Monday, May 31, 2010

Book review: My Life with the Lincolns by Gayle Brandeis (Henry Holt, 2010)

Recommended for ages 10-14

In her first novel for young people, Gayle Brandeis has created a quirky and delightful heroine, Mina Edelman. It's 1966 in Downers Grove, Illinois, a nearly all-white suburb of Chicago, and Mina is convinced that she and her family are reincarnations of the Lincolns. When the novel opens, her main worries are how to prevent her father from being assassinated, her mother from going crazy (like Mary Todd Lincoln), and herself--a reincarnation of Willie Lincoln, or so she likes to imagine--from dying at age 12.

But when her dad, who owns Honest ABE's furniture store, begins taking her to civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King, their life begins to change in very real ways. Mina and her dad Al participate in protests designed to pressure the Chicago political establishment to support open housing--the abolition of housing segregation. When her dad meets Carla, a black activist at one of the meetings, they take Mina and Carla's son to pose as an interracial family at various real estate offices around Chicago, demonstrating the unspoken but very real restrictions that existed. Mina's father is exhilarated by his experiences, and is so concerned with oppressing blacks that he fires their cleaning lady--"I don't want to oppress you anymore," he says, completely oblivious to the fact that the woman needs the income to pay her rent. "You need a job that doesn't subjugate you," he tells her, convinced he has done the right thing.

But when Al brings his battle for civil rights to Downers Grove, bringing Carla's son to live with them for the summer and holding meetings for the Chicago Freedom Movement in his furniture store, it splits the family apart. Will Mina's family survive to create a better future for themselves and their community?

Although this book clearly deals with many serious events, both real (such as Martin Luther King's getting hit in the head by a rock during a Chicago demonstration) and fictional (strife in Mina's family), tweens will enjoy Mina's eccentric voice in this novel, which was originally written by Brandeis for adults but later reworked for a young adult audience. This is also a coming-of-age novel, which deals with some of Mina's discomfort at her changing body in a lighthearted and humorous way that should appeal to tweens and teens alike.

I particularly liked the fact that Brandeis deals in this book with two topics not often explored in books for young people--the cooperation between Jews and blacks in the civil rights movement, and also King's work in the North, which is not nearly as well known and taught in school as his civil rights work in the South.

If you'd like to learn more about the evolution of this novel, see Gayle Brandeis' website.

If you like to listen to music while you read, check out, where you can find a playlist put together by Brandeis especially for this novel!

To learn more about Dr. King in Chicago, you can:
1) watch the 2008 documentary, King in Chicago, available from but unfortunately not from Netflix.
2) read original source material, see photos and video at the website of PBS' acclaimed documentary Eyes on the Prize.
3) see the website set up in 2006 for the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book review: One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad, 2010)

Highly recommended for ages 8-12.

Award-winning young adult author Rita Williams-Garcia's first book aimed at tweens has been getting a lot of "buzz" in the children's book community, and I was eager to read it for myself. Set in Oakland in the turbulent summer of 1968, the story revolves around three sisters who are sent from New York to visit their mother, Cecile, for the summer.

Our narrator is the no-nonsense eldest sister, 11-year old Delphine, who is saddled with responsibility for watching out for her two younger siblings, Vonetta and Fern. Their dreams of a summer spent "riding wild waves on surfboards, picking oranges and apples off fruit trees, filling our autograph books with signatures from movie stars we'd see in soda shops, and...going to Disneyland" are soon shattered when they discover that their "Secret Agent Mother," a poet and a member of the Black Panthers, seems to not have a maternal bone in her body and wants nothing to do with them, not even remembering to give them dinner but finally sending them to the Chinese restaurant down the street for take-out. No one is allowed in her kitchen, where she writes poetry and keeps her printing press. She sends them off to an unusual day camp at The People's Center, run by the Black Panthers. At camp, Delphine has plenty of problems protecting her youngest sister Fern, who carries around a beloved white doll named Miss Patty Cake, from ridicule by the other children. In addition to free meals, the girls get "re-education" in revolutionary change, even though one of the girls says, "we didn't come for the revolution. We came for breakfast." But the girls learn that the Black Panthers are not just about "angry fist wavers with...their rifles ready for shooting." They are also about passing out toast and teaching in classrooms.

