Thursday, February 28, 2013

Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Australian author Justine Larbalestier and Irish author Sarah Rees Brennan team up for a smart vampire romance -- Team Human. They make it clear to Twilight's fans that their narrator, Mel, chooses neither vampires (Team Edward) nor werewolves (Team Jacob). Mel lives in New Whitby, Maine.

"My mom's family came over from China to America because of the railroads, moved across America selling stuff to the gold miners, and settled here. You wind up where you wind up, and no place in the world is perfect. There's always something to cope with: too hot, too cold, no night life. In our city's case, it's way too much night life. With fangs."

The New Whitby vampires co-exist peacefully enough with humans, although they don't mix much. Things get complicated, however, when Mel's best friend becomes enamoured with a vampire who enrolls at their high school. Mel calls him the undead love weasel. She is determined to dissuade Cathy from dating a guy who is more than 200 years old (and dangerous).

Mel's sense of humour is not always appreciated by her friends, but I love this character's voice. Here's another example, which also gives you an idea of the kind of shenanigans going on in the plot:

"I had never seen so many rats before. For a weird moment I started counting them. It was that or faint, which was obviously unacceptable, both because I had too much pride and because the rats would walk on my face."

Suspenseful and fun, Team Human also manages to address serious topics like bigotry and loyalty. Grade 8 and up.

Readalikes: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Lish McBride); The Reformed Vampire Support Group (Catherine Jinks); and Life Sucks (Jessica Abel).

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Moonbird by Phillip Hoose

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." -- John Muir

A robin-sized shorebird that migrates approximately 18,000 miles every year is the subject of conservationist Phillip Hoose's Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. The rufa subspecies of red knot winters on the southern tip of South America and then travels all the way to the Canadian Arctic for the brief summer there. They accomplish this amazing feat every year, flying thousands of miles between feeding breaks.

One individual red knot has been tracked since he was first banded in Argentina in 1995. He was at least 3 years old then, so B95 is now about 20. In his lifetime, this 4-ounce athlete has flown the distance to the moon and halfway back!

In his book, Hoose notes that B95 was spotted as recently as November 25, 2011, in Argentina. After I finished Moonbird (which was published in 2012), I went online and found a New York Times story about B95. I was happy to learn that he was seen on the beaches of Delaware Bay in May 2012.

Environmental changes made by human activity along the migratory route threaten to wipe out the subspecies rufa entirely. "In 1995, scientists estimated there were about 150,000 rufa red knots in existence." Experts now believe that fewer than 25,000 remain.

Hoose documents a worldwide network of people who are working to save these birds. This makes Moonbird a more uplifting story than Hoose's The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (2004), which is about how the ivory-billed woodpecker became extinct.

If, like me, you've never before heard of red knots, you might like to see the photos from Moonbird that are on the Macmillan website. The engaging writing style, the focus on one "superbird" member of an endangered species, and the many colour photos and maps are elements that make Moonbird a winner. It has received numerous accolades, including the Green Earth Book Award. Grade 5 to adult.

You may also enjoy The Big Year (Mark Obmascik) and Wesley the Owl (Stacey O'Brien). If you want more books and films about birds, check out the titles on my list: True Stories of Fine Feathered Friends.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

"My name is Rory Dawn Hendrix, feebleminded daughter of a feebleminded daughter, herself the product of feebleminded stock." Rory Dawn is plenty smart. Entrusted to abusive babysitters while her single mother worked (and drank), R.D. had no choice but to look out for herself from the time she was very young.

"There's breadcrumbs on the phone and the nine button is sticking I'm pushing it so hard, but I put on my best I'm-a-normal-kid voice when the ringing stops. 'Hi, it's Ror,' The bartenders don't even wait for me to ask, sometimes they don't even wait for my name but interrupt me to say, 'Haven't seen her,' or sometimes there's a hopeful pause while they hold the phone up high and look around before they say, 'You just missed her,' and ain't that the truth."

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman is set in a trailer park on the edge of Reno, Nevada. R.D.'s mother had her first child in 1959, when she was 15 years old, and three more soon after. By the time R.D. came along in 1973, her four brothers were all living with their father in California.

