Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Looking over the books I've read in the past few weeks, I find they have three key things in common:

__ They're all middle grade novels, for kids ages 8-12;

__ They all feature strong girl protagonists.

__ They're all sequels of popular, award-winning books;

Oh, and they have one more thing in common: they're all well-written, engrossing books that I will recommend without reservation to young readers at my library.

Here's a brief look at each of these new literary gems:

Like many of my young library patrons, I have greatly enjoyed this series by Jeanne Birdsall since the first book, The Penderwicks, won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2005. Since then, Birdsall has continued the tale of this appealing family in  The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Through the books, we've watched each of the four Penderwick sisters grow older (and usually wiser) as they've coped with the remarriage of their widowed father, a new stepbrother and baby sister, major changes in the life of their very best friend Jeffrey, and various school crises and romantic entanglements.

In this newest installment, Birdsall particularly focuses on Batty, the youngest of the original Penderwick quartet who has literally found her voice as she discovers that she has a real talent for singing. So she plans a special surprise event for her family on her upcoming birthday when oldest Penderwick sister Rosalind will be home from college. Of course, unexpected things happen and Batty finds herself in the midst of emotional trauma sparked by an overheard conversation.

While the Penderwicks are definitely a middle-class family, the sisters' triumphs and travails are universal in nature. Young readers will readily identify with Batty's continued grief at the death of her beloved dog Hound, her thrill at finding her talent for singing, and her up-and-down relations with her siblings, including stepbrother Ben and new sister Lydia. Birdsall effortlessly combines drama and humor to make this book -- and indeed all of the books in the series -- one that readers likely will want to read and re-read, just so they can be immersed in the world of this far-from-perfect but still wonderful family.

I first discovered the unforgettable Gaither sisters -- Delphine, Vonetta and Fern -- in 2010 when author Rita Williams-Garcia published One Crazy Summer. In their first book, set in summer of 1968, the sisters are sent by their father from their home in Brooklyn to Oakland, California, where their mother Cecile now lives. Cecile abandoned her family after Fern's birth, but the girls' father has decided that the time had come for his daughters to become better acquainted with their mother. Far from a warm and fuzzy figure, Cecile appears more interested in her poetry than her girls, sending them to a Black Panther-run summer camp and otherwise generally leaving them to fend for themselves.

The girls' story continues in P.S. Be Eleven, a title that refers to a phrase repeatedly used by Cecile in letters to Delphine. The girls are now back home in Brooklyn but Delphine continues to feel the burden of being the eldest sister -- hence Cecile's reminder to "be eleven." After the freedom of their summer in Oakland, the Gaither girls, are still spouting Black Panther slogans, but feeling increasingly penned in by Big Ma, their strict grandmother. They're also worried about their father's new-found love life and their troubled Uncle Darnell, who is just back from Vietnam. And they're desperate to attend the Jackson Five's big New York City concert, if they only can save enough money. As in One Crazy Summer, Williams-Garcia effortlessly recreates telling details from the late sixties while offering a story whose themes -- forgiveness, sibling rivalry, etc. -- transcend any particular time period.

Now, Williams-Garcia has published a third book featuring the Gaither sisters. Titled Gone Crazy in Alabama, the book tells what happens when the girls head down South to spend the summer of 1969 with Big Ma, who moved back home to live with her mother, Ma Charles, after her son remarried. The contrast with their summer in Oakland couldn't be stronger; instead of Black Power slogans, they find the Ku Klux Klan. But the real heart of this book focuses on the long-time rift between Ma Charles and her sister Great-Aunt Trotter, who lives just across the creek. As the Gaither girls delve more deeply into the decades-long feud between Ma Charles and Great-Aunt Trotter, they find their own sibling bonds beginning to fray until a near-tragedy underlines what they mean to each other.

