Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

YA Gets a 1950s Make-Over: Popular Review

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Holy stars did I love this book! Fifteen year old (yes, 15!) Maya Van Wagenen is smart, funny, achingly honest and a total star. In grade 8 she decided to follow the advice of a 1950s style guide, BETTY CORNELL’S TEEN-AGE POPULARITY GUIDE (which is also being republished by Dutton at the same time, GREAT kitschy spot illustrations and all) in an attempt to become more popular. The results are a warm and truthful look at what it’s like to feel invisible, go on a diet, play with fashion, overcome shyness, deal with boys, try new things, and just put yourself out there in general. Basically, what it’s like to be a girl on the cusp of teenhood. I wish I had read this when I was in grade 8. I’m thrilled I read it in my 30s.

This book is a fantastic read for girls heading into high school, that time when you contemplate who you are and whether or not you should reinvent yourself. Don’t let the fashion and beauty angle dissuade you if that is not your thing. Yes, there are hilarious sections on what sort of jewelry (pearls, obvi) and clothes (so much nylon) you should wear, makeup tips (light lipstick, leave your eyes alone) diet and exercise suggestions (actually pretty reasonable), but it also talks about the importance of being kind, saying thank you, overcoming shyness, and being yourself. Above all else the book is about Maya finding her confidence in a non-threatening, totally relate-able way. What girl DOESN’T need that?

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It’s also a fantastic book for an adult audience. People who like inspirational/aspirational memoirs such as THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, enjoy 1950s kitsch, or love a coming of age story will eat this one up. I loved how supportive and loving her family was, I enjoyed her anecdotes about sitting with a different group at lunch everyday, and most of all, I just wanted more of Maya. Trust me, this is going to be big. The movie rights have been snatched up and Maya will be everywhere soon. This is one up and coming teenager you’ll be happy to cheer for.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek will be available in hardcover next week from Penguin Canada

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Of Ghosts, Mice & Manors: Goth Girl Review

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There are ghost stories and there are mouse stories, but to my knowledge Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is the first book to weave both together and boy is it a charmer! One of our favourite gems at the Flying Dragon Bookshop was the Ottoline series by UK National treasure, Chris Riddell. These deluxe little hardbacks are a marvel of design; gilding on the covers, gorgeous full-colour endpages, clever illustrations throughout, and a little something extra at the end (postcards, Bog goggles, etc). The stories were warm and funny and original. I was overjoyed when Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse came to my attention. Present are my favourite Riddell highlights; glorious silver foiled endpaged, a mouse-sized(full colour) copy of Ishamel’s memoirs (in rhyme, no less!), purple tipped pages.

Ada is the only daughter of moody poet Lord Goth, who avoids his daughter because she reminds him too much of his beloved late wife. Ada is left to her own devices in the mansion, which is home to many kindly ghosts,  including Ishmael, a former sea-faring mouse who died before he could publish his memoirs. It is a lonely existence, until Ada meets meets siblings Emily (a painter) and William (who suffers from a rare condition called Chameleon syndrome which allows him to blend into any setting) who introduce her to a whole new circle of friends, the children of servants who call themselves The Attic Club. It is these new friends who she draws on for help when it becomes clear that the nefarious in-door gamekeeper Maltravers has invited a group of mythical creatures to Ghastly Gorm-Hall under false pretenses. The eclectic group (including a Siren, harpies, centaurs, etc) believes they have been invited as guests of honour at Lord Goth’s Annual Metaphorical Bicycle Race and Indoor Hunt, when in fact they are to be the creatures hunted.

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The detail in this book (in terms of story, illustration and design) is extraordinary. This is the perfect example of book as lovely object and represents the kind of experience an e-book simply cannot re-create. There are lots of cheeky nods to Victorian writers and English pop culture in general, for example the chimney caretaker Van Dyke who runs away with one of Ada’s many governesses, Hebe Poppins, or the female novelist Mary Shellfish. Despite these nods to a more adult audience, Riddell never loses his light sense of humour and observations about friendship and loneliness. Reading Riddell, you get the sense that he genuinely likes and understands children.

