safetynotguaranteedWanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

After seeing this personal ad run several times in the magazine he works for, Seattle Magazine, Jeff (