Thanks to Williams-Garcia's strong characters and sure hand with a plot, readers don't have to be familiar with One Crazy Summer or P.S. Be Eleven to enjoy Gone Crazy in Alabama. But those readers -- like me -- who have reveled in the first two books will be grateful for this third, and apparently final, glimpse into the lives of the Gaither sisters.

Another of the sequels I recently read, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, also is historical fiction. And just as Williams-Garcia masterfully wove the late 1960's into the world of her characters, author Jacqueline Kelly spotlights what it was like to be a girl who loves science at the dawn of the 20th century. First introduced in the Newbery Honor-winning book, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, "Callie Vee," as she is known, finds herself increasingly at odds with her parents' expectations for her. Girls like Callie were expected to learn household arts to prepare themselves for their future role as wives and mothers. Working as a scientist, as 13-year-old Callie hopes to do, was totally outside the realm of possibility.

While Callie's chafing against her expected future role was a theme of the first book, it becomes the overarching focus in The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate as Callie continues to grow in both her scientific knowledge and her understanding that females were considered second class citizens. Callie had hoped that the documented scientific discovery she had made with her grandfather might have convinced her parents to allow her to follow her dream of being a scientist. But her hopes seem to be in vain as Callie becomes ever more aware that even her own father sees her as less important than her brothers.

Meanwhile, Callie's family has taken in her cousin Agatha after Agatha's home was destroyed by the now-legendary Galveston hurricane. Callie finds it hard to share her room with her older cousin, who is both prickly and secretive, but who is held up as a model young lady by Callie's mother. The Galveston storm has brought another person into Callie's life -- a veterinarian named Dr. Pritzker who allows Callie to first watch, and then assist, at much of his work, unknown to her parents. It is Dr. Pritzker, along with her grandfather, who nurture Callie's affinity for observing and studying the natural world.

As in the first book, Callie's relations with her six brothers, especially her animal-crazed younger brother Travis, are nicely woven into the plot and provide moments of both humor and drama. But it is Callie herself who will set readers to cheering. She's a wonderful blend of impetuous and compassionate, the kind of person who makes life interesting -- in fact, just the kind of person you'd welcome as a friend. I was sad when this book ended (rather hastily, I thought), and I'm hoping that Kelly hasn't yet finished telling the story of Callie Vee -- I want to see what happens in the next chapter of her life. I just have a feeling that Callie might yet fulfill her dream of being a scientist.

Last, but not least, in this look at sequels is Completely Clementine, the seventh and final book in the popular series by Sara Pennypacker. For me, Clementine is made out of the same cloth as author Beverly Clearly's inimitable Ramona Quimby, and that's high praise indeed. Both of these memorable characters are endearingly imperfect, and it's that very imperfection that makes them so attractive to young readers.

In previous volumes of the Clementine series, we've learned that our red-headed heroine lives in Boston with her parents, that she has a younger brother (whose real name we never learn -- Clementine calls him by various vegetable names), and that she has trouble staying OUT of trouble. In this final book, the impulsive Clementine decides that she's just not ready to move on to the next chapter of her life. For example, Clementine, who has become a vegetarian, is just not ready to forgive her father for eating meat, and has stopped talking to him. Instead she draws him pictures of unhappy animals.

Clementine also isn't ready to finish third grade. She adores her third grade teacher, Mr. D'Matz, and basically refuses to acknowledge that she is ready to move onto fourth grade -- and a new teacher. Mr. D'Matz does his best to persuade Clementine that she has learned enough, both educationally and emotionally, to move on but she remains stubbornly unconvinced.

There's an additional complication, which is the "nesting" behavior of Clementine's mother, who is about to have a new baby. Take these strands and connect them with lots of humor, and you've got a slam-dunk end of a great series. And don't forget about the amazing pen-and-ink illustrations by the superbly-talented Marla Frazee. As artist Louis Darling did for Ramona, Frazee highlights Clementine's magnetic personality with humor and humanity, and her art is an integral part of this series.

