Review: Pull Down the Night

Pull Down the NightPull Down the Night by Nathan Kotecki. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from the publisher. Buy it from IndieBound or Powell’s (affiliate links).

Bruno and his brother Sylvio are the new kids at Suburban High this year, but they quickly make friends with the remaining members of The Rosary, a clique steeped in elegant, dark music and culture. Sylvio has always had those interests, but Bruno finds himself suddenly drawn to them – perhaps because of his powerful attraction to Celia, the protagonist from The Suburban Strange. Through his connection with Celia and his interactions with the school librarian, Bruno discovers that his intuitive understanding of maps has a supernatural source. He has to use these skills and his new understanding of the supernatural realm of the Kind and Unkind to help him solve two mysteries: why students around school are receiving “kiss notes” from a ghost and then discovering loved ones betraying them, and why kids all over the school are suddenly finding themselves deeply depressed.

My relationship with the author:

You should know that I can’t be unbiased about this book. Nathan Kotecki is my friend (see more about how we met in my review of The Suburban Strange). I’m listed in the acknowledgments. So if you’re looking for an unbiased review, you probably want to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for the honest perspective of the friend of the author who’s also a former high school teacher and school librarian, well, you’ve come to the right place.

What I love:

  • The supernatural stuff starts right away with Bruno mysteriously finding himself in the Ebentwine, a liminal space with a definite Wonderland vibe.
  • The references to dark music and culture flow fast and free, just like in The Suburban Strange. But this time, I didn’t find myself wishing I’d had goth friends to shepherd me around, probably because I got that out of the way in the first book.
  • There sure is a lot of time spent in the school library hanging out with the school librarian, who is so much more pleasant than adults in YA literature often are.
  • Bruno has a geography teacher who won’t let him coast, but gives him the opportunity to work on an individualized project that also helps him expand his supernatural skills.
  • Marco. Marco Marco Marco. He’s a featured player in this book, and I love him, and it makes me so happy.
  • Everybody, Bruno included, seems to love Celia in a way that makes her dangerously close to a Mary Sue, but there is an actual explanation for why everyone loves her so much.
  • Bruno and Sylvio have a very positive relationship. I love siblings who get along most of the time. Of course they don’t get along all the time, but they never seem to deliberately annoy each other or snipe at each other.
  • All the little ways in which you know this book comes from the same world as The Suburban Strange, but it really is its own story.
  • Bruno and Sylvio’s dad, who is a minister, but understands that his sons need to explore faith at their own pace.
  • The whole mythology of this world. There are Kind and Unkind, talented people who have the opportunity to use their supernatural gifts for good or ill. And these aren’t things like super strength or throwing fireballs, but things like literally traveling through the pages of a book, or being able to shape reality through drawing it.

How my wish from last time got fulfilled:

  • I said I wanted to see more menace in the school setting, and boy did Pull Down the Night deliver. This is the eeriest school library since they built Sunnydale High on top of a hellmouth. (We put that in lowercase, since we know there’s more than one of them.)

What I need to warn you about:

  • While this book is much quicker-paced than The Suburban Strange, it’s still not an action/suspense thriller. So if you’re looking for that, maybe pick up a different book, and give this to your goth friend.
  • You’re going to want to find all of the music that goes with this book. But you don’t have to, because Nathan made a Spotify playlist. I highly recommend listening to the playlist while reading the book, if you’re the kind of person who can have music going while you read.

Summer Reading: All the Mermaid Books!

A few months ago, just for fun, I typed in “are the new vampires” in my Google search box, just to see what popped up. I found a stunning array of possibilities, including zombies, ghosts, and robots. But my favorite of all the suggestions was that mermaids are the new vampires. I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I saw Splash more than 25 years ago; I sang “Part of Your World” in a mermaid costume at a high school chorus concert, insisting that boys carry me on stage since mermaids can’t walk. My home office is decorated around a mermaid theme, and this very website featured a mermaid in the header until yesterday. (See her in the picture on the right? My mom made her for me.)

A friend from high school recently connected me with the mermaiding community, where I learned about Raina the Halifax Mermaid’s book, “Fishy” Business: How to Be a Mermaid. Raina includes a list of recommended mermaid fiction, but even more useful, she provides the URL for this Goodreads list of the Best Mermaid Books.

As I’ve watched my former school library and classroom teacher colleagues chat about their summer plans on Facebook, I’ve occasionally had a twinge of longing for the times before I was a twelve-month university employee. That said, I wouldn’t trade my excellent job and full-time employment for anything, so I’m looking for ways to capture the feel of a summer vacation that match my current schedule. I think reading a giant stack of mermaid books (especially on my upcoming beach vacation) is a great way to get the job done.

So stay tuned for reports on mermaid reads. What are you going to read this summer?

