The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My 8th-grade book-talks buddy had me read chapter 3 for one of our weekly discussions, and that was that. Two days later I read this whole book and most of book 2 in the series in a single lazy day.

A few qualifications first and then I’ll just rave: Collins’s writing can occasionally be a bit awkward, syntactically speaking. A handful of times I noticed her phoning in some of the details so as to move on with the action. The writing style overall ran toward the simple (which I suspect is just a feature of YA, keeping it easy for younger readers), which I guess I noticed coming from often more convoluted styles; but there’s nothing wrong with simple when it’s clean and effective, which this writing almost always is.

And there’s no question that this is a compelling plot. I was quickly absorbed in the world of District 12, the last of the twelve districts of Panem that serve the Capitol, a city of riches and leisure built on suffering and privation. Panem was formed from the former United States, and District 12 was once Appalachia; its main contribution to Panem’s wealth is coal mining, which has gone on here for many hundreds of years, “which is why our miners have to dig so deep.” The main action is the Hunger Games themselves, an annual fight-to-the-death, survivalist, reality-show-entertainment, punishment-for-rebellion event the Capitol inflicts upon the districts. Each district provides two tributes each year, a boy and a girl, ages 12-18. These 24 teens are thrown into an arena (designed by the Gamekeepers) until only one emerges. The whole thing is televised in fine detail; when things get dull, the Gamekeepers spice them up with extra challenges, manufactured “wild” animals, “natural” disasters, and the like.

Note the conflation of “reality television” with the battle royale. Violence as entertainment (for the Capitol) and violence-as-entertainment as cautionary tale (for the districts, a repeat of whose long-ago uprising these Games are meant to deter). There is some level of metaphor and real-world commentary available here for those looking out. I think most pointedly, the reader is never allowed to forget that these are games, and that there is an audience to play for. Tributes can be supported during the Games by gifts from sponsors, dropped by parachute; they’re motivated to play for the cameras, appeal to prospective sponsors and be likeable for the Gamekeepers, who have the power to skew things toward life or death.

If Collins’s sentence-level writing is not the finest I’ve read lately, her imagination and execution are excellent. The world of Panem and the Games, the drama and spectacle, and her characters are completely engaging. Our first-person narrator and hero is Katniss, who’s been supporting her mother and younger sister since she was 12 years old. Her fellow tribute in these Games is local baker’s son Peeta, with whom her relationship will be complicated. She must leave behind not only the beloved younger sister but her hunting buddy and possible budding romantic interest Gale. Some of the staffers who make up the workings of the Games will become personalities of interest, as well. The worldbuilding is solid, as are both plot and character development. Pacing and suspense are expert; again, I raced through this book in part of a day and then rolled straight into book 2.

I’m very impressed, frankly, and reminded that we shouldn’t undersell YA. I love being absorbed into a new world – even a dystopian one. And I can’t wait to find out what comes next.


Rating: 8 grooslings.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, à la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Dianné Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

What a very special treat. Thank you, Julie, for this gift.

I loved this book as a child, the series in fact, and I remember that my mother blamed the small missing items in our household on the Borrowers. They are a part of my childhood mythology. As I type these words, I have only just lost a low-ankled white sock in the wash, and am hoping it will still turn up, but maybe I have Borrowers now.

This is a children’s book, I’m thinking grade school ages, and I don’t read a ton of books of this sort; I wonder if I’d appreciate it as much if I approached it as an adult without memories… but what a charming and comforting book I find it now. The Borrowers are a little people (the patriarch is “about as tall as a pencil”) who live in the floors and walls and hidden spaces of the big houses that belong to the “human beans.” They have a society of their own, and it is part of their worldview that the human beans exist to serve the Borrowers, who make a living by “borrowing” from the beans (Not stealing! because the human beans exist just for this purpose). Pod, the father, makes button-boots out of kid gloves. Homily, the mother, is very proud of her sitting room wallpaper (scraps of letters out of waste-paper baskets), and carpet (blotting paper). And Arietty, our protagonist, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sleeps in a bedroom made of two cigar boxes. The family has postage stamps hung on their walls, like paintings. They eat tiny scraps and sips of the human beans’ meals: leftovers, if you will.