Fans of Ottoline, Eva Ibbotson’s younger work (such as The Beasts of Clawstone Castle) and MaryRose Wood’s wonderful and under-appreciated Incorrigible Children series will love Ada and friends. Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse received the 2013 Costa Children’s Book Award for being “wonderful, charming, delightful and inventive.” I could not agree more and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, Goth Girl and and the Fete Worse Than Death. Fete! Ha! I’m already laughing!

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse is available now from Pan-Macmillan; Harper Collins in Canada.

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Finally! A Book for DROP DEAD GORGEOUS Fans: No one Else Can Have You Review

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The lovely Suman Seewat told me I needed to read this book and as usual, she was right. Any book that is comped to the movie Fargo has my immediate attention. One has to wonder if that fantastic cover from HarperTeen is a nod to the cross-stitching in the Fargo movie poster:

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In any case, well done! In a never-ending sea of sci-fi and dystopia, a contemporary murder mystery in small town America was a welcome break in my reading.

The gruesome murder of homecoming queen Ruth Fried has everyone in Friendship, Wisconsin on edge. But no one is more confused or guilt-ridden than Ruth’s best friend, Kippy. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hale has seen and loved the movie Drop Dead Gorgeous*, as the setting, dialect, combo of comedy and murder, and a reference to Diane Sawyer immediately brought the classic dark comedy to mind.

This one is wacky in the best possible way. Black comedy is hard to pull off, particularly in print, but debut author Kathleen Hale manages to walk the fine line between horrifying and funny very well. Much of the humour comes from the dialect and syntax of the residents of Friendship, Kippy in particular.  To get a taste of Kippy’s insights and delightful oddness, check out her character blog here. She is one odd duck, given to awkward conversations (especially with Davey, the slightly unhinged brother of the deceased and possible love interest) and making unusual fashion statements (to be fair, it’s cold in Wisconsin and difficult to find flattering turtlenecks and sweaters. This is something we understand in Canada).

Not everything is kooky or a set-up for a joke. There are a few elements that offer depth and insight to an otherwise over-the-top story. Kippy and her father have a close relationship. Neither have fully recovered from the death of Kippy’s mother, but their mutual understanding and the lengths they go to in order to be careful of the other’s feelings is touching and a surprising moment of honesty. I also enjoyed how Hale reveals Ruth to be a duplicitous and at times cruel person, which doesn’t justify her murder, but instead highlights how vibrant and full of life Ruth had been, which seems to make her death even sadder.

Perhaps it’s the comp to Fargo or how much it reminded me of Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I kept imagining No one Else Can Have You as a movie, one of those under the radar quirky dark comedies that I can’t get enough of and always seem to do well at Sundance, if nowhere else.  If you are not offended by funny murder mysteries or are looking for something totally different to cleanse your palate, this winner is for you.

 No one Else Can Have You is available now in hardcover from HarperCollins.

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*And who hasn’t? Drop Dead Gorgeous is perfection.

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Why Aren’t You Reading Nina LaCour?

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I love discovering new writers. There is something exciting about falling in love with a book by a an author you know little about and then telling everyone you know about said writer. My new current obsession is Nina LaCour. I had heard wonderful things about this contemporary YA writer but only recently did I get around to reading her first novel, Hold Still, and now I am a dedicated fangirl.

In a nutshell, Hold Still is the story of how Caitlin learns to deal her best friend Ingrid’s shocking suicide.  It is also a story about making new friends, finding your voice artistically, allowing yourself to be loved, and learning that adults are people, too. LaCour’s narrative voice is smart but believable. Caitlin is an angry young woman and it is hard to watch her take her grief out on the wrong people. Ultimately she makes her own peace with Ingrid’s loss, and not in a way that feels too tidy or unrealistic. For those people who are dealing with grief, I hope they are surrounded with the kind of loving and influential people that Caitlin has around her.

