Small in the City

There is an event for this book. If you live in or near Toronto, you should go. I can’t, since I live in Boston, so I called the store and ordered a signed, personalized copy. They were very, very nice about it. 

Then I got the call from my local shop that the copy I’d preordered there had come in, so I picked it up.

Yes, all of this was sight unseen for this book. But, listen: Sydney Smith, right? Remember The White Cat and the Monk? Remember Town Is by the Sea?

Small in the City.jpg

See that cover? Yes, I knew it was an important book.

Because Sydney Smith, that’s why. I knew him as an illustrator, yes, but I had a hunch that he’d be equally as important as an author.

I wasn’t wrong. I was more than right.

This is a book everyone needs, child or adult. It is wise and straightforward, advice from a child to someone close to that child who needs help.

Who is that someone? I’m not going to tell you that. Buy a copy (or two) and find out.

But it’s about vulnerability. The child is small in a big city. That makes the child vulnerable, in some sense. But also wise: able to give advice to someone else who is small in a big city. That makes the child strong, in some sense.

Now, I’m not going to tell you much more about the book itself, for fear of spoiling its beauty as a first read for you. But I’m going to tell you a secret:

I was once a small child in a big city and felt very vulnerable. I would wager a considerable number of precious books that I’m not alone in that feeling. It took me a while to feel strong and wise, and one of the defining events for me was locating “safe spots”: my favourite libraries and book shops and cafés near libraries where I could sit and read my books. Then I was able to recommend these spots to other people. Then I felt wise and strong.

But I will always, always feel heartbroken for the child I was: small in the city.

If you, too, were that person? And I’d wager many of you were? You will feel connected to this book.

But I also recognize, sitting here now, relating my story, how fortunate I was. The people I advised on lovely book shops were strong and wise in turn. They were not small and vulnerable.

And now, as an adult, looking around me– it’s the small and the vulnerable who break my heart.

And so, if you were once small in a big city. If you feel heartache for others who are small in a big city. If you were or are vulnerable and want to reach a hand to those who were or are vulnerable…

This book is for you.

This is where I’m desperately, desperately trying to find a page of artwork to show you Sydney Smith’s glorious ink and watercolour and gouache art… but I don’t want to spoil any of the surprising twists in this beautiful story for you. So I’m going to keep this short.

Just trust me, OK? And trust Sydney Smith. It is beautiful. You need it. You will love it.

And it will probably make you cry, in the best way possible.

Please write to me about it!

Hungry Jim

First things first because I’m so happy with you all:

To those of you who wrote to me about Joan Aiken? THANK YOU. I knew you were out there, but having the opportunity to hear from others, on the blog and in my inbox, that, yes, she really is that great– what a priceless opportunity. I’ve sent out most of your books, but the rest will be going out early this week. You have no idea how happy you made me. Please, keep writing!

As for today’s book? This is a new one, and one I suspect will stick around for a while.

Hungry Jim.jpg

Laurel Snyder occupies a soft spot in my heart as the author of the first book I reviewed for this blog. Go on, search for it– it’s a good one. (Hint: Swan) (We still read it, it still makes me cry.)

Well, her new book, Hungry Jim, illustrated by Chuck Groenink, shows her breadth and dynamic range as an author: where Swan was lyrical, quiet, and constantly striving for the next great aesthetic moment, Hungry Jim is at war with itself: angry, scared of its own anger, and growling for the next meal.

Also? Swan is not funny. Hungry Jim is very, very funny.

Both are high achievements, but Swan made me cry and think and Hungry Jim made me laugh and think.

But to focus in on Hungry Jim as the book we’re actually talking about today, I want to first give you a sense of what the book’s about, and then we can talk about why it’s on this blog today.

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, because a) Chronicle Makes Good Books; b) Laurel Snyder Writes Good Books, and c) Chuck Groenink Illustrates Good Books. But I went in with no preconceptions– completely uncertain of the story. And since I think that’s the way to go I’m going to try not to spoil much for you. But.

