From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, written and illustrated by E. L. Konigsburg

I’m using this for my Reread an Old Favorite square on my book bingo.

Oh Mrs. Frankweiler and your mixed-up files, how I love you.

Oh dear Claudia and your elaborate planning, dear Jamie and your pockets full of change, how I love you.

Oh dear Metropolitan Museum of Art and your antique beds on which children can apparently sleep while the hide out away from home, how I love you.

There is so much in this book that I aspired to the first 80 times I read it. I don’t know that I can give much of a clear-sighted review, but I shall try. As all oldest sisters do, Claudia grows weary of her boring suburban life and her utterly unfair share of household chores, so she decides to run away. But, being unable to give up her creature comforts as all oldest sisters are, she decides to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Oh how she would scold me for the phrase “run away to!”) Jamie, being a gambling man with an inclination to stinginess and the only of her three younger brothers she can stand, gets the privilege of acting as financier and accompaniment.

Once at the museum, they stash their bags and take up residence as permanent students during the day, stowaways at shift change, and tenants in the evening. But a mystery unfolds when Claudia falls in love with a statue which may or may not have been created by the great Michelangelo himself. The duo commits their brief freedom to finding the truth and eventually their research takes them to the keeper of it, the elusive Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Look, I love this book so much, but I can admit there’s something wrong with it: the illustrations. I know, I know, publishing was a different world back in the 60s, especially publishing for kids. “Young Adult” wasn’t even a genre then. Kids read kids’ books until their teen years and then they read adult classics. The publishing house probably only accepted her manuscript because she had illustrations to convince them it was a children’s book. But E. L. Konigsburg, my girl, these illustrations are not good. They are not. In fact they are bad. I will go that far.

But there’s also so much to love! Claudia is fiercely independent, and she loves having secrets, and she loves feeling like an adult. I think more than feeling like an adult, she loves feeling like adults respect her. There’s only a couple of times this happens in the book, but they are her shining moments. That’s probably why I loved it so much as a kid (besides the fact that she got to run away and live independently in a museum, because of course that was my dream too).

This is a great story, and now that we’re 50 years past the time period of the book it’s sort of a look back. I know it wasn’t intended as historical fiction but this is probably the best view of the 60s I’ve ever gotten in a book. Honestly, if you didn’t read this as a kid I bet it won’t be stellar as an adult. But if you have kids, please please read them this book. It’s one of those stories that set my imagination on fire. I bet it will do the same for them.

A Monster Calls

Cover of A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness illustrated by Jim Kay

I’m using this for my Coming to the Big Screen square on my book bingo.

In this illustrated novel, Conor accidentally conjurs an enormous monster with a penchant for storytelling to defend him against a larger, more dangerous monster.

Cancer. The larger, more dangerous monster is cancer. I promise this doesn’t ruin the story for you. You’d figure it out within the first chapter anyway. I was a little bummed at first, since the real monster being the threat of losing a loved one to disease felt a little cliche. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because WOW was that ever satisfying.

You’ll notice I call this an illustrated novel rather than a graphic novel. I think the distinction is important, because while a graphic novel is like a more developed, long-form comic book, this is really a prose story interspersed with illustrations a la Brian Selznik’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Jim Kay’s work with these illustrations is flawless, relying heavily on shadow to control focus and tone. I also appreciate that the artwork doesn’t just complement the text; it’s a vital part of the story itself. It provides the sense of movement Patrick Ness’s straightforward tone sometimes lacks, and there’s plenty of darkness to communicate Conor’s mental state.

One aspect of Ness’s prose I really appreciated was his focus on physical happenings instead of inner thoughts. It’s a textbook example of showing, not telling. If this is something you’re working on in your own writing (most of us are), A Monster Calls makes for a masterful tutorial. Every inch of heartbreak is shown, not described, and that makes it hurt so much worse.

And boy howdy is there ever heartbreak. I mean, here’s a kid who’s being haunted by a monster and isn’t even scared because his mom is dying of cancer and that’s way scarier. The theme isn’t that cancer is a scary monster like I worried it would be; it’s really about selfishness and letting go. There’s so much heart and so much bleakness that I nearly cried THREE SEPARATE TIMES on the bus.

