Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Friday, December 4, 2009

Let me take care of your Christmas shopping...

It's easy: buy books--for everyone.

Nothing better than curling up with a great new book during down-time on Christmas Day. Besides, books are cheap. They go well with chocolate. And cozy Christmas fires in the fireplace. They don't even rot your brain.

If you're stumped about which book to buy for the kids in your life, let me take care of that problem for you right now.

Here's my list of this-year's book recommendations after twenty years of reading aloud and talking about books to kids, as well as watching how kids respond to the read-aloud experience of individual books. All the books on my list have passed the story-under-fire test: they've grabbed and kept real-life kids' attention, whether the kids are reading-addicts, or not so easy to please. Besides, they're all great, high-quality books I've read and happen to love myself, or I wouldn't put them on my list:)

Eat-the-book phase (babies):

*   Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt. It's an oldie, but goodie. Babies love this. I know my kids went through at least three of them, and I don't have a copy now because the last copy must have gotten eaten, too. But it set all five of my kids firmly on the love-books track from the time they were old enough to sit up on a lap and see that far (before that, you might as well read them Shakespeare, since they only care about the sounds anyway).

*   Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. Another classic that still works. Babies love the sounds, and they really can't hurt this one unless they bring it into the tub. Perfect for settling down to bed.

*   Barnyard Dance, or The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton. Kids love the silly pictures and fun sounds.

Less-inclined-to-eat, more-inclined-to-snuggle-and-look-at-pictures phase:

*   Mother Goose--almost any. I like the "Real Mother Goose," because of its old-fashioned charm, but Rosemary Wells has a fabulous MG and kids especially love her pictures. So do I. Young children can't seem to get enough of the sounds in nursery rhymes; they're just so fun to say aloud.

A-little-bit-older-kids-who-can-read-to-themselves, but-don't-want-to phase:

* Anything by Bill Peet. My kids absolutely can't get enough of his books. Our favorites: Jethro and Joel were a troll, How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Kermit the Hermit. You really can't go wrong with Bill.

Pinkerton, Behave! by Stephen Kellogg. Still one of my 10-year-old's favorites.

Independant-readers-who-still-might-like-to-be-read-aloud-to, whether-they admit-it-or-not phase. (Read aloud to the youngest where everyone can hear, and watch the whole family start hanging out close by, pretending they aren't listening). Also, great books for everyone ages 10 and up.

*   Black Hearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds on Nantucket, by Joan Aiken.

*   Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl. I was thrilled when I heard they made this into a movie, so now it will be more accessible again. It's been one of my kids' favorites for years. I never get tired of reading it aloud.

*   Savvy, by Ingrid Law. Everyone at my house--boys and girls--from ages 10 to 16 loved this. They loved the story, I loved the language. It won a Newbery and deserved it.

* I'm not sure where to put this exactly, because everyone seems to love this book, even the ones who don't understand it: Rapunzel's Revenge, a graphic novel by Shannon Hale. Funny and exciting, and grabs the ones who are intimidated by lots of words and no pictures, as well as everybody else.

*   Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. It's got everything: action, magic, humor, and a little romance, but subtle enough not enough to scare the boys away. Don't tell them it's romantic and they might not realize. It's just a great story.

Great boy books (just because people are always asking). A lot of girls like these, too:

*   Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, beginning with The Lightning Thief, but I guarantee your boys won't want to stop there, by Rick Riordan. Hands down, my favorite books right now for boys 9-15, maybe even older, depending on their tastes. I've never met a boy who read these and didn't love them.

*   The Dark is Rising  series, by Susan Cooper. Ages Middle school and up will like these best, unless you have an avid younger reader who can handle a bit of scary, or you read it to them. Read these aloud to my 12-year-old son who had stopped wanting to read at alland it got him reading again.

*   The Hobbit, by J.R.R Tolkien, read-aloud to ages 10 and up, read to self ages 12 and up.

*   Lord of the Rings, for determined 12-year-olds, or 14 and up. A little hard for my reluctant 14-year-old reader at first, so I started reading Fellowship of the Ring to him, but he soon took it away and it became his favorite series.

Maze-Runner, by James Dashner. For 14 and up. Just came out this fall. Everything a boy could want, except having to wait for the sequel.

For Twilight-loving teenage girls:

*   The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. I liked it better than Twilight, especially the cool prodigal-son/paranomal twist to the story. It comes out two days before Christmas, but you can pre-order it now at Borders like I did, and I assume other book stores, too. Bree happens to be a friend, and I was lucky enough to read her pre-published version over a year ago, so this one is especially exciting for me. You can even get purple Dark Divine nail-polish to go with it (check out her blog here) and you can read the first three chapters in Romantic Times if you want to preview the book before its debut.