R.D.'s mother used to be a hippie, back when "Mama was still kid enough to rock her shelves with Kerouac [...] When she was still kid enough to send her own kids off to school with hair so long they got beat for it. [...] My brothers grew up with too much beat and not enough rhythm in a house, an actual house, full of Buddhas and Nag Champa, prayer flags and peace signs. But our house, Mama's and mine, has wheels and is kept so clean it's always ready to roll."

R.D. writes prayers to St. Jude and studies a library copy of the Girl Guide handbook for answers. Her troop is a troop of one, but she is a survivor. I love the way Hassman mixes excerpts from social services documents, newspaper clippings and personal letters with Rory Dawn's wonderful voice.

Readalikes - stories of young people surviving poverty and abuse: Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O'Neill); No Bones (Anna Burns); Tricks (Ellen Hopkins); The Lesser Blessed (Richard Van Camp); The Summer of My Amazing Luck (Miriam Toews); Bastard Out of Carolina (Dorothy Allison); You Don't Know Me (David Klass).

Monday, February 25, 2013

New Jasper Place Library Opens Today

Edmonton's Jasper Place Library has been under construction for two years and today is the first day we will open our doors to the public. I'm very excited to be going to work today.

There are still some minor things left to be finished. Two days ago, the toilet paper dispensers had not yet been installed in the public washrooms, there were just wires sticking out of a hole where there should be a button to automatically open the front door, some of our furniture had not yet arrived... and so on. It will be lovely when it's finished but it is impressive already. Come and see us there!

If you don't live nearby, you can see more online: follow this link to a one-minute video clip from CTV news, and this link to get architectural renderings, and this link for details about the branch from the Edmonton Public Library's website.

NOTE added February 26: Here are some photos taken yesterday, inside the new library: Edmonton Journal photo gallery.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Six of One by Rita Mae Brown

Even though it isn't as well-known as Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown's Six of One is practically a lesbian classic; it was first published in 1978 and I think it's still in print. A member in my Two Bichons book group chose Six of One for our February discussion because a) it's one of her comfort reads and b) she suggested a lighter book might be welcome after January's Are You My Mother?

Six of One is set in Runnymede, a small town in Maryland divided by the Mason-Dixon Line. Brown moves back and forth in time with a colourful cast of characters. A thirty-five-year-old bisexual woman, Nickel (Nicole), is the first-person narrator. (Which struck me as awkward in the sections that take place before Nickel was born). Her adoptive mother, Juts (Julia Ellen), and aunt Wheeze (Louise) have been scrapping viciously since they were small girls. In 1980, the contemporary part of the novel, the sisters are in their 70s and still at each other. They say things like "piss on your teeth!" Their constant bickering set my teeth on edge.

Brown has said that the character Julia Ellen is based on her own adoptive mother of the same name. I often felt Brown's personality (and comments she's made, like "Next time anybody calls me a lesbian writer, I'm going to knock their teeth in") interfered with my immersion in the world of her novel.

It also doesn't help that her characters speak lines that are better suited to cross-stitch, framed on a wall. "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly" and "Life is the principle of the universe." Celeste Chalfonte, an aristocratic lesbian, "didn't look older than forty-five, but in her mind she felt the full sixty years of her life on earth. Not that she felt old, but the years weed out camouflages of character, leaving a truer self."

Celeste's unorthodox life mirrors that of lesbians living in Paris during the same period in the early 20th century, women like Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. Celeste isn't possessive about her longtime lover, Ramelle. When Ramelle also falls in love with Celeste's brother, the siblings take turns sharing her company. Celeste has other love interests, including a longstanding unrequited thing for Cora, the (straight?) mother of Juts and Wheeze. In a set-up that stretched my credulity to the limit, Celeste and Cora innocently end up naked in the same bed. Brown makes a joke of it:

"Lord, darling, you are wound up tighter than a drum. It's cold enough outside; don't freeze up on me. Come here. Cora pulled Celeste to her and hugged her. The divine Miss Chalfonte didn't know whether to shit, run or go blind."