Well, Jim wakes up one morning and he’s hungry. Good: His mother is calling out that pancakes are read! But he’s not hungry for pancakes. After a war between his sense of being Jim and the desires of his stomach… his stomach seems to win, and Jim runs for it, into the forest. So, Jim has to sort out Who He Is, and when he does– he’s sated. He returns home to the town from the forest… and everything is just the way it was (sort of) and he has pancakes.

Great. What a simple story. (Sort of.)

But there’s more to it, of course. It’s hard to relate what makes it so special without spoiling it all, so I’m going to let my daughter’s reaction speak for me here. When I read it to the Changeling tonight, she giggled, at one point she hid behind my shoulder, and then she snuggled into me at the end. I closed the book and she said, “That was a good book, wasn’t it?”

I agreed, and said, “It reminded me of another book, did you feel the same way?”

She said, “Yes! Jim is like Max and he runs into the forest in the same way.” (Referring to Where the Wild Things Are.)

And, yes, there is a very not-so-subtle poking into the Maurice Sendak aesthetic and humour at work here. It’s done without any gentleness and yet with great sensitivity. The activity of anger and primordial hunger as almost independent forces– that’s Sendak. The war of the wild against quiet domesticity– totally Sendak. The enactment of the bestial in the safe space of the wilderness– Sendak again!

This isn’t my daughter just being brilliant: the book is consciously dedicated to Sendak, for crying out loud; it’s all in the open and I’m not spoiling anything for anyone. (Sort of.)

But it could be a disaster, couldn’t it? If someone had told me before reading, “This book is a conscious homage to Sendak,” I’d have hesitated. Sendak is sort of hard to do, he was so original.

That’s where Laurel Snyder and Chuck Groening come in, though: they don’t try to “do Sendak.” They do themselves, but they themselves love Sendak so ardently that Sendak just… comes through, and because they understand Sendak so very well, he comes through without timidity, without false delicacy, and yet taken very seriously.

In short, read it yourselves and see: there are pages that whisper “is this a bit like Sendak?” (for me the opening felt like that) and there are pages that scream “OK WE’RE TALKING ABOUT SENDAK HERE,” and those are both done brilliantly, right down to the glorious bold line- and colourwork of the art.

But, you know, folks: ignore me on this one.

If the fact that I told you that my 6-year-old daughter read it with me, giggling and hiding and ultimately snuggling up and contemplatively comparing it to Sendak hasn’t sold you on the book? Well, I don’t know what I can say.

Except that this is a book kids will love and identify with– and so will adults.


Happy Birthday, Joan Aiken!

Well, we’ve talked about Joan Aiken before: beloved author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels, and of numerous short stories, including my personal favourite collection, A Necklace of Raindrops. (Fuzzy image grabbed from the web. Sigh.)

A Necklace of Raindrops.jpg

But I don’t think I’ve ever said in public what I’ve said to numerous people in private: She and Trina Schart Hyman are the two people in children’s literature I most regret never writing to while they were alive.

(In the opera world, I most regret never writing to Dame Joan Sutherland.)

If she were alive today, this might be what I could write to her:

Dear Joan Aiken,

When I first read A Necklace of Raindrops as a child of perhaps nine or ten, I thought they must be written long, long ago and far, far away by someone today or merely yesterday in a neighbouring town. I was terribly confused by timing and place (I hadn’t yet learned to just read the copyright page for information on when or where a book was written), and terribly excited to learn that fairy tales could be written about kids like me and animals I loved.

Today, at age 32, this still excites me when I read your stories over again.

Just this past month, while I was on a family trip to England, I discovered a copy of your first novel when I was at Hatchard’s, and accordingly bought it, as I have an unbreakable rule of never passing up a book of yours which is new to me. So I read The Kingdom and the Cave. It’s not a very long book, but it took me a while to read it as a I put it down repeatedly to mutter to myself about how you were “only seventeen!” and “it’s just impossible!” I may even have gone on a mini-rant to my husband regarding how I didn’t know whether I “should hand in my pen or sit down straightaway and use it.”

