March 14, 2018

Surveying Stories: Separating Fears and Identifying Heart's Desires in T. Kingfisher's SUMMER IN ORCUS

1. Don't worry about things that you cannot fix. 2. Antelope women are not to be trusted. 3. You cannot change essential nature with magic.

In the stressful days of last summer, Ursula Vernon, through the pen of T. Kingfisher, started a twice-weekly fantasy serial about an eleven-year-old girl. It was not, she informed her Patreons, for middle graders, despite the title character's age.

In time, the series became the highlight of a rather lackluster few months, and patrons hugely supported a Kickstarter to have it printed in hardback with illustrations by Lauren "Luve" Henderson. I chose to wait for the bound book to arrive, instead of finishing the serial, and frequently wondered exactly what in the conclusion of the book would prove it wasn't for middle graders... would it be Baba Yaga, and her scary dual nature as cranky grandmother type and periodic sales person carnivore? Would it be tragic Donkeyskin, or the frog tree? Could it be the deceit of Antelope Women everywhere? Or, the warlike legacy of Zultan Houndbreaker and the Queen-in-Chains? No - as Tech Boy and I read the finished copy, I reconfirmed that these are deliciously scary and delightfully fanciful elements which are a hook, drawing the reader onward.

So, where might the problem lie? In the journey.

As we've discussed before, middle school is an immense time of change and pressure, and in Summer's case, her main adversary in her journey to maturation is not her peers - they barely cause a blip in Summer's mind. It is instead her mother who is her adversary, jealous of her personal thoughts, encroaching on her personal space, and unable to allow her daughter a moment's peace without her smothering hopes and terrors, all in the name of love. Like a too-small pot causing roots to be knotted and unable to take in sufficient nutrients, Summer's mother isn't allowing her to grow.

Very few contemporary middle grade novels tackle the grinding, long-term phenomenon of the parental bullying/emotionally diminishing parent and the caretaker child (maybe the last one I read was by Cynthia Ryland in the 90's). This subject seems limited to YA readership, but for many children fulfilling the complex needs of a damaged parent begins in elementary school and morphs into something burdensome and strange well before high school. Summer's needy, hyperprotective mother and the journey which Summer undertakes into another world to find a similar issue isn't something every middle grader will be able to relate to, but the way the novel is written, with excitement and danger and wry humor, I believe that plenty of tweens will relate well enough not to be bored by Summer's fear, or the lack of major battle scene. SUMMER IN ORCUS is an excellent older middle grade novel with familiar tropes and portal novel elements. Summer's quest was to find her heart's desire... and in her search, we discover the desire of the hearts of most of us. With all that being said,

Let's survey a story!

When the witch Baba Yaga walks her house into the backyard, eleven-year-old Summer enters into a bargain for her heart’s desire. Her search will take her to the strange, surreal world of Orcus, where birds talk, women change their shape, and frogs sometimes grow on trees. But underneath the whimsy of Orcus lies a persistent darkness, and Summer finds herself hunted by the monstrous Houndbreaker, who serves the distant, mysterious Queen-in-Chains…

From the Hugo and Nebula award winning author of "Digger" and "Jackalope Wives" comes a story of adventure, betrayal, and heart's desire. T. Kingfisher, who writes for children as Ursula Vernon, weaves together a story of darkness, whimsy, hope and growing things, for all the adults still looking for a door to someplace else.

Baba Yaga is as ambiguous as she is terrifying. In Slavic folklore, she's almost seen as a trickster, at times being revered as a Crone of great wisdom and insight, and in other moments, an antagonistic threat parents use to frighten their children into submission. Baba Yaga might eat you. She might beat you about the head with her pestle. She might just pat you on the head, and go away. Really, you never know. The day Summer meets Baba Yaga is one of Baba's good days, according to the skull door knocker on her chicken-legged house...which speaks to anyone unwise enough to encounter Baba Yaga's door. Summer wisely checks the lay of the land via the skull - which proves to stand her in good stead later on.