I won't even go into the vigilante justice scene that bothered me even more. The book wasn't for me, but I'm in the minority. I found it more flippant than funny. Only one other member of my book group felt a similar impatience with Brown's style. The rest, including one who had disliked it when she first read it in the 80s, found it heart-warming and enjoyable. I'd love to hear thoughts from other readers on both sides of the fence.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Batman: Death by Design by Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor

Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor are the formidable writer/artist duo behind a new Batman graphic novel. The line between good and evil is sometimes murky in Death by Design. Bruce Wayne is on the side of modern progress vs. the preservation of historic architecture. Wayne's love interest, Cyndia Syl, is determined to save the very building Wayne wants to replace with something entirely new. The plot is propelled by a host of interesting characters: a corrupt building trade boss, a famous architect who has gone missing, an upstart vigilante who calls himself Exacto, a sharp young news reporter, and one of Batman's traditional foes, the Joker.

The internationally acclaimed architect who has the won the design competition for Wayne's new project provides comic relief. Kem Roomhaus "claims that he is often frightened of his own genius; while several notable critics have claimed that there's actually nothing to be scared of."

Kidd's narrative box style is pure crime noir: "Elliot Osbourne. Editor-in-chief of The Gazette, for as long as anyone can remember. Two Pulitzers. Seen it all and corrected the spelling. Cut him, he bleeds ink."

Detail: super-
serious hero
beta tests new
Taylor's refined artwork strikes just the right match for Kidd's deadpan humour. I found myself studying every image. The texture of pencil across paper. The many shades of the graphite medium, from softest dove to charcoal to velvety black. Pure black and stark white are used sparingly, to maximum effect. Restrained spots of pastel colour are are exactly enough to lift the art to a sublime level. Taylor's attention to details is exquisite; in a newsroom full of people, for example, even those farthest away are sketched with care.

There are a few hey-what-happened-there gaps in the storyline that I'll happily overlook because this book gives me so much pleasure overall. Do I need to add that I highly recommend it?

Kidd playfully gets literal with the idea of a glass ceiling.
A new nightclub opens in Gotham, made entirely of glass,
suspended far above street level. Taylor echoes the concept,
floating six panels across the top of the two-page spread.
Subtle touches of blue and orange make it glow.

Readalikes with outstanding artwork: The Richard Stark's Parker series (Darwyn Cooke), starting with The Hunter, have a similar retro film noir feel; Batwoman: Elegy (Rucka and Williams) and Batwoman: Hydrology (Williams and Blackman) for more superhero adventure in Gotham; and maybe Asterios Polyp (David Mazzucchelli), if it was the architecture angle that really caught your interest. If it is Dave Taylor's pencil work in particular that wowed, you will also want to look at Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd's The Cheese Monkeys entertained me as an object before I even opened it up to start reading. It was like a puzzle. First, the edition I read has the title in pictogram format on the cover. Next, there are letters are printed on the edge of the book pages and you have to kind of bend it and fan the pages a bit to read what it says. Then flip it over and see another message from the other direction... cool! These cryptic words enticed me to start reading, so I flipped it open and encountered:

"The inside front cover was intentionally left blank. It's not a mistake. It's actually a separate 'piece,' entitled 'BUDGETARY CONSTRAINT NO. 13.'"

I was already chuckling before I even began the novel, an academic satire set in the 1950s. The narrator tells us:

"Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one run by the government."

He signs up for a new course, Introduction to Graphic Design, taught by an irascible genius. He falls in love with someone who is all wrong (and unavailable). He learns more than he expected.

Kidd, an award-winning graphic artist, has much to say about design in The Cheese Monkeys. It's a funny coming-of-age story with a little art theory thrown in. I loved it.

Readalike: Looking for Alaska (John Green).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

In the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat, John Lanchester writes that the book's "near-jaunty tone" is "at odds with its jet-black content." It's the first time I've encountered an introduction with instructions to read the book first. And so I did.

In the opening scene, Lise has a hysterical fit when a shop assistant tells her that the dress she has just tried on is stain-resistant. I was immediately hooked. The fascinating central character is mentally ill, and readers learn very early on that she will soon be dead in another country.

Another outburst demonstrates Spark's mastery of final twists, this time from a proprietor who mistakenly turns on Lise after his business is disrupted by rioting students:

"He advises her to go home to the brothel where she came from, he reminds her that her grandfather was ten times cuckolded, that she was conceived in some ditch and born in another; after adorning the main idea with further illustrations he finally tells her she is a student."

