Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Update from Ballou High School

To everyone who participated a few months ago in the GLW Book Fair to support Ballou Sr High School in Washington DC, I have the loveliest of news from school librarian Melissa Jackson. Melissa is back on the job and now shelving and sorting the many many books that arrived due to your efforts. (Remember we were right up against the school schedule as the fair ended and there wasn't much time to give the incoming books a thorough sort.) At the beginning of the year Ballou had less than one book for each of its students. (The ALA standard is 11 books for every student in a school library.) Well, after all the publicity and the gifts you all purchased (and the many others that were donated by authors and publishers) there are now FOUR books for each Ballou student. This is a huge big deal, guys - it's amazing. These are books that the school wants and the library is shelving and that is part of what makes our effort so significant - it's about books Ballou has asked for and not just ones that folks wanted to get rid of.

Donations are always a very nice thing but giving someone what they specifically ask for? That's a truly significant thing.

Guys Lit Wire intends to stay with Ballou - we are hoping that a more long term partnership can be formed with them so we can continue to help them grow their library. I am talking to Melissa now about a smaller book fair in late November and we certainly hope to return with our annual fair in the spring. But right now, this moment is about celebrating what we have already accomplished. Think about all those books, everyone. Think about all those books!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso

Looking for a colorful graphic novel for kids who are about to enter middle school? Give The Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso a try!

Artie King really wanted to have a good first day at Camelot Middle School, but things went south quickly. He accidentally tripped the principal. He bumped into some bullies. Gulp. Luckily, he soon befriends two other boys, Percy and Wayne, and finds a mentor in the cool science teacher, Mr. Merlyn.

Though this series tips its hat to the Arthurian legends, it is not myth-heavy, so it's easy to recommend Knights of the Lunch Table to kids whether or not they like fantasy stories. Even if they aren't familiar with King Arthur, they will definitely be familiar with the social hierarchy of middle school as well as the simple delights (and pitfalls) of childhood and tweendom. There are the adults who guide the kids (Mr. Merlyn, of course, plus the school janitor) and there are the adults who scare the kids. In addition to the legendary advice, each book also has a healthy does of competition: the first book has a dodgeball tournament; the second, a school fair; the third, an epic Battle of the Bands...and lots of Rock, Paper, Scissors!

Kudos to Cammuso for creating a diverse cast. The characters are different races, heights, weights, and body types. They have different temperaments, strengths, and skills. While reading the books, I very quickly and very easily assigned each character a different voice in my head, just as I always do - and were these graphic novels to make the jump to animated TV series or film, I'd be first in line to audition for the role/voice of Melody.

Here's a rundown of the series so far:
#1: The Dodgeball Chronicles
#2: The Dragon Players
#3: The Battling Bands

The Knights of the Lunch Table series is published by Scholastic, under their awesome Graphix imprint. Every page boasts full-color artwork. Story and artwork by Frank Cammuso. Book design by Phil Falco. Lettering by John Green.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne

Most people know David Byrne as a musician, with the Talking Heads and as a solo artist. In his three-decade career, Byrne always managed to incorporate a diverse collection of international influences in his sound. In Bicycle Diaries, he has found an equally engaging role as a worldwide cultural critic. The book is much more than a travelogue though. It is a grand celebration of how people live, observed from the seat of a two-wheeler as it whisks through city streets worldwide. It is made up of meditations on art, politics, architecture, and so much more.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

Your doctor tells you that you have one year to live. What do you do?

For high school senior Ben Wolff the decision is to do nothing. Or at least nothing to try to stop the disease. While his prognosis is very grim, there is a treatment option. It is most likely he will live a miserable year and then die anyway. So he opts for the do nothing treatment so he can have one very good – and what he calls one “normal” -- year. He also chooses to tell no one. No family, no friends. Being eighteen he has the legal right to instruct his doctor (an old friend of the family in his small Idaho town) to follow his instructions. But maybe when you're dying there is no such thing as normal?