Of course, it doesn’t come without its weaknesses. Sadly, the nightmares didn’t quite feel nightmarish. Maybe it’s because the illustrations are the biggest source of darkness in this book, but you can take them in square inch by square inch instead of in one big overwhelming gulp. But holy crap, this movie will be terrifying.

Anyway, watch the movie for scares (probably), read the book for tears (definitely).

 

The Rescuers

The Rescuers cover
The Rescuers, by Margery Sharp

I’m using this for my Classic You’ve Never Read square on my book bingo.

Yes, this is the source material for the beloved children’s animated classic Disney’s The Rescuers (1977). However, there is nothing to love about the better-off-forgotten 1959 book.

Here’s the deal: my review is going to have a lot of spoilers because you DEFINITELY don’t want to read this book. I have done the reading for you. Please do not.

The Prisoner’s Aid Society of Mice decides that, breaking all protocol and precedent, they must rescue a poet from a terrible dungeon. Bernard is volunteered to recruit Bianca (the Ambassador’s son’s pet mouse) to recruit a Norwegian mouse, all with the goal of communicating with this poet. Turns out by “Norwegians” Margery Sharp actually means “pirates.” Bianca faints twice in Norway because she was written in 1959 and she’s female so why wouldn’t she faint, really? The recruitment process and the voyage back takes just under half the book for no good reason.

Eventually, Norwegian pirate mouse Nils sets off for the dungeon with reluctant Bernard and lovestruck Bianca in tow. Once there, they infiltrate the prison and make themselves comfortable in the wall of the warden’s office. Another almost half of the entire book is spent on their living arrangements: how they use stamps to make carpeting, how they carefully hang cardboard so delicate Miss Bianca is safe from the rough, rowdy men, and how silly sheltered Miss Bianca doesn’t believe the cat is mean because she’s only met nice, cultured cats.

The cat is clearly the main antagonist in the book, but the mice never actually defeat him. Their answer whenever he puts them in danger is just wait until he falls asleep. So exciting. In fact, that’s even the grand plan to rescue the prisoner. Wait until everyone falls asleep.

What little is left in the book contains an anticlimactic rescue where the mice do nothing but throw the keys to the poet-prisoner. The poet, by the way, never proves his innocence or gives any reason he should not be in prison. It’s just that he’s a poet, so obviously he’s also an angel with too weak a constitution for this terrible place and must be rescued. The mice are rewarded with medals after this heroic venture and everyone goes their separate ways.

Ask me if Bianca and Bernard’s flirtation ever blossoms into romance. Go ahead. Ask me!

No. No it doesn’t. When they finally address their feelings on the third to last page, a human spots Bianca and scoops her up. “Ah,” he says, “the Ambassador’s son’s pet mouse!” And off he walks.

“It was never meant to be!” Bianca calls to Bernard as she is carried away. That’s it. That’s the end of the romance.

But of course my favorite line comes when Bernard and Nils try to protect Miss Bianca from danger as they have been doing the whole book. “Oh sweet Bernard, strong Nils,” Bianca says. “I may not be clever or courageous like you men, but at least let me use my charm!”

Maybe in 1957 this was a good book, but there are better books out there now. Do not read this. Please, if you love yourself, do not read this book. The Rescuers is unimaginative, slow-moving, and old-school sexist. The movie is way better and it has crocodiles and diamonds. Please do not read this book.

 

The Bolds

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The Bolds, by Julian Clary

I’m using this for my LOL worthy square on my book bingo.

After two hyenas witness a newlywed couple be devoured while on safari, they decide being a person sounds like fun, and they’ve picked up a fair amount of English listening to tourists all these years, so why not? They quickly dress in the newly vacant clothes and POOF they’re taken for humans.