The book is deliciously disturbing and only about a 100 pages long.

Thank you to Simon at Savidge Reads for reminding me about Muriel Spark and for recommending this book in particular. I reviewed another of her brilliant works a few years ago: A Far Cry from Kensington.

Twisty dark readalikes: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn); The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (Gaetan Soucy); and the short stories in Crimespotting, An Edinburg Crime Collection.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Purity by Jackson Pearce

There's a special delight when books that I'm reading simultaneously, or back-to-back, have links to each other. That's what happened with Purity, a contemporary YA novel by Jackson Pearce, and No Crystal Stair, a historical biography by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. One of the individuals in Nelson's book is Lewis Michaux's sister-in-law, Mary. The two never got along, but Michaux gives her credit for standing firm in her religious beliefs.

"She set her mind to saving souls and put everything she had into it. Like that Young People's Purity Club she started. 'Be a Peach Out of Reach,' she told the ladies. And 'If there is nothing for sale, take the sign down.'"

The title of Pearce's novel should give you a clue to the subject matter in Purity  -- also the lock with the heart-shaped keyhole on the cover. Sixteen-year-old Shelby reluctantly agrees to attend a traditional father-daughter dance sponsored by her church, knowing that she'll be required to make a ceremonial vow of purity at the end of the evening. Promises she made to her mother six years earlier now pose a major dilemma.

When Shelby was ten, her mother died of cancer. In ICU, the last time they saw each other, Shelby's mother made her promise three things: to love and listen to her father; to love as much as possible; and to live without restraint.

Keeping all three promises might be impossible. Can Shelby listen to her father and live without restraint? She decides to hedge her bets by exploiting a loophole. Shelby is determined to experience her first sexual encounter before the dance, so that she won't balk at the restraint of the chastity vow.

Losing one's virginity is a topic that will always interest teens, and it's certainly been covered in other YA novels. The honest way in which Pearce handles Shelby's sexual encounters adds substance to the otherwise light-hearted mood in Purity. Grades 9 - 12.

Monday, February 18, 2013

No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

The full title of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's book about her remarkable great-uncle is No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. Her lightly fictionalized approach is based on years of meticulous research and interviews. The result is like a film documentary. It's told in first person through many voices, interspersed with historical photos and documents, and further enlivened with R. Gregory Christie's expressive artwork.

The most frequent voice is that of Lewis Michaux himself. He was passionate in his mission of self-education for African Americans. Michaux believed in the power of knowledge and the importance of reading books by and about black people. His bookstore started in the 1930s with a very small inventory.

"I found Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery and four others on Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, and George Washington Carver. So I've got five books, a building, and a hundred bucks. I'm starting my business tomorrow."

People weren't coming in the door in the early days, so Michaux put his books on a cart and walked up and down the street outside, "Don't get took! Read a book! Come on by and take a look!" and stopping folk and talking to them about reading.  He put up big signs like "The House of Common Sense" and "Home of Proper Propaganda" on his storefront to make people smile and coax them in.

Michaux had a flair for showmanship and a tendency to speak in rhyme. He says about Malcolm X: "Malcolm didn't come from Yale. He came out of jail, and I believe there isn't a Ph.D. he can't debate and prevail."

By the time Michaux closed his shop in the 1970s, he had an inventory of over 225,000 books by black authors. His bookstore had become a longstanding community hub in Harlem, playing a vital role in social activism over the decades. He said, "It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. [...] And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."

Winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, No Crystal Stair is a moving and inspirational book for readers from Grade 6 and up.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In One Person by John Irving

A bisexual writer in his late sixties tells his life story in John Irving's latest novel, In One Person. Billy Abbott grew up in a small town in Vermont, where his mother and stepfather met through their involvement in an amateur theatrical society. Billy's grandfather was also onstage; he was famous for taking female roles.

Transgender characters are plentiful, since Billy had significant relationships with at least six, starting with his grandfather. Even so, the 1950s weren't an easy time for a boy to be queer. Billy escaped to New York City as soon as he left high school. In 1963, Billy was 21 and had immersed himself in the gay scene there for two years.