The author explores the different racial attitudes that existed in the 1960's with sensitivity but without shirking. While the girls wait for their mother to pick them up at the airport, for example, "A large white woman came and stood before us, clapping her hands like we were on display at the Bronx Zoo. 'Oh, my. What adorable dolls you are. My, my.'" The lady tries to give them nickels, which Delphine refuses. Another example is Delphine's explanation of colored counting, where "not only did we count how many colored people were on TV, we also counted the number of words the actors were given to say...and then there was a new show, Julia, coming out in September, starring Diahann Carroll. We agreed to shout out "Black Inifinity" when Julia came on because each episode would be all about her character."

Ms. Williams does a wonderful job capturing a unique voice for plain-spoken Delphine, who tells it like it is, narrating a story that takes place at an important time and place in our country's history. But the Black Panthers movement forms a backdrop for a novel that is essentially a family drama as three daughters try to work out their relationship with this not-very-maternal woman who is their mother. Her relationship with the girls is not sugar-coated, yet the novel is filled with humor and Ms. Williams' obvious affection for her characters.

On Ms. Williams' website, she states, "Writing stories for young people is my passion and my mission." She is so committed to literature for young people that she even offers her own short story writing contest to encourage and reward young people's writing. Open to kids from 12-19, the winner receives a check for $100, a certificate, and a personal critique by Rita Williams-Garcia! See her website for further details.

To explore the Black Panthers further in historical fiction, you may want to read The Rock and the River, by Kekla Magoon (Aladdin Press, 2009). From the author's website, "CHICAGO, 1968. For thirteen-year-old Sam, it's not easy being the son of a well-known civil rights activist. When he learns that his brother, Stick, has joined The Black Panthers, Sam faces a difficult decision. Will he follow his father, or his brother? His mind, or his heart? The rock, or the river?"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book review: Cursing Columbus by Eve Tal (Cinco Puntos, 2009)

There are many books out there that focus on immigrant stories, both historic and contemporary. Eve Tal's newest book, a sequel to her acclaimed novel Double Crossing, is a worthy addition to that genre. Her story focuses on two characters, a brother and a sister, who alternate as narrators in this young adult novel.

Three years have passed since Raizel and her Orthodox father fled the pogroms against the Jews in Czarist Russia for the possibilities of a new life on New York's Lower East Side. Papa has finally saved enough money to send for the rest of the family--Mama, baby Hannah, and Raizel's two brothers, Lemmel and Shloyme. In America, Raizel is thriving at school, learning English and trying to fit in. But adjusting to America is not so easy for her brother Lemmel, who hates school just as much in America as he did in their village. "Reading English was worse than Hebrew. There were letters with straight lines and letter with circles. I couldn't tell them apart and they jumped around on the page," he tells the reader. His younger brother quickly surpasses him in reading English, adding to Lemmel's discomfort with school.

Papa's not forgotten about Lemmel's upcoming bar mitzvah just because they've come to New York, but "no matter how hard I worked," Lemmel despairs, "I wouldn't be able to read a passage from the Torah. Because I couldn't read." It is clear to the contemporary reader that Lemmel is not lazy, like his teachers think, but probably dyslexic, a disability that no one understood in the early 20th century. Raizel, on the other hand, loves learning and school, even participating in a city contest for the best essay in honor of Columbus Day. She dreams of going to university one day and becoming a teacher, and of the possibility of romance with a young man, Reuben, whom she first met on the boat ride to America.

The day of Lemmel's bar mitzvah finally arrives, and he is so desperate to avoid the humiliation that he is certain awaits him that he runs away from home, falling into a life of petty crime on the streets of New York. His family is heartbroken, and to top things off Papa has lost his job. When Lemmel is arrested for breaking into a house, he is put on trial. Will the judge be able to see through to Lemmel's good heart? Will Rose have to quit school at age 14 to help support her family or will she be able to pursue her dreams of success in America? Fortunately the novel concludes happily with a new job for Papa, the redemption of Lemmel, and even a new baby for the family.