The story was familiar to me, but the fine details pleased me all over again. Pod borrows, Homily frets, and Arietty dreams. The child has lived her whole life beneath a floor, and yearns for a wider world. But when she gets access to it, she gets closer to the human beans than any Borrower should, and this threatens the safety of everyone she loves. There is danger, rising action, and a moment of truth: will the human beans turn out to mean ruin, or salvation? Is it better after all to live beneath the floor, or venture out?

The frame for this story, sort of like in The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride, takes up little enough room at the start that we almost forget about it by the time we return to it: a young girl named Kate sews with an elderly relation, Mrs. May, while the latter relates the events, of how Arietty and her family got into such a pickle, and what might have become of them. This allows for some lovely remarks on the nature of story-telling. As this young girl protests the uncertainties:

‘Kate,’ she said after a moment, ‘stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.’

‘But not at this kind of point,’ said Kate.

And fair enough, Kate, no one likes to be left hanging. That’s why there are sequels: this is in fact a series of five books. Realistically, you know I’m not going to get to the others any time soon, but as I closed the covers of this much-loved book, I wanted to jump straight into the next one. There’s nothing like a parallel world to spark the imagination.


Rating: for its age group, 9 safety pins.

movie: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I’m so glad I went to see this new Disney film of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel. It was admittedly not a perfect translation of the book into movie form, but that’s often just not possible, especially in a sci fi story like this one; it can be hard to not expect perfect reproduction when we love a book, but adjusting expectations is an important part of enjoying the movie version. There’s a reason they call it adaptation.

It’s been a few years since I reread the book, and I thought this site did a decent job of summing up some of the book-to-movie changes. I appreciated the modernizing details, including Mrs. Who’s quotations, the awesome soundtrack, and the general setting. I also count it as a modernizing detail that the Murrys became a multiracial family. Storm Reid was an absolutely inspired casting choice. This is a visually stunning movie, with resources clearly invested in costumes and colorful CGI; and the actors are all gorgeous people to boot. (The multiracial cast has made this more a story for everyone than it used to be, but it’s still a story of beautiful people, even if they’re now beautiful people of a range of skin tones.) Eye candy, without a doubt. And a star-studded cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis!

My personal memory, or shall we say impressions, from the novel (and it’s been a while) involved more math and science than came into play in the film. As the Den of Geek’s reviewer noted, Meg was more of a nerd in the original. And I’d count this change as a real loss: to glorify nerds is a noble aim. I did love that she had to use her faults, had to refer to her own shortcomings in order to overcome a challenge. On the other hand, appealing to the love of another as her salvation, rather than loving herself, felt like a slightly less positive message for young girls (which I do read as partly the aim of the story, in either form).

Visually beautiful, enjoyable, uplifting, fun, and feel-good. Totally worth taking your sons and daughters to go see. And for that matter, take yourself: I went to a nighttime showing and we were all adults there, and that’s totally worthwhile, too.

I still need to get back to the rest of the Time Quintet.


Rating: 8 intricate braids.

books for children

There are no babies in the household or extended biological family of pagesofjulia, but when I considered getting rid of my own baby/children’s books years ago, upon some move, my friend Liz protested. She told me that one day I would know babies, and I would wish I had books for them. And she has been right, again. Thanks, Liz.

I’ve been visiting with a baby recently, a family friend, a sweet little brown-eyed three-year-old who mostly remains quiet when I’m around but I’m told asks about me when I’m not. For her, for a recent visit, I dug out these four books which had been mine when I was small.

Giant Treasury of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter


Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr


The Patchwork Cat by William Mayne, illus. by Nicola Bayley


The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by Tomie dePaola

It sort of tickled me to observe that these were all about animals.

And for the coming holidays, I have these two in hand for the same little girl:


Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story, words and pictures by Dick Gackenbach


Madeline’s Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans


Several years ago I passed on a few classics to a friend’s new son, who is now going on five years old.