"It wasn't that I was no longer attracted to women; I was attracted to them. But to give in to my attractions to women struck me as a kind of going back to being the repressed gay boy I'd been. Not to mention the fact that, at the time, my gay friends and lovers all believed that anyone calling himself a bisexual man was really just a gay guy with one foot in the closet.

[...] Even at such a young age, I must have sensed that bisexual men were not trusted; perhaps we never will be, but we certainly weren't trusted then.

[...] I was never ashamed of being attracted to women, but once I'd had gay lovers -- and, in New York, I had an ever-increasing number of gay friends -- I quickly learned that being attracted to women made me distrusted and suspected, or even feared, by other gays."

Are we a product of our biology? Or of our upbringing? Billy believes it was his desires that shaped him. The book has some somber stretches, especially when Billy recounts the early part of the AIDs epidemic in the 1980s. Irving lightens the mood with occasional quips: "There's one thing I'm glad I'm too old for: thongs."

John Benjamin Hickey's conversational tone works well in Simon & Schuster's audiobook edition [16.5 hours].

Audiobook listen-alike: Canada (Richard Ford) also looks back on an unusual boyhood in the mid-20th century, and has a similarly relaxed storytelling pace.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman

I first got to know Harvey Pekar through his autobiographical stories in the American Splendour comics. Born in 1939, he is the cantankerous son of Jewish pro-Zionist immigrants from Poland. In Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me, Pekar and graphic artist JT Waldman take us back several millennia through Jewish history, creating context for the complicated current situation in the Middle East.

Dissenters* like Pekar who criticize Israel's hard line position have been vilified by others in the Jewish community, but that hasn't stopped him from speaking his mind. He can work up a pretty good rant.

"I know that we Jews have been the most viciously persecuted ethnic group to survive. We were scattered from our homeland, yet after 2,000 years we've come back to regain some of it. But the Palestinian Arabs are not going anywhere. Their ancestors lived on the same land. They still live in Palestine. And as long as they do, they will fight for independence, and there will be ceaseless conflict."

The quality of JT Waldman's grey inkwash art is a bit uneven, but Waldman has done interesting things to enliven what is basically a long interview with Pekar. The panels portraying Pekar at the age he was when they were working on this book are more realistic than the scenes from his childhood. Interspersed with the Cleveland setting are images from world history, displayed like framed artwork from different ages: Persian miniatures; Roman mosaics; European paintings and so on. The Islamic sections reminded me a little of Craig Thompson's work in Habibi.

At one point, when the conversation between Waldman and Pekar takes place in a car, the panels snake across the pages like a road. Perspective shifts from inside the vehicle to a bird's eye view, showing off the lovely architecture of a bridge they crossed.

Waldman's inventive page layouts include embellishments from whatever era Pekar happens to be going on about -- Art Nouveau and Art Deco ornamentation in the early 20th century, for example. Towards the end of the book, as Pekar admits he has no idea how to resolve the Zionist issue, the panels are set within the background of a maze.

Harvey Pekar died in 2010. His widow, Joyce Brabner, wrote the epilogue that brings this book to a satisfying close.

Readalikes: Footnotes in Gaza (Joe Sacco); How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (Sarah Glidden); and Jerusalem (Guy Deslisle).

*Sarah Schulman has recently been barred from reading from her new book about the Israeli-Palestine conflict at the LGBT Center in New York City.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Hello My Name Is Bob by Linas Alsenas

Hello My Name Is Bob is a metafictional picture book that always makes me smile. Author and illustrator Linas Alsenas breaks the fourth wall and has Bob address his readers directly. "You shouldn't really bother reading this book. You'll be totally bored by the end." In the illustration, it's clear that the book Bob is reading is Hello My Name Is Bob.

Bob describes the many ways that he and his clownish friend Jack are opposite. Bob likes quiet, calm things. He is happy with a small scoop of ice cream (probably vanilla) while Jack gets a humungous cone with five flavours, various toppings and a cherry on top. 

The fact that they live together is unstated, but Jack's impromptu drag routine in their laundry room can be taken as evidence. Jack's flashy clothes are in a messy pile, while Bob's are neatly folded. In the final scene, Jack is sound asleep with Bob's arm around him on their couch. Awww.