This is a novel that would be greatly enjoyed by anyone who was interested in exploring the immigrant experience in America, and would be an excellent choice for a multicultural unit at school on immigration. One aspect of the book that I especially appreciated was the way Tal portrays the many difficulties encountered in America by the immigrants. Despite the stories that circulated in "the Old Country" about the riches and plenty in America, many immigrants worked long hours in sweatshops, lived in cramped apartments, and even went hungry. The author does not shirk from portraying these harsh realities.

I was so touched by Tal's poignant and sensitively done story that I purchased her first young adult novel, Double Crossing, which I will review later in a separate post. However, Cursing Columbus can be read with no problem without having read the prior book.

Kudos to Tal for the excellent critical reception this book has received thus far; according to her website, Cursing Columbus has been chosen as chosen as a Sydney Taylor 2010 Notable Book for Teen Readers by the Association of Jewish Libraries and has also been selected as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards in the Childen's and Young Adult Literature category.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Armchair BEA

For those of us who can't afford trips to New York in this economic climate, how fun that some intrepid bloggers have organized an Armchair BEA. I didn't sign up early enough to be assigned a blogger to interview me, so I decided to take the initiative and interview myself!

Tell us a little about yourself...

I went live with my new blog, The Fourth Musketeer, less than two weeks ago. I'm a pretty-much life-long reader (I started before beginning school, according to my mother), and was one of those kids who lived at the library. Back in the '60's and 70's when I was growing up, we didn't have the huge array of kids books that kids have today, plus there was pretty much no such thing as young adult books (at least I had never heard of such a thing!). I was such a bookworm that I remember carting around Gone With the Wind in 4th grade--I had seen the movie and was determined to read the book! Currently I'm in library school, hoping to be a children's librarian. I will be through at the end of 2011--right now no one's hiring in California public libraries, but I'm hoping things will pick up by the time I finish. On the positive side it leaves me more time for reading and blogging (and fortunately my husband has a good job!)

What kind of books do you like to read?

My blog concentrates on historical fiction, but I read all sorts of things from picture books, middle-grade books, YA, and adult. I recently completed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and really enjoyed that. I have been getting into some adult mysteries lately, a new genre for me. While I don't review these titles on my blog, I do post reviews on Amazon and Although I'm new to blogging, I've been reviewing books for Amazon's Vine program for several years and also review books for an on-line toy journal.

Name a book character you'd love to meet.

My 15-year old daughter and I would like to spend time with Jacky Faber, from L.E. Meyer's Bloody Jack series. I think she is one of the most fabulous heroines out there, at least in YA fiction! She's smart, funny, brash, and knows what she wants in life! In the books she's been a street urchin, an officer in Her Majesty's Navy, a pirate, a river-boat captain down the Mississippi, a spy, met Napoleon Bonaparte, been a deep-sea diver, and in her latest book (which I have in an e-galley but haven't read yet), has adventures in Australia!

What do you like to do besides reading?

I'm a big movie fan, both in person and through Netflix. I enjoy all kinds of movies except horror movies! I'm also a big Disney fan and have been to Disneyland more times than I can count. I've also been on a Disney Cruise and to Disney World in Florida, twice. I got my first pet 6 years ago and have become a bit of a crazy dog lady--I always thought I couldn't have one because of allergies but I have done quite well with my miniature poodle, Buddy, although he seems to have more of a cat personality than a dog one. And I have two non-furry children, a 15-year old girl and a 14-year old boy.