Review: The Suburban Strange

The Suburban Strange by Nathan Kotecki. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from the author. Buy it from IndieBound or Powell’s (affiliate links).

Celia Balaustine is entering her sophomore year of high school, but it’s her first year at Suburban High. She’s all set to spend the year trying to be as invisible as possible, with only her sketchbook for a friend, when fellow artist Regine takes her under her wing and introduces her to a clique called The Rosary. The members of The Rosary are interested in dark alternative culture, including literature, fashion, and music. They pride themselves on being different from the other kids in their school. But as different as her friends are from the rest of their classmates, Celia can’t help but be drawn into the school’s drama as young girls begin to be gravely injured on the eve of their sixteenth birthday. She wants to stop these incidents from happening, as well as protect herself from becoming the curse’s next victim. But can she?

My relationship with the author:

Before I jump into telling you what I loved about this book (and there’s a lot), I need to tell you how it came to my attention. My former supervisor Emily (whose old job I now hold) contacted me and told me that her friend was having his first book released soon and would love to get a big name to be present at his book release party, and she knew I had connections in the YA lit world and thought I might have some suggestions. After some back and forth, Emily and Nathan and I sat down for lunch so he could pick my brain for my expertise as both a kidlit blogger and a school librarian (by training if not position). Over the course of the conversation it came out that we are both seekrit goths, me coming at it more from the fashion angle and him from music, with both of us crossing over into the other interest some. I confessed my lack of education on the music part of things, and he assured me that he could fix that. So, yes, I do have mix CDs that serve as, essentially the soundtrack for this book. Yes, the author treated me to lunch since I am helping him with publicity. Yes, I felt like it would be good if I liked this book.

So know all of that, because I don’t want to deceive you about my relationship with this book.

What I loved:

  • Celia’s friends in The Rosary are darkly glamorous. They discuss music, art, and literature in ways that some reviews have suggested aren’t realistic for teenagers, but as a former high school teacher, I found this eminently believable. Kids are into all sorts of things, and some of them are beautifully pretentious. Mostly they grow into pretentious but self-aware adults, the kind of people I like to spend time with.
  • This book has a gay couple in the most stable relationship in the whole book. And it’s not a huge deal. They’re just a couple, who both happen to be guys. And they’re probably two of the most fully-realized characters in a book full of interesting people. They’re my favorites.
  • The curse has a component whereby girls who are virgins seem to be the only targets. This leads to a lot of frank but not vulgar discussions of sex, its importance, when you should do it and who you should do it with. I think books that model this kind of conversation are far preferable to those that ignore it or make it all gross.
  • The members of The Rosary are immensely studious. Yes, they do party at Diaboliques (described in Colleen’s review as a fairytale goth club and I can’t put it better than that) until three in the morning, but they also encourage Celia to do her homework as soon as she gets home from school.
  • There’s a romance in here that is a slow burn, which is exactly my kind of thing (both in my own love life and the stories I like to read). There won’t be any flailing and crying, “I love you, but also I want you to be my dinner!” here – the obstacles to romance are external reactions to internal circumstances and I kind of love that.
  • The decadence of description of the clothes, atmosphere, music, and Celia’s emotions. I spent a good chunk of this book being a little sad that I didn’t have a tightly-knit group of goth friends to shepherd me through school. (I had a tightly-knit group of diversely-interested friends who were wonderful, but I was one of only two of us you could categorize as goth, and not at all aware of it as a genuine subculture rather than just a cruel label folks gave spooky kids.)
  • The quiet menace of the supernatural. You know the whole time that supernatural stuff is going on, but it’s not the focus until far into the book.
  • The subtle way in which this fits the mold of a classic Gothic novel, going as far back as The Castle of Otranto and Jane Eyre and as recent as Rebecca or even The Thirteenth Tale.

What I’d like to see more of:

  • The school setting as a menace itself. This is definitely present here, but I have hopes that it will be even more present in future books in the series. I was lucky enough to hear Nathan speak to a young adult literature class at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science (my alma mater!) and he mentioned that the school itself would serve as a unifying thread throughout the series. I hope he explores the relationship of this place with the supernatural mythology he’s building more as the series goes on.
  • More supplemental materials (appendices, maybe?) consolidating the myriad cultural references. But I’m a librarian, so it’s likely I’ll do a re-read and pull together literary and musical references (perhaps even create a Spotify playlist) and share that here.

What I need to warn you about:
This book is deliberately paced. There was definitely a point at which I thought, “Okay, I see why the Amazon reviewers complained about it being slow.” That said, it’s all leading somewhere and it’s all valuable. If I were doing reader’s advisory, I wouldn’t hand this to somebody looking for fast-paced action. I would hand it to somebody looking for atmospheric spookiness.