Beginning a portal fantasy with the entrance of Baba Yaga is a clear signal to readers that chancy times are ahead - things could go perfectly well, and the story wind up with a significant HEA, or ... it could all go straight down the loo pretty much immediately, with lots of lumps and bruises from a well-wielded stone mortar. I loved that Baba Yaga both begins and ends this novel, which provides a perfectly satisfying story arc, and informs us that LIFE in the real world is just as chancy as a summer's day in Orcus... Baba Yaga introduces herself to Summer for the sole purpose, she says, of offering Summer her heart's desire. Summer doesn't go looking for this boon, nor does she ask for it, nor does she know what that could possibly be. And yet, when Baba Yaga offers you something... well, if you don't know if she'll suck your marrow or send you on your way, you take it... right? Or don't you? Summer's first lesson is quickly apparent, and repeats itself through the many traveling days, Be careful what you wish for.

Through the machinations of a lit candle and an opened door, Summer is plopped into another world without a map or much of a guide but a weasel in her pocket. Surprisingly, she does have instructions of a sort - three, guiding principles by which she must view life in Orcus... and possibly elsewhere. In the real world, we often encounter guiding principles framed by persons or institutions like churches, and if we're wise, we can understand and apply them. More often, in the high chaos and noise of the world we cannot and they're true things we remember after the fact, or which echo upon reading, but are soon forgotten. Summer mainly holds onto one of the rules, 1. Don't worry about things that you cannot fix. This serves her well both in Orcus and will when she's back home again.

As Summer is ostensibly in Orcus to locate her heart's desire, she is soon confused about why she has been sent to a land which has been once torn by war, and is now not quite healed and in so much need. How is it that human hearts are meant to find their truest voice in a world so filled with other things which are broken and leaking chaos and dying? With the addition of a nattily dressed gent called Reginald (of the Almondsgrove Hoopoes) and a splendid cottage wolf to their party, readers are reminded that the world isn't all bad, and that company along the road can make most things bearable.

The world is still broken, and grows darker - and this is where Kingfisher's novel may speak more to adults. Summer is still, in spite of everything, meant to be finding her heart's desire, as we often are called on to carry on with fixing things while on a personal level we're trying hard to shut out the noise and listen for ourselves. While it might be difficult for a tween to articulate, what we want, and who we want to be is at the beating centers of all of our hearts. The worst thing about having a mother like Summer's is that Summer cannot hear her own heart - she hears her mother's. She feels her mother's worries and frequent weeping fears. She bears her mother's burdens, and her grief. Summer has to deny her own self in favor of her mother, and it is a burden both unfair, unjust, and unwieldy. What Baba Yaga does for Summer in giving her Orcus, more than anything, is give her a time away from everything she has had to carry for so long, and lets her know that it has strengthened her enough to carry a cheese knife for someone else's sake. This resonated strongly with me.

This is where the magic lies -- in T. Kingfisher's book, and in all books which carry us away, in portal fantasy in particular, which allows us to believe that things could be different, if we opened the correct wardrobe, and in Orcus in specific, where Summer finally discovers that she can be all she thought she might be when she isn't bent double under an inheritance of anxiety and depression that isn't hers to own. Summer is, by Baba Yaga's observation, "dangerously ignorant," and it's not just of the world outside of her backgarden gate -- Summer is dangerously ignorant of herself. But, it's not wholly her fault - unless she refuses to do the work of looking within to know herself. This is subtly conveyed throughout the story - Summer makes several mistakes from sheer innocence, and it nearly costs her her life in the end - but after every flub, she learns to listen to herself, to hear, and to act on her own advice. At journey's end, you cannot imagine that Summer is still the same innocent, "sweet summer child," as it were. She Knows Things. She knows herself a little better. And that cannot help but change her, for the better.

In the larger world, family is imperfect - and entangled familial relationships often a burden, to be blunt. Our world is messy, dying, and packed full of the deceitful and unkind. And yet, the journey to find one's heart's desire can still be an adventure worth taking. The act of saving one tiny part of the dying world is still an action worth taking. One frog tree, alive and well, is worth all the bruises and terror, and deceptive antelope women in the world.

