Sunday, December 30, 2007


OK, no luck so far downloading files from the LibriVox site proper. Apparently there are ongoing technical difficulties with their archive site. But over at Project Gutenberg, I successfully downloaded iTUnes files of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost and Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon. There are all kinds of kid's lit treasures here: Jules Verne, L. Frank Baum, E. Nesbit, Lewis have to refine your search if you don't want your audiobooks read by computer or in, say, Esperanto, but the search is pretty straightforward. I might not pay highway robbery prices for a commercial audiobook for a long, long time. $75 for Harry Potter comes to mind.

What's really cool about LibriVox is that the books are read and uploaded by worldwide network of volunteers, and so far they've been voices I can imagine wanting to listen to and getting to know. It's not just a DNA bank of endangered books they're saving, but in sending the words out in a warm, living voice they are keeping not just books, but love of books, alive.

It's not his fault, but I could go a long, long time without needing to hear Jim Dale reading anything.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Books from the Attic, Part 1

I'm really enjoying rereading the Little House books to the Budza. My grown-up self is blown away by how well written they are: how powerful the simple language is, how skillfully drawn and three-dimensional the characters are, how closely nature and daily life are observed.

Now I'm hankering to go up into the attic and bring down boxes and boxes of old favorites, once we clear some space in Budza's bookcase by rotating some picture books to the attic (some of those can go to the East Somerville Community School, which lost most of its books in a recent fire).

I'm eager to read to Bud or just to myself some E. Nesbit--I only ever read The Enchanted Castle, myself, but there are many more. I want to revisit Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Velvet Room, and just for a trip down memory lane some Enid Blyton boarding school stories. In 1973, the year I was in the seventh grade in the International School in Bangkok, I read Lloyd Alexander's Book of Three and The Black Cauldron in Puffin Armada paperback editions, and Enid Blyton's St. Clare boarding school series. I notice from looking for The Velvet Room online that there is an Author's Guild website called, which bears further exploration.

No single best site for E. Nesbit, surprisingly, but I found a wicked cool site with free audio files of books in the public domain, LibriVox, which has The Enchanted Castle for a free download. LibriVox itself seems worthy of a separate post, if I have success downloading and unzipping a free audiobook.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Lovely Light Luscious Delectable Cake

The Budza is eight today. I got up and made him the Big Apple Pancake recipe from Epicurious. It was way yummy. In fact, it was so lovely, light, luscious and downright delectable that it put me in mind of the Virginia Kahl classic The Duchess Bakes a Cake, a picture book much beloved by my sister and me when we were littler than eight.

It tells the story of a duchess who puts too much yeast into a cake with hilarious results. Long out of print, it was reissued in the last year or so by Purple House Press, and there's an excellent description of the book archived over on the Brookeshelf blog of children's librarian Brooke Shirts.

I always loved the silly doggerel rhyme and droll line illustrations with their flat, minimalist colors, the infectious absurdity of the duchess borne aloft as the cake rises out of control. In my family we still refer to a "lovely light luscious delectable cake." It's got echoes in Strega Nona and all those fairy tales about magic pots that won't quit.

The pancake was quite good: sauteed apples with eggy batter poured over, baked in the oven. Not too sweet. I plan to make it again Christmas morning.

And for more on the theme of baked-goods-gone-berserk, there is a classic Homer Price story in which a diamond bracelet gets lost in some doughnut batter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bookstore Nirvana

I really think I need to relocate to the old 01063 zip code of my college days, when I worked in a library, a rare book room, and interned at Barry Moser's Hampshire Typothetae letterpress.

The New York Times has a great article and slide show of some of the many new and used bookstores in Western Massachusetts' Pioneer Valley, including the Bookmill in Montague. (The picture here is from Half Moon Books on Pearl Street in Northampton.)

THe 02138 zip code of Harvard Square has lost several bookstores since I moved to Boston 20 years ago. In 1987 ,when I arrived to take the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, there was Wordsworth, the Penguin Bookstore up on Mass Avenue, Revolution Books, Starr Bookshop over by the Harvard Lampoon building, MacIntyre & Moore, a New Age bookstore called Seven Stars (where I could usually find good folklore collections), the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, as well as the Harvard Book Store and the Coop. Grolier is still hanging on, the Coop and the Harvard Book Store are still there, but all the others are gone. Revolution moved to Central Square, and McIntyre & Moore to Davis, closer to where I live.

As if to stem that tide, I am tithing a big chunk of my not-so-disposable income to my local independent bookseller. If they aren't here in 10 years, it won't be because I didn't do my bit.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Moomin and Miyazaki

For years, as a young library patron, then as a teen-aged library page, and now as a mom haunting the children's room for books for the Budza, I had always passed by the Finn Family Moomintroll books. I am not sure why. I think perhaps because I found the Pippi Longstocking books a little weird, and Finn Family seemed to hail from the same part of the world.

So it's been a real revelation to receive as a gift from my good friend Jim a copy of Tove Jansson's complete Moomin comics in a reprint edition from Drawn and Quarterly. These were Jansson's daily comic strip that she drew for a number of years before writing the books. The book was a huge hit with Jim's two sons, who fall on either side of my son in age. And it was an instant hit with the Budza.

How to explain the appeal? Some describe the Moomins as looking like a capybara, but I think they are more like a hippo, and there is some Totoro about them, too: I can definitely see them holding an umbrella, waiting for a cat bus, can't you? As for the comics' tone--concerned with adult things, knowing but not cynical--I detected something of Walt Kelley's Pogo in these. I thought the Miyazaki resemblance was just me, but it turns out there is a Finnish/Japanese Moomin cartoon that is, surprise! available on DVD in this hemisphere, on Amazon if not yet on Netflix.

An interesting discussion of the Moomin world, its appeal, and its subtext here in a wonky comics journal.