I'll miss reading new adventures of Clementine, but Completely Clementine is a great way to wrap up a series that I know I will continue recommending to young readers at my library for years to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Meeting 2015 Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat.
Attending the American Library Association's annual conference is truly an inspiring experience, and this year's meeting -- held in beautiful San Francisco -- was no exception.

Meeting authors and illustrators whose books I know, love and use in my work is one source of inspiration. It's wonderful to see how seriously they -- and their editors and publishers -- take their work of making great books for children and teens.

Talking with 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

Another source of inspiration at ALA "Annual" is the wonderful camaraderie among the children's and teen librarians here -- no one is a stranger in our ranks! Like many others, I've made numerous "conference friends" over the years. We may only see each other once a year but our shared experiences allow us to just pick right up where we left off the last time. And each year, I make new "conference friends" as I attend ALA programs, or enjoy the many book-related events put on by publishers.

Then, of course, there are committee friends, like these folks from the 2012 Sibert Medal committee on which I served. Our chairperson was Andrew Medlar, who just began his term as this year's president of the Association for Library Service to Children. Other pictured in this photo below are my fellow librarians April Mazza and Susan Melcher.

Mini-2012 Sibert Committee reunion at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet.
Last, but not least, there's the inspiration gained at the celebrations of the various children's & teen book awards. The biggest celebration, of course, is the Newbery-Caldecott banquet. At this year's dinner, both Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat and Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander inspired both tears and laughter as they detailed their paths to winning the awards often dubbed "the Oscars" of the children's literature world. It's worth taking the time to read both Santat's speech and Alexander's speech. As is traditional, Santat designed the banquet program, which featured a cardstock version of Beekle -- star of his Caldecott Medal-winning book, The Adventures of Beekle. Santat engineered the program so the cardstock Beekle can be detached and then placed in two holders to create a stand-up character.

Front and back of Newbery-Caldecott banquet program
 designed by Dan Santat.

There are numerous other acceptance speeches worth reading as well, including Donald Crews' speech on winning the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, given for "substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children." I've been a fan of Crews' books since my children, now in their 20's were small, and in fact, I learned the word "trestle" -- and well as the names of various kinds of train cars -- from his iconic book Freight Train.

2015 Wilder Medal chair Karen Nelson Hoyle
shows the medal while winner Donald Crews greets fans.
There were other award celebrations I couldn't attend, unfortunately, because of committee or other commitments. These included the Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast, where my friend and mentor Deb Taylor was given the Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Some of the other award acceptance speeches can be found here -- all are worth reading by anyone interested in children's books.

The last award celebration I attended at this year's conference was for the Odyssey Award, given to the best audiobooks for children and teens. This year's winner was Live Oak Media for H.O.R.S.E.,  written by Christopher Myers, and narrated by him and Dion Graham. As usual at the Odyssey celebration, the winners read "live," and since Myers' book is a picture book, he and Graham were able to read the whole thing. It's always a thrill to watch audiobook readers perform in person, and this particular performance was especially dynamic. It was a great way to end another inspiring ALA annual conference!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fun with Dave Barry

As a children's librarian at a public library, there are some questions I get asked quite frequently. These are questions like "Do you have any dinosaur books?'" or "Where are your graphic novels?" or the ever-practical, "Do I need a key for the restroom?"

Those are questions I can answer pretty easily. But there's one often-asked question that's much harder to answer and that is, "Where are your 'funny' books?" Kids ask me that all the time! We do have some funny books, of course, and there are more funny children's books being published than ever before. Yet there still aren't nearly as many as I -- or our young patrons -- would like.

So, when the good folks at Politics & Prose, our wonderful independent bookstore, asked if our library would like to host Dave Barry as he presented his new book for kids, I immediately and emphatically said "Yes!" For I had read an advanced review copy of the book, The Worst Class Trip Ever (Disney-Hyperion, $13.99, ages 8-12), and knew that it would be a great addition to our "funny books" collection. And I knew that Dave himself would make a hilarious presentation. It was a win-win situation for us.