Then I calmed down a bit, thought it through, and knew that you would tell me to “sit down straightaway and use it,” so I shall. Because fairy tales are out there for the telling, and so are realist stories (which are, I think, just fairy tales with the fairies well-hidden, honestly) and all other stories, too, whether on Tuesdays or on Mondays. [Note to blog readers: if you don’t catch the reference, read The Serial Garden.]

The point of all of that isn’t just that you inspire me, both by your life and by your writing, but that your stories seem to run through my veins, probably because I’ve read them since I was very young– but also perhaps because you pick up on something universal and human. Your characters aren’t “flawed and human,” in the way that newspaper articles gleefully write about unlikable modern characters I was forced to read in middle school and high school. They’re just… people. People who might have unicorns in the garden, or who have names like Dido, or who can speak UAL, but are somehow the most human people I’ve ever met and whom I love like dear friends.

And I want to write people like that into being. If I ever manage? It will be because of your example and your mentorship, even though I never had the sense to write to you while you were alive.

So my pledge on your 95th birthday, even though you can’t celebrate it on the corporeal plane, is to help maintain your memory and get more people reading your books.

Thank you for all the stories, and for all the friends.

Deborah Furchtgott

And so, here I am, dear readers, back to you again. As I said, I want to encourage people to read Joan Aiken’s books. How? I’m going to do what I do: give them away!

I happen to have on my table by me a copy of the Joan Aiken which started it all for me (A Necklace of Raindrops) and the first Joan Aiken novel I ever read as an adult (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase). I also pledge to buy The Serial Garden and Black Hearts in Battersea.

Here’s what you have to know:

a) I will give you a copy of A Necklace of Raindrops or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or The Serial Garden or Black Hearts in Battersea. That’s right: four books. First come, first served.

b) Write to me at Say which book you want. If your first choice is taken, I will reply and give you a second shot. (If there are a lot of you, and/or if you’re REALLY REALLY REALLY nice? Maybe I’ll get an additional copy of the one you want most. This is a 95th birthday party, after all. Kind of a big deal.)

c) Giveaway is open NOW. If you tell me what you want today, it may go in the mail as soon as tomorrow or Friday. It will stay open until all four books are claimed.

d) As usual, I will ship anywhere in the world. I will pay shipping.

What’s the catch? YOU MUST PROMISE TO READ IT. That’s it. All I want is for people to read Joan Aiken books.

So don’t delay– wish Joan Aiken a happy birthday by reading one of her books!

Postcard from London

 in London and not going to spend much time on you because, um, did I mention I’m in London? BUT: On the plane on the way over to London (which is where I am) I read one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a while. I acquired my copy at my local Children’s Book Shop, and I recommend you do the same. 

Actually I don’t. You see, I went in only to discuss how to buy foreign language books, and I left with this beautiful book. Going into excellent, friendly, well-curated indie book shops will do BAD THINGS to your wallet, I warn you!


In posting this picture for you, I realized something dreadful: Grace Lin seems to have written two other books I’ll now have to read.

What’s the book about? Stories. Stories about stories are among my favourite sorts of stories, and this one is not only beautifully written, but exquisitely illustrated (in colour, no less!) and creatively typeset.

You may want to see some charming books from London, and I’ll be going to Hatchard’s on Sunday, but so far I only got to visit Librairie La Page in South Kensington (I was with others and didn’t get to see their children’s books, more’s the pity!) and a few very beautiful books at the Victoria and Albert Museum:



And some beautiful glossed Bibles I don’t have time to share with you because they require editing– and did I mention I’m in London? More later.

International Cat Day

Twitter tells me very prominently that today is International Cat Day. This gives me an excuse to boost some truly excellent books we haven’t discussed in a while!

Limited text today– but I’ll give you links!

A Castle Full of Cats by the incredible Ruth Sanderson

Castle Full of Cats

Trina Schart Hyman’s exquisite, cat-heavy, retelling of Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood TSH

The White Cat and the Monk still gives me shivers and smiles in equal measure.