Book review: The Hallelujah Flight by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Holyfield (Putnam, 2010)

Author Phil Bildner and artist John Holyfield have produced an outstanding new picture book on little-known African-American aviator James Banning, the first black aviator to complete a trans-continental flight in 1932. Narrated by Banning's mechanic and co-pilot, Thomas Allen, the book is based on the story of their journey, undertaken in an airplane that appeared to be barely flight-worthy. "The crew from the airport thought we'd about lost our marbles...'The Flying Hoboes!' they all called us." Although they had almost no money for food and gasoline along the way, Banning decided that anyone who contributed any kind of supplies for their trip could write their name on the tip of the wing, getting into the history books along with the pilots. Sure enough, despite the hard times, people all along the way pitched in to help. But times were not only tough in terms of finances; racism also reared its ugly head along the route. In one stop, they were not allowed to use the restroom, and in another town no one would serve them at a diner. After a 3,300 mile and 21 day trip, the pilots arrive safely in Harlem, where they receive a hero's welcome, complete with ticker-tape parade.

The art in this book is especially noteworthy, and you can get a sneak preview of some of the illustrations at the author's website. The artwork, done in acrylics, offers an exuberant style and features unusual perspectives, such as in a particularly joyful 2-page spread which shows the two pilots flying in their underwear over the California desert, where the pilots seem to be about to soar off the edge of the book! I also appreciated the artist's unusual use of color, such as in a dawn scene flying over the Statue of Liberty, where Holyfield makes abundant use of contrasting purple and green, or another scene in Oklahoma where a yellow sky meets the green fields.

This is a wonderful book for teaching African-American history, for children interested in the history of aviation, or anyone who likes an inspirational tale, and would be an excellent addition to any public or school library.

While the author provides some historical background in a forward, and adds that the book is historical fiction, not biography, I would have enjoyed an afterword with a few more biographical facts on both pilots who inspired this story.

Recommended for ages 5-10 (Kindergarten-4th grade).

Monday, May 24, 2010

Book review: The Golden Bull by Marjorie Cowley (Charlesbridge, 2008)

One of the best things about good historical fiction is its ability to draw us into other countries and other times that we may know little to nothing about. I will admit that I don't know much about ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) beyond what I learned when I took college "Western Civ" (as we called it back then) quite a few years ago. So I was delighted to travel to this exotic time through Marjorie Cowley's engrossing novel The Golden Bull. Cowley has taught prehistory to school children from first grade to high school for many years, but didn't begin writing for children until her 60's. Her first two books focused on prehistoric times, but The Golden Bull fills a special niche by focusing on Mesopotamia, an area covered in 6th grade history here in California.

Times are hard in the countryside where our main character, 14-year-old Jamar, lives with his sister and family; crops are failing because of a long-lasting drought and there is not enough to eat. Hoping to save the children from famine, their parents send them to the city of Ur, where Jamar will be the new apprentice to Sidah, a master goldsmith for the temple of the moon-god. But his sister, a gifted but untrained musician, is not wanted in Sidah's household. Jomar takes quickly to assisting the goldsmith with crafting a magnificent gold and lapis bull which will embellish a special lyre to be used in the temple. But will his sister, too, find a place in the city? When she is accused of stealing a valuable lapis bead, she must face a terrible test of determining guilt or innocence--being thrown into the water of the sacred Euphrates river, a river whose existence was as critical to this region as the Nile to Egypt.

Cowley peppers her fast-moving story with many historical details about life in the era, as well as including an author's note which explains how what we know about the period is based on the work of archaeologists who have uncovered ruins and every day objects. I especially liked that the golden bull of the title as well as other items described in the text are actual treasures found in a burial site in Ur. Obviously these items sparked Cowley's creative imagination and led to the creation of this well-researched story.

Recommended for grades 5-8.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place--Book 1: The Mysterious Howling, by Maryrose Wood (Balzer+Bray, 2010)

In her first novel for middle-grade readers, author Maryrose Wood seems to channel both Lemony Snicket and Jane Eyre in this wickedly amusing tale of a naive 15-year old governess whose first job entails educating three children who have literally been raised by wolves. OK, it's not exactly historical fiction, but it does take place some time in the second half of the 19th century!