While Ben does nothing to try to survive, he does everything to try to live. Suddenly, life has new meaning. As he says, knowing you’re dying makes you brave. He’s a short, skinny cross-country runner at his school. He immediately drops running and joins the football team, knowing full well that given his size, it could get him killed. But so what?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Now Is the Time for Running by Michael Williams

Deo is playing soccer with his friends when the soldiers arrive in Gutu. "You voted wrongly at the election," the commander tells the villagers. "You were not thinking straight. That is why the president sent me."

The first villager to be beaten is Deo's grandfather. The second villager to be beaten is Deo's mentally disabled older brother, Innocent. Soldiers drag Innocent out of the village; other soldiers beat the rest of the villagers. Deo manages to escape and find Innocent, but soon he realizes that they have no choice but to flee Zimbabwe. All Deo and Innocent have with them are Innocent's Bix-box, in which Innocent stores his most important possessions, and Deo's homemade soccer ball, stuffed with bill after bill of near worthless Zimbabwean currency.

Running to South Africa will not be easy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I'll Be There

Just about the only downside I experienced through reading Holly Goldberg Sloan's debut novel, I'll Be There, is that I've been walking around since I've finished it with the Jackson 5 playing very quietly inside my head over, and over, and over. (And there are days when I like the Jackson 5. Just not everyday). I suppose it says something about how much I admire this book that I am willing to let the Jackson-5-a-thon go, and tell you that you'd be crazy not to get your hands on this outstanding story as fast as you can manage. It's evocative, thematically-rich, exciting, and touching. It has characters you'll remember for a long time. It's what a book should be, but often isn't.

Emily Bell is not a good singer. She knows it, but her father doesn't seem to know it, or else because he's a music professor he doesn't want to believe it. Either way, he insists that she sings a solo in the church choir. But if he hadn't insisted she might never have seen Sam, the strange guy at the very back of the church who was never there before. The fact that Emily sings, and that Sam witnesses her humiliation, and what he does after she runs out of the church - all of this is the beginning of their story. From this small moment which seems to be based so much on chance, these two are intertwined.

Throughout their lives, Sam and his little brother Riddle haven't lived in one place for long. Their father is mentally unstable and he's a thief, a combination that makes him frightening and difficult to oppose. After Sam and Emily fall for each other, it isn't long before his father gets wind of it and sets events spinning towards danger for the boys and for Emily and her family.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

KidLit Con Teams Up With RIF Because It Is The Right Thing To Do

When Jackie Parker-Robinson and I sat down to plan this year's KidLit Con in Seattle one of the things that we spent some time thinking about was how to incorporate a fundraiser into the weekend's plans. This has always been a significant and enjoyable part of the conference and everyone looks forward to it. What we decided was to shift things just a bit, both by moving away from publisher donated ARCs as raffle prizes and also toward a long term partnership with one organization. Ultimately what we came up with made sense in so many ways that in retrospect it was one of the easiest things we decided. I am delighted to announce that KidLit Con is now entering into a partnership with Reading Is Fundamental which we hope will extend for many years into the future and make a powerful difference in the lives of many.

I'm sure many of you are aware how RIF's budget was decimated by the elimination of federal funds this year. I'm not going to get all political with you because the hard truth is that there are few painless answers to our economic mess. But cutting RIF is particularly harsh as it exists solely to put books into the hands of children who otherwise can not afford them. RIF is an investment in our future in the purest and most direct terms. When you think about that way, it's hard to understand why anyone would ever put RIF on the chopping block but that is what has happened and now we just have to do what we can to make sure that future promise remains unchanged.

There are many generous groups and corporations who have stepped up to help RIF and for that we should all be grateful. KIdLit Con is seeking to make a more personal and direct contribution as the funds we raise will be coming directly from book lovers in the pursuit of creating more book lovers. Now is the time, quite frankly, where we need to put up or shut up. If you are a writer or a librarian or a bookseller or a book blogger or if you read blogs about books then this fundraiser is targeted directly at you.

So that's all of you, right?