Pangur Ban

And Big Cat, Little Cat still makes me cry! (Sorry, that link is to IndieBound because I can’t find my post quickly enough…)

Big Cat little cat

They All Saw A Cat will change how you look at cats forever…

They All Saw A Cat

And Catwings will change how you look at life, the world, and others (typical Ursula Le Guin!)


And if I Am a Cat doesn’t make you smile, at least once, go to the doctor.

I Am a Cat

What about you? Do you have any International Cat Day plans?

(Every day is Cat Day in our house, so let me diversify by showing you Weo the Wombat, latest denizen of our house, wearing… sunglasses…? Probably better not to ask.)


Queen of the Sea

I know, I know, I promised you a Charles Darwin book list, and first I give you the Liddy family and now this– don’t worry, you’ll get it! (I still love those books, but I’m easily distracted, as we all know.)

But I just read the most fantastic graphic novel and I have to tell you about it while it’s: a) fresh in my mind, and b) NEW. AVAILABLE. BUY IT NOW. (I got it at my local Children’s Book Shop, you can surely buy it at yours!)

Queen of the Sea.jpg

I’m still pretty new to the graphic novel medium, but, boy do I love it! Especially done so well as Dylan Meconis’s Queen of the Sea is: it feels fresh, new, yet timeless. It will last. Graphic novels done properly have everything I love about really good picture books, but on steroids. (Or maybe picture books done properly are like perfect graphic novels pared down to the pristine essentials. I don’t know which way it really goes, but they’re obviously related.)

The point is this: Dylan Meconis, in this case, is both verbal and visual storyteller and she gets it on point in both regards. This is perfect and you need it in your life. I’ll tell you why.

So, the story is set in Albion at the end of the reign of King Edmund, who leaves behind him two daughters: Eleanor, who ought to take the throne, and Catherine, who does take the throne, and rules with a high and bloody hand. The story is a loosely-veiled alternate history of the early days of Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, and it’s really got everything in it: folklore, mystery, history, a recipe for Truly Terrible Gruel, allegory, A FREAKING EMBROIDERY LESSON– I kid you not, this book is packed… and it never, for a fraction of an instant, feels overwhelming.

The story is gripping and moves along at a beautiful, measured pace, doubtless in part because the text is pared down to move quickly, but the art is so dynamic and blossoms so vividly on each page that it slows you down to catch each glorious detail. And the interjections about the monastic life, embroidery, and folklore simultaneously slow things down a bit more (“ah,” you catch yourself thinking, “what an interesting side note!”) and enrich the text (“oh,” you think ten pages further along, “that’s what that was for!”).

It’s a feat of storytelling genius, in other words. If Alan Moore could possibly have written for children, it might look something like this. OK, if you know Alan Moore’s work I just blew your mind, and if you don’t, you’re confused. Let me explain: a) To fans of Alan Moore: I know, the thought of Moore writing for kids is laughable, and the idea of comparing anyone to his genius is sacrilege. Stay with me a moment. b) To the uninitiated: Alan Moore pushes boundaries with his storytelling (the whole fictionalized history thing makes me think of that) and he also creates verbal mosaics of different styles, voices, and ideas. Dylan Meconis does this brilliantly with her wide array of characters and formats, from hagiography to history to witty and biting dialogue about chess, and so much more.

One of the overarching feats of Queen of the Sea is that it’s fresh and new, and a lot of that is down to the voice. It’s so easy for history books to get it wrong, but this is written very specifically for children without talking down to children, on the one hand, or speaking to adults while pretending to be for children, on the other hand.

The story is thrilling, the art is beautiful, and my six-year-old daughter is fascinated by it to a degree I find unfathomable. (It’s way, way too old for her and all she know is that it’s about a girl beside the sea. She’ll get there in four years, approximately.) That’s the attraction of the art at work. But the attraction of the words is just as strong: my brother-in-law was visiting, and he must have gotten about halfway through it, just drawn in by the story and the art, in the few hours he was in the house, while simultaneously being a charming guest. That’s how quickly the magic works.