Link to a page about Moomin World, the Moomin theme park (!!) in Finland.

Reading the Little House books to my son

First, a confession. When my husband and I found out in the summer of 1999 we were having a boy, one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that he wasn't going to attend my alma mater and that he probably wasn't going to love dolls houses or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

I was introduced to the Little House books in second grade, when my teacher read them aloud to us. The next year we moved overseas, and it was living in the Makati suburbs of Manila where I read (and reread, and reread) the rest of the series. My favorite was The Long Winter, in which the Ingalls family is snowbound during a tough North Dakota winter, twisting straw into bundles to burn in the stove and grinding wheat in the coffee grinder to make bread. Books in which snow features heavily were something of a fetish for me in a tropical childhood that meant trying out new snorkel and fins in December.

Because Budza is now reading chapter books, and because he'd just finished a book report on one of the Magic Tree House books set on the prairie, I decided to try one of the Little House books on him, just to see if he liked it. I thought about starting with Farmer Boy, but decided to begin at the beginning with Book One.

I have to say, I had forgotten how early in the book the description of pig butchering falls. I kept shooting Budza sideways looks to see how this was going over, and his look was hard to read. It was an odd sensation, to read and feel myself falling under the old familiar spell of the words and the marvelous Garth Williams illustrations, at the same time all a-prickle with curiosity about whether he liked it. Was going to humor me this once and then ask for something else tomorrow night? Or would be love these books, too?

When we came to a stopping point, I asked "Did you like that?" and he nodded his head vigorously. It turned out he did want a different book the next night, but then turned back to it, fascinated, as I was, by the way of life in the middle of nowhere in the 1870s, and trying to imagine a Christmas of new mittens and peppermint candy, woods full of panthers and bears, and having for toys a corncob doll and a Nerf ball made of the pig's bladder. Budza loves the other Wheres and other Whens of the Magic Tree House books, but they're necessarily short on this kind of detail. For me, there is enough story and heart in these books to withstand the latest attempt to turn them into an American Girl brand.

For now, we're still reading. I have a feeling it's a window of opportunity that might soon close. Will Budza grow into the kind of reader who won't want to read books about girls? I hope not before I have the chance to take him to The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Golden Compass Boycott and God in the Dust

Last Sunday there was this great editorial by theologian Donna Freitas in the Boston Globe about the campaign by some ultra-orthodox Catholics to boycott the forthcoming movie based on Philip Pullman's Dark Materials triology.

The Catholic League's boycott announcement is up on their website. Here is a more thoughtful statement of the anti-Compass camp at FamilyLife CultureWatch.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I'm a lapsed Congregationalist who now considers herself agnostic. My first novel, The Spellkey, has been described by Eve Tushnet as anti-Catholic at the same tme that some neo-Pagans declared it anti-Wiccan, which has to be a first, I think, in the annals of children's fantasy. And if God is really in the dust, as Pullman says, my house is some kind of Lourdes.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Oh, Cr*p

Budza and I just finished reading Volume 1 of the Beyond Spiderwick series, The Nixie's Song, by Holly Black and Tony DeTerlizzi. I was taken aback to find the work cr*p in it repeatedly, used by the narrator, Nick. The first time I ran across it ...
"Nick cringed and set down another box of her crap on the canopy bed. All the boxes seemed to be labeled unicorns, fairies, or books about unicorns and fairies. A few of them had even bled glitter onto the hall rug.

...I just stopped reading, unsure of what to do, and explained to Ben there was a bad word there I didn't want him to use and I was skipping it. The next time I think I changed it to Nick's stepsister's "stuff" and the next use I changed it to "crud." But then when Jared calls Nick a "lard ass" I read that out loud and told Ben I didn't want him to use language like that. (And I seem to have total amnesia about Spiderwick books I through V. Maybe they had language on the salty side, too, but I just wasn't paying attention.)

I know kids grow up fast, and probably he's heard much worse that this on the schoolyard and at camp, and in a few PG movies that really push the envelope. But somehow it feels different coming from a book, and one clearly marked for ages 7 and up.

To me, 7 is still YOUNG. It's not the 9-12 age span of this year's Newbury award-winning The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, which set off a firestorm earlier this year because of the word, on page one, for a portion of a male dog's anatomy.

I think I'll have to have a converation with Budza about the language in the book, and why I felt I had to change it, but say that now he's reading on his own he'll be picking his own books and will have to make his own decisions on what language he wants to use and what not. I support Holly Black's right to be true to the creative vision and voice of the characters in the book. She had every creative right to use the word, but I just keep coming back to the notation on the back of the book for ages 7 and up.

The whole situation leaves me not knowing quite what to do with my reaction. I suppose it's just another sign of the downward creep of tween-ness, language and plot elements that used to be solely the territory of YA seeping into books that are for younger and younger kids. It somehow seems wrong, to have to leave the word cr*p out of a book you're reading aloud to a seven year old who is sitting there in his shark pajamas, wiggling his loose tooth like the kid he is.

The world is full of cr*p, he'll learn that soon enough, probably he knows it already. But I couldn't stand to hear it come out of my own mouth at story hour.

Brownies Again

First, the disambiguation: these are not Brownies as in a young girl's Brownie troop, these are not the bake-sale staple, but these are related, sort of to the ubiquitous Brownie camera made by Eastman Kodak for about a hundred years.