We are living in the era of information overload and thus we don't get to say anymore that "there is nothing we can do" or "we just didn't know" or "we didn't have time to figure out how to help". This is easy. You think books matter then you need to do something to help kids get books. Period. This is your job, it's your political moment, it is your calling. And it doesn't matter what color state you live in or what little letter is next to your choice when you vote or who you think is to blame for where we are right now.

None of that matters.

The only thing you need to think about is the $1 or $5 or $10 or $20 or $50 (or more) that you can donate right this very second to RIF. You need to think about linking to this effort and you need to think about posting it to facebook and you need to think about tweeting it. You need to think about telling folks on your list serve. You need to think about how much you can give and how many other people you can spread the word to because at the end of the day the best thing about who we are is that we believe in the power of words and RIF is all about spreading that power as far and wide as possible. RIF does nothing less than change the world - that's its very mission - and if you don't think that's the most worthy thing any of us can be part of then you really are not the kind of book lover I know you to be.

Don't let us down, folks. Join KidLit Con's effort to raise money for RIF over the next thirty days as we count down to the conference. Help us show the power of booklovers; help us prove that it's not about the books we get, it's always and only about the books we can give.

Please donate now.

[Post pic from Macy's RIF event.]

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It May be a New Era, but the Old One was Pretty Cool

The Space Shuttle program is grounded. NASA is renting Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get its scientists to and from the International Space Station. And all the big voyages, the ones to asteroids and other planets, are being carried out by robots. At the same time, new companies like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures have emerged, promising "space tourism" opportunities that will soon offer rides to the edge of space and even weightless vacations and honeymoons on private space stations. It's clear that a new era of space travel and exploration has begun.

The book Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, a collaboration of former astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with journalist Jay Barbree, provides a look at the old era of space exploration, the one that began with America's then nemesis the Soviet Union launching the tiny Sputnik satellite into orbit to the great chagrin of American rocket scientists. It's a story of military test pilots--a rare mix of daredevil enthusiasm and ferocious discipline--who were shot up into the heavens in tiny capsules atop massive rockets that were never quite as reliable as a space traveller might hope. It's a story of a race between nations, a race that, at the outset had America playing catch up behind the Russians who reached milestone after milestone months and years ahead of the USA. Finally, of course, it’s a story of triumph, of the moment when humans stepped onto the moon's grey dust, of perhaps the greatest thing the U.S. has ever accomplished as a nation.

Monday, August 15, 2011

We are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

We are the Ship is one of those books that I kept seeing at my library, but never looked at closely. Finally something, maybe that my Detroit Tigers are in first place, prompted me to pick it up and start reading. Published in 2008, Kadir Nelson presents an interesting overview of the Negro Leagues along with his amazing paintings of its players and games.

The book is packed with stories and the history behind the league. It is divided into 9 Innings plus Extra Innings highlighting its eras, players, owners and more. In approximately 1887, baseball's owners got together to ban black players. Until Rube Fowler organized the Negro National League in 1920, the players were without a league and just played on local teams, barnstorming teams and the like. The league lasted through the 1940's when Jackie Robinson became the first player to break through into Major League Baseball.

I found the most interesting parts of the book were about the daily lives of the players and how they played the game. They would play multiple games almost everyday and when lighted stadiums allowed night games, they might play four or five games. The teams were small with just 15 or 16 players, so they wouldn’t take games off and would often play hurt. They traveled on busses and depending on whether they could find hotels friendly to the black players they often slept and pretty much lived on those busses. It was also an entertaining style of baseball, played fast and rough. This book is written in much the same way.

Nelson writes in such a conversational way that it like the players are telling you these stories themselves. Nelson doesn't ignore the horrible injustices of the era yet the book is hopeful and lively. The striking art presents the players as larger than life and looking out from the book itself. The title comes from the league's founder Rube Foster who said, "We are the ship; all else the sea."

