Thursday, October 24, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Song of the Crimson Flower

YA Review: Song of the Crimson Flower

Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao (Philomel, 288p., ages 12-up, 9781524738358, November 5, 2019)

When romantic Tam plays his bamboo flute beneath her window, Lan feels "like a princess in the ancient ballads her father love[s]." But rather than falling for someone "far beneath" her like the girls in "those tales," Tam is "of a family equal to Lan's" and their match is "as close to their approving parents' hearts" as it is to her own. If only Tam would get over the shyness that brings him courting her solely "in moonlit visits," her life would be perfect.

Bao, "an orphan of no family," strives through "hard work and relentless study" to earn his place as apprentice to Tam's father, Master Huynh. The retired court physician is kind, but Tam and his mother treat Bao like "a stray dog." Bao perseveres by dreaming of the person he cares for most, though she doesn't yet "know of his love." Although he has "no hope of winning her," he vows that the time has finally come for him to tell Lan his truth.

Bao confesses his deep feelings to Lan, explaining that he is actually the flute player and Tam wants no part of the arranged marriage; humiliated, Lan cruelly rejects the young "peasant" as unworthy. Deeply hurt, Bao flees downriver in his boat, hoping to find a legendary river witch who could "clear his mind" of Lan. When he finds the witch, she recognizes him and angrily claims to be his aunt. Betrayed by her sister and eager to get revenge, she reveals to him that his mother is alive in the distant Gray City. She then binds Bao to his flute with a curse that will be broken only if the person he loves declares she loves him in return before the next full moon. The witch sends Bao back "from whence [he] came," and he finds himself on Lan's riverbank again. A now "desperately sorry" Lan insists on accompanying him to find his mother, who will surely be the one to break the curse. Bao and Lan race to the Gray City, determined to arrive before the spell becomes permanent and Bao loses his body forever.

Julie C. Dao weaves her Vietnamese-inspired folklore and imagery into a fresh, captivating fantasy that is a companion to her Forest of a Thousand Lanterns duology. Her heroes wrestle with family, class and uncontrolled power while finding ways to muster the strength it takes to do the right thing. At its heart, Song of the Crimson Flower is a magical love story. Bao hopes to prove worthy of "the girl he love[s]" and Lan longs somehow to redeem herself in the eyes of the real"handsome young man who wove his love for her into the melody of a flute beneath the moon." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Julie C. Dao crafts an enchanting stand-alone Vietnamese-inspired fantasy that is a companion to her two other YA books set in the same world.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

October Recommendations


In THE REVOLUTION OF BIRDIE RANDOLPH, by Brandy Colbert, Birdie’s mom wants Birdie to stay “focused”-- on her SATs, getting into a good college, and moving on to “an impressive, high paying job.” But when Birdie’s estranged Aunt Carlene shows up, fresh out of rehab and needing a place to stay, there’s a noticeable change to the family dynamic. Aunt Carlene’s way more laid back, and she’s not afraid to give her opinion. Throw in a secret non-mom-approved boyfriend, and the summer is bound to explode. Colbert weaves a seamless story with great voice and characters that jump off the page. (YA)

SONG OF THE CRIMSON FLOWER, by Julie C. Dao, weaves Vietnamese-inspired imagery and folklore into a fresh and timeless fantasy. Lan hears romantic Tam playing his bamboo flute beneath her window, and all she wants is for them to set a wedding date. But then Bao, a penniless physician’s apprentice, admits he’s the real flute player, and Lan cruelly rejects him. Bao flees downriver, where a legendary witch casts a spell on him, saying that only someone who loves him “heart and soul” can break it. Lan and Bao wrestle with classic fantasy themes, including power hungry rulers and the strength it takes to do the right thing, but at its heart, Song of the Crimson Flower remains a magical love story. (YA)

Picture Books:

ROT, THE CUTEST IN THE WORLD! by Ben Clanton—OK, so this is a book about a mutant potato with a unibrow who sees a sign for a “Cutest in the World Contest.” Other contestants in the line-up? An "itty-bitty baby bunny,” a “little-wittle bewitching bewhiskered cuddly kitten,” and an “eenie-weenie pink and peppy jolly jellyfish.” Of course Rot enters! And we even get to see his cute potato butt. What could be bad? Deadpan humor and perfect timing make this a super-fun story about being yourself and finding your tribe.

RIVER, by Elisha Cooper, follows an unnamed woman making a solo trip down the mighty Hudson River in her canoe. She camps along the riverbank, sees “otters, ducks, dragonflies, a kingfisher,” and sketches in her journal. She paddles over rapids, through storms, and around a waterfall using a lock. Gorgeous art—looks like watercolors but doesn’t say so-- details a journey both harrowing and rewarding.

In ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE, written by Marcy Campbell and illustrated by Corinna Luyken, Adrian is a daydreamer who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.” The narrator, Chloe, gets really annoyed that Adrain keeps talking about his horse, because “he definitely does not have one.” But a walk with her mom, and a visit to Adrian’s house prompt Chloe to reevaluate her classmate. The story is spare but packed with emotion, and the ink, colored pencil, and watercolor art is wonderfully done.

Finally, check out THE ATLAS OF AMAZING BIRDS, by Matt Sewell. He's painted—again, looks like watercolor but doesn’t say so—a selection of “the most beautiful, strange, scary, speedy, and enchanting” birds. They’re organized by continent, with a map at the start of each section, so open to any page and just start marveling. I’ve already spent plenty of time doing this. But--if Dinosaurs are more your thing, Sewell has also compiled THE COLORFUL WOLRD OF DINOSAURS, too. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

October's Book of the Month--Sweep

Hello! October’s Book of the Month is the middle grade golem story SWEEP, THE STORY OF A GIRL AND HER MONSTER, by Jonathan Auxier. He previously wrote the very excellent—and creepy--The Night Gardener, and I think he’s got a worthy follow up here in SWEEP.

Life was never easy, but little Nan slept soundly as long as the Sweep was by her side. He’d raised her from a baby, and they ended every day with their special song: With brush and pail and soot and song!/A sweep brings luck all season long! But, one night when she’s just six years old, the Sweep disappears without a word, leaving behind only his “sacred” sweep hat, his coat, and “a strange lump of flickering char.”

With nowhere else to turn, and because she needs a master to get work, Nan indentures herself to the hateful Wilkie Crudd. One day, while cleaning the chimneys in a school for girls, Nan becomes stuck. Roger, a rival sweep who also works for Crudd, decides to use a deadly method-- “the Devil’s Nudge”—to get her out or kill her in the trying. He lights a fire in the coals below, “and then Nan Sparrow burned.”

Except she doesn’t die. She wakes in a crawl space, saved by her strange lump of char, which moves! In fact, this char is a creature, a “golem," wakened by Roger’s fire, and she feels sure it was left by the Sweep to protect her. Determined not to go back to Wilkie’s, Nan and the char, now appropriately named Charlie, find a place to live in an old abandoned mansion. Nan and her golem live well enough, but she still feels responsible for Wilkie’s other sweeps (except Roger!), and Wilkie remains determined to make her pay for her disappearance. Trouble ensues when Nan tries to improve life for all the sweeps, but in the process she learns about friends, family, and what it means to "save [yourself] by saving others.” Have a tissue or two for the sigh-and-tear-worthy ending.

This story, which illuminates the difficulty of life for young orphans, and the poor in general, in Victorian London, has just the right touch of magic to make it perfect for its middle grade audience. Nan is a plucky heroine who finds help where she needs it: in other kind but destitute street kids, in a lonely teacher, in her own hard work—and certainly in the wondrous gifts left to her by her beloved Sweep.