All Hail the Return of the YA!
I’ve been a writer and reviewer for a long time, and I have to tell you I was beyond ecstatic after years of endless books on terrorism, the end of the world, global domination – and every other one of the happy subjects that caused us to walk through our lives with gloom and doom raging in our hearts – that we took a turn toward peace in the publishing industry. And not only those butterscotch-eyed vampires. what we were given was truly miraculous, and I would very much like to have everyone out there go buy these three “gems”; sit in their living rooms; and, remember how happy and cool life can really be:
The Ever Breath
by Julianna Baggott
Christmas came a week early for me this year when I received this book in the mail and sat down to read it. Adjectives that best describe this tale for me would include; beautiful, fun, happy, exciting, and beyond imaginative.
We begin in a car with a mother and her two children – twins, Camille and Truman. Mom has to work extra hours this Christmas to get some more money into the household. You see, Dad has mysteriously disappeared and Mom is struggling to keep her family together. Mom drops the children off with Grandma, who is going to take care of them for two weeks. Camillle is a young girl who, before Dad disappeared, wore pink, listened to happy music – was a girlie’ girl, to say the least. Now, she wears black clothes, no make-up, and spends her time not caring about anything or anyone. She also reads books about death defying leaps from cliffs, extreme sports – pretty much any dark and maudlin topic she can get her hands on. Truman is a young man who is allergic to everything, gets carsick, and is so timid and scared of everything he can’t even see straight – not even with his coke-bottle sized glasses. These kids are completely tired, yet they are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Grandma is better known as Swelda Cragmeal. She’s their father’s mother and they haven’t seen her since they were infants. Swelda is a tiny woman who wears a blue knit cap made by hands that looked like they had no idea how to knit. She carries a knarled wooden walking stick as if it were a spear, and she has one contact lens that’s covered by a shiny black plastic cup. (I tell you all this because Swelda is probably one of the best characters written in middle-grade literature since Charlotte hung from her web talking to Wilbur.) Swelda lives on a golf course and her house looks like it’s on its last legs; it’s falling down around her ears. She welcomes the children into the house and gives them each a gift the first night they’re there. They are each given a snow globe, which shows some amazing scenes right before their eyes – such as a man lying on the ground with a red stain on his shirt; as well as a strange woman staring out a window, and cats that look like cats but have human hands and feet and hiss their words. These snow globes show scenes to the children from another world (not so far away) called the Breath World – a magical place where the most amazing creatures live. It is the world of imagination, and it is dying. There is an artifact that is kept in this world that allows the Breath World and the “Real” World to co-exist so that all creatures – real and imaginary – can live in perfect harmony. You see, our world cannot live without the Breath World and vice versa. The artifact, however, has been stolen, and only Truman and Camille can solve the puzzle and save the two worlds.
I can’t tell you enough about this story. My sister always told me that in order to enjoy a movie or a book it had to have a point. (She’s a real pain in this way). I am here to tell you (and her) that this book has so many amazing points that adults and children should learn and understand that literally everyone on the face of the earth should pick this up and read it. Not only will you learn, but the characters including; a wayward mouse who wants to be on the right side of the war between “Us vs. Them”; an Ogre who is married to a banshee and already knows which side he’s on; a bear in a tu-tu who has a contract with his owner at the circus but wishes to keep his pride and not have to ride a bicycle under the big top; the real cow who caused the Chicago fire; real dragon flies – even the Loch Ness Monster told in an unbelievably hysterical way, bring this story to life. There are spiders who are sick of being treated like second-class citizens, and a man who runs the Office of Official Affairs who is evil and twisted and after the King of the Jarkmen who is a real hero and closer to the twins than they could possibly imagine. There is a chapter called “Tasting Tales” where, while someone eats, Swelda speaks – and the food becomes emotions – that is probably the most well-written chapter I’ve read in a very long time.
I can go on and on because I can tell you that there are three top books of 2009: The Blue Umbrella; The Magician’s Elephant; and this, The Ever Breath, which will capture your hearts and imaginations. And I was completely honored to have been given the lucky break of reviewing all three of them. I will leave you with this to chew on: Swelda looks at the children during the tasting tale and says, “It’s a waste to go through the world without a good dose of awe and wonderment.” No truer words have ever been spoken. And if you’re looking for awe and wonderment, run to your bookstore or call up Amazon and buy this immediately. You will have the time of your life.