In The Worst Class Trip Ever,  Dave tells the story of several eighth graders who travel from Florida to Washington, D.C. on a school trip and find themselves both in trouble with their teachers and in danger from some mysterious men who just may be targeting the President of the United States. Dave is a facile writer with a master touch when it comes to pacing, which makes The Worst Class Trip Ever a real page-turner.

And, of course, Dave knows how to make people laugh. For example, in the opening chapter, which Dave read at our program, the first-person narrator, eighth grader Wyatt Palmer, tells what happens when his dad encounters an alligator when going out to get the newspaper early one morning. Disregarding his wife's warning to first put on some clothes, Wyatt's dad is wearing only his threadbare boxers, which have very little elasticity left and are "held up by stains." Naturally, the alligator incident attracts the attention of passers-by as well as the local police, and Wyatt's dad -- holding up his boxers so they don't fall off -- ends up on the local evening news. The capper? After seeing the newscast, Wyatt's mother silently takes the boxers and burns them by the side of the family pool.

The audience loved hearing Dave read that section of his new book. The audience also loved hearing other parts of Dave's presentation, including his comments on the "hard-listening music" he plays with a band in his spare time, and how he managed to stay calm when a bookstore owner placed a huge snake over his shoulders during a book reading with fellow Peter & the Starcatchers author Ridley Pearson.

Although Dave came to talk mainly about The Worst Class Trip Ever, it wasn't an event just for kids. In fact, many Dave's adult fans were there, including a couple from Pittsburgh who drove down specifically for the presentation and then were driving the four-plus hours back home after it was over. Many of the adult fans had been regular readers of Dave's Pulitzer Prize-winning humor column, and still enjoy his annual Year in Review articles.

Dave and me (Credit: Bruce Guthrie)

As I noted in my introduction of Dave, his comedic powers were clear from an early age. At his Pleasantville, N.Y. high school, for example, Dave was elected "class clown." After he graduated from Haverford College, Dave got a job as a reporter at a newspaper in West Chester, Pa. In two years, he was promoted to city editor and -- much more importantly -- began writing a humor column for the newspaper. Another funny writer named Gene Weingarten discovered Dave's humor column and hired him to write for The Miami Herald. Dave's Herald column was so popular that it was syndicated nationally in hundreds of newspapers and, in 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. One interesting side note: a column that Dave wrote in 2002 is credited with bringing international attention to a very important annual celebration -- Talk Like a Pirate day -- which will take place this year on Saturday, Sept. 19.

Dave ended his weekly column in 2004 but he has continued writing in other forms. He has published more than two dozen books; among his adult books are Dave Barry's Book of Bad SongsI'll Mature When I'm Dead, and the just-published Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster). One of Dave's books, Big Trouble, was turned into a movie, and two of his books were the basis for the TV show, Dave's World. Dave also has found fame with a stunt he once pulled on national TV -- setting fire to a pair of men's underpants with a Barbie doll. Yes, he actually did that.

At our program, however, Dave also noted how much he enjoys writing for kids, adding that he's currently working on another book for young readers. In talking about writing for kids, Dave said he was particularly delighted when astronaut Catherine Coleman read Science Fair -- written by Dave and Ridley -- during her time on the International Space Station. As Dave put it: "I just started out writing for my little high school paper and I've ended up having a book read in the International Space Station!"

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March Madness for Book Lovers

While college basketball fans huddle over their brackets, book lovers have their own brand of March Madness. Libraries and bookstores across the country hold tournaments that pit one book against another; some of these literary tournaments are aimed at adults, others at teens or kids. All are designed to offer a literary twist on what has become the annual American event called March Madness.