More than Caitlin’s grief and transformation, what I take from this novel is the sense of place LaCour creates. There are so many interesting and vivid places in the book, including a derelict, condemned movie theatre, a veritable haunted house full of memories that Ingrid and Caitlin made together. The theatre plays an important role in both Caitlin’s artistic evolution and her final goodbye to Ingrid. I also longed to hang out in the tree house Caitlin builds in her backyard and get soup in the noodle place she and Dylan escape to at lunch. LaCour creates images that will not easily be forgotten.

Hold Still reminded me of Jandy Nelson’s perfect The Sky is Everywhere and Matthew Quick’s searing Sorta Like a Rock Star in terms of character, imagery and layered examinations of grief. If you’ve been following this blog you know I can give no higher praise than these two comp titles. Fans of sophisticated and emotionally resonant YA fiction will appreciate LaCour’s insight and style.

Sometimes, when falling in love with a book, you get a sense that the writer is also an awesome person. So it follows that LaCour is one cool chick who is deeply involved with bringing her book to the screen with a team of intrepid artists and filmmakers making use of social media and kickstarter to bring her vision to life.

Expect big things from LaCour.

I am off to binge on The Disenchantments.

Hold Still is available now in paperback from Penguin Canada.

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Read, Write, Blog: 2013 in Review

WHAT I PUBLISHED

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Not one, but TWO new novels! Bringing my series about Benji and Clarissa to a close in DAYS THAT END IN Y was bittersweet. I love this review in CM Magazine because above all else I aim to be authentic, and if the mother of a teenage daughter who happens to be a middle school librarian says I succeeded, than I am a happy girl. I  still think about those crazy kids and what they might get up to in high school. I feel like Benji would be a big Lorde fan and that Clarissa would have many opinions on Miley Cyrus.

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SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS came out a few months later and I was thrilled with the fantastic response it received, including pieces in The National Post, The Toronto Star, and on such great blogs as CanLit for Little Canadians and Fabbity Fab Book Reviews. This is my love letter to summer and the 1960s and on my snowy walk home from the bus stop I often imagine sitting lakeside with Reenie at Sandy Shores. Plus the launch party held at 3030 was my favourite night of the year!

WHAT I WROTE

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Some of my blogging highlights include the fantastic discussion generated by my spring post, YA Is Too Late: Gay Characters in Middle Grade Fiction. I got some great recommendations from this post, and I will continue to seek out titles for an update in 2014. Rounding up the idiosyncrasies shared by kidlit lovers everywhere in You Probably Work in Children’s Books If…  was a labor of love and celebration of our quirky community. I also ruminated on the oft-discussed niche genre of New Adult, listed my Top Ten Under-Sung Series, and started the CAIRN writing retreat, which will be returning in 2014.

WHAT I READ

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The thought of recapping everything I read is daunting, but here are some highlights: I wept over the  Montmaray journals, gushed over the latest Kiki Strike, had my faith in whimsy restored by Rooftoppers, found my spirit animal in the form of a book in Jane, The Fox, and Me, and fell in love with middle grade all over again with The Apothecary. If (like me) you enjoy a visual list, feel free to browse my Read Shelf over at the Fifty Book Pledge. I stand by all of these books. This list is missing a few unpublished titles (the hazards of working in publishing include reading books that are sometimes YEARS away from publication), but it’s fairly accurate. I’m aiming to get to 115 by December 31st!

What am I looking forward to in 2014? I want to read more books set in remote areas (real or imagined). I want more chapter books with spot illustrations. I want to read fantastic YA that doesn’t revolve around a love story. I’d like my magic to be subtle,and my characters strong. More than anything I want to read WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart. Thank you for joining me in a year of reading and writing- I hope you’ll join me in 2014!

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I Wanna Be a Fairytale Librarian: Grimm Legacy Review

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The Brothers Grimm have always been big in children’s literature, but they seem to be having a notable resurgence in middle grade right now, thanks to wildly popular series such as The Sisters Grimm, Adam Gidwitz‘s A Tale Dark and Grimm (and it’s sequels), and The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman, the first of two books featuring the awesome and enviable New York Circulating Material Repository.