Our indomitable governess, educated at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, is undaunted by the challenges of raising children more used to communicating through barks, whines, and nips than the proper King's English. Indeed, she immediately begins teaching them poetry, as well as training them not to drool and how to properly put on pants and dresses. The first in a series, the novel offers plenty of humor but also a slew of mysteries....our governess heroine, Penelope Lumley, for one. Her own beginnings are murky enough, since she is sure she has parents somewhere, but "she simply did not know who they were or when she could expect some sign of their return." And when the mistress of the house throws an elaborate Christmas party, who is the villain who has tried to sabotage her success by releasing a squirrel into the house (as you might expect, the squirrel unleashes our feral children's inner canine instincts, resulting in wide-spread mayhem)? AND who exactly is hiding behind the wall in the attic of the house? Perhaps we'll find out some of the answers to these important questions in the next volume of this series.

The only negative I found in the book--and I don't think it would be a negative for the author's young readers--was Wood's almost uncanny mimicry of Lemony Snicket's style (it made me think about that contest where people submit bad Hemingway!) Like Snicket, she communicates directly with her readers, and has adapted his style of explaining words or concepts with a wry wit that may go over the head of some of the children in her audience. For example, consider the beginning of The Eleventh Chapter:

"As you may have already had cause to discover, a statement can be both completely true and completely misleading at the same time. This is called 'selective truth telling,' and it is frequently used in political campaigns, toy advertisements, and other forms of propaganda (p. 166)."

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this novel for ages 8-12; it would make a fun read-aloud for parents or teachers as well.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2009)

This is the first but definitely not the last novel by Rebecca Barnhouse, a new talent in historical fiction for young people. A professor of English at Youngstown State University, Barnhouse specializes in medieval literature and young adult literature, and has even written two reference books about children's and young adult literature set in the Middle Ages. With these qualifications, we would expect good things from her own novel, and indeed, she delivers a terrific story for ages 10-14.

Told in the first person in an earthy style reminiscent of Karen Cushman's books set in the Middle Ages, the novel introduces us to Johanna, a lowly serving girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a real historical figure and medieval holy woman who wrote what is widely considered to be the first autobiography in English. Johanna's life as a servant in Dame Margery's household is not easy, but Cook and little Cicilly have become like a second family to her. When Dame Margery declares that God has told her to go on a pilgrimage from England to Rome, Johanna is the maidservant selected to accompany her. Johanna is flabbergasted. "Rome! It's so far away, I can't imagine it," she says.

A modern reader might think, "how fun, she gets to go on a big trip!" But travel in medieval times was no walk in the park--they travel on foot, with Johanna carrying tools for starting a fire, their cooking pot, needles, thread, "pigs' bladders for carrying drinking water," and other necessities. They soon fall in with a motley group of travelers, including several students, an old man and his young wife, a merchant, and a priest, all coming together for protection from brigands on the road. Barnhouse captures all the sordid and colorful details of life on a medieval pilgrimage, where our travelers are forced to sleep where they can, not always being near an inn to stop for the night, and Johanna is forced to serve not only her difficult mistress, but the others in their party as well, fetching water, washing clothes and cooking after having walked all day to the point of exhaustion. The other travelers quickly tire of Dame Margery's emotional outbursts and preaching to them of their sins, and vote to leave her on the road. Johanna, however, must continue with the other travelers, making an arduous journey over the Alps into Italy. When Johanna is separated from the rest of her party, she must make her way in Italy all alone. Will she ever return to England or will she find a home in Italy?

Highly recommended for readers interested in medieval times, this book offers us a strong and lively heroine who has to stand on her own in a challenging situation. I look forward to Barnhouse's next books, which will be a retelling of the Beowulf legend.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book review: The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie Antoinette, by Carolyn Meyer (The Young Royals series) (Harcourt, 2010)

As you might guess from the title of this blog, I adore French history, particularly the 17th and 18th century, and anything to do with Versailles. I was therefore very excited to have an opportunity to review the newest novel for young people about Marie Antoinette.