My favorite of all of these literary book tournaments is The Battle of the Kids' Books,  a contest sponsored by School Library Journal. Now in its seventh year, The Battle of the Kids' Books pits some of the best books of the past year against each other. The judges are well-known children's & teen authors, each of whom must compare two books that are essentially apples and oranges and then pick a winner. A recent example: author Cat Winters had to choose between El Deafo and The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. 

Talk about a great bracket!

Reading these literary justifications is a daily treat during The Battle of the Kids' Books season, as each of the essays is well-reasoned, beautifully-written and incredibly thought-provoking. The daily responses by the "kid commentators" also are just amazing in their clarity and the scope of the literary knowledge demonstrated by these young people. And don't overlook the witty illustrations of the anthropomorphized books duking it out with each other.

Will this be a Round Two winner?
Or will El Deafo triumph?

Even if you haven't followed it at all yet this year, The Battle of the Kids' Books still offers some great reading. I haven't been able to keep on top of the brackets each day but get great pleasure out of catching up by reading several essays in one day (of course, I work hard to keep myself from learning the winners of each bracket until I read the essays). Meanwhile, there still are some extra thrills and chills yet to come. Round Three begins on Thursday, March 26. So far, there's only one of two brackets filled out: Brown Girl Dream is pitted against El Deafo. The second bracket won't be filled until after I post this; so far it's The Port Chicago 50 battling against either This One Summer or West of the Moon. We'll know for sure tomorrow.

There's still more excitement, due to the unveiling of the "Undead" winner next Monday, March 30. Before the beginning of The Battle of the Kids' Books, anyone interested can vote for the book that they hope will "come back from the dead," if it has been eliminated by the end of Round Three. It's a fun concept, which throws a nice-sized monkey wrench into the works by creating a three-way bracket-- instead of the traditional two-way bracket -- in the final round. Wish good luck to the final round judge, Newbery Medalist Clare Vanderpool -- she'll need it!

So come catch the literary March Madness at The Battle of the Kids' Books. You'll discover some great books, memorable writing and a whole community of fellow lovers of kids' and teen books.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Harmonica Echoes for Pam Muñoz Ryan

It was one of those moments of pure serendipity. Six years ago, author Pam Muñoz Ryan was in Lemon Grove, Calif., researching what she thought would be her next book, a novel based on what is now considered the first successful school desegregation case, Robert Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

As she flipped through school yearbooks of the time period, Pam was transfixed by a photo of a band of children who were all playing one instrument -- the harmonica.When Pam asked about it, she was nonchalantly told: "Oh yes, that was our elementary school harmonica band. It was during the big harmonica band movement."

"That phrase -- 'the big harmonica band movement' -- was like someone dangling a carrot in front of me," Pam told a group of kids and adults gathered recently in my library (thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore). Pam readily admitted that she decided to go for the carrot, and began there and then to research the harmonica band movement, learning that, at one time, "there were 2,500 harmonica bands in the United States!"

That moment of serendipity convinced Pam to totally scrap the original idea for her next novel and instead focus on the way the harmonica might have changed people's lives. The result is Echo (Scholastic, $19.99, ages 9-14), a 587-page novel in which Pam writes of three very different characters who find themselves transformed by a magical harmonica. Each of the characters lives in a slightly different time period: Friedrich in 1933 Germany just as Hitler was gathering power; Mike in Pennsylvania in 1935 during the Great Depression; and Ivy in California in 1942, just after the United States entered World War II.

"When I heard about the harmonica bands, I was very intrigued that the same type of harmonica was used in little country school bands and also big harmonica bands," Pam said. "And so I began to wonder,  'What if one harmonica was passed from character to character?'"

As part of her research for the book, Pam visited the Hohner harmonica factory in Trossingen, Germany. It's a place that is fairly close to the Black Forest, the setting of many fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. In another case of serendipity, Pam realized that using a fairy tale framework was the perfect way of tying together her characters' disparate stories in Echo.

"I didn't want their stories to be just episodic," Pam said. "So I started imagining the harmonica's back story, how it became to be infused with magic."