This is one of the books I'll be talking about to a children's literature class at the University of Alberta later today. My topic is Queer Role Models in 21st Century Picture Books for Children. The list of titles is available online; many are also included in the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity resource guide that I helped compile for the Edmonton Public School Board.

Teachers can use Hello My Name is Bob to reinforce valuing unique characteristics, interests, and talents in oneself and others. Preschool to Grade 2.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Yips by Nicola Barker

I read Nicola Barker's The Yips a while back and have decided that February 14 is the day to blog about it for no other reason than amongst the large cast of offbeat characters is a young woman named Valentine. She's an agoraphobic tattoo artist who works from home while caring for her mother, who suffers from dementia. Valentine has quite a specialty niche for her work: tattooing women's genitalia.

Some of the other characters propelling this energetic novel include Stuart, a professional golfer whose game has fallen apart; Jen, a waitress with an outrageous sense of humour; Gene, a male breast cancer survivor holding down three part-time jobs; and Gene's wife Sheila, a pastor who may be ready for a change in occupation. It's a mischievous, witty and intelligent look at sex, romance and love in all its guises in modern society. Highly recommended!

Readalikes: The Red House (Mark Haddon) and anything by Martin Amis or Ali Smith.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline

I pretty much stopped buying new clothes since the mid-90s, except when something wears out, can't be repaired, and needs replacement. Even so, I've noticed that prices are lower than they used to be and also that it's very hard to find something of decent quality. A few years ago, I spotted garments trimmed in flimsy fabrics with unfinished edges for sale at H & M and reported back to my work colleagues in outrage, "Those dresses won't even stand up to one washing!" They informed me that those items were meant to be thrown away instead of washed. I was shocked.

In Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline looks at this consumer mindset, amid the current "cookie-cutter fashion landscape that offers many great deals, but not much in the way of actual choice." "Quality has been whittled away to the point where the average store-bought style is an extraordinarily thin and simple, albeit bedazzled and brightly coloured, facsimile of a garment."

Part of the reason for this is the trend toward fast fashion. It's a "radical method of retailing that has broken away from seasonal selling and puts out new inventory constantly throughout the year. Fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than its competitors." Buying a new top or dress costs less than a fancy coffee... and with as little consideration given to the purchase.

Fast fashion also requires a quick turnover in styles. It's why fashions from the 1990s were already being recycled in 2010. Also, high couture is poached like crazy. "Forever 21 is notorious for ripping off fashion designers. To date, the company has been sued more than fifty times for copyright violations. Yet they have never been found liable for copyright infringement. U.S. copyright law does not protect fashion design, only fabric prints and jewelry." (Cline notes that fashion design is largely covered by copyright rules in Canada, Europe and other parts of the world.)

To make cheap clothes, you need cheap labour. Cline quotes government statistics: the average wage of a sewing machine operator in the U.S.A. is $9 an hour, or $1,660 a month. In the Dominican Republic, minimum wage in the free trade zones amounts to less than $150 a month. "China, where wages have spiked in recent years, still has minimum wages in the coastal provinces of $147 a month. Bangladesh, which raised its minimum wage in 2010, only requires factories to pay their sewing-machine operators $43 a month." Consumers have been aware of sweatshop practices for a long time now.

"To counter the mounting negative press, boycotts and picketers and under the insistence of consumers, activists, and religious groups, it became common policy for large clothing companies to draft what are known as 'codes of conduct.' These are essentially guidelines regarding human rights, health and safety, and wages and overtime that factories must follow in order to do business with beg Western brands." Social responsibility guidelines are largely ignored, however, because of the "pressure to produce goods at an increasingly furious pace."

Today's my last day at Woodcroft
library; tomorrow I start at the
brand new Jasper Place branch.
I'm wearing my newest dress, made
by a tailor in 2002 in Singapore in
a lightweight wool copy of
my favourite linen dress. My shirt
was purchased in the early 90s,
my tights when Eatons went out of
business in 1999. And my beloved
Fluevog boots are secondhand. 
Clothes are made out of textiles, of course, and manufacturing them takes a shocking environmental toll. "Textiles have always had an unflattering environmental footprint, but the more pressing problem is the terrifying scale at which they are now being produced." "China's growing consumer class and incredible industrial output pose enormous sustainability issues for the global economy and the world's resources. If every man, woman, and child in China bought two pair of wool socks, there would be no more wool left in the world." "The country's growing clothing consumption is already putting upward pressure on the price of fibers, particularly cotton, as demand is outstripping supply."