What a fun premise! And what a disappointment. The story arc didn’t quite feel finished, and there were all sorts of opportunities built right into the plot for the author to heighten the stakes but Clary just let them slip through his fingers. (view spoiler) It’s like the whole book was a lead up to a story that never happened.

I have to admit something here: I wasn’t sure whether this was a YA book or an adult book. When I later explained to someone that it’s a book about hyenas who impersonate humans and live in a little house in London with their two pup children, I was viciously mocked for not realizing instantly it’s intended for young readers, like second and third grade. Perhaps I would have liked it better if it had been written for an older audience like I was expecting. Oh well.

Nightbird

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Nightbird, by Alice Hoffman

I’m using this book to check off the Author-I’ve-Never-Read space on my book bingo.

Okay first of all I LOVED THIS.

Yes, I knew what was going to happen the whole way through. No, there were no surprises. But you know what?! I still almost cried MULTIPLE TIMES on the train while listening to this book!!!

Hoffman, of course, is the widely acclaimed author of such adult bestsellers as The Marriage of Opposites, The Dovekeepers, and Practical Magic. (Yes,that Practical Magic.) As one can expect from her other works, expect some magical realism mixed in with the normal tragedies of everyday life.

Between massive wings, hidden defenders of owls, and a centuries-old curse, a fantasy with modern life and a timeless feel unfolds. Of course there’s true love and young love mixed in with old fears and new ones. I think I just love those books where young characters believe so passionately that the impossible happens. The magic in this world works because people want it to. The whole story was so enchanting I wanted to live in the little town of Sidwell, eating Pink Apple Pie and watching the crow-black owls.

Read this story. It’s a vacation in a world of optimism and magic and people who aren’t afraid to be wrong. Absolutely everybody, young and old, should read this book

Sappy Stuff about Libraries

Super librarians in their natural environment
Super librarians in their natural environment

I’ve worked for a public library for the past two years, during which I found a new direction for my career and a passion for both libraries and the business casual sneaker. As I move to my new job at an academic library, I’ve been thinking about what I’m taking with me, besides my sneakers. Last year a friend of a friend looking at a career in libraries emailed me a bunch of questions. These are my answers.


 

What kind of an educational background do I need to work in libraries?

One of the coolest things about libraries is the fact that everyone’s backgrounds are so unique. I have a theater degree, my branch manager’s degree is in anthropology, and within the other library employees we have social workers, history teachers, ski patrollers, school administrators, parents, biologists, and boring people too. I think the opportunities to succeed will be there no matter what you study; by picking a major you’re not making certain opportunities go away, you’re just picking which opportunities you’ll be more ready to take advantage of.

I get questions at the reference desk from patrons ages 5 to 105 varying in difficulty from 5 to 105 (on a 100 point scale). And let me tell you, having someone come up to the desk and say “hey, I have a question about a really specific topic and I’m asking you instead of Googling it because I know it’s your expertise” is the best feeling. So pursue your own interests. Don’t bother thinking about how it’s going to apply or where you’ll fit in a library. You’ll fit. Just become an expert in what you’re passionate about and I guarantee you will be a resource to the community you serve.

What are some pros/cons about your job?

Pros:
-Intellectual freedom: Libraries actively broadcast voices that are usually silenced.
-I CANNOT EXPRESS HOW GREAT IT IS TO WORK FOR AN ORGANIZATION WHERE MY IDEALS ALIGN 100% WITH THE ORGANIZATION’S GOALS.
-No sales goals, no monthly quotas, no meticulous records of every customer interaction. If you’re helping a patron, you’re golden. I’ve taught old people how to facebook stalk their grandkids (sorry grandkids) and I’ve sat down on the ground in the middle of the stacks and read a book to a kid because they tapped my knee and handed me a book.
-Sometimes I can’t stop smiling while driving to work because I’m so excited to see what new questions people will ask me and what new books I’ll get to give kids.
-Librarians are the weirdest people. I love them all.

Cons:
-I will never be rich.
-People say “There’s a masters degree? What do you study, the Dewey Decimal System?” all the damn time. The trick is to give them dead shark eye and with no elaboration say “Yes.”