I greatly enjoyed We are the Ship and it is a great introduction to the Negro Leagues. This is a quick read and one of those rare books that younger teens, older teens and even adults will enjoy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Monkey House Revisited

When Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007, I remarked in an email thread with friends that “most brilliant was the power of his words to make us aware of the absurdities of life that we take for granted.” Like others here, Vonnegut’s books were among my formative early encounters with literature. Happening upon an unassigned short story in a middle school English class anthology, finishing “The Birds” or whichever story we were to discuss the next day and simply reading on, my interest for some reason piqued by opening lines of this “Harrison Bergeron,” I took my first step into the world of a brilliantly inventive mind. Soon I would discover the range of this creativity, the water-freezing molecules, the people suits, the intelligent computers, but what first grabbed me was the authorial voice, the first time I remember becoming aware of the writing distinct from its content, of style. Vonnegut somehow stood outside his story, without the first-person interjections of a self-imposed narrator, the first time I began to realize that writers were more than conduits, but could be as active in giving shape to a story as a sculptor to his marble, the seeds of my eventual love of Nabokov and David Foster Wallace.

My brother recently mentioned that he was reading Welcome to the Monkey House for the first time, prompting me to revisit the collection, the paperback I’d kept on my shelf through college and half a dozen apartments though I hadn’t cracked its spine since high school, in particular my two favorites, the titular "Welcome to the Monkey House,” and the first I’d read, “Harrison Bergeron.” In an echo of all those years ago, I was again surprised by a sudden new awareness, not this time the discovery of a distinctive voice, though it was still present, but of the disconcerting politics underlying the stories I’d loved so well.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Real Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go to School Tell Their Own Stories

Editor Grace Llewellyn's introduction to Real Lives starts --

I was a guest this morning on the Canadian Broadcast (sic) Corporation's Early Edition, talking up my brash ideas about education. ("Are you really suggesting to bored kids that they simply quit school?" "Well, yes.") One of the questions the host asked me was, "But if lots of teenagers quit school, how do you know that wouldn't lead to a rash of kids who did nothing but play Nintendo?"

I knew, I explained, not only because of the certainty in my gut that people are bigger than that, but also because I know the stories of hundreds of kids who do not go to school -- not "dropouts" in the self-fulfilling-prophecy sense, and not unusually gifted geniuses either -- but rather ordinary unschoolers, homeschoolers, "rise-outs," and other variously named autodidacts. These people find thousands of better ways to occupy their time than playing continual Nintendo. Because of the things unschooled teenagers have told me in letters and in person, and because of my other reading -- especially all the back issues of Growing Without Schooling, a magazine overflowing with the details of homeschoolers' lives -- no, I don't worry at all about spawning a video game generation...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Orietation and Other Stories

This wasn't the book I planned to review this month. I was happily reading another book when the fates put this one into my line of sight. I began reading and became torn. I tried to finish the other book I'd started but in the end I kept coming back to Orientation: and Other Stories by Daniel Orozco. When a book has that kind of sticking power it's best to acquiesce to the wisdom of the fates.
Those are the office and these are the cubicles. There's my cubicle there, and this is tour cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can't find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He'll check with Clarisa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.

So begins the title story of this collection, with a narrative voice that both captures the drone of cubicle life as it teeters toward the edge of Kafkaesque absurdity. The monotone of the orientation includes a rundown of the cubicle co-workers, office politics, the rumor mill, and a large dash of supernatural turmoil. For the experienced adult there is a level of familiarity with these proceedings, a sense of deja vu blended with collective memories of every hellish workplace or co-worker ever encountered. But for the young adult reader it becomes a dual orientation, one a doorway to the world of Orozco's storytelling and another to a window into the possibilities of what lies just beyond the carefree years of education.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A contest to win a copy of NOW PLAYING: STONER & SPAZ II

Hopefully you've already read Ron Koertge's interview. The publisher, Candlewick, has made some copies available for giveaway. Here's how to enter:

Five lucky winners will receive Ron Koertge's NOW PLAYING: STONER & SPAZ II. To enter, send an e-mail to In the body of the e-mail, include your name, mailing address, and e-mail address (if you're under 13, submit a parent's name and e-mail address). One entry per person; prizes will only be shipped to US or Canadian addresses. Entries must be received by midnight (PDT) on 8/25/11. Winners will be selected in a random drawing on 8/26/11 and notified via email.