"Fast fashion is gaining hold among Chinese consumers too. If China begins to consume clothing at disposable levels, which fast-fashion companies are angling for, the environmental and social problems of fashion are just going to increase exponentially from here."

If you think there are needy people out there who are eager to wear other people's cast-offs, you are wrong. "Of all the clothing that we dump off on charities' doorsteps, less than 20 percent gets sold through thrift stores." Cline visited a Salvation Army shop in Brooklyn that "processes an average of five tons of outcast clothing every single day of the year and much more during the holiday season when donations spike." Textile recyclers and rag graders help charities process the excess and try to keep as much as possible out of the landfill.

Cline envisions a cultural shift and ends with a plea for more people to value their clothing. "When we can recognize how clothing is put together, what it's made of, and can visualize the long journey it makes to our closets, it becomes harder to view it as worthless or disposable. Instead, we begin to want to own garments that are unique and made with a level of skill and good materials that cheap fashion simply can't provide us."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Little White Duck by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

Since today marks the lunar new year, I've chosen a sweet children's story set in contemporary China. Kung hei fat choy! (Happy New Year!)

Little White Duck is a memoir of a childhood in China, created in graphic novel format by a wife and husband team, Na Liu and Andres Vera Martin. Martin's artwork captures a handful of Liu's recollections about the period when she was between the ages of four and seven. The first chapter -- 'A Sad, Sad Day' -- is about the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Thousands of people gathered to mourn and Liu, who had not even known that she had a Grandpa Mao, remembers crying because everyone around her was so very sad.

Na Liu was born in Wuhan in 1973 and moved to the U.S. as an adult. Life in China has been changing so quickly that Liu realized her early experiences were unique to her generation. Nowadays, "life in a large Chinese city is like life in any other city in the world. For the most part, modern Chinese children wear the same sorts of clothes, play the same video games, eat the same fast food, watch similar TV programs, and play the same sports, such as soccer and basketball" as children in New York, London or Tokyo. She believes, "it's possible that someday the only records we have of how cultures and countries were once very different from one another will be in books like this one."

The text is brief, but look at all the details in just these two illustrations: the fact that cleaning includes the common areas of the apartment; New Year decorations being hung; the red kerchief around Liu's neck; her little sister's paper toy lion; red money envelopes; and the way the lion-monster's head is supported by two people, one on the other's shoulders. The muted colour palette strikes the right nostalgic note. A brief glossary at the back translates the few Mandarin words, and there are even translations of Chinese characters. In the bottom illustration, for example, "the red banners around the doorways are poetry with wishes for good fortune, such as 'Everything you try to do will be successful' and 'Every year will be better and better.'" Nice!

Suitable for Grade 3 and up.

Readalike: Marzi by Marzena Sowa.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Second Life of Abigail Walker by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Eleven-year-old Abby walked right into my heart from the enchanting pages of Frances O'Roark Dowell's The Second Life of Abigail Walker. The vegetarian fox slipped in too. The presence of this fox adds a touch of anticipation to Dowell's story, the feeling that anything might happen.

The main story is straight-forward - girl develops self-esteem - but the secondary storyline, involving a soldier traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, is tied to the fox. This layer allows Abby to become aware that she is a part of a larger community, outside of school and her family.

Abby is a chubby girl who does not fit in. She has been hanging with a group of popular girls after her best friend moves away, but they are mean to her. She summons her courage and decides to face the consequences of abandoning the relative safety of their group. Abby is endearingly sensible, taking responsibility for her mistakes, accepting her shortcomings and dealing with the bullies.