I was looking online yesterday looking for a good beginner camera for the Budza, who will be eight later this month. He loved taking a disposable camera to the Lego meetup Brickfest in Vermont this summer, and to Bar Island, Maine, for our family getaway. I quickly discovered that first digital cameras aimed at the 5 to 10 year old set are disappointing. They seem to be either hard to use or to yield disappointing pictures, or to have inadequate memory. So I ended up ordered a refurbished camera from Kodak's online shop. But in the process of looking, I got all nostalgic not just for my old Brownie camera, which I took around the capiltals of Europe and Asia during my jet-setting childhood, but for the little Brownie characters devised by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) in the 1880s, which were used to sell an early version of the camera. By the time Kodak put the Brownies in their ads for the $1 camera, Palmer's cartoon creations were famous and already heavily merchanised, much like Kewpie dolls at the time or Spongebob today. There's even an 1894 review in the NYT archive of a play staged in Philadelphia based on the Brownies. It opened a month later in New York and later toured for five years. When I was growing up, we had a Dover reprint edition of The Brownies: Their Book, and while I confess it was the kind of long epic poem with which I had, at the age of ten, zero patience, I pored over the images. I always liked to find the Brownie with the monocle, kind of like trying to find Waldo in one of those crowded Where's Waldo images.

So, if they were so popular a century ago, why aren't they better remembered today? Like Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle, the Brownies haven't survived the transition to the twenty-first century. Probably just as well, because to an adult's eye they appear as a parade of ethnic stereotype and racial charicature:

the Irishman, the Scot, the Russian, the effete London dandy, the Indian, the Eskimo, and the Chinaman with his queue. As Palmer draws them, they're not in the least fey or magical, but Palmer did his best to draw them with a sturdy farmhouse charm about them, true to the actual Brownie folklore. And I think it's in that spirit that I enjoyed them as a child, poring over the details of the crammed images. Would I enjoy them now? I might have to go up in the attic and find the old Dover reprint and see.

Read more about them on the web at Toonpedia, the site of an apparently fanatical Dutch collector of Brownieabilia, and these really thorough webpages from the Freemasons of British Columbia and the Yukon dedicated to the memory of Cox's great grand nephew.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Spiderwick from Page to Screen

Well, in the opinion of my seven-year-old son, the Spiderwick books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi aren't making the transition from page to screen quite fast enough. The petulant refrain as we toured the wonderful Spiderwick exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum in Hadley, Mass., was "Do we really have to wait until FEBRUARY?!?!"

The exhibit features a reproduction of DiTerlizzi's desk, complete with a stag beetle under glass and a little champagne cork and wire chair sized for a brownie; character development sketches by the animators at Industrial Light and Magic; 3D animation maquettes of the characters; wonderful props from Arthur Spiderwick's secret study, and the magpie-ish nest of the house brownie Thimbletack, with its thimbles (of course), buttons, and a andelabra fashioned of a birthday candle. There is a whole wall of Thimbletacks, like mutant wombats, menacing leprechauns, strange pookahish things caught halfway between human and animal. There are even some hanging cages from the goblin-camp scene. I had already been looking forward to Spiderwick on the big screen, but after we'd toured the exhibit a couple of times, I had two thoughts.

Don't the prop people and set-dressers at Paramount Pictures have a great job, and how can I get it? Really, who wouldn't want to prowl antique shops to furnish the Spiderwick mansion?


Do we REALLY have to wait until freaking FEBRUARY?!?!?!??

Alas, Budza, we do. But we have the new Beyond Spiderwick book, The Nixie's Song. And when we're done with that, I'm getting my hands on some Arthur Rackham. It's been too long since I've enjoyed his sensibility in the original.

The Footprints of Noah's Raven

OK, this is pretty mind-boggling.

In the 1830s, Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), the third president of Amherst College, amassed the world's largest collection of dinosaur footprints, collected from the Connecticut Valley. You can see these trackways, mounted on the walls and hanging in slabs from the ceiling of a dimly lit gallery at the Amherst Natural History Museum not far from the Amherst town common. Hitchcock first began his collection before the word "dinosaur" had even been coined over in the UK. He thought the three-toed footprints had been made by giant birds.

And that would be mind-boggling enough, but it doesn't stop there. Hitchcock took some smaller slabs, split them into layers, and bound them like books, with metal hinges, so you can actually turn pages and see the dinosaur footprint cast, the actual footprint, and echoes of the print in layers of sediment further down. The Amherst Museum actually has a replica of one of these "stony books" whose pages you can turn. It's quite the weird experience, turning the pages of time.

My other favorite part? The very first dinosaur footprint in the collection was discovered by one Pliny Moody in 1802, when he was ploughing a field in South Hadley, Mass. He thought the prints must have been left by Noah's raven.

You can see Edward Hitchcock's Stony Library at the Amherst Natural History Museum through January 6. And if you can't make it to Amherst to see the stony library before they pack it all up and put it away in a back room, you can at least check out Nancy Pick's book about Hitchcock's collection, Curious Footprints.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Thorn, White Rose reissued

A rare piece of my writing for the adult market, a Regency reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, is now back in print. "Somnus’ Fair Maid,” appears in the new edition of Black Thorn, White Rose, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. First published in 1994 by Avon/Morrow, the anthology has just been re-released by the Prime Books imprint of Wildside Press, based in Rockville, Maryland. For you teachers and librarians out there, my entry is G, but others in the collection range up to mature territory. Not for tweens, and for older teens only, probably. In "Somnus's Fair Maid," the spinning wheel is a roulette wheel upon which the heroine's father loses his fortune, and it's the hero, Hippolyte, not the heroine, Pesephone, who's awakened by a kiss. And you just have to love the new jacket art, don't you?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Reader Is Born

The Budza (my 8 year old son) started reading for pleasure for the first time last night. For some time he's had to read to us twenty minutes a day for homework, and if he wakes up before we do on the weekends he will sometimes page through a book until we are ready to get up and grope our way to the coffeemaker (damn those trained cappuchin monkeys!!! We thought they would bring us coffee in the mornings...)

Anyway, last night we had had a busy day--a bunch of catch-up chores, hosted some other kids on a play date at our house--and come dinner time we decided to head to our local family-friendly pub. Usually the Budza would pack a small toy lunchbox full of "guys," or drawing paper and markers, or a Lego catalogue. Last night for the first time he went to his bookcase and chose three books--an A to Z Mystery by Ron Roy, a Dorling-Kindersley early reader about Batman, and a Marvel Comics kid-friendly graphic novel, Spider-Man and Power Pack: Big City Super Heroes.