There was one problem: Pam had never written a fairy tale, and found that the genre challenged her authorial skills.

"Writing a  fairy tale is the opposite of writing a narrative.... In a narrative, you are taught to show, and not to tell. In a fairy tale, you tell, instead of show. There is no back story in a fairy tale. And, in a narrative, you don't want to make all of your characters all good or all bad. But in a fairy tale, you can do that because readers are supposed to suspend their disbelief and allow the magic to work."

Pam signs books for excited young fans.

Pam also was concerned about giving some kind of inspiration to her three characters, and the power of music was the perfect answer. Music helps each of the characters survive a very dark period in their lives. For Friedrich, it is the rise of Hitler and the fact that his birth mark makes him stand out -- not in a good way -- in a society focused on a perfect race. Mike, meanwhile, is an orphan who believes he must try to make his way in the difficult economic situation of the Great Depression. And Ivy is stunned by the segregation she suddenly faces in her new school district after her family moves from one part of California to another. For each of them, the same magic harmonica provides both inspiration and a connection through time.

In Echo, Pam conveys the harmonica's magic in a few lines of lyrical poetry:

"Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
A bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Just published a couple of weeks ago, Echo has won rave reviews from critics. Writing in The New York Times, author John Stephens said simply: "Start to finish, the book is a joy to read." Publishers Weekly noted: "Each individual story is engaging, but together they harmonize to create a thrilling hole." And Kirkus Reviews called Echo "a grand narrative that examines the power of music to inspire beauty in a world overrun with fear and intolerance," adding that "it's worth every moment of readers' time." Pam also talked about the book with Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book.

Pam, meanwhile, is still basking in the glow of having finished a book that took six years -- the longest of any of her books, which include the best-selling Esperanza Rising, which is celebrating its 15th birthday and was recently named one of the best 100 children's books by TIME magazine. Asked what she's planning to do next, Pam noted that she's just finished another book in her popular Tony Baloney series of beginning readers: Tony Baloney: Pen Pal, which will be published in June. Pam also has enjoyed doing a book tour for Echo; as part of her presentation at my library, she wowed the crowd by playing America the Beautiful on the harmonica.

While Pam revels in being a full-time writer, she was a late bloomer who turned to writing only after a career as a teacher and raising a family. But Pam has always been a reader, and actually read some of the encyclopedias in her grandmother's house. As she says in the autobiography posted on her website: "My favorite volume was G, because it contained an illustrated section of Greek myths."

Politics & Prose display of Pam's books at our library event.

Books and reading became a real lifeline for Pam when her family moved from one side of Bakerfield, Calif. to the other when she was in the fifth grade. Suddenly she was the new kid, and to ease the transition, Pam spent the summer at the local library. She also found solace in music. As she told the crowd at my library: "During a somewhat awkward time in my life, books and writing and music saved me."

Pam added: "I write about the things I wanted to read about when I was a kid. And I write for the age when books made a difference in my life." In her website autobiography, Pam says that "today, I cannot imagine not writing. But I have a very practical approach to it. It is my job. One that I love. I want to deliver, for my publisher, for my reader, and for myself."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kirby Larson's Gem of a Scott O'Dell Winner

Generally, I agree with author Gordon Korman when he says that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." (See the previous blog post for how Korman has cleverly responded to this challenge). But there are exceptions to every rule, and Dash, a novel by Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson, is one great exception. Yes, there's a tug-at-your-heartstrings cute dog on the cover of Dash, and the book won the 2015 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Yet, while I won't give away the ending, suffice to say that it's a -- relatively -- happy one.

I use the word "relatively" because Larson's story is focused on a shameful chapter of American history: the internment of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans, called the Nikkei, during World War 2 after Pearl Harbor was bombed. In Dash, Larson tells the story of a Seattle girl named Mitsi Kashino, whose life is turned upside down when she and her family are among thousands of Japanese-American forced into barren, make-shift internment camps far from their homes. Mitsi and her family must leave behind most of their belongings, which is bad enough, but things turn tragic for Mitsi when she is prohibited from bringing her beloved dog Dash. Her only consolation is that she is able to find Dash a home with a friendly neighbor.