And that’s the other wonderful thing about this graphic novel, although I feel sort of bad saying so: It’s so quick and easy to read. I don’t mean it’s “easy” as in “light” or “fluffy.” It’s just that it took me about two hours to read the whole thing. That’s it. Then I thought about it and went back over it and am now gushing to you, so it stayed with me. But graphic novels move. They move fast.

That makes me think about audience. This is obviously– perfectly– a book for nerds. I’d have loved it as a history nerd in middle school. (Around age 9 or 10, probably, or any age over that.) But I wonder whether it wouldn’t also entice a reluctant historian? “Who are these dead people I have to learn about?” I imagine someone whining. “Well,” says Dylan Meconis, “let’s talk about that, shall we?” It’s a hook into another world, just like any great work of fiction, but it’s also a hook into the world of history.

And that’s why I think it’s going to last. It’s not just a work of fiction, it’s also a work of history. And a good one. Good histories and good novels last. This is both, and I think it will prove timeless as a representation of how a brilliant twenty-first century mind grappled with the sixteenth century. I hope it does. And I hope for two other outcomes: a) That others will look at Dylan Meconis’s groundbreaking work and decide to follow in her footsteps in their own way, and b) that Dylan Meconis will continue writing and drawing for children. We need her work!

Here’s the catalogue link again.

Kate Thompson: Liddy Family Trilogy

Dear lovers of literature, today you get a special treat: Irish lore brought into the modern context and turned into a trio of the most satisfying novels I’ve read lately. Novels that will break your heart and heal your soul and make you laugh out loud.

Now the first thing to understand is that Kate Thompson (that’s her website there) writes whereof she knows: she writes about her own world, Ireland, and its music and literature. She writes with touching love about this material and its dual nature: ephemeral, yet lasting.

The stories are actually pretty straightforward and almost beside the point for what I want to tell you about, which is family and history and the power of nature.

The first novel, The New Policeman, introduces you to the family we come to love: the Liddy family in Kinvara, which is passionate about music and dancing. J.J. Liddy is just a boy, profoundly attached to his family and its history. He’s particularly attached to the music they play. But one day he realizes that time is leeching out of Ireland into another dimension and he finds himself over in T’ír na n’Óg (the land of eternal youth from Irish lore) trying to save both worlds– the world of his earthly family, and T’ír na n’Óg, the land he soon realizes is equally connected to his family history.

That’s where we start, in the world of J.J. Liddy from about 70 years ago. But then we fast-forward to 2007, the “present day” of The Last of the High Kings, which takes us into trickier territory. This novel embroils us in not only the history of changelings and magic, but also in family tensions and, deepest of all, the first stirrings of terror over the fate of the world: global warming.

The final novel, The White Horse Trick, takes us into the future: J.J. Liddy is no longer in Ireland, but in T’ír na n’Óg. But Ireland is in dire trouble, and his family is– well, I’m not going to spoil this for you. Suffice it to say: the hints of global warming have completely manifested themselves in this novel and it is heart-breaking to see the horrors which overtake beautiful Ireland, and yet the ending is one of the most nuanced and healing literary experiences I’ve read.

So that’s the three books in a REALLY tight nutshell. Remember, these are novels, and I just summarized each in a matter of, oh, 75-ish words. Let me give you a better taste of what they mean now that you know a taste of the content. These aren’t just novels about Ireland and its lore, represented by T’ír na n’Óg, nor are they depressing news stories about the dangers of global warming. You can get the first by reading a guide book or the Acallam na Senórach. You can get the second anywhere you look– with a few sadly notable exceptions.

No, the notable thing about Kate Thompson’s novels is that they are, as I said at the very beginning, about what she knows: her own small slice of Ireland. They’re set in a very narrow space which she loves so profoundly that her characters, J.J. Liddy especially, walk the ground with joy coming out of each step. J.J.’s daughter, Jenny, runs barefoot through the grass and stones. Their friend Mikey literally gives his afterlife for the joy and love he feels for the land and its people. The púka loves it so much that I’m not going to explain that bit to you, but, trust, me he loves it. And the fairy folk have their own relationship from T’ír na n’Óg which is difficult to explain, too, but is part and parcel of the whole history of Ireland.