The Blue Umbrella
by Mike Mason
Sometimes – not often – words on a page bring forth the joyous memories that you buried a long time ago under the 9-to-5 problems that you inevitably have when you reach adulthood. It hardly ever happens that a story can whisk you away into your past and let you remember the fantastic times you had and the fantastic people you once knew. Maybe it’s because “mass” hysteria only surrounds books these days that are able to be put on the big screen, and cast that perfectly handsome heartthrob that make all the women swoon. But beauty, true beauty that fills your soul, comes around once in a lifetime. This is it, Dear Readers. The Blue Umbrella is THE story that will reach into your heart and make you cry every tear and laugh every laugh that you’ve ever had. It is a true and complete gift.
Our main character is Zac Sparks; he is a young boy who has just lost the one and only thing in life he can’t live without – his mother. She takes a walk on the golf course by their house and gets struck by lightning. At the funeral, the skies darken and the hail pummels the coffin, and Zac is sent into a strange and frightening world to live with his Aunties in the small town of Five Corners. His Aunt Esmeralda has a voice that reminds him of a woman with a file stuck in her throat, “scraping” human warmth off every word she utters. His other Auntie, Pris, is a short, incredibly round woman, who likes to wear funny hats and dress herself in only hot pink. There is a church in this small town run by a Reverend who likes to stand in the pulpit and raise his arms and voice in the air, like he’s preening for some invisible camera. There is a small school where the teacher likes to take a “whack” at his students whenever they get out of hand. And…there’s a small town grocery called Porter’s Store. And Mr. Porter’s store is where the action is. Mr. Porter is a mystical man, who has many secrets that make the town talk behind his back. There are strange lights that Zac can see beaming from the roof of his store at night; there are footsteps coming from the second floor where no one lives; and, most importantly, Mr. Porter carries a blue umbrella with him at all times – an umbrella that Zac’s mean old Aunties want with all their cold, dead hearts.
Zac is quickly caught up in the whirlwind of this strange town and its people. His Aunties are cruel and love to punish him for anything and everything that’s wrong in their world. Aunt Esmeralda carries an old, heavy cane and uses it to punish Zac for things he doesn’t clearly understand. Butler is a wise old man who works for the Aunties. He scurries around their big house taking care of things, throwing birthday parties, and polishing the silver over and over. He’s a good employee, but a little off. There is something deep in the man’s eyes – a mysterious light – that is begging Zac to figure out the mystery of what is wrong in the small town.
One of Zac’s punishments is to hammer bent nails for the Reverend. He goes to this man’s home and becomes fast friends with the Reverend’s son – Chesterton. This young man is all about one thing and one thing only…the weather. He loves everything meteorological – obsessed with it, in fact. He doesn’t laugh or play like regular kids; he’s like an old soul who is usually deep inside his own faraway thoughts. Chesterton’s sister’s name is Chelsea. She’s a tiny girl with a huge smile that’s as bright as the sun. But she doesn’t speak; she can only offer Zac answers to his questions with the whirling and twirling of her small fingertips. And she tries, with all her might, to send him a warning….
There is horror in this town. There is an old man living in the Big City that Zac can see in the distance; an old man named Dada who wants something from Zac. A very special something…the blue umbrella. Zac is torn between pain and freedom. The only person he even likes in the horrible town is Mr. Porter and he doesn’t want to hurt him or lose his friendship by stealing his umbrella. But the Aunties and Dada will hurt him if he doesn’t do what they ask, so he sets out to become a thief in order to save himself from the pain of Esmeralda’s cane. When Zac begins working for Sky Porter, however, he uncovers the mysteries that the amazing man holds dear. Zac is filled with wonder, love, awe, friendship, warmth, and fear. How will this work out? How can he steal the umbrella? How can he not? Add to this story a man named Eldy, who sells balloons and flowers that are filled with a magic nobody has ever seen, and you have a book, literally, to die for.