Afterward, when all has been said and done, Baba Yaga is there to grant you entrance back into the world from which you came - with its insults and burdens, and deceptions and degenerations. You are home. You may not have your cheese knife, but you can manage the battles in the real world, the battles between someone else's concerns, and the ones which concern you. And knowing that, more than anything, is the summation of any heart's desire, middle grader or adult.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of a Kickstarter purchase. You can find T. Kingfisher's SUMMER IN ORCUS in ebook form on Amazon, possibly in print via Sofawolf Press or as a freebie read on the Red Wombat Studio website. Enjoy.

March 13, 2018

2♦sdays@the treehouse: Challenge the Third: March

Welcome back to our monthly Second Tuesday writing challenge!

From January - June, every second Tuesday of the month, we're going to post an image here on Wonderland of a Creative Commons licensed Flickr picture to which you can respond - with poetic, prose, or whatever kind of writing - and hopefully, you'll share a link in the comments below, so that we can visit your site, read your work and respond. No genre or style limit - just come and join the fun!

Welcome back, it's March, which brings with it, famously, National Irish American Heritage Month (WHO KNEW), Purim, and the National Bubble Week celebration, which, I'm sure, is all the rage where there's still snow and ice crystals to photograph attractively over their surfaces. This month's image comes from Flickr user Philipp Rein of Augsburg, Germany. I'm intrigued by the stories which will come from this image, so without further ado:


I'm not going to bother with Inlinkz this month; just leave your link in the comments below, and we look forward to reveling in your inspiration! Happy writing!

March 12, 2018

Cybils Review: THE BIG BAD FOX by Benjamin Renner

Synopsis: I can't really beat the flap copy for this one, in terms of plot summary, so here you go, fresh from Amazon:

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Fox? No one, it seems.

The fox dreams of being the terror of the barnyard. But no one is intimidated by him, least of all the hens―when he picks a fight with one, he always ends up on the losing end. Even the wolf, the most fearsome beast of the forest, can’t teach him how to be a proper predator. It looks like the fox will have to spend the rest of his life eating turnips.

But then the wolf comes up with the perfect scheme. If the fox steals some eggs, he could hatch the chicks himself and raise them to be a plump, juicy chicken dinner. Unfortunately, this plan falls apart when three adorable chicks hatch and call the fox Mommy.

Beautifully rendered in watercolor by Benjamin Renner, The Big Bad Fox is a hilarious and surprisingly tender parable about parenthood that's sure to be a hit with new parents (and their kids too).

Observations: Funny cartoon animals and a classic-comic vibe will make this appealing for younger readers with a sense of humor that will appeal to somewhat older readers as well. New and returning fans of classic cartoons will enjoy all the silly visual gags and Looney-Tunes-style cartoon violence. It's a fun take on the Big Bad Wolf and classic animal story tropes, turning them on their head and making kids think twice about who the real bad guy is. The fun simplicity and humor of the cast of characters is appealing, and I enjoyed the lack of panel boundaries—it had a very loose but clear and easy-to-follow style.

click to embiggen

Conclusion: Fans of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Chicken Run, and Calvin & Hobbes should enjoy this one—the humor is fun for a wide range of ages and types of readers. Another winner from First Second!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher for the purposes of Cybils judging. You can find THE BIG BAD FOX by Benjamin Renner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 08, 2018

Cybils Review: SPINNING by Tillie Walden

Synopsis: First Second consistently puts out high-quality and varied graphic novels for audiences from kids to adults, and Spinning by Tillie Walden—one of our Cybils finalists for 2017 in Young Adult Graphic Novels—is a standout. It's a graphic memoir, a genre which I always find interesting (oddly enough, I'm not usually that interested in regular memoirs), and it's about (among other things) the world of figure skating, which is awfully topical with the Winter Olympics just past but is not a world I know the ins and outs of.