What do you actually do?

I help people with whatever sort of questions they have. Sometimes they need to research appliances or a new diagnosis so I help them sift through online databases to find the articles they need. Sometimes they heard about a book on Good Morning America two weeks ago and don’t remember anything except the color so I track it down for them.

Once school gets out, I mostly help kids. I find them books, try to talk up our programs, help them do research for school or their own projects, and sometimes I just sit and listen and they talk to me. Did you know that people do that? Did you know that if you just sit there with your mouth closed they’ll start spilling all their secrets? Once a kid told me he’s going to be a writer to pay the bills but his real dream is to be an architect.

Why would you recommend your job?

Imagine watching someone devour a book you gave them, or start exclaiming “This is it! This is what I’m looking for!” when you show them a website or database, or hug you because they can finally use the iPad their granddaughter gave them for Christmas. The pay isn’t anything to write home about and even if you’re making huge career advances they’ll be totally invisible to anyone outside the little library bubble, but I swear it will be worth it every single day. Libraries make a difference and when you can put your ideas and skills to use within them, you can make a difference too. Like, the kind of difference your kindergarten teacher told you you could make. Unreal, I know.

Why would you tell people to pursue a different field?

The world where librarians can sit behind desks and shush people has faded and you’ll find yourself directly interacting with the public most of the day. It’s different from most customer service industries because people usually like libraries so you’re already on the same side as the patron, but you’ll still deal with angry patrons every now and then. Personally, I enjoy it because it’s direct service to a vastly diverse range of people and you can almost always help them leave happy. But if customer service is a no for you, public libraries are not the place to look for a career.

What are your worries and concerns about the future of this field?

Honestly I’m not worried. Besides the sexy librarian fetish (seriously, total strangers bring it up and it’s very uncomfortable), that’s the other obnoxious thing people say to me all the time: “That’s not a long-term career. What are you going to do when libraries die? Where will you work when everything is e-books? Didn’t you know the internet is taking over the world and nobody reads and the apocalypse is upon us?”

But the role of libraries has always changed with the times, and fortunately tax payers and government officials are usually able to see this. As more of a social service than anything else, it’s true that we do less handing out of books than we used to, but libraries aren’t going away and neither is learning. We will always have an integral role in creating opportunities for education, building community partnerships, and providing a safe place for people to find the resources they need. The library world is full of visionary people who see the changes in modern life as an opportunity for libraries to fill new gaps, and I’m confident we’ll always find ways to innovate and improve. It’s a wonderful place to be.

Are you amazing?

Yes.

(Okay, I added that last one. It felt like a nice conclusion.)

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

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I’m using this book to check off the Fantasy space on my book bingo.

Nimona, determined to be a villain and armed with the power to shapeshift, apprentices herself to Ballister Blackheart. But she quickly proves she’s more villainous than her teacher, and everyone is left with difficult questions of right and wrong, innocence and guilt, villainy and heroism.

Nimona (HarperCollins, 2015) is the second graphic novel by illustrator and author Noelle Stevenson. Her first, Lumberjanes (BOOM!box, 2015, co-written with Grace Ellis), took the comic world by storm. It consistently sold out on every issue as a serialized comic and the collection won both a Goodreads Choice Award and an Eisner Award, the biggest of big deals. Nimona is just as clever, just as witty, just as grand in scope. In fact, her voice seemed more developed in this one as each character took on their own personality just through the dialog, something I think is too often ignored in graphic novels.

I think the dedication made this book for me. It’s written “For all the monster girls.” Since much of the story line hangs around Ballister’s moral quandaries, I think I could have missed the loving and sympathetic treatment of the real bad guy if I hadn’t read that dedication. But because I knew that was the intention, it sang to me of something I had forgotten about the anger that comes from feeling like you don’t belong.

And the best part is, I’m not the only one who saw this. I sent it home from my library with a 12 year old I knew felt that same rage at somehow not fitting in, and she brought it back with the highest praise. Give this graphic novel to any and every tween. They need a bad guy like Nimona.