An interview with Ron Koertge about Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II

Some of you may remember that Ron Koertge was already interviewed here at Guys Lit Wire back in the spring of 2010, in conjunction with the release of Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs Today - on the release date of his next book, Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II, Ron agreed to sit down and talk about the book (and a bit about his process. Ordinarily, you might expect to find a review here, so let's go with this: If you liked Stoner and Spaz, you will love Now Playing. If you don't know about Stoner and Spaz, you will love Now Playing - and then want to dig up a copy of Stoner and Spaz to see how these perfect, messed-up, perfectly messed-up characters found each other in the first place.

1. 1. Stoner and Spaz was published in 2002, so I'm guessing you wrote it at least 10 years ago now. When did you first know you wanted to pick up Ben's and Colleen's story again? Was it difficult to reconnect with those characters after the time – and other books – that came between Stoner and Spaz and Now Playing?

I knew I’d pick up Ben’s and Colleen’s story again when a friend of mine—Lou’s name is on the dedication page—told me that she’d been “seeing Colleen around.” I’m a big fan of hints, intimations and hunches. (I bet on Thoroughbred horses three or four days a week, and I’ve cashed some big tickets thanks to hunches.) So when Lou said she’d been seeing Colleen I figured that was Colleen’s way of telling me her story wasn’t finished. (Things happen to Ben, of course, and he’s the narrator, but Colleen’s the one who’s fun to write.)

It wasn’t hard at all to pick up the story again. I read a little of the original and it all came back to me—the tone, the banter, the attitudes, the sass, the fears, the insecurities, the whole nine yards. Another friend of mine says that I am Colleen, anyway—potty-mouthed, rueful, defensive, and scornful. If that’s true, no wonder I could dive right back in again.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Guys Read: Birch Rock Camp Edition.

As anyone who reads my blog regularly knows, I've spent all of my weekends running (and cataloging) the library at Birch Rock Camp this summer. It's a summer camp for guys aged 7 to 15, and reading is hugely important and very much encouraged here, so its library is well-used and much-loved.

So without further ado, here are a few of the titles that BRC guys are reading at the moment!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There Should be a Twelve Step Program for This

Magicians are like addicts. Or, they are, at least, in Lev Grossman's novels about magic. In the first of these, The Magicians (reviewed here on guyslitwire), Grossman introduces us to Quentin Coldwater, a kid with nearly everything--brains, talent, a hopeful future . . . All he needs to be happy, he thinks, is the love of one girl, Julia, a girl who most definitively does not love him. Then Quentin is invited to Brakebills, an exclusive, Hogwarts-style college where he can learn magic. He immediately forgets the girl. But becoming a magician doesn't ultimately help him either. He needs more. The more magic he learns, it seems, the more empty he feels. He keeps yearning, searching, messing up his life and the lives of those around him as he seeks to fill his emptiness.

In The Magician King, the sequel to The Magicians, Grossman ups the ante a little further. Quentin has become a powerful sorcerer and, with some of his friends from school, discovered a secret passage to another world. He's become one of the four kings and queens there and he now has magic and a castle and talking animals and an entire magical kingdom at his disposal. I'm not throwing out a huge spoiler to say that Quentin is still, somehow, unhappy. He decides that what he really needs is a quest, that by sailing off in search of something he can rekindle a spark he once felt for learning magic. It'll be a simple quest. He just needs to collect delinquent taxes from a distant island. But maybe it will be enough.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti

Bruce Springsteen says his classic song "Born to Run" is about people looking for "connection." The great crime novelist Andrew Vachss fills his stories with people forming "families of choice" to retain their humanity against the brutal outside world. And in the same vein, the heart of Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti shows how the bonds of family can form between and among people who otherwise have nothing in common.