After reading Spinning, I have a lot better idea of what it's like to train as a competitive figure skater—and I can unequivocally say it would not have been for me. For the young Tillie, who has been a skater for ten years, figure skating is her life, her passion, her talent, and even her refuge. Until, that is, her family moves, and she starts at a new school. Not only is her environment new, she discovers she has new interests, like art. She also falls in love—with another girl. It takes some more time to realize maybe the rigid world of figure skating doesn't mean to her what it once did.

Observations: This book covers issues of growing up as a girl and coming to terms with sexuality across a wide age span, and should be accessible to a range of readers. It's easy to be flip and say it's a story about skating, but it's about so much more than that. It's also very down-to-earth both in writing/art style and in the narrator's way of looking at the world. Readers will recognize and relate to the various small and large dramas of coming of age—of friendship, competition, school, and learning who you are.
Image: Macmillan
Thematically, this one is complex—beneath the veneer of the ice-skating world, the importance of the story is really about Tillie learning who she is and learning to inhabit that self. Yet it remains easy to follow and clearly structured. As mentioned before, the style is down to earth—simple, clear, and effective—and keeps us focused on the story. The limitation to just a few colors lends atmosphere to the simplicity of the drawing.

Conclusion: This was truly deserving of being a Cybils finalist. It's wonderfully well-written, it's an intriguing glimpse into the world of professional ice skating, and it's a heartening story about the rollercoaster of coming to terms with who you are.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find SPINNING by Tillie Walden at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 06, 2018

Turning Pages Reads: FUM, by ADAM RAPP

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

NB: This is not going to be the average review; I finished this novel despite my better judgment, hoping for some twist in the narrative that I wasn't expecting, to make it work. I picked it up this book because of the title... and the fact that on the cover is a female. In fairytales, all the giants are male, and we have very few newer characterizations of tall girls in young adult literature, though the too-tall girl at the school dance was an ongoing trope for a lot of the earlier years of young adult lit. As this book was listed under fantasy, I thought it would be more of a fairytale. Last warning: It's not.

Synopsis: After a pituitary tumor changes her body at age eleven, Corinthia Bledsoe emerges as 7'4" and 287 pounds. She uses a special desk, and a special toilet, because she's broken two. Her vision of a terrible triumvirate of tornadoes - and her subsequent loud, panicked warning of the entire school - is treated as some kind of violent dysfunction worthy of her being tackled by grown men, one of whom fantasizes as he does so about her bodily strength, and the kind of impact that she'd have on the gridiron. While Corinthia is already famous for her size and special-built desk, and for having a custom-built bathroom on campus, having broken two toilets since freshman year, she becomes terrifyingly infamous when the tornadoes come.

The story spins between Corintha's increasingly disturbing relationship to the school and community to the tale of Billy Ball, who, struggling with gastrointestinal problems and reeling from the death of his father, is enacting unexplained racist cliché "red face" rituals and obsessing on Native Americans. Not fitting in at the same school, he comes up with a list of students and faculty with whom his path has crossed, and seems to be preparing himself for violence. He seems vaguely aware of Corinthia, but they only meet once, and it doesn't propel the narrative in any direction. The third subplot returns to the Bledsoe household, and to a closer focus on Corintha's mother, who believes herself to be somehow tragically martyred for being Corintha's mother, and whose adult desires seem to be more important to her than her children's struggles.

Despite being a junior, Corinthia doesn't seem to have much of a view of the future, something which her ineffectual guidance counselor tries to elicit from her constantly, though her good-natured father seems prepared to accept whatever she'd like to do. Instead of a future, Corintha is mired in the present, as her brother disappears, and her mother goes into crisis. In possibly the oddest story thread in the entire book, Corinthia takes a road trip with one of the workmen fixing the school post-tornado, a man called Lavert. Corinthia's friendship with him, a grown man with a criminal past, and her understanding of his mortality is definitely unexpected, and strains the credulity of the reader past bearing.

