Thursday, October 17, 2013

Jacqueline Wilson Blog Tour: The Hetty Feather series

I am delighted to participate in a special blog tour celebrating the launch of beloved British children's author Jacqueline Wilson's most recent titles in ebook format in the United States.  As part of the launch, Random House is sponsoring a Rafflecopter giveaway to win a mini ipad!  To enter, you can do one of the following: answer the question, "if you win, which of the new Jacqueline Wilson ebooks will read first?  OR follow @JWilsonebooks on Twitter, OR Tweet "Win a mini iPad +10 ebooks from the UK's bestselling middle grade author Jacqueline Wilson @jwilsonebooks.  Here's a link to the rest of the blog tour stops if you want to check them out as well.  

Jacqueline Wilson is not nearly as well known in the US as she is "across the pond," so if you're not familiar with her, I'd like to tell you a little about her distinguished career in children's fiction.  In Britain she's known as the most popular writer for girls aged 7-15, and she's sold over 35 million copies of her books in the UK alone.  She served as the Children's Laureate from 2005-7 and was knighted by the Queen (or is it "damed" for a woman?) for her services to literacy in school.  Her books feature universal themes such as family life, friendship, and bullying that make them appropriate for children all over the world, and her stories are noted for their unique blend of realism and humor.

While most of her stories are contemporary, Wilson has written a number of historical titles as well.  Today I'm going to focus on her series of books which take place in Victorian England.  They feature an indomitable foundling, Hetty Feather, who's starred in three novels:  Hetty Feather, Sapphire Battersea, and Emerald Star.  (Links will take you to Wilson's new US website, which showcases new book trailers, excerpts from the books, and more).

Hetty's saga was partly inspired by Jacqueline Wilson's time as a fellow at the Foundling Museum, a museum telling the story of the Foundling Hospital.  Our heroine, Hetty, narrates her own saga in an unforgettable voice that immediately endears her to the reader.  Although our story begins in London in 1873, with her bright red hair, fiery temper, and her romantic inclinations, Hetty has much in common with another beloved heroine of children's literature, Anne of Green Gables.  Hetty, abandoned as an infant by her mother at the Foundling Hospital, was not to be at the hospital for long--stuffed into a large basket, she was carried away to the countryside, where she is raised as a foster child by kindly Peg and an assortment of foundling brothers and sisters.  She's especially close to her big foster brother Jem.  Jem even sneaks Hetty into a traveling circus, where we see Hetty's romantic nature in full force.  Hetty meets Madame Adeline, a glamorous circus performer who Hetty becomes convinced must be her mother when Madame Adeline picks her to ride on her horse with her in the circus ring.

But at the tender age of five, Hetty meets her cruel fate--she is returned to the Foundling Hospital to be educated and raised there until she is old enough to secure a respectable job as a serving girl.  Life at the hospital is hard--bullies abound, but Hetty learns to hold her own, and some of the staff are kind to her, especially the kitchen maid, Ida.  On the day of Queen Victoria's Jubilee, Hetty and the other foundlings have a special treat in store--an outing to the festivities.  For Hetty, it's a chance to see the Queen, and maybe to find Madame Adeline and her own mother.  What adventures will our feisty heroine have...and will she return to the Foundling Hospital?

If you fall in love with Hetty Feather in her first book, as I know most people will, do not despair--you can follow her further adventures as she grows up in two sequels, Sapphire Battersea and Emerald Star.  In Sapphire Battersea, Hetty is 14, has discovered who her mother really is, and begins the life the Foundling Hospital has prepared her for--as a scullery maid.  But fate has other things in store for Hetty--including a stint as a "pocket-sized mermaid" in a freak show.  And in the third book of the trilogy, Hetty seeks out her father--and a place where she will finally feel at home.  A companion novel to the Hetty Feather series, Diamond, has just been released this year as well.

I look forward to recommending Jacqueline Wilson's books to young readers at my library. The Hetty Feather series is a great choice for anyone who enjoys a story filled with everything from humor, adventure, and friendship to sadness and loss.  You will definitely be touched by her story!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Starstruck, by Rachel Shukert (Delacorte Press, 2013)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Teenagers are fascinated by fame and the lure of Hollywood.  This phenomenon, of course, is nothing new, and in this historical novel set in the 1930's, author Rachel Shukert recreates the golden age of Hollywood for today's teen readers.  Our heroine, Margaret Frobisher, is a Pasadena debutante from a conservative old money family who loves going to the pictures and following the stars in the Hollywood gossip magazines.  When she's "discovered" at a Hollywood drugstore counter and invited to come to the (fictional) Olympic Studios for a screen test, her dreams are about to come true, or so it seems.  But things are not that simple--her parents are horrified at her decision and want nothing to do with her--proper society young ladies are certainly not supposed to make a career on the silver screen.  So she moves into the studio system, where she gets a new name, Margo Sterling, lives at the studio with other underage stars, and meets celebrities she only dreamed of in the past, including the dashing Dane Forrest (who appears to have been modeled on Clark Gable).

Shukert does a great job of evoking the days of the great Hollywood studios, when plump young starlets were put on amphetamines to slim down and then sleeping pills to let them sleep, gay men had to be completely in the closet to protect their image, and studio chiefs were in charge of everything to do with the stars' lives, down to who they would date and even marry.  Margo soon learns that fame is not all it's cracked up to be. Her idol, actress Diana Chesterfield, has disappeared, and Margo is cast in her place in a historical drama.  But what has really happened to Diana?  Several subplots are featured in this novel as well, including one involving a girl with a shady past as a paid escort who wants desperately to go "straight," and another subplot about Margo's studio friend Gabby (modeled on Judy Garland), who sinks into a world of drug abuse brought on by the studio bosses.

For those of us who grew up watching the great MGM musicals, many of these tropes will be familiar, but I suspect they are not familiar at all to today's teens, who will probably not even recognize the famous figures who are behind Shukert's fictional characters.  This is clearly the first in a series, and should appeal to girls who'd like to explore the meaning of fame in another era--one without cell phone cameras and 24 hour news cycles.