It was the graphic novel he read while we were perusing the menu and waiting for our food, and again after he'd pushed his dish of pasta and shaky cheese aside. He finally asked for a bookmark (I tore a slip from a scrap of paper in my purse), and once he'd marked his place he checked to see how far he'd read, with great satisfaction.

A reader is born.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Indians and October

Indians have been on my mind this month, being a Red Sox fan and all. But it was only today that I realized Jacoby Ellsbury, the fabulous rookie center fielder called up from the farm team earlier in the season, is Native American himself--the first Navajo to play in the majors. Where have I been all season? Not paying attention, apparently.

The other Indians-and-October connection is Little Runner of the Longhouse , an older Harper/Trophy "I Can Read" book from 1962, by Betty Baker with pictures by Arnold Lobel (whose talent definitely ran to toads and frogs, rather than children--these illustrations aren't without charm, but I would never have connected them with the enchanting and droll images of the Frog and Toad books). We read it last night, and it's the story of a young boy, Little Runner, and an Iroquois custom of older boys putting on masks and old clothes, and going from longhouse to longhouse demanding maple sugar--or else. Sound familiar? I was kind of blown away by the similarity to trick-or-treating. I haven't yet been able to find the name for this Iroquois custom, or determine whether these masks worn by boys were considered false faces (carved from living trees) or were some other kind of mask.

We drive through Iroquois country on the way to and from my in-laws in upstate New York, and now I'll look at the snowscape and the trees a little differently. Next time we pass that way we may stop at the Iroquois Indian Museum near Howe Cave, NY, where, on April 1, 2008, they will open an exhibit titled "Baseball's League of Nations: A Tribute to Native American Baseball Players." (Take that, Chief Wahoo.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Miyazaki does Earthsea, sort of

I am looking forward to the Miyazakiazation of Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, the book that is most directly responsible for inspiring my first novel. I adore the whole Miyazaki oevre, so am over the moon that Studio Ghibli is doing this. The catch is that it's Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro who is at the helm of this adaptation, titled in Japanese Gedo Senki. You can read LeGuin's own review of the movie here. We'll have to wait a little while longer for the English dubbed version, in which Shakespearean actor and former 007 Timothy Dalton is voicing Ged. I reserve judgment.

I have to say, Goro sounds like a name LeGuin would have come up with, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, it's going to be a long wait. The SciFi channel's rights from their dreary TV adaptation don't expire until 2009, so it won't be coming to a theater near me any time soon.

My son reading aloud to me

The other night the Budza read Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese's The Story about Ping out loud to me. It was so weird to hear the familiar words I'd read, and read to him, so many times, in his voice. When he was much younger, he memorized the text to his then favorite book, Michael O'Tunnell's Halloween Pie , but it was a rote recital, not reading. I think Ping, with a lot of other books from my 1960s childhood, doesn't pass muster by today's p.c. standards, but the words and images are engraved on my brain, the striped shadows Ping sees from under the basket, the metal rings on the necks of the fishing cormorants, the eyes painted on the boats. I always wondered why the Yangtze River was yellow, if the artist painted it blue.

His second grade teacher, Ms. F., is reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to the class during snack time. They are as far as Agustus Gloop's unceremonious ascent into the chocolate pipe. As I poured Budza some blueberry smoothie the other day I thought of the pleasures that awaited him once he got to the fate of gum-chewing Violet. He's seen the more recent movie, but seems to have developed some amnesia about it, and is enjoying the book.

His assignment for Ms. F. is to read a mystery, and to write a report and make a shoebox diorama. He's chosen an A-Z mystery by Ron Roy, The Missing Mummy and I think I'm possibly more excited about this than he is.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Monster Identification Society, No Moms Allowed

My son, the Budza, has started a Monster Identification Society with his second grade buddies. The Guide has an FBI advisory notice inside the front cover, a stern warning to non-members not to turn the page. My husband has his MIDFCT (Budza's acronym for the club) card, and has been priveleged to see the monsters identified thus far. As for me, until I rate, I have to make do with Judy Sierra's Gruesome Guide to World Monsters. It features the wonderfully weird artwork of Henrik Drescher--tapping right into the 7 year old's fascination with the alien, the monstrous, the gruesome and grisly. The colors are lurid, the art reminiscent of Leonard Baskin at his darkest (see Ghosts? Did You Say Ghosts? by Richard Michelson) but with a gleeful jolt of anarchic European circus sensibility: world turned upside down. Be sure to check out Drescher's magnificent The Boy Who Ate Around, in which a boy eats everything except his dinner: his parents, the school, the White House, the Earth--a book that taps into the kid psyche in ways that delight kids and make parents squirm. And, while we're on the subject of monsters and mothers, it's worth tracking down a copy of Liz Rosenberg's Monster Mama with great illustrations by Stephen Gammell.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Madeleine L'Engle, 1918-2007

Madeleine L'Engle has died at the age of 88. I still remember reading A Wrinkle in Time, in a UK paperback edition that was a tenth birthday gift from my friend, Eleanor. I met L'Engle once, in the late 1970s, when she was kind enough to let me interview her for my college magazine. I always admired her ability to write anywhere, any time--and to imagine any Where, any Time.

Who didn't want to be a member of the Murray family, and have a scientist mother who cooks stew on the Bunsen burner? As I grew older I found her depiction of family life unrealistically idealized, but that didn't stop me from wanting to read about everything that happened to her characters.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Writing in the First Monkey

“Have you considered writing this story in the third monkey rather than the first monkey?” (New Yorker Cartoon Caption Content, art by Gahan Wilson, caption by Robert Gray)

I've started a new book, written in the first person, and so far, it's like turning on a tap...this new character has a voice and she has a lot to say. I love it when that happens.