Observations: Grotesquerie is a 20th century literary convention which, according to Wikipedia, can be linked with sci-fi and horror. For me, this novel falls squarely under grotesquerie, simply because Adam Rapp seems to be thoroughly disgusted with everyone in the entire book, and in his disgust, renders them... disgusting. From the names of the characters and their ill-fitting, cacophonous names to the description of Corinthia herself beginning from page one - "woodsplitter's hands," and the "great caves of her nostrils." Descriptions of her menstruation and nosebleeds, and comparisons between the two are a lovingly-depicted gross-fest.

The narrative never takes off, as it is heavily weighted with an abundance of cloying description, producing a plodding plot in a claustrophobic storyline which draws in the unsuspecting reader with the idea of a real giantess and instead confronts them with body dysphoria juxtaposed with an awkwardness masquerading as intimacy. No one seems to grow or change; the bizarre incidents simply crowd together, threaded with domino-sized teeth and Together, this creates one of the most unkind and body-averse narratives I've ever read, and an alleged YA book which focuses less on the young adult, her challenges and changes than on her body, and the bodies of everyone around her.

The body-consciousness remains central to the novel. At 287 pounds, Corinthia is said to be pretty, but every other word out of the narrative disregards that, and paints her as disgusting and vile. She's said to be third in her class - but every other description has her acting in bizarre and outlandish ways designed to repel the reader. Finally, Corinthia is alleged to have destroyed two toilets, once emerging covered in toilet water and swamping the girl's restroom...which is ...ludicrous, ignorant, and insulting.

FACT: People heavier than 287 use toilets on the daily. FACT: Nothing happens. Toilets - regular old public restroom toilets, and certainly the floor-mounted, vitreous china sort used in public schools - are rated to bear the weight of a THOUSAND vertical pounds, and yes, I am the big nerd who looked that up, but this jarring falsehood stands out. 287 pounds is just a number, and anyone who weighs that is just - still - a person. These scenes felt like a badly set-up, dehumanizing fat joke rather than a story detail filling in the blanks about who Corinthia is and what she's about. Kids in high school are this weight on a regular basis, and stand to be hurt and insulted by this abhorrent characterization. Reader beware.

Corinthia - her family - her school - basically her entire corner of the State seems very white... yet the teens in the story are obsessed with people of color, to very significant degrees. Billy puts arrows in his hair and paints some racist cliche of warrior marks on his face. As her family dissolves, Corinthia begins to pal around with a grown man who is also a face-tatted, do-rag wearing cliché of a prison-release workman who, early in their relationship, refers to himself as "nigga"... For a novel which, up to that point, had displayed a casual lack of empathy for any of its characters, this white-guy-included racism wasn't entirely surprising, but still reveals very poor taste.

Conclusion: I normally consider it a waste of time to review a novel which I vehemently dislike, but I made an exception for this because I walked into it unaware of its topic, or of any reputation with regard to its author. I won't make the same mistake again. While some will assign this novel as an example of satire, or may find within it deep literary meaning, or even feel that it is merely misplaced in terms of audience, and would crossover well with adults, for me, there is too much left unexplained, and what may have been a brilliant venture does not pan out in its execution. My main thought is that it is disturbing, written with a specific distaste and aversion for the body, doesn't have a discernible story arc, and is not especially respectful of the challenges and changes of adolescents, especially female adolescents. With its comparisons to people as animals and its basic disrespect for the teen body or mind, this novel seems to be an experiment with a broad scope which failed.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 20, you can find FUM by Adam Rapp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 01, 2018

Cybils Review: THE DAM KEEPER by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi

Synopsis: I found out during Cybils deliberations that The Dam Keeper originated as an Oscar-nominated short animation, which makes me sad that I missed it. While I was growing up, I was a big fan of the Spike and Mike Festival of Animation, which introduced me really early on to faves like Nick Park/Aardman Animation and Pixar, now a household name. I'm guessing The Dam Keeper would've been right at home in that arena—and, in fact, both of the authors have worked for Pixar, so there you go.

Pig, who lives in Sunrise Valley, has a really important job he inherited from his father: he's the Dam Keeper, and he's responsible for keeping back the deadly black fog that threatens from outside the valley's walls. Unfortunately, he's been alone for a while—ever since his father inexplicably left and walked right out into the fog. And now, there's a huge wave of black fog on the horizon, and it's up to Pig, his best friend Fox, and the bully Hippo to figure out how to stop it.