The Legend of the Bluebonnet: An Old Tale of Texas retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola


The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola


And, I’ve just bought some board books for a baby friend for the holidays:

A Pocket for Corduroy by Don Freeman


Caldecott winner The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats


Baby Touch and Feel: Animals


The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter


Baby Faces


These all in board book format, because this baby with her sticking-up hair is barely nine months old. I also got her an autographed copy of Katie Fallon’s Look, See the Bird!, but I know she won’t be ready for that one for a while.

Look, See the Bird! by Bill Wilson and Katie Fallon, illus. by Leigh Anne Carter


All of this is out of my comfort zone as a book reviewer, as babies are themselves out of my comfort zone, but it feels good to make some effort to pass on what I love and to help these parents out.

I confess I’m charmed by looking for the books I myself enjoyed as a child, rather than the new stuff. But then I come across an article like this one and am excited all over again. Of course I must link here as well to Shelf Awareness’s children’s gift book issue, for those searching for more recent titles – my children’s book review colleagues at the Shelf do such a swell job. Maybe next year I’ll do a better job of taking their advice!

What have you learned, as parents or just friends of parents, about books and gift-giving outside of your own comfort zones? Have any books to recommend for babies or small people?

NBC’s The Wiz Live! (2015)

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?

wiz

First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.


Rating: 7 winged warriors.

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents The Little Prince

little princeThe Little Prince is a magical tale, and I was immediately sold on the idea of a local production, performed by young people no less. The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Drama Camp culminated in this production after less than two weeks; the ability of these teens to stand up with confidence and memorized lines after such brief prep is impressive enough, even if the play hadn’t been beautifully and feelingly done, which it was. Wow.

This was a musical production, and as I said about The Drowsy Chaperone, there were moments of less than perfect polish: these actors (whether youth or adult) are not professionals. But that’s okay! In fact, like when I go to watch college or adult-league sports, it’s part of the charm: I can see that these are “just” real people, like me, pursuing a passion. And I’m not criticizing. The level of performance here was very high – just not Broadway.

There were several very strong singers up there, especially the young lady who played the flower, but they all played their parts well. I felt the magic of St. Exupery’s original work, as these young actors communicated all the emotion of the pilot – his frustration, his regrets – and the prince, whose innocence is part of his appeal. I felt happy and lucky to be in the small audience. Thank you, Neighborhood Playhouse, and to the kids: bravo.


Rating: 7 snakebites.

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents A Year With Frog and Toad

the first book

the first book

You know I love to go to the theatre. I noticed a poster around Christmas for this production, which is based on a series of children’s books I remember, the Frog and Toad adventures written & illustrated by Arnold Lobel. I loved the idea of a play built on these sweet, simple stories, and the price was right. When I had time to think of it a little more, I wondered if “children’s theatre” was really something I wanted to see; but they did bill it as being fun for adults, too. Shrug. My parents and I went on a Sunday afternoon… and I’m so glad we did!

frog and toadFrog and Toad’s adventures have made it to musical theatre, and only five actors play all the roles: Frog and Toad, of course, are joined by a menagerie of birds, moles, turtle, lizard, snail and squirrel, which roles are shared between the other three. We thought the musical format was “inspired” (my dad’s word), but it turns out to be the inspired choice not of The Neighborhood Playhouse but of Lobel’s daughter, who commissioned the piece in 2000, according to Wikipedia, which also points out that this is a popular choice for community theatre groups, as we saw here. It is really sweet, and cute – in the spirit of the original books. Frog and Toad are neighbors and good friends, and share an entirely good-hearted, caring day-to-day life. They interact with the other woodland creatures in good-hearted ways; it is positively heartwarming (cynics beware), and in musical form, both hilarious and charming. I found it ran a little long for the age group that formed the audience, at nearly two hours. But the performances – singing, dancing and acting – were quite seriously good, far better than the under-10-years crowd would have required, I suppose, and plenty impressive to those of us adults unaccompanied by babes. My favorite character was Snail.

I think it’s great that TNP is out there producing such quality, affordable theatre; and I liked the venue, the Bellingham Theatre Guild, an intimate setting in a former church. I will be looking for more. Hooray for the new hometown!

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, trans. by Richard Howard

little princeThe Little Prince is a classic children’s book that has been on my list for some time, so imagine my surprise when it appeared as well in a book I recently enjoyed, Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes. I had no idea that Saint-Exupéry played a role in the Spanish Civil War – apparently he volunteered there as a pilot. This helped The Little Prince jump to the top of my list, and here we are.