My first three books are written in the "third monkey," a shifting point of view with a super-omniscient-narrotor that frankly drives a lot of people crazy. (It certainly drove people in my old writer's groups crazy.) With my more recent books, there is some action that occurs out of the main character's sight, but most of the interior monologue and the overwhelming POV is that of the young heroine, Theodora.

I am so excited to be writing in the First Monkey!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cats, Kilims, and Books: Loganberry Books

I've just found this bookstore in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Business hasn't taken me there yet, so it may be some time before I have a chance to browse their extensive stock among the resident cats, the kilim rugs, and some seriously over-the-top fancy bookcases that look as though they might rotate to reveal hidden staircases. For now I can only content myself with an online order. Check out the comprehensive website and play their game, Stump the Bookseller. For a $2 processing fee, they will post your stumper and likely as not rapidly post an answer to your longstanding book mystery. What was the late 1960s fantasy with a blue cover about a girl named Ann and a dolphin? It's bothered me for years, and in about 24 hours the geniuses at Loganberry had identified Dear Dolphin by Herbert A. Kenny. How delighted am I??? Owner Harriet Logan (Loganberry was her college nickname, and you have to like her taste in friends) also has a mail order book club, the Bookworm Society, a blog, and links to such wonderful presses as Purple House Press, who are doing the good work of bringing some of the classics we love back into print.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

New, improved website with 10% more magic!

I'm proud to announce a new, improved website over at There's a lot less text to wade through, and more and better links to help you navigate and find what you're looking for. As ever, there are printable goodies (bookmarks, stickers, tattoos) to use as reading program rewards and book group favors. You'll still find book group guides and instructions on how to book me for an author appearance or school visit. But my favorite new thing is the Reader Gallery for readers' drawings, photos, and art. I hope to keep that well stocked.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Real Alchemist

All the way up to our cabin in Maine, we listened to The Alchemist's Son: Dr. Illuminatus, by Martin Booth. It was a revelation to me. The book appeared in 2003, and it was my husband who checked out the audio version from the Boston Public Library main branch to take along on our trip.

The story is simple, and one used over and over again in British and American fantasy: children (in this case, siblings) take up residence in an Old House in the Country, and magic ensues. In this book, Philippa and her brother Tim move into a manor house and discover Sebatian, an alchemist's son, living in the walls, awakened from a kind of magical torpor. He's either 12, or 612, depending on how you calculate his age. He's got to stop a villain, DeLudeac (sp? sorry, this was an audiobook), from assembling all the parts he needs to make an army of homunculi.

The story is informed both by Booth's considerable knowledge of history, and how to use it in a story, his feel for magic (he does drawn-out creepy sequences loaded with Rising Dark in the same vein as Susan Cooper), and his great use of the skeptical brother, Tim, as a foil for the more introspective Pip. Pip finds a mysterious plant in the garden; Tim looks it up on the web. I was constantly brought up short by the fact that this felt like a classic, written a generation ago, except for its mentions of the Human Genome Project and the Internet.

A really enjoyable book: suspenseful, funny, humane and not a stray or unnecessary word in it. And don't you have to love any writer who introduces you to a noun like "ha-ha"? A book, and a writer, most highly recommended.

It wasn't until the final CD had finished and the copyright notice came on that we heard with dismay that it was registered to the "Estate of Martin Booth." He died in 2004, not yet sixty, and this was one of four books he wrote in the last year of his life. There's a partial list of his many fiction and nonfiction books for all ages at Fantastic Fiction, and an entry in Wikipedia. The only trouble is, after reading the sequel to Dr. Illuminatus, where to start?

So here is to Martin Booth, alchemical writer, illuminating the dark with words.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Mermaids' Purses and Woodpecker Nests

Off in a week to a cabin off the coast of Maine. In preparation, going to read my son An Island Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk on a Barrier Island (Simon and Schuster 1998) by Virginia Wright-Frierson. It's not set in Maine, but on a North Carolina barrier island, but I grabbed a copy from the library when I saw the lovely watercolor natural history sketches inside: the egg case of a skate ("mermaid's purse"), weird-looking case of a whelk, shipworm tunnels in wood, fritillary butterflies. Our backpack is already packed with bird, shore life, wildflower, and butterfly guides, now I just have to find the binoculars.

In an much earlier visit to Maine, over ten years ago, we were lucky to find a whole nest of woodpeckers. This time I have hopes for harbor seals and all kinds of sea birds, maybe even ospreys and some bald eagles.

Here's a great annotated biography of kids' books set in Maine, from picture books to to young adult, adventure to romance to sci fi. It's impressive, entries go all the way back to the 1880s! Kudos to the librarians at the Waterboro, ME, library for pulling this together.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

J. K. Rowling's Coattails

Hatching Magic is this week's pick for the Washington Post's KidsPost Summer of Magical Reading Book Club.

It's a weird ride, here on the long coattails of J. K. Rowling. On the one hand, it has to feel good to see fantasy books on so many "What to read next" lists. And I personally get a huge lift just being on the same list as such greats as Lloyd Alexander, Ursula LeGuin, Susan Cooper, and Diana Wynne Jones. It's great company to keep. But its discouraging and depressing to read about research that shows that just because a young reader is wild about Harry, it doesn't follow they'll tackle another fantasy writer, or even another book at all.

So I think I'm not alone in wondering how bumpy the landing is going to be.

If you haven't read it, check out Ron Charles's editorial on the Post website, "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading."

I'm looking forward to exploring a used bookstore in Maine, where I can put my hand on a battered paperback, and make my own small, personal rediscovery. Maybe it will be a literary novel, a mystery, some great nature writing...maybe even a fantasy.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Down the Rabbit Hole with Alice

Well, Oxford is under water, so they have their own Pool of Tears right now. But assuming you have a nice summer's day near a river that is not overflowing its banks, and a tree to doze under, you could spend some time with Alice down the rabbit hole with this collection of retold stories set in Wonderland.
Gargoyle Magazine and Paycock Press are the brainchildren of Rick Peabody, who's published previous anthologies featuring Marilyn Monroe, Barbie, and Elvis, among others. Now It's Alice's turn to be reimagined by the likes of

Donya Currie Arias, Beth Bachmann, Bruce Bauman, Jeffrey M. Bockman, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, myself, Kevin Downs, Rikki Ducornet, CM Dupre, Alison Habens, Susan Hankla, Ann Harries, Dorothy Hickson, Alice Johnson, Steven Millhauser, Miles David Moore, Dave Morice, Jeff Noon, Lance Olsen, Victoria Popdan, Doug Rice, Katie Roiphe, Lorraine Schein, Martin Seay, Aurelie Sheehan, Suzan Sherman, David R. Slavitt, MaryAnn Suehle, Ross Taylor, Tom Whalen, and photos by Nancy Taylor.

My own story, "Bread-and-Butterflies," imagines Alice Liddell in India on a train.

Other Alice-y reads for summer: I can heartily recommend Lynne Truss's novel from a while back, Tennyson's Gift, in which Lewis Carroll, Ellen Terry, and some stray American phrenologists descend on Tennyson's summer home on the Isle of Wight, with hysterical consequences. Lewis Carroll + phrenology: it could hardly go wrong.

Also The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor, not to be confused with John Le Carre's Looking Glass War from a number of years ago. I've not read it, but it's certainly got my attention. I gather there's soon to be a movie, and already a graphic novel, so maybe that's my own rabbit-hole reading for August.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Tree Houses, Snail Houses, Summer Living

Got thinking this morning about the wonderful collaboration between Allan Ahlberg (Each Peach Pear Plum, The Jolly Postman) and Gillian Tyler, called THE SNAIL HOUSE (Candlewick 2000). A grandmother is sitting on the porch of a rural house as summer dusk falls, telling a story to two older grandchildren while minding the third, a baby. In a story within the story, the grandma shrinks the children down so they can crawl under the crack under the door, like Alice, into the garden wonderland, where they take up housekeeping inside a very well appointed snail. The drawings are wonderful, and float my boat in all kinds of ways: I always wanted to move in to Badger's house in WIND IN THE WILLOWS, the BOXCAR CHILDREN's boxcar, Bilbo Baggins's HOBBIT hole, and eat a fry-up of sausages in DR. DOLITTLE's kitchen. When we lived in Manila, we had a little nipa hut playhouse, but it was too mosquito-ridden to be much fun. The huge trees over at my friend Eleanor's house were much better quarters for various games.

And speaking of snails, THE VOYAGES OF DR. DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (1922) was a huge favorite of mine when it was re-released in the late 1960s as a paperback movie tie-in to the Rex Harrison Dr. Dolittle movie. In it, Dr. Dolittle voyages with a young boy and a lot of animals to Spidermonkey Island and rides across the bottom of the ocean under the shell of a Great Sea Snail. So living in and traveling by snail is a longtime fascination of mine, I suppose.

Another wonderful book while we're on this theme of outdoor and alternative housing.

WE WERE TIRED OF LIVING IN A HOUSE by Liesel Moak Skorpen, in which some children decamp to a tree, then a cave, then a castle on the beach, and finally home again.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Stage magic, The Illusionist, and Levitation

[Originally posted on on June 30]

Went to see Paprika for the second time and at dinner afterwards talk turned to how much we'd liked the recent flurry of movies about stage magic (as opposed to the Harry Potter kind): The Illusionist and The Prestige. I mentioned how much I had liked the novel Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gould, and how sorry I was it had been optioned by Tom Cruise, because if he's in it, well, I might have to give it a skip.

But I'm very, very excited about a new graphic novel release coming from the fine folks at GT Labs ( I first read their comix about the late 19th century "Bone Wars" between fossil hunters Cope and Marsh, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards. So I'm really looking forward to this one, called Levitation, about the connections between physics and psychics and stage magic.
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Hatching Magic named to WaPo KidsPost Summer Reading List

[Originally posted on on June 25, 2007]

Hatching Magic has been selected for the Washington Post's 2007 summer reading club.

This summer's theme is magic in all its forms, and HM has been selected as the book for Week 7. I think that should be in Sunday's Post for July 29.

For all you librarians and bookstore owners in the metro DC area, there are free printable bookmarks, etc, and book group guides available at

Rabbit Hill, Watership Down...Usagi Yojimbo??

[Originally posted on on Thursday, June 21, 2007]

I love rabbits. I had two as pets growing up, a chocolate brown Havana Rex named Hershey and a little black and white Dutch called Tucker. And I loved books about rabbits: Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill, Richard Adams's Watership Down. I'm especially looking forward to reading the former to my son. It was a book of many quiet charms that I was drawn to over and over as a child--though I never went on to read any of Lawson's other books.

Today I took my son to Comicaze in Davis Square to get a comic for his summer reading pleasure, and ended up getting a copy of the rabbit samurai comic Usagi Yojimbo for myself. Samurai movies meet Maus. It will keep me occupied until I succeed in getting a copy of the graphic novel The Sandwalk Adventures by Jay Hosler (Clan Apis, published by Active Synapse), in which Darwin explains evolution to two creationist mites living in the follicles of his eyebrows.

Winged Cats, Google, and Serendipity

[originally posted on on June 16, 2007]

The large marmalade cat mentioned in the back-flap bio on my books has gone to the Big Sink in the Sky ( Calvin, also known as Bunny, came to me as a kitten in 1991, graciously adopted the man who would become my husband, and later our son, who turned out to be allergic to cats. With heavy hearts, we re-homed Calvin with friends who weren't intimidated by his age (14) or his health (diabetes) and having to give him insulin injections twice a day and pony up for prescription cat food, insulin,
syringes, and extra vet visits.

So it was something of a miracle that Calvin lived to be 16, and the grief of his two families at his passing is hard to express. I wanted to give his new family a winged balinese cat like the one I'd long had hanging over the kitchen sink. The spitting image of Calvin, orange tigery stripes and green eyes, and wings.

Google returned a lot of fascinating stuff about winged cats, but no wooden winged cat from Bali like the one I had. But it did return news of this collection of three novellas by British writer John Barlow. In one of the novellas, "The Possession of Thomas-Bessie," a winged cat wreaks havoc on a Victorian workhouse. I ordered the book from Porter Square Books, and look forward to the dip into Victoriana tinged with magical of my favorite things. It feels like a final gift from the Big Red One who gave me so much.

So here's to large marmalade cats, winged or not, and serendipity.

Eating Mammals: 3 Novells
John Barlow

Backyard Ballistics

[originally posted on on June 14, 2007]

This weekend saw the completion of our bottle-rocket launcher, and successful firing of bottle rockets over the rooftops of Somerville. We also took a ride to World's End in Hingham, MA, and fired REAL rockets, two of which deployed their chutes and caught a ride out to sea, and were not recovered by the M.R.S. (manual recovery system).

This led to some research online into replica siege engines and trbuchets, and I discovered some wonderful video online about the annual Punkin Chunkin event in Delaware: trebuchets, air cannons, and pumpkins, O my!

Check out the video I've posted over on my MySpace page. For now, we will have to settle for a Potato Bazooka, courtesy this little book, on order from the fine folks at Porter Square Books:

Peter Pan in Scarlet

[originally posted on on June 12, 2007]

We are listening to Peter Pan in Scarlet, read by Tim Curry, in the mornings before school. Am I the only one who thinks Tim Curry WAS a pirate in a previous life? I think I could listen to him read this stuff all day, about "proper swords" and the "sea of Zig-Zag." The producers of Pirates of the Caribbean should have found something for him to do, I think. You can tell he loves his job.

And who is this Geraldine McCaughrean anyway? I'm usually really leery of people trying to write sequels to most anything in the canon, and she has not only written a spectacular successor, but made it her own. A real feat.

The Dangerous Book for Boys

[Originally posted on on June 10, 2007]

Can't wait to get a copy of this. Heard one of the authors on NPR, and it sounds great. The lost art of getting dirty, Childhood Unplugged. For girls, too, of course.

My husband and son have been making their own bottle-rocket launcher, which has involved trips to the local hardware store and to Home Depot for PVC pipe, toxic glues,
hacksaws, drill bits, etc. We are close to liftoff. We also take our son to Building Nights at MIT, where they pass out screwdrivers to the kids and let them take apart computer printers and small appliances. As the good folks at MAKE magazine say, if you haven't voided the warranty, it isn't yours.

On a recent visit to Great Brook Farm State Park (former dairy farm in eastern Mass., with hiking trails and its own ice cream concession, made from the milk of their own cows) I watched some parents repeatedly cautioning their kids to BE SAFE and STAY CLEAN: Don't climb on the rocks! Stay out of the pond! What is wrong with this picture??

I swear, I am going to found Camp Skinned Knee, where kids are guaranteed to fall out of apple trees, break arms, skin their knees, fall on their heads, and get muddy, grass-stained, mosquito-bitten, and basically be allowed to be kids. There is something wrong when kids have injuries from playing competitive sports, ruining their throwing arms at age 11, but we won't let them explore their own safety zone in real kid pursuits.

The Spectacular Sam Weller Zion Books store

[originally posted on on June 8, 2007]

ust back from a business meeting in Salt Lake, and wish I had been able to fold a bookstore up very small and bring it back in my suitcase with me...Dashed in, grabbed two books for my son and a used book for my husband. THREE FLOORS of new, used, and RARE books, plus a great newsstand and coffee shop. Why doesn't Boston have one of these?!?!? It's like the late lamented Wordsworth grafted on to the late, lamented Avenue Victor Hugo Books.

I picked up a new Tom Swift book and The Squampkin Patch, by JT Petty, to squirrel away for the fall. It sounds like a hoot.

Tiny Tumbleweed Houses/A Room of One's Own

[Originally posted on on May 24, 2007]

I am a writer without a place to write. I take my laptop to libraries, cafes, or write on the bed or at the kitchen table. I daydream about a lovely little place to write, or an Airstream trailer parked in the driveway, so I really swooned when I saw these tiny dwellings:

I love the idea of being able to hitch it to a car and take it somewhere if I wanted. Too bad it's forty thou.

Breakfast with Roald Dahl

[first posted in on May 23, 2007]

Every school morning my son has breakfast and listens to a book on tape. This week we have Roald Dahl's MATILDA out from the public library. We've previously listened to THE WITCHES and Budza has seen the Johnny Depp version of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

MATILDA is more than usually nasty, even for Dahl. It's a weird book, because at the heart is a fierce love of books, and the special relationship not just between reader and book, but between librarian and readers, and between readers. But the portrait of the family, ay yi yi. It makes the Dursleys from Harry Potter look like a family you'd like to live next to.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was a hugely important book to me when I was ten. We were living in Manila, and I first read it on a sleepover at my friend Eleanor's house. I devoured it like a Wonka chocolate bar, and begged for a copy and ended up getting two for Christmas, one from my parents and one from my aunties back in the States. Dahl reined in the misanthropy better in CCF; Wonka and the wonders of the factory carry us along. But here in MATILDA the acid drips from every page.