Other great girly reads:

Forest Born, by Shannon Hale. Next in her Books of Bayern series., just came out this Fall. If you haven't read them, or your daughters haven't, start with Goose Girl, then Enna Burning, and River Secrets. I also recommend Princess Academy and Book of a Thousand Days, also by Shannon.

The Loser's Guide to Life and Love, by A.E. Cannon. For slightly older teen girls, maybe 14 and up. Teenage boys might like this, too, since the main character is a boy and it's a funny book, but I haven't tested it on any real-life boys and it isn't action. You know your kid. You'll have to judge.


I hate to stop here. I don't have any more room--just a tiny sampling of my personal kid-favorites for this year, and some classics that never die. Feel free to email me at if you want more suggestions.

So many great books, so little space to tell you about them all...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's in a name, Romeo? More than you thought, maybe...

I've noticed  a trend in my writing: I think I might be slightly obsessed with names.

For instance, my princess story has a main character who loses her name--and has to find another; my witch story centers around a girl who's stuck with probably the worst name on earth; and my current work-in-progress has a main character who's a slave boy with no real name at all.

One of the things my princess, slave boy, and witch each discover, I think, is that a name is often not some floating thing you toss or take up like a bit of seaweed, even if you manage to change it (which I'd do in a heartbeat if my last name were Bloodvessel, for instance, like a particularly-nasty character in one of Joan Aiken's books); it's often attached to something else--to family and origin, history and genetic traits, even culture, place, and heritage; it defines, at least a little bit, our sense of who we are.

Unfortunately, in Romeo's case. And Juliet's.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Romeo tries to convince Juliet (just hours after being hopelessly in love with another girl, but we'll leave that alone). Somehow everyone ends up dead in that story. Maybe because the main characters decided to pretend names didn't matter. They did matter--a lot, actually.

Your name isn't you. We hope. But it has some effect on you. And who are you, really, aside from your name? Do you know? Do I? I wonder.

I'm going to psychoanalyze myself here. Which should be interesting, since I've no actual psychology background.

I think I'm obsessed with names because mine is weird. It was, and continues to be, a little bit of an issue for me.

Here's a story: I grew up in a mid-sized town settled mostly by Scandanavian and English immigrants (top five most common surnames in my city: Anderson, Jensen, Christensen, Larsen, and Smith). Girls in my elementary school were named Sara, Amy, Mary or Becky.

Nobody was named Elena.

Nobody knew what to do with that.
They couldn't say it or spell it.
It was just weird.

Even I wasn't quite sure how I should pronounce it. The crossing guard said it the Spanish way (he sang Marie-Elena to me every day); my dad was a Russian professor and said it the Russian way, with a nice, fat Russian accent--more like Eliena than the Spanish "Alaina" version, and the rest of my family called me a Finnish nickname (my dad spent three years in Finland). Well, I figured I was just a weird, multi-cultural conglomeration of something. I always thought of myself as different from everybody else. And I always was. I was nerd-girl. Even my last name (Jarvis) was kind of a prissy-sounding English name (sorry, Jarvii). It evoked butlers somehow, or happy little wizards on cereal boxes. It got me teased, too.

So then I married one of maybe 8 Jubes in the entire U.S. I don't even hope for correct pronunciation of my names at this point, though people are getting better at the Spanish version of Elena these days. I answer to anything that sounds like an attempt: Elna, Alona, Alana, Alaina, Ee-lain-a, Elenna, Ellen-a, Jubb, Juke, Jule, Judd, Joobee, Hoobay, Jhoubay, whatever, and it's all ok. It's one piece of who I feel I am, however you say it.

Each time someone creatively pronounces me, I think, hmm, what if my last name really were said the French way and I were actually French? Or French-Canadian? What if my first name was pronounced the Manx way and I grew up on the Isle of Mann instead of in the Wasatch Mountains ? What then?

So, I write about names. Because I think it's fascinating how a name can define you--or not. I hope I'm more than just a weird name. And I wonder what I'd be like if I'd grown up named something else entirely.

Maybe I'd be exactly the same. I kind of like to think so.

Honestly, I doubt it.

And I wonder what would happen if a person suddenly discovered they weren't the person they thought they were all along.

What if Romeo discovered he wasn't a Montague after meeting Juliet? What if he were the illegitimate son of Juliet's nurse? Or Paris's long-lost brother? What then?

An entirely different story, at least...

Playing High and Dry with Sourdough

Lately I've been playing with dough. It's become a sort of a compulsion. Maybe because I'm tired of driving all the way to som...