mere minutes after I had finished writing the above blather.  It’s a triceratops (a request from Jeffrey), and looks mega-awesome.  It’s ready to kick some major T-Rex tail: