Kid Lit: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

“Most fish talk,” the fish said, “if you are willing to listen. One, of course, must want to hear.”

On the aWhere the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lindvice of a recently freed goldfish, Minli decides to leave her poor village and find the Old Man in the Moon so she can ask him how to change her family’s fortune. She meets friends along the way, including a dragon who can’t fly and a buffalo boy with a celestial friend, on her long venture to the Man in the Moon’s home, Never-ending Mountain.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. Throughout the book, Minli and other characters are told folk tales (which Min Li discovers to be true as she travels) that reveal certain things about the characters, and reveal how everything in Min Li’s world is interconnected. But the regular narration reads like this, too, like a well-loved tale that’s been told again and again, that made me want to read parts of it out loud to myself.

The hardcover I read is printed on thick paper, with beautiful, saturated color illustrations, and with colored line drawings to mark each new chapter.

And Minli is a great heroine. Even though she often needs help, she is not helpless, and figures her own way out of a lot of scrapes, like getting past some vicious monkeys.

As a writer, this book made me think back on a novel I wrote a few years back, but which I could never make work. I realize now that not only did I not get the tone right, but I gave him such a vague, esoteric motivation, so even though I’d plotted out the story and knew where to place him next, none of it ever felt important. Minli’s motivation was simple — to change her family’s fortune — but it gave her decisions weight, and gave readers a sense of where she should ultimately end up. If I ever go back to that story, I’m keeping this book in mind.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a story I’d love to read again, maybe someday in the future when I have a kid who’s old enough, and still wants me to read out loud.

Favorite Fairy Tale Retellings I’ve Read

This post is a part of the Top Ten Tuesday meme on The Broke and the Bookish. Check out their blog for other lists!

Cinder, Scarlett, and Cress by Stephanie Meyer. I started reading Cinder and the other books in this series last year, and I was immediately super impressed that Meyer follows the basic story of the fairy tales, while making it her own thing entirely. In particular she blew my mind with Cress, her retelling of Rapunzel, when she seamlessly integrated some elements that I had forgotten occurred in the fairy tale.

Dearskin by Robin McKinley. I first read this book, a retelling of Donkeyskin, in high school from my school library. Honestly, I think that book was in there by mistake, since a big part of the story involves incest and rape, but I’m so glad it was there. It’s an excellent, emotional book, and I’ve read it a couple of times since.

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block. This is an anthology of fairy tale retellings.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s Snow White, but figuring out which character is the princess, and which one is the evil stepmother, is part of the fun in this one.

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka. Obviously this has to be on here.

There’s five for me! There are probably others that I’m forgetting, or others that I forgot/didn’t know were fairy tales to begin with.

What fairy tale retellings do you love? Let me know, and go to Broke and Bookish to add your list!

What I’m Reading: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, I Was a Teenage Fairy

With a lot of my recent stress over and done with, I’ve actually been able to finish a book without losing my concentration and tossing it aside. I’ve felt a big need for something that I can just relax with and flow through in a couple of days, so a lot of my reading focus has been on children’s and young adult books.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is Jeanne Birdsall’s sequel to The Penderwicks. In this book, the four sisters are back home and deal with a major problem — their aunt wants their father to start dating again. While the main plot is the sisters trying to prevent a stepmother disaster, Birdsall manages to weave in a number of other subplots: the boy across the street keeps acting strange around Rosalind, Skye and Jane switch homework only to meet with disaster, and little Batty is certain there’s an evil “Bug Man” prowling their street. Rather than weigh the story down or make it too complicated, Birdsall fits everything in pretty seamlessly, broadening the characters and giving the story a lot of depth. A scene at the end when the girls stop a burglary is too farfetched for me (you think they’d be a little more terrified about a strange man in their neighbor’s house)  and the final epilogue gets a little cheesy. Still, it’s a well-written story with great characters. I see a little piece of me in each of the four sisters, and I love them all the more for it. I’ll be getting the next book the next time I go to the bookstore.

If guilt had a color–say, purple–the Penderwick sisters would have turned so purple that it dripped off them and spread its way through the house, turning everything purple, upstairs and down.

I’ve also found myself with a sudden obsession with Francesca Lia Block. I read The Hanged Man last year for a seminar, but recently I’ve taken from the library Weetzie Bat, Violet and Claire, and I Was a Teenage Fairy. I Was a Teenage Fairy was my most recent read. All of Block’s books have a magical quality to them, even if they aren’t technically fantasy. Teenage Fairy is the closest to fantasy, as Barbie Marks, child model, begins seeing a fairy named Mabs. Still, while eventually there are others that see Mabs it’s not entirely clear if this is all part of their imagination, seeing a sharp-tongued fairy right when they need some magic in their lives. Not being big on chapters, it’s easy to find yourself sucked into Block’s books for longer than you originally intended, but those lost hours are well worth it. It’s currently my mission to read every book she’s ever written.

Barbie wished Mab had come with her. But Mab never left the backyard. She said she was afraid of getting squashed. Barbie assumed that the fact that Mab never went anywhere with her was proof that Mab was probably real. Otherwise, Barbie would definitely have imagined her here now.

Children’s Books: Swirl by Swirl, Red Sled

As a member of the New England SCBWI, I became aware of the Crystal Kite award, where members vote on the best children’s book written by a local member in the past year. Although I’ve missed the voting date, I still wanted to track down as many of the nominees as possible. I don’t have the money to buy all of them, and unfortunately only some are available through my library, but I was able to gather up a few, starting with two picture books: Swirl by Swirl and Red Sled.

Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in NatureSwirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature (written by Joyce Sidman, picture by Beth Krommes) is basically one free-verse poem about how spirals appear in nature, featuring things from animals hibernating (“A spiral is a snuggling shape. / It fits neatly / in small places.”) to a whirlpool in the ocean (“A spiral moves. / It swirls through water, / gathering bubbles.”). The text is very simple, but also so beautiful, something that I would love to read to a child. Krommes’ art is also very interesting to look at; made from brightly painted woodblock prints, the highly detailed illustrations gives you something to look for on every page. Different animals and plants, showing off their spirals, are given unobtrusive labels so that kids can identify these things and nature. This also lets them match these animals and objects up with a couple pages of explanation in the back, wisely separated from the actual text.

Red SledRed Sled (written and drawn by Lita Judge) is even more simplistic. The first page shows a child walking through the snow to his house, with only the sound effect “Scrinch scrunch scrinch scrunch scrinch scrunch”. After that we discover that the pages are either entirely silent, or given only a sound effect. We soon see a bear discover the sled (“Hrmmm?”) and take it for a ride, with more and more animals joining him as he goes (“Rooooooooooooooeoeoee”). As calming as it would be to read Swirl by Swirl outloud, I can imagine Red Sled being massive amounts of fun, shouting out the sound effects. The sound effects lead you to bigger reactions as the text swoops and enlarges, making this book pretty interactive, and in the end it’s just a fun premise of woodland animals borrowing a sled so they can have fun, too.

Despite how delightful I found Red Sled, for my own personal tastes I’d have to pick Swirl by Swirl due to its soft verse and subtle way of teaching you things.

Children’s Books: Favorite Newbury Medal Winners

A few weeks ago the winner of the Newbury Medal was announced, along with the honor books. As I was skimming over some articles about it, I got to thinking: what are my favorite Newbury winners or honors?

Easily my number one favorite is A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle. As a kid this book was my favorite, and now it’s all torn to bits and held up with Scotch tape. It’s a book about dolphins, about being a teenager and going out with boys, about spending one last summer with a grandfather before he dies. In the end I think it’s about death and dealing with loss, though I had no way of realizing this when I read it the first dozen times; I just knew I loved it.

Another one came as a gift from my aunt: The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. Saturday is about four kids on a 6th grade Academic Bowl team. All of them are different, with different stories that led them to be best friends and teammates. This one disappeared from me for years when I lent it to a family friend; it got a coffee stain and the medal sticker is torn up, but my only regret is that she never got around to reading it.

There are others I like – The Giver, The Tale of Despereaux – but A Ring of Endless Light and A View from Saturday are the ones I remember best from my childhood.

Do you have a favorite Newbury winner? Or is there a book you love so much you can’t understand why it doesn’t have a medal?

What I’m Reading: Electric Sheep, and Kevin Henkes

This week I finally finished my slow, plodding trip through Phillip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I don’t know why it took me so long to read; for whatever reasons, I only really felt like delving into this book a chapter or two at a time while on lunch breaks. It’s a very interesting book, though the religion, Mercerism, confused me at first. I also had to dwell on the ending a bit, and still catch myself thinking about it, trying to figure out exactly what it means. A very interesting book, even if it left me feeling a little melancholy afterward.

I’ve also continued reading a pile of picture books. In particular, I find myself reading the mouse books by Kevin Henkes. This week I even took Sheila Rae, the Brave and Wemberly Worried out from the library. I’ve begun to notice that all of these books follow a similar pattern, where he spends almost half the book introducing the character before we get to the real big problem she’s going to face. In most cases that’s a no-no for a modern picture book, but Henkes comes up with such awesome characters that I think it works out really well in the end.

I’ve begun reading The Handmaid’s Tale (See all Literary Books) for my MFA, and also plan on starting the Book Girl light novel series. I also found a nice looking copy of Lirael at the used bookstore, and it is just staring at me…

What books are you delving into?