One of the girls, Georgia, "stopped at Abby's seat and leaned down to whisper in her ear. 'You're dead,' she hissed, and Abby felt confused. Really? Kristen and Georgia were going to kill her? Were going to have her killed? She blew into her fist. Her breath was warm. She wasn't dead, and she probably wasn't going to be dead anytime soon. 'Okay,' Abby replied to Georgia. 'That's fine.' "

Later, Abby meets someone while she is avoiding these girls. "How could she explain to an almost nine-year-old boy the terrible things girls did? The secret, down-low, parents-never-figure-it-out, terrible things that girls did to you if you were too fat or too skinny or had pimples or wore the wrong kind of jeans. 'They can kill you,' she said after a moment. 'Only, other people don't know that you're dead. Only you know, on the inside.'

Some things make adults die on the inside too, as Abby discovers, but she also learns that resurrection is possible. The Second Life of Abigail Walker is a charming and timeless story for Grade 4-6.

Readalike: Liar & Spy (Rebecca Stead)

Friday, February 8, 2013

In Darkness by Nick Lake

Linked storylines set in Haiti alternate in Nick Lake's Printz award-winning In Darkness. 'Then' follows the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the 18th-century revolution in Haiti, and 'Now' is narrated by Shorty, a 15-year-old gang member from the slums near Port-au-Prince, trapped in the rubble of a hospital after the earthquake in 2010.

In his author's note, Lake talks about the violent slum where Shorty grew up, Site Soley (Sun City). "It has frequently been named the most dangerous place on earth. People really did, and do, eat pies made of mud, such is their desperation. Babies really were, and are, left to die on piles of trash."

Shorty addresses readers directly: "You, maybe you live in a world where people don't get shot. I know what you're picturing. I've seen anpil movies. You think bullet holes in a person look like little circular holes, like red coins. They don't. What a bullet does, it goes into a person and it tears, it rips them open, makes them into a monster. They're not human anymore."

The meaning of Kreyol (Creole) words (like 'anpil' - lots) are either clear in context, or else a translation follows: Ayit viv (long live Haiti) and ptit tig se tig (the son of a tiger is still a tiger).

Shorty's voice is distinct: "My stomach is a tiny ruled-up thing, like a cat, and it's got claws that dig into me. My mouth is a desert that stretches miles in every direction." He tells us about his twin sister, Marguerite, who was taken away by a rival gang when she was nine: "She was like an angel in the Site. Grandmothers would touch her for luck, I'm not fucking kidding." And his mother: "Manman, she liked to count her blessings. It didn't usually take long."

As Shorty grows weaker, he distracts himself by remembering the words to one of Notorious B.I.G.'s songs, Ready to Die. He learned English from rap songs like this, where he heard about luxury products he would never see. "I always knew a Lexus was a car, cos I saw a couple of them on the road to the airport, but when I was younger I thought a Rolex was a car, too. Tintin laughed when I told him that, called me a cretin. But you think Tintin ever saw a Rolex in his whole goddamn life? You do, you're a fool."

After a voodoo ceremony, Toussaint and Shorty become psychically linked. Shorty thinks he's maybe having vivid dreams based on what he knows of history, but it's more confusing for Toussaint, experiencing the future. Toussaint doesn't understand English rap words, but describes his impression: "the notes and beats of the music were like a scream of furious anger, like a murder made sound."

In Darkness is a rewarding and memorable novel for older teens as well as adults.

Companion reads: Selavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope (by Youme) - a picture book suitable for all ages. Another possibility is Farewell, Fred Voodoo  by American journalist Amy Wilentz, which I've not yet read.

Readalikes: The Poet Slave of Cuba (Margarita Engle); What Is the What (Dave Eggers)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Promoting Teen Books to Adult Readers

Clock at the Musee d'Orsay
My spare time has been occupied with preparations for a webinar that I'll be presenting on Thursday February 7 for the Education Institute, so I haven't been blogging much lately. The online talk is an hour long and will be about adults reading YA. If you are interested in attending, you can find all the information you need here. I'm passionate about this topic and looking forward to Thursday.

Meanwhile, as a result, books are going straight back to the library after I read them, without mention on my blog. I know that I'm going to regret not having a record of my thoughts on them, but there are only so many hours in a day... and when in a time crunch, I'd rather read than write.

NOTE added February 7: due to technical difficulties, the webinar date has been moved to February 21. That gives you lots of time to sign up!