Observations: This story's very cute animal characters will appeal to younger readers, but the touch of darkness to the storyline will broaden its age range—there's a depth of emotion here that doesn't shy away from difficult challenges like the departure of a parent or, I suppose, imminent death by scary black fog. The story and setting is unique and interesting—I love the touch of steampunk-type technology with the dam and its fog-busting fans—and the characters, while young, have plenty of agency as they set off on their quite possibly dangerous adventure.

While the story and characters are fun and strange, they deal with a variety of familiar themes that are of interest to elementary-aged readers: friendship and friendship conflicts; understanding bullies (Hippo is obnoxious, but Fox is there to tamp down his bullying and bring out his better side); who is safe to trust; missing parents. The art (which is digitally done, I think) is really striking, though I'm not necessarily into this particular style of cute animals personally. The artistry in terms of panels and pages was amazing, as was the use of atmosphere in depicting the fog and the darkness.

Conclusion: I can see this appealing to a generation of readers who have grown up with the style of digital art that's everywhere now—but it definitely transcends the mass-market stuff with its sense of artistry and intriguing story.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find THE DAM KEEPER by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 27, 2018


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Women who persist aren't a recent innovation. A history of intolerance, which led to insistent female resistance is not an uniquely American story, but one which nonetheless has heralded seismic shifts within our national history. After the success of A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS, editor Jessica Spotswood brings together twelve new tales of women who were upstarts and outsiders. From the 1830's through the 1980's, these stories, some based on actual events, others fictionalized accounts of historical periods, regale readers with young women who stood up and out as radically different, and in doing so, changed the way the world related to them. Contributors to this collection include young adult authors Jessica Spotswood, who also edited; Dahlia Adler, Mackenzi Lee, Erin Bowman, Megan Shepherd, Anne-Marie McLemore, Marieke Nijkamp, Dhonielle Clayton, Sarvenaz Tash, Stacey Lee, Meg Medina, and Sara Farizan.

Observations: Claiming an identity -- stepping outside of the role and voice assigned -- can be uncomfortable and awkward, intimidating, to downright dangerous and life-threatening. Without a clear idea of how things will end, each of the young women depicted in these stories sets out on a personal journey -- whether its to use her brown hands in the service of her country, when only paler hands are sought, or to make her escape from abuse, or to take her chances in a traditionally masculine world, playing a man's role. Readers will pause thoughtfully to discover these nuanced angles of history -- taking readers out of the realm of mere nostalgia into the realities of the difficulties and challenges of history through the voices of the traditionally excluded and silenced.

The women's outsider status is significant, as most of these voices are from women in the margins, due to issues of race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender, or professional desire. I appreciated the voices from early in our national history into more recent times. Some of my favorites were the story of the young Jewess, longs to study the Torah, and the Mormon girl who tries to find ties between her new country, and her faith. A Latina drains herself of pigment with the family's magic to bleach herself into the faded shades acceptable for silent films, while brilliant and neurodivergent young woman keenly watches court proceedings to determine the reproductive rights of the mentally unfit. Elsewhere, a half-Japanese girl braves 1950's xenophobia to compete to be the next Miss Sugar, while a young Cuban dons her first pair of go-go boots. The perspectives are fresh, the stories are original, and the anthology is a joy to read.

Conclusion: If you're not a short story aficionado, I think there's still plenty in this novel which will appeal. There's room to read and hop around, and then return to longer stories from time periods which you may not believe will hold your interest. You will be surprised!

In the editor's note, Spotswood outlines the purpose of this collection, and her wish that readers will be able to find themselves within these pages. Even as not a particularly radical individual, I found myself in the bravery and dauntlessness of these heroines, and I believe this book will work well for older middle graders, young adults, and adult readers.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. After March 13, 2018, you'll find THE RADICAL ELEMENT edited by Jessica Spotswood at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!