While Mitsi and her family try to make the best of life in first one, and then another internment camp, Mitsi's keen longing for Dash is a constant ache. She does find some solace in the form of the letters she receives from Dash -- obviously written by his temporary new owner. The letters themselves cheer Mitsi, who finds pleasure in replying with letters of her own in which she describes her challenging new life, including her worries that her older brother is being led astray by some of questionable camp friends.

As she details Mitsi's experiences, Larson helps young readers explore the emotional ramifications of the Japanese internment camps, especially for children. Larson doesn't sugarcoat the deprivations endured by the Japanese in the internment camps: the terrible (and often monotonous) food; the few toilets for so many people; the one-room "houses" for each family; the constant dirt;  the barbed wire fence that prevents anyone from leaving, etc. But, as she highlights Mitsi's resilience, Larson also pays homage to the courage of the Japanese internees, who worked hard to make as normal a life for themselves as possible under extremely trying conditions. As Larson writes of Mitsi: "Because of the camps, life was never going to be the same. But that didn't mean that life couldn't be okay."

Dash isn't a perfect book; the ending, in particular, feels rushed. Nevertheless Larson has written a memorable, important book that offers a thought-provoking look at a still too-little-known event in American history. Dash also is a very readable book, and kids will find themselves engrossed in Mitsi's story and cheering for a happy ending. 

Author Kirby Larson

In an author's note at the end, Larson writes that she got the idea for Dash after reading about a woman named Mitsue "Mitsi" Shiraishi. When the evacuations of Japanese-Americans began in 1942, this real-life, adult Mitsi wrote to Gen. John L. DeWitt, the man in charge of the relocation program, asking if she could bring her much-loved dog, Chubby, with her to the camp. DeWitt's office replied no, and so Chubby was left to the care of a neighbor who kept a diary of his first week, and made it seem as if Chubby himself had written the diary.  A year later, the rules at the camps were changed to allow pets, and the real-life Mitsi was reunited with Chubby.

"Like Mitsi, and maybe like many of you, I also have a dog," Larson writes in the author's note. "I can barely stand to be apart from Winston (her dog) for one day. I can't imagine how hard it was for Mitsi to be separated from Chubby when she had no idea how long the separation would last.  After I heard their story, I began to think about all of the Nikkei -- especially the children -- who were forced to leave their pets behind when they were sent to the war relocation camps. Every story needs a heart hook, and that was mine."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Visit from "Masterminds" Author Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman -- a.k.a "the G-Man" or "Special K" -- says he's been writing for more than three-quarters of his life. It's not that he's that old, it's just that he wrote his first book when he was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. It was published when he was 14 and a freshman in high school; by the time he graduated from high school, he had written and published five books.

Photo by Owen Kassimir

Now 51 years old, Gordon has published an astounding 85 books. More than 25 million copies of those books have been sold, and the books have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Gordon's trademarks as an author include writing fast-paced plots and creating believable characters with whom any young reader can identify. His books include: "Ungifted;" the "Swindle" series; the "Dive," "Everest," "Island" and "Titanic" trilogies, and books in the best-selling "39 Clues" series. (One of Gordon's early books also has my vote for one of the catchiest kid's book titles ever:  Nose Pickers From Outer Space.)

Gordon recently visited my library as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose, the premier Washington, D.C. independent bookstore. He was in town promoting his newest novel, Masterminds (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12).  It's a page-turner of the first order in which five kids discover that their seemingly perfect town hides some disturbing secrets, some of which shake them to their emotional core. Gordon lets each character take a turn telling parts of the story, a device that adds both interest and suspense. I got an advance review copy of the book, and once I started reading it, I couldn't put the book down, and ended up reading it straight through -- something I rarely do. It's clear that this will be one of our most popular new books at the library, perfect for both kids who enjoy complex thrillers and for reluctant readers who will find themselves pulled into the story from the first page.