I was born in a small town like Five Corners. And I had a father who sat in front of the television every night to listen to the next day’s weather reports. He’d be walking down our driveway sometimes, with his amber sunglasses covering his eyes, and stop all of a sudden. He’d look up at the sky like he, alone, was being told the future by the white puffy clouds, or the gunmetal gray sky, depending on the day. He knew when it would snow, rain, shine – the man knew it all. I loved this book because it reminded me of that wonderful man I call Dad, whose now polishing the golden doors up in Heaven. In fact, there was a line this author wrote when he described Mr. Porter: “He had a face full of such character that Zac understood what a face is, or could be: a clear image of the soul.” Mr. Porter had a beautiful soul and so did my father. I want to thank Mr. Mason for that line, and a ton of others, because I was able to see my beloved father’s eyes again.
Weather is a great metaphor to use for life – not to mention the “fads” that happen in book publishing. There are times in our history when the clouds rush past us like vapor trails in a bright blue sky and we race through the crimes stories cover to cover; then, in the blink of an eye, twilight comes, the stars begin to twinkle, and romance descends upon us and makes us wish for that prince charming to come along and save us from ourselves. Other days we rush through the rain, thunder and lightning that try to stop us from our action and adventure, as we speed through tunnels, caves, and history to decipher a “DaVinci-like” code. Then, the next month, we decide to go out in that moonless dark night and scare ourselves to death with the blood-curdling screams that come from the likes of King and Koontz. Now, a new age is dawning. And we should be, as a reading public, extremely happy about this. Young adult fiction is coming and coming…each book I’m reviewing in this category is getting better and better…like a freight train of thought provoking, fun, sweet, scary, adventurous, romantic stories that are truly illuminating the shelves of our local libraries. You can thank people like this author, Mike Mason, for this wonderful event. His book is certainly among the “best of the best.” I couldn’t put it down and neither will you. Take my advice: I guarantee you that you will open up these pages and end up reading it so many times that the cover will fall right off, so don’t buy one copy of The Blue Umbrella, buy two. You’ll need a spare.
The Magician’s Elephant
by Kate DiCamillio
Hockey players smell the ice because it’s what they truly love to be around. I smell the pages of a new book; the crisp black ink and the slightly sweet and bitter scent of the glue on the brand new – untouched – binding, because this is what I truly love to be around. There is a reason for books which we forget about in this world of Twitter, MySpace, and video games, and that reason, is power. Kate DiCamillo, The Newberry Medal winner for her Tales Of Despereaux, has once again awakened that power in my soul. The Magician’s Elephant is absolutely, without a doubt, a stunning example of why human beings need to read.
There is a cast of characters, with the main, being a young boy by the name of Peter. He lives with an old soldier named Vilna Lutz, who took Peter in after his parents passed away. Peter goes to the market one morning to buy food for their meager household. Instead, he spends his money on a fortuneteller whose answer to his heart-wrenching question is, “An elephant! An elephant will lead you there!” We are then introduced to a magician who has, literally, produced the trick of all tricks, and has ended up in jail for it.
One by one we meet the Countess Quintet, who wants her own brand of fame in the small town of Baltese; Madame LaVaughn, who wants justice; Leo Matienne and his wife Gloria, who want all dreams to be possible; Tomas, the beggar, and his dog Iddo, who know more than anyone can possibly imagine about what’s happening around them; as well as a Sister who wishes to fly, and a caretaker named Hans who wishes to remember.
I can go on and on with this review because there is more meaning, adventure, love, peace, and beauty in these 201 pages than in any five-hundred page tome I’ve ever read. For adults, for children, teens, seniors…this is the book that will fill your heart with the belief of pure magic.
The only way to end this is by using the words of this fantastic writer: “Magic is always impossible…It begins with the impossible and ends with the impossible and is impossible in between. That is why it is magic.” This book is just that…pure magic. The words are perfect, and the illustrations provided by Yoko Tanaka, make The Magician’s Elephant truly unforgettable. I will read this again and again.
If you’re looking for beauty to add to your life and your mind…pick this up immediately and, as always, enjoy
Readers…these are the ones. These are the best of the best that will bring light and life into your soul. I am beyond delirious that we reviewers and readers have been given a ray of sunshine that will, for at least a moment, make the recession, war, ridiculous political morons, and everything else go away. Treasure these books. I know I will. And I look forward to a fantastic 2010 for the young adult industry.
Until Next Time,
A.E. Lignor is a published author of historical fiction, currently working on a series of adventure novels, and book reviewer for many sites including: Once Upon a Romance; Bookpleasures.com; The RT (Romantic Times); and, ForeWord Magazine.