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."