Booklist agrees, giving Masterminds a starred review and noting : "The compelling, twisty mystery has a truly gratifying payoff, and the emotional depth of the characters, not to mention the steadily building pace, will keep readers engaged to the final page, which happily lays the groundwork for a sequel." Kirkus, meanwhile, said of Masterminds: “A fresh premise, good pacing, surprising twists and engaging characters all combine to make this a series worth following."

 Gordon himself is an engaging speaker, and his presentation at the library drew a good number of both new and longtime fans. One adult fan brought her copy of one of the first books Gordon ever published, saying it still was one of her all-time favorites and asking him to sign it for her. Audience members were fascinated by the fact the Gordon published his first book at such a young age. He explained that owed it to the fact that his English teacher in the 7th grade was the school's track coach. The coach had never taught English before and, for a creative writing assignment, told his students: "Just work on whatever you want for the rest of the year."

The result was Gordon's first novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!. Gordon just happened to be the class representative for the Scholastic Arrow Book Club "and so I thought I was practically an employee." Once he finished his manuscript (typed by his mother), Gordon mailed it to the same address where he sent the book order forms. Somehow, his manuscript found its way to the right person at Scholastic and "a few days after my 13th birthday, I signed a contract for my first book." The book was published a year later, and Gordon's career path was set, although he did take time to earn a degree in dramatic visual writing from New York University.

At the library presentation, Gordon spent time answering questions from the audience. As always, someone wanted to know where he gets his ideas. Gordon responded that one way he gets ideas is by "observing things." For example, Gordon said he observed that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." So he decided to write No More Dead Dogs, in which a student whose school essay pans a classic book in which a dog dies is punished by being forced to be part of the school play -- based on that classic book. In Gordon's usual style, however, the student has the final word and all turns out well, even for the dog.

Research also is important in developing ideas for his books, Gordon added. For example, he had the idea of writing a series about kids who were vying to be the youngest-ever climber on Mount Everest. Gordon was able to add even more drama when he learned through research that there's not enough oxygen at the highest reaches of Everest to allow a rescue helicopter if a climber gets into trouble. As he put it: "Writing adventure stories is the art of coming up with cool stuff that goes wrong."

 Finally, the question "What if?" provides many great book ideas, Gordon said, adding that's how he got the idea of Masterminds. Gordon started thinking about "whether people are good or evil as part of their nature or whether it's by experience." So he though, "what if there was an experiment that cloned exact copies of some of the worst people ever?" The clones would then be raised in a "perfect place," where they would be raised as regular kids by people they would think were their natural parents. For the experiment to work, however the cloned kids couldn't ever know about it. Of course, that's exactly what does happen in Masterminds, as the five main characters come to the realization that their town -- and the only life they've known -- is a sham.

"It was a challenge to write about these kids who are exact copies of some of the worst bank robbers and gangsters, but who are also real kids," Gordon said. But he wouldn't answer the question of exactly who the kids are cloned from, saying that revelation "comes late  in the series."

Soon enough it was time for the evening's last question, so Gordon would have enough time to sign everyone's books. "What author would you most like to meet?" asked a young audience member. Gordon was quick with his answer: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Why? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the first book in the series) is a book that Gordon re-reads almost every year. "It is like an instruction manual for writing a great kid's book. It's got everything in it. So she is the one author I absolutely would love to meet."

END NOTES: Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for setting up the event with us, and to Caroline Sun of HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy of Masterminds, and all of the jpgs and info I needed to publicize the event and make it a success.

And thanks to Gordon himself for such a great presentation, and especially for signing my 24-year-old daughter's copies of the Everest trilogy -- a series that inspired her to become a rock climber.