The big climax and resolution of the mystery are not why you want to read this book. They are of course very important to have, but what’s going to keep you interested is the mood and the world-building. Don’t jump in here expecting a typical suspense thriller. If you ran the numbers, I suspect you’d find mystery resolution takes up a very small percentage of pages or words here. But the supernatural element is woven throughout.

My favorite quotes:

“We’re a set of small black shiny beads who string around together, finding beauty the rest of the world has overlooked.” (p. 5 in the ARC)

“We’re in high school. Of course we’re egocentric,” Ivo replied matter-of-factly. (p. 83 in the ARC)

Who should read it:
I would recommend The Suburban Strange to readers who like books with a lot of atmosphere, a little mystery, and a slow but sustained reveal of supernatural elements.

Nonfiction Monday Review Roundup: Written in Bone

review roundup happens when I read a book but either didn’t have the time to write a review or read it so long ago that my memory about it isn’t good enough to write a review. I gather links to other reviews in the kidlitosphere and share excerpts from them. These are reviews of books that I know darkly-inclined young people will enjoy. 

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker. Carolrhoda Books. 2009. Library copy. Buy it from IndieBound or Powell’s (affiliate links).

In Written in Bone, Sally M. Walker explores what scientists learned from excavating graves in Jamestown and Colonial Maryland. They book examines not only burial practices, but also the evidence these excavations provide about lifestyles in the Colonial era.

Spooky Factor: Any time the pitch for a book begins with, “So, we exhumed some corpses…” your spooky kids are going to be on board. I myself think it’d be fun to read this, then write an essay called, “What I Learned from Dead People.”

On to the reviews!

A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy:

Did you know that sometimes people used their cellars not to store food but as a trash dump? An archaeologist explains, “people lived upstairs and dumped fish parts and pig parts and chamber pot contents and goodness knows what else down there.”

Imagine that. Imagine dumping that refuse in your cellar. Wouldn’t it smell? How healthy would that be? Why would you do that? And then I thought about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the books where the Ingalls were snowed in for days and days and days. As a grown up rereading the series, I’d wondered, where did they put the trash? Go to the bathroom? Is that why a basement was used as a trash pit? And then… as the chapter reveals… a body was buried in the basement. Treated like garbage. Hidden. Unknown. For hundreds of years, until the secret was revealed. What was it like, to live in that house? To know that body was there?

Stacked:

When I first had heard about this book, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I am pleased with this and found myself really fascinated with what archaeologists do with human remains. I think that this book has a huge appeal, both to those interested in history and science, as well as those interested in the all-too-common “something different.” Oh, and boys will eat this one up! This is a book about people doing something and it gives boys tools to learn with (I mean, there’s also really cool images of skulls and bones, too).

librarian by day:

Colorful pictures and flowing prose explains the process of excavating and studying a grave site, and explains how the details observed and analyzed tells us about life in colonial Virginia and Maryland.

Kirkus:

…profusely illustrated with photos of skulls and skeletons…

Merging blogs

Since I’m now working as a middle school librarian, I feel like what I read is inextricably tied to how I work. Because of that, I’ve imported all the posts from my lectitans reading blog to this blog.  From now on, all reading posts will be made here in the category “Reading.”  I will not make any new posts at either of the earlier lectitans sites.

Summer Blog Blast Tour Recap

Here’s a complete list of this week’s interviews:

Monday:

Tara Altebrando at Chasing Ray
Shirley Vernick at Bildungsroman
Jack Ferraiolo at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at Writing & Ruminating

Tuesday:

Sean Beaudoin at Chasing Ray
Neesha Meminger at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Rachel Karns at Bildungsroman

Wednesday:

Sarah Stevenson at Chasing Ray
Emily Howse at Bildungsroman
Ashley Hope-Perez at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at Vivian Lee Mahony (Hip Writer Mama)

Thursday:
Tessa Gratton at Writing & Ruminating
Micol Ostow at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Maria Padian at Bildungsroman
Genevieve Cote at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Vera Brosgol at lectitans

Friday:

Genevieve Valentine at Shaken & Stirred
Stacy Whitman at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Alyssa B. Sheinmel at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Matthew Cody and Aaron Starmer at Mother Reader

Summer Blog Blast Tour: Vera Brosgol

Vera Brosgol is the creator of Anya’s Ghost, a young adult graphic novel about Anya, a teenage girl who wants nothing more than to be normal. When Anya falls down a well and meets the ghost of a girl who died a century ago, she quickly discovers that her new friend can help her with her social life and her schoolwork. As is always the case, this friendship is more complicated than she initially realizes.

Vera was kind enough to answer seven questions for me for the SBBT.

Why did you choose to create Anya’s Ghost in black and white?

I honestly didn’t think it needed color. Full-color can really add a lot to a story especially when it takes place in an interesting location or fantastic world, but for this particular one I feel like it would’ve been superfluous. The monochromatic palette served the mood of the story, I think. And it would’ve made the coloring take twice as long.