Carolyn Meyer does not disappoint in this addition to her popular Young Royals series, young adult novels based on various historical princesses and queens in European history. She tries to present a balanced portrait of the much-maligned queen, whose life is told through a series of diary entries beginning when she was 12 years old and ending near the end of her life, when the author chooses to change the narrator to the Queen's 12-year old daughter, Marie Therese. Marie Therese (known by the nickname of Madame Royale), narrates the final few years of the Queen's short life and the tragic and inevitable ending at the guillotine.

Meyer writes in an afterword that she was inspired by the Sofia Coppola film from several years ago about Marie Antoinette to examine this infamous monarch. In Meyer's novel, we see Marie Antoinette evolve from a young teenager overwhelmed by the elaborate court etiquette and gossip of the Versailles court to a queen who makes her own simple world in the gardens of Versailles to escape with her children and friends from the unbearable formality of court life.

Meyer explores the early years of Marie Antoinette's marriage, in which her husband, the Dauphin, was unable to consummate their relationship, with particular sensitivity. Since Marie-Antoinette's primary responsibility was to produce an heir, the young couple's sex life (or rather lack thereof) was not only the subject of much vicious gossip both at court and beyond but also the topic of numerous letters from Marie Antoinette's mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, to her daughter.

I highly recommend this novel to any teens or even adults who enjoy French history and this endlessly fascinating monarch. The only thing that bothered me about the book was the title "The Bad Queen," and the coquettish look of the attractive cover model, which I felt perpetuated the many stereotypes about Marie Antoinette that the author tries so hard to address with a balanced point of view in the novel. I couldn't resist e-mailing Carolyn Meyer about this contradiction; she remarked that she came up with the title in an attempt to get teenagers to pick up the book, a challenge in day when so many teens are drawn to vampires and paranormal romances! Hmm...perhaps Vampires at Versailles could be a new bestselling young adult novel! I will have to pitch it to the two Meyers--Carolyn and Stephenie (no relation, I think!)

For those who might like a great companion novel to The Bad Queen, I highly recommend The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Bradley's novel takes place at Versailles at roughly the same time, and focuses on Marie-Antoinette's daughter and her friendship with a commoner who became her companion. This novel provides an excellent portrayal of life at Versailles--from a child's point of view.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Q&A with Newbery Award winning author Karen Cushman

I was fortunate enough to join a small group of (mostly adult) Karen Cushman fans at Mrs. Nelsons Toy and Book Shop on Monday, where she was signing copies of her newest book, Alchemy and Meggy Swann (see my review posted earlier this week).

Ms. Cushman read aloud passages from this new exciting title, and shared with us some of the books she used to research the Elizabethan period. These included a book of streets in 16th century London, which provided her with inspiration for various actual streets from the time that appear in Meggy's story, particularly Crooked Lane. "A lot of the research is tedious," she remarked, but "when I ran across that one, I knew that was where Meggy had to live." [Meggy is disabled and must walk with the help of two sticks.]

Another source that came in "very handy" was a book of Shakespeare's insults. "There also is something online that I found—the Shakespeare insult generator. You can go and pick one from column A, one from column B, and make up your own insults," she added.

She also used a book of manners from the time period, which includes gems such as "it is unseemly to blow your nose into the tablecloth." Ms. Cushman said, "I used that kind of thing throughout my books. I learned about privacy and the lack of it at that time. For example, 'it is impolite to stop and greet someone who is urinating…' There were very few public bathrooms and the ones they had were planks over the river with holes cut in them…that’s how little privacy they had. You might pay your penny and get a third of a bed in an inn…you don’t get your own bed, your own electric toothbrush, your own I-pod."

While all her seven published novels feature girl protagonists so far, her next book--Will Sparrow's Road--focuses on a boy who's a runaway in Elizabethan England. Ms. Cushman added, "The lack of privacy at the time is one of the reasons that in the new book, the main character's a boy, and not a girl disguised as a boy…given the state of the world, it would have been very difficult to pass as someone of the opposite sex. I knew that it wouldn’t be realistic if it were a girl…a girl on the road would never survive."