Which brings me back to T’ír na n’Óg and the story of stories and music: See, here’s the thing. Most books about a place, deeply rooted as they are in that place, are very restricted. Think of the beauty of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books: you can’t get much better than them, can you? But they’re restricted in time and place. So, you will point out to me, are Kate Thompson’s books. Isn’t that what I just spent a paragraph saying, that they’re restricted to a small slice of Ireland, what she knows, and that’s what makes them so good?

Excellent reading comprehensions skills, well said! BUT. Part of what makes them so good is that they go deep. Historically deep. Geographically deep. Into geology of the past and the future. They cover the story of that small slice of Ireland from historic lore to the projected far future. Oh my God, are they good. So, T’ír na n’Óg is part and parcel of that history and, so she suggests, that future! The source of all music and history and lore, T’ír na n’Óg, is going to endure, no matter what we do to the earth.

So, T’ír na n’Óg isn’t just lore and storytelling: it’s hope, too.

OK, maybe it’s all fairy tales. I mean, look, realistically speaking, once we ruin the earth, how many of us really believe that we have a T’ír na n’Óg to preserve music and culture, etc.? And yet literature and contemporary stories are full of ways out. And, to my mind, this is one of the most beautiful, satisfying, and, somehow, sensible ways out I’ve read. As in, it makes sense within its own story. I get it, in a way I didn’t “get” Wall-E, for example (nothing against Wall-E, it broke my heart, too, but it wasn’t “my” story the way the Liddy books are), and I think even non-Celticists will fall in love with Ireland and T’ír na n’Óg and feel a burning wish to preserve both the land and the stories of the land upon reading these books.

To sum up: These are family stories on every level. The family of the Liddy clan, of their extended clan in T’ír na n’Óg, and of Ireland beyond that level, and also the family of the human race. As you read, you will fall in love anew with everything to do with earth, its beauty, and its stories.

And, if you do read these books and want to know more about T’ír na n’Óg? Drop me a line and we can talk stories! Maybe I’ll write an Irish story reading list here, to link to this entry…

Now, go forth and read!


Today is the Changeling’s birthday, and the end of the fundraiser giveaway. I ran the random number generator, and it has been won by the Conrad-Mandel clan!

The Wall
Thank you so much, to them and to everyone, for all of the generous donations which, in the end, came to over $600. Unfortunately, they are all necessary, all appreciated, and there’s no sign of this work coming to an end anytime soon.

That being said, Peter Sís’s book The Wall proves that walls can be pulled down and bravery is rewarded.

Thank you, everyone, your donations gave help to many, and hope to me. I hope that you’ll all consider reading this book and taking its message to heart.

REMINDER: The Wall giveaway

Dear Everyone,

This is just a note to remind you of The Wall giveaway in support of RAICES. If you haven’t donated yet and want to be entered for the giveaway, please make your donation by July 17. This is the donation link. You wonderful people have already blown past my goal, but I know we can do even better, so please contribute! Here’s that tantalizing signature and doodle to entice you again…


After July 17, we’re going to talk biographies! I’m a dork, and find the prospect VERY EXCITING.

IN ALL CAPS, no less.

Thank you, and remember– two more days to donate here!


Instructions Giveaway Winner!

So, which of you fabulous folks won this beautiful book?


Heather! Heather, I’m emailing you right now to check where you’re going to want me to send this book and whether you want gift wrapping or a note.

This is a book about fairy tales, but also about journeys and adventures and kindness. Well, what could be more appropriate for this beautiful gift you’ve given us? If only I could give a copy of this to each kid trapped at the border right now, too! Heather, enjoy it, and thank you.

Check back later for The Wall giveaway, and in the meanwhile, if you want to be considered for that giveaway, please read this post and donate here.