In addition to creating comics and graphic novels, you are a professional animator. In Anya’s Ghost and the art on your website, you create a sense of movement in still images. How do the skills required for comics and animation overlap?

I’m actually a story artist rather than an animator, though I went to school for animation.  [K: My bad!]  In college I learned that the part of the process I enjoyed the most was the storyboarding part, so that’s what I went into. I didn’t have the patience for animating! I think animation made me a much faster and more flexible artist – when you have to do thousands of drawings you can’t fuss with them too much. It also taught me how to be efficient in communicating with a drawing. I started focusing less on making a pretty picture and more on telling some kind of story with it. That definitely carried over into my illustration and comics work. I feel like the same part of my brain gets used for storyboarding and comics.

Like you, Anya came to America at the age of 5. A lot of Anya’s concerns over her appearance and behavior are magnified by the fact that she comes from a Russian family. How do you think having this extra level of being different affects common teenage concerns?

It’s just one more thing making life difficult. Anything that makes you in any way different from everyone else makes you a target, and when your skin is bad and your clothes are fitting weird you don’t want to pile anything else on top of that. I didn’t have a hard time about being Russian but I was constantly aware that my home life didn’t exactly match that of my friends, and a part of me definitely wished it did. Of course it depends on where you live. I went to a high school in Brooklyn where there was a huge immigrant population and being from another country didn’t cause problems – at most it just dictated what group you’d be friends with.

While Anya’s worries are common to most teenagers, Anya’s Ghost adds a supernatural element to issues of friendship and peer pressure. What do you think is powerful about using the supernatural to tell this kind of story?

Part of the reason I added the paranormal element to the story was to make it more fun for me! Regular old school drama is all well and good but I don’t really get excited unless there’s something weird or creepy going on. And Emily served as a way to reflect all of Anya’s bad traits back at her, so that she could get a good honest look at herself. That would’ve been possible to do with a non-ghost character but it made sense for me to do that with someone who literally didn’t have a life of their own.

On your website, you feature fan art for other works such as Scott Pilgrim and The Hunger Games. Who are some of your favorite artists and writers? What about their work inspires you?

I’m a big fan of Fred Moore and Earl Oliver Hurst, both of whom drew lovely lady illustrations. Jillian Tamaki is one of my favorite modern illustrators – I love her embroidered Penguin covers and her amazing ink work. There’s a Czech illustrator named Stepan Zavrel who did the most amazing watercolors – I’d love to get some of that looseness into my own work. And I’m friends with some phenomenal artists – Jon Klassen, Chris Turnham, Steve Wolfhard, Emily Carroll… so I am constantly inspired by them. Writer-wise, I really like Haruki Murakami’s books. Before that I read Dracula and Geek Love. Right now I’m working through the Song of Ice & Fire books. I usually want to draw a picture to go along with whatever I’m reading just to get it out of my head!

A lot of your art, such as your collaborative Tumblr blog Draw this dress! and your many circus-themed pieces, draws on vintage imagery. What is it about these images from the past that appeals to you?

I love fashion. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was little (as well as an animator and a children’s book illustrator and probably a vet or something). Though really I think what I meant was costume design – I love anything that tells a story and clothes can absolutely do that. Vintage clothes tell you about the kind of person who wore them, what their life was like, what was going on in the world at the time… it’s really easy and fun to insert a character into them, which is what Draw This Dress is all about. Modern fashion can be a lot of fun too but there’s definitely more variety if you’re borrowing from the past.

When you were in high school, you created the webcomic Return to Sender. What did you learn from this experience that has helped you in your career?

Haha! I kind of learned what not to do. I did that comic before school and the whole thing was a very fussily-drawn, poorly-planned experiment. I generally knew where the story was going but putting it up online one page at a time was not the best way to do tell it – once a page was up it was up, there was no going back and reworking things to improve the story. Maybe for a comic strip that would’ve been okay but I was essentially trying to make a graphic novel. It reached a point where it had gotten sloppy and I got too busy with school to deal with fixing it so I just stopped. I’m much more careful with plotting now and try to think of a book as a whole, rather than a series of installments. And I stopped using those darn Micron pens!

Thanks, Vera!

Summer Blog Blast Tour 2011, Day 1

Hi there! It’s time once again for our semiannual (because we do one in winter, too, see?) smorgasbord of interviews with authors and illustrators. Every day this week, I’ll be posting links to interviews elsewhere, and then on Thursday, I’ll be sharing my very own interview with Vera Brosgol. Enjoy!

Today’s Interviews:
Tara Altebrando at Chasing Ray
Shirley Vernick at Bildungsroman
Jack Ferraiolo at The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen at Writing & Ruminating