"People often ask me why I write. I write because it’s my dream job…I can do it with my cat on my lap, listening to music, in the rain. If I didn’t write, where would my thoughts go, where would all of those feelings go? I can also think of nothing more important to do, especially than writing for young people."

Some of the questions from the audience:

Q: Do you pick history because you want to reach out to students?

A: I don’t think that I do it deliberately like that…I get a story in my head, which just seems to fit better in one period or another. Like Catherine Called Birdy, I couldn’t have done it as a contemporary story, unless I set it in some developing country where arranged marriages are still the norm, and then of course The Midwife’s Apprentice began with the girl in the dung heap. Rodzina started when I saw a book, a nonfiction book on the orphan train at a bookstore, and on the cover was a photograph of a huge locomotive, and about 100 little kids holding hands, looking so hopeful, so frightened, so serious, all of these at the same time, and I thought there must be a story there, and there was. My impetus to write doesn’t come from "I’m going teach kids history" or "I’m going to write a book in a certain period"—it comes from something else.

Q: Do you work on more than one book at a time?

A: Yes, but I only write one at a time, like Will Sparrow, I wrote the draft and sent it to my editor, and then I started pulling together research, getting interlibrary loans, taking notes, for the next book, which will be set in the 1600's.

Q: What about sequels?

A: When I wrote Catherine Called Birdy, I planned to do a sequel…I had the whole thing outlined. My editor said, we don’t like to do sequels, because too many people are disappointed. Well, now as it turns out, that isn’t true anymore…but I don’t know if I could go back 20 years later and recreate the voice, and I think something that was very important to people in Catherine was her voice. Some of the books are finished when they’re finished, like The Midwife’s Apprentice—that was her complete story I wanted to tell. Librarians always ask me if I will do a sequel to Lucy Whipple. They want to know about Lucy as a librarian, but I always have these new ideas running around. I’ll do a sequel to that one as soon as I finish these twelve! I get lots of letters from kids who say I wish you would write a sequel and here’s what should happen.

Q: What books do you have on your nightstand right now?

A: Wolf Hall (it’s been there for quite a while); usually YA books; one called Girl in Translation, that’s an adult book; I just bought a book called Wench, about a place in the South where slave-owners took their favorite slaves in the summer; New York Times crosswords; also, Turtle in Paradise.

Q: What’s your favorite children’s book?

A: Sarah Plain and Tall. When I taught writing I used the first page of that as an example, what are there, 150 words, yet she tells you everything you need to know.

Before she completed her program, Ms. Cushman passed around her Newbery medal, much to the delight of all in the audience. She quipped that it's "too small for the wall, too heavy to wear around the neck."

I suspect that Meggy Swann might place Ms. Cushman on the short list for Newbery contenders for 2011. Perhaps she'll add another of those medals to her collection.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review: Alchemy and Meggie Swann by Karen Cushman (Clarion, 2010)

If you enjoy historical fiction for young people, you can't do better than reading Newbery-winning author Karen Cushman, who in this novel returns to England, the setting of several of her most acclaimed books including Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice. Alchemy and Meggy Swann takes us to Elizabethan London, where we meet Meggy, another very strong heroine in the tradition of Cushman's other novels. Meggy hasn't had an easy life--lame since birth, she is ridiculed by the villagers where she grew up, who consider cripples to be cursed by the devil. When the novel starts, she is dropped off in London with her only friend, an equally feisty lame goose named Louise, to live with her father whom she has never met. Her father, we discover, is an alchemist, who has little use for his lame daughter. Told in the first person by Meggie, this novel captures the smells, sights, and sounds of Elizabethan London, while creating an appealing heroine that readers will root for as she confronts physical, social and ethical challenges in her life with wit and humor. A poisoning scandal at the highest levels of the court and a friendship with a charming actor add to the plot. Recommended for ages 10-14.

I look forward to seeing Karen Cushman later this afternoon, when she will be signing books at Mrs. Nelsons Toy and Book Shop, our local independent children's bookseller. I hope to be able to publish a brief interview with her tomorrow if her time permits.