When we moved to Bangkok when I was in seventh grade, I started reading some of my father's books: Agatha Christie short stories and the like, and I somehow got my hands on a copy of Dahl's adult short stories. "Lamb to the Slaughter" (a woman clubs her husband over the head with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the lamb and serves it to a detective, who can't imagine what blunt instrument the murder weapon was...) made a deep impression, but I put the book away and turned instead to Hercule Poirot.

I think Dahl's misanthropy is more painful and shocking to grown ups than it is for kids. As adults, the acid is directed at US and our failings.

The Drifts of Books Beside the Bed

[Originally posted at on May 22, 2007]

These are the books on my own side: not on top of the dresser (library books and kids' books) or on my husband's side.

These are shelved in a small nightstand, and piled around it on the floor. There are (ulp) 50. I didn't realize it had gotten quite that bad... ..

McCall Smith: two different #1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries
O'Brien: Four different Master & Commander novels (I got becalmed in Book 4)
Powell: Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipesm 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen
Owen: The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England
Gruen: Water for Elephants
Safran Foer: A Convergence of Birds: Original Fiction and Poetry Inspired by the Work of Joseph Cornell
Barrett, Voyage of the Narwhal
Horn: Bees in America
Gore: The Travelling Death and Resurrection Show
Pullman: The Tiger in the Well (Sally Lockhart mystery)
Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1
Gordon, The Mystery and Magic of Trees and Flowers
Fisher, MFK Fisher: A Life in Letters
LeGuin, Steering the Craft, on writing
Hone, Dorothy Sayers: A Literary Biography
Ellis, The Inn at the Edge of the World
Purcell, Owl's Head
Flanagan: Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish
Rathbone: The Guyund: A Scottish Journal
LeGuin: The Other Wind
LeGuin: A Wizard of Earthsea (mass market paperback too poorly printed to read)
Tan: The Bonesetter's Daughter
Burridge and Edwards: Opium and the People: Opiate Use in 19th Century England
Barrow: Independent Spirits: Spiritualism and English Plebians, 1850-1910
Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
Lipman: My Latest Grievance
Hillerman: The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
Wynott: Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers
Barber: Wonder Cabinet: Poems
Slavin: The Extra-Large Medium
Burr: The Best Old Movies for Families
Botz: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
Mackay: An Encyclopedia of Small Antiques

A confession: There are a half dozen or so additional titles I can't bring myself to list. Suffice it to say they fall into the categories of Self Improvement and Parenting. 'Nuf said.

Bookcase in the Dining Room

[Original post date on, May 20, 2007]

Space constraints in apartments past have usually meant there's been a bookcase of some kind squeezed into the eating area wherever I've lived. It houses the Larousse Gastronomique and a Webster's dictionary, good for answering questions that come up during dinner conversation. The rest of the bookcase contains cookbooks, naturally, but also some miscellania: bird and insect field guides, field guides to the life of the seashore, the binoculars, a magnifying glass, some collecting equipment I picked up at the last Entomology meeting I attended. Hey, it works for us.

Cookbooks represent the collision of two of my major obsessions, books and food. Food works its way into my writing a lot (I especially enjoyed inventing Faerie food in the Spellkey series, 1987-1993). I gave my husband a tagine for Christmas, and we've been enjoying Morroccan food ever since...chicken with artichoke hearts, preserved lemon, and olives. So I gave him a copy of Paula Wolfert's classic, COUSCOUS AND OTHER GOOD FOOD FROM MORROCCO. It turns out to be one of those cookbooks that documents a magnificent obsession. Not so practical for actual cooking, but great as an armchair food travelogue and for the gleam of madness in the author's eye. The description of how to make authentic couscous is very intimidating, but there is a recipe for lamb slow cooked in paprika until it dissolves that, well, I just have to make, that's all.

Next: some favorite cookbooks worth tracking down.

Deets for Shire, Speleobooks, Chicken Barn...

My memory deceived me...the chicken barn's in MAINE. Silly me.

The Chicken Barn
21,600 square feet of books
Off Rte. 1 between Bucksport and Ellsworth

Shire Book Shop
6,000 square feet of books
305 Union Street, Franklin, MA 02038

Post Office Box 10
Schoharie, New York 12157-0010

And the "Books You Don't Need in a Place You Can't Find" is the Montague BookMill in Montague, Massachusetts.

Bookstores I've Known and Loved

[first posted on on May 19, 2007]

The ones with resident cats, such as the late, lamented Avenue Victor Hugo on Newbery Street in Boston.
Speleobooks in an octagon barn in Schoharie, NY...books about bats and caves and spelunking, o my.
The ones you stumble on in foreign cities.
The chicken barn--I forget where it is--New York state somewhere. Visible from the highway. I uttered a shriek and my husband slammed on the brakes and said "What?!?"
and I said "Books!"
The Shire in Franklin, Mass, where we'd gone for apples and bread from a nunnery, where the unseen nuns pass the bread to you on a lazy susan. I remember the Shire was musty, cold, but amazing. A trove.
The bookstore whose name eludes me, on Route 2 in Mass, I think? Their slogan is "BOOKS YOU DON'T NEED, IN A PLACE YOU CAN'T FIND." An old mill building on the river, near an old paper mill, I think? Haven't been there in ages.
In Connecticut, just over the Mass line in Union, the place visible from the highway with a huge sign that says "BOOKS, FOOD." The Traveler. Turkey dinners all year, a free book with your meal, and books to pay for downstairs.
The bookstore in Geneva, NY, that was closed with a dead deer out front (!) as a further insult. Great old spiritualist books and old stereoview cards.

What old bookstores have you known and loved, especially any in upstate New York or in New England?

Mirror blog to my blog on MySpace

Welcome to the mirror blog to my blog, Glass Salamander, over on MySpace. Since there seem to be recurring issues there with technical glitches, I'm going to be posting here, too.

Glass Salamander is the blog of me, Ann Downer, fantasy writer. I'm going to start by archiving here blog posts from the MySpace blog.

You can also check out my books at