Links: Comic Book Distractions

I have quite a bit of work to get done today, so I keep meaning to turn off the internet. Then I check my Twitter stream, and see everyone posting really interesting articles today. I’d get mad at them for being so distracting, but it’s all just too great.

On Publisher’s Weekly, Josie Leavitt talks about Contemporary Books I Wish I’d Read as a Kid. I did read Harry Potter as a kid, though an older one, and I didn’t stumble upon Golden Compass until I was a bit older. I do wish that everything by Kate DiCamillo had existed when I was in the age group – not that I don’t get immense enjoyment out of her books now.

Melinda Beasi brings up the Best Comics Poll that was recently taken at Hooded Utilitarian (I missed it) and talks about why “best of” polls don’t work, but still gives her list of favorite comics on Manga Bookshelf. She also links us over to Hooded Utilitarian so we can see Shaenon Garrity’s Lady List. It’s an interesting list that includes both stuff I’ve read and also books I’ve never heard of, but I’m most excited to see that Garrity listed Persepolis, on of the greatest graphic novels I’ve ever read.

David Welsh talked about the Diamond Comics Previews for October and reminded me just how expensive that month will be. A lot of nice comics are coming out, not least of which is Princess Knight, an Osamu Tezuka manga I’ve been waiting to read since I learned it existed.

And here’s the final thing I encountered today, not about books, but about stigmatizing anime fans. The Washington Post apparently wrote an article about how anime conventions are a hotbed for pedophiles, and Otaku in Review picked it apart, wonderfully.

So, yeah, that work I was going to do…

Children’s Books: Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnel

One of the seminars I’ll be taking at the MFA residency focuses on writing non-fiction for young people. The professor wants to read and bring in a non-fiction book, and gave us a nice list of readings we could pick from, if we chose. As much as I trust her judgment in books, I decided to take this chance to read Me . . . Jane, a biography of Jane Goodall by Patrick McDonnell. I think I made the right choice.

Me…Jane focuses on Goodall’s early years, starting with the day she was given a toy chimp: “Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” We are then shown how much Jane loves to be outside and watch the animals. She even likes to study them, drawing pictures and taking notes (we’re given an interesting two-page spread of these, showing how passionate and meticulous the young Goodall was). She hides in a chicken coop to see where eggs come from, “and observed the miracle.” Small Jane climbed a tree to read about Tarzan, and dreamed of going to Africa. She imagines giraffes and elephants, and that she is swinging through a jungle. At the end she falls asleep, and then awakes an adult, “to her dream come true.” The last image is the only photograph, as she reaches and touches fingers with a baby chimpanzee.

The story is simply told, with one or two short sentences, or even just phrases, opposite the main art. The simplicity reminds you that this is the story of a child, but it also makes the emotion more poignant:

Jane often climbed her favorite tree,
which she named Beech.

She would lay her cheek against its trunk
and seem to feel the sap
flowing beneath the bark.

Jane could feel her own heart
beating,
beating,
beating.

The art is very cute, drawn by the same person who created the newspaper comic Mutts. While I’m not a regular reader, I’ve always found that comic charming and heartwarming. That charm is visible here as Jane smiles at every animal, and Jubilee could be real as Jane holds his hand. The art is also still simple enough that any little girl could imagine herself as Jane, dreaming her big dream and watching it become real. That’s also why I like the photograph at the end of the book; going to Africa is no longer some fantasy, but something that actually happened, because she wanted it so badly.

Jane Goodall has done a lot of good in her adult life, as the more direct biography at the end of the book explains. But it’s so much easier to feel close to and happy for a person when you see her as a child, and McDonnell does a fine job of creating that empathy. There’s no large drama in this book to make it exciting, but Me…Jane is an uplifting, and empowering, story.

Preparing for the MFA, Second Semester

I was reminded the other day that in just over 2 weeks I go back to Cambridge and start the second semester of my creative writing MFA. I had a momentary panic attack, realizing all the things I have to get done: read workshop manuscripts, critique workshop manuscripts, prepare for seminars… For a second, I was a bit terrified.

Then I looked at what I had to prepare. I don’t have as many seminars as a second semester student; other students had mentioned this last time, but it’s true, there just isn’t as long of a list for me after first semester. And I’ve been getting through the manuscripts pretty quickly. I read all of my large group work, I just need better comments on a couple, and I only have 3 to read for small group. So really it’s not that bad… I just have to make sure I don’t slack.

I’ll try to write a day-to-day account of what I’m doing, like I did last time. It was helpful for me, at least, at getting me to remember and solidify everything I was learning.

I’m not so nervous that I feel ill this time, but I am so excited. I can’t wait.