As it is a children’s book, it was an easy, quick read, just under 90 pages and full of delightful illustrations by Saint-Exupéry himself. These illustrations are an important part of the story: the power of art, and its greater or lesser power to realistically capture appearances. Apparently my edition is a new translation, by Richard Howard, and comes with newly restored illustrations as well. Howard opens with a brief meditation on the important work of translation that I found thought-provoking.

And then the story itself, which concerns our narrator, a pilot crashed and stranded in the African desert, and the little prince he is surprised to meet there. The prince tells us he has come from his own tiny little planet, far away. He is worried about a very special flower he left there. Thus proceeds the story of the little prince, and our pilot’s somewhat clumsy attempt to help; the prince’s departure, and the pilot’s dealing with it.

The morals here are sweet, as one might expect, and as I hadn’t expected, also offer some words about handling grief and loss. The image of one’s departed friend living in the stars and comforting us from afar is familiar and cozy. The Little Prince also comments on the strangeness of the adult world:

If you tell grown-ups, “I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves on the roof…,” they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, “I saw a house worth a hundred thousand francs.” Then they exclaim, “What a pretty house!”

…That’s the way they are. You must not hold it against them. Children should be very understanding of grown-ups.

Further allegory and comment are provided by the little prince’s bemusement at the confused values of those he meets on his interplanetary travels, before reaching Earth: the king, the vain man, the drunkard, the businessman, the lamplighter, the geographer; and those (considerably wiser) he meets on Earth before the pilot: snake, flowers, and others; and the wisest of all, a fox. It is the fox that teaches him that “anything essential is invisible to the eyes” and that “you become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”

A beautiful story, sweetly told and charmingly illustrated, with layers to appreciate on different readings and at different ages: everything a kid’s book should be.


Rating: 7 boas with elephants inside them.

on children’s books

In another episode of synchronicity, I was already going to write this post (for reasons below), when Shelf Awareness shared this item of “book candy”: 10 Children’s Books That Made Us, tagline “these beloved images and words defined the boomer generation.” Let’s be clear: I am not a boomer, but the child of boomers. So I was a little surprised to see that I grew up with all 10 of the books listed. Part of article author Linda Bernstein’s point was that boomer children loved these books enough to share them with their children, of course, so I can’t be all surprised. But still… I thought I was a Goodnight Moon baby, not that my mother was. Still fresh for me, you see. In fact, it was first published in 1947 – who knew? I guess that’s one definition of a classic: timelessness. I know there are new children’s books for every generation, and I know some of them are excellent (I’ve heard. I’m not a big reader of kid’s books myself), but I do hope that new parents are still turning to such geniuses as Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak for their children’s reading development and enjoyment.

But back to our regularly scheduled programming.

In reading Great Bear Wild by Ian McAllister (excellent!! but wait for my review at Shelf Awareness to learn more), I was charmed by discussion of the unique, complex, and surprisingly human-like social structures of wolves. This resonated with me because I remember clearly reading (and rereading) Julie of the Wolves, a kid’s “chapter book” by Jean Craighead George, and a Newbery Medal winner. Here is my plot summary, strictly from memory, so feel free to double-check me… a young girl (~13 years) escapes a forced marriage in an Alaska village into the tundra on her own. She has a few basic survival tools & skills, but of course finds herself in trouble in the winter, until she is adopted by a pack of wolves – not without her own efforts at observing them, mimicking their gestures of submission, and begging for food and help. They save her. And the reader learns a good deal about wolf packs.

This got me thinking about others in the category (children’s “chapter books”) that I loved, that I read and reread, and that helped form my love of reading. As a child, I read lots of books – lots! – but this is the list of those that still come to my mind, fondly, today.

  • Eva by Peter Dickinson
  • Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
  • The Borrowers series by Mary Norton
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books
  • of course, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series
  • Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren
  • Hatchet (and others) by Gary Paulsen
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
  • Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

(Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I browsed the list of Newbery Medal winners, I found several of these titles there.)

What do you remember fondly from your childhood? Do they still resonate with you today?

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