Elizabeth doesn’t get along with her stepmother or stepsisters and has never had much luck in the friend department, that is until she is offered a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository, a lending library of objects that range from the obscure and historical and weird and contemporary. All of a sudden Elizabeth has three new friends and a mystery to solve. Someone is stealing objects from the highly guarded Grimm Collection, containing materials such as Snow White’s magic mirror, a mermaid’s comb, and seven-league boots, to name a few.

The Grimm Legacy has two of my favourite things: a truly fantastic setting and an inventive premise. The Repository is described in loving detail by Shulman and combines the best of old school New York architecture (including Tiffany stained glass windows) and the cozy elements of a traditional library that all bookish children (and adults) love. I so badly want to work here among the hidden hallways and magical cabinets, and young readers will, too. And any author who can make pneumatic tubes cool again (both as a feature of the library AND an important plot point) is a winner in my books. The New York setting is also reflected by a cast of multicultural characters, a range often missing but needed in middle grade.

I love the inventiveness of a lending library that has magical items. This is the kind of clever ingenuity that gives middle grade a special place in my heart. Who wouldn’t want to borrow an invisibility coat or winged sandals or take a shrink ray for a spin? But it isn’t all fun and games, as some of the items are dangerous and unpredictable. I especially appreciated how the patrons (and pages) must leave a significant deposit when they borrow an item. Instead of money, you must offer something with personal significance, such as your sense of smell or first born child. This is one  example of how Shulman delicately and effectively balances whimsy with consequence.

Fans of all things fairytale and other magical adventures, such as The Apothecary will love the adventures of Elizabeth, Aaron, Marc and Anjali. The Grimm Legacy is followed by The Wells Bequest, featuring another character who finds himself wrapped up in a mystery involving time travel and objects found in H.G. Wells fiction.

The Grimm Legacy is available now in paperback from Penguin Canada.

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Melancholic Perfection: Jane, The Fox and Me Review

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At this point Jane, The Fox & Me has collected so many accolades that I am just one more voice in the choir. The story of a girl who feels bullied and so retreats into the world of Jane Eyre only to be enchanted by a fox appeals to me in all possible ways. I loved the design of the book so much I almost bought it in the original French, despite my French skills being somewhat lacking. Thank goodness the smart cookies at Groundwood Books jumped all over a translation.

Fanny Britt’s text (translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou) is intense and internal and feels like a long-form poem. There were no obvious translation quirks, in fact the prose is quite rhythmic and has lovely poetic moments. Isabelle Arsenault is the perfect illustrator for this kind of prose, having worked with the lovely and lyrical Kyo Maclear on various projects in the past, such as my beloved Virginia Wolf. 

In Jane, The Fox & Me, our narrator Helene constantly refers to herself as fat, and the main source of her bullying seems to be about her weight. Yet in the illustrations she appears quite thin. Some critics have said that this misrepresentation is harmful to readers and that by calling a slim girl fat is perpetuates unattainable body issues. However, I interpreted this difference as reflective of how Helene (and many young girls) sees herself. We, the reader, see her as average, but she cannot see herself as anything but fat.

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The muted colour-scheme does much to set a melancholic tone. Even the Jane Eyre sections, though punched up with brighter shades of red and blue, are quite somber. I also love the quirky French-ness of the book, which to be is summed up in a forest green bathing suit with sailboats. How French is that?

I love that Jane Eyre makes Helene happy. It is a rare bird that finds joy in this bleak tale, and yet adolescent girls time and time again find themselves siding with Jane. Perhaps it has something to do with the smart, miserable girl finding love. This book has no love angle but instead ends in new-found friendship.  Geraldine is a bit of a manic pixie dream friend, arriving in a cabin full of misfits and transforming them with her joy and kindness, but it does speak to how transformative a friendship can be at this age.

Jane, The Fox & Me is available now in hard cover from Groundwood Books.

BOOK PARTY ALERT!

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If you’re in the Toronto area this Saturday, November 9th you can come celebrate books like this and more at the 35th Birthday Party Celebration for Groundwood Books at the Lillian H. Smith Library from 1-4pm. There will be crafts, readings, and birthday treats from the ever-festive Small Print Toronto.  I will be reading from a Marie-Louise Gay classic. Hint: it stars a cat. Would you expect anything less of me? See you there!

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Three Quick & Dirty Reviews

I have been feeling neglectful of the blog these days, but here are three books I’ve read and loved this fall.

ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME

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Julie Berry you totally got me. Is this book historical fiction? A poetic literary offering? Mystery? Psychological thriller? The correct answer would be all of these things plus more. When Judith returns to her small Puritan village after being away for two years her community is suspicious. Her tongue has been cut out and she has no way to share her story. Told entirely in second person to her beloved, this gripping confessional novel was unexpected and harrowing. A fantastic example of genre-blending.

THE APPRENTICES

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Remember how I loved The Apothecary? Maile Meloy ups the ante a few more notches in this follow-up while sticking with her formula of Cold War drama, science, magic, and classic adventure. As the book opens, our heroes are widely spread across the world. Benjamin and his father are healing the wounded in Vietnam, Jin La is dealing with her own ghosts in her hometown of Nanking, Pip is being a perfect rapscallion by using his new-found TV fame to woo silly American girls, and Janie is kicked out of her fancy private school moments away from a life-altering scientific discovery. Through means both magical and mundane, this motley crew finds themselves on a remote Malay island with the singular purpose of rescuing Janie.

HOW TO LOVE

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I read this book ages ago and couldn’t be happier to see it out in the world, getting rave reviews. When I first started the novel I thought there was nothing particularly original about the premise: another teen pregnancy tale, I thought. Yet the heat of the Florida setting, the tension of the family dynamics, and the sizzling connection between Reena and Sawyer are still fresh in my mind, many months later. Lovers of contemporary fiction will appreciate the clear, breezy prose style and the well-drawn characters in Katie Cotugno‘s debut YA.

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A Star for Starry Nights!

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Despite the crisp autumn air, Summer Days, Starry Nights is still kicking around! I was thrilled to see a shiny red star next to Summer Days, Starry Nights in the Fall 2013 edition of Best Books for Kids & Teens. Days That End in Y also got a mention, which means that all three Clarissa books have been recognized by this educational resource. I spent a very happy year on the selection committee for this publication in my reviewing days and I know all the reading, deliberating, and careful evaluation that goes into this process. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the committee for recognizing my books!

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I was also thrilled to learn that Summer Days was nominated for a Cybils award in the Middle Grade Fiction category! The Cybils are administered and evaluated by the book blogging community. If you want to get a well-rounded sense of what books are out there for kids, check out there lists here.  Thank you to CanLit for Little Canadians for the nomination.

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Tomorrow: Three Bookish Events for the Whole Family!

There is so much kidlit goodness going on in Toronto tomorrow! Here are three free, all-ages events for all of the bookworms in your family:

TORONTO ROALD DAHL DAY

Lillian H. Smith Library (College and Spadina)

10-4pm

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This is  Small Print Toronto’s fourth annual celebration of all things Dahl. There are fun Dahl-esque happenings all day, including movement and dance workshops, DIY crafts, a screening of the GREAT film version of Matilda, and the Story Contest Awards Ceremony. As one of the contest judges I can say that Toronto has some amazing budding writers and you are in for a treat!

BLOOR GLADSTONE LIBRARY CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS

Bloor Gladstone Branch (1101 Bloor Street West)

2-3:30pm

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This is one of the prettiest branches of the TPL, and one of the oldest! Drop by for a meet and greet with local authors, including myself, Dave Bidini, Sara Marlowe, Phillipa Dowding and Rick Jacobson. Books will be available for sale!

HOW TO CURSE IN HIEROGLYPHICS Book Launch Party!

Dominion on Queen (500 Queen St E)

3-5pm

Wiggins Launch Evite

You all know Lesley Livingston as the author of such sweeping paranormal YA epics as the Wondrous Strange trilogy, The Never trilogy, and the Starling trilogy, but did you know she is also a great middle grade writer? Come celebrate the release of this fun new series at an all-ages event. If you’ve never been to a Livingston book party you’re in for a treat.  Expect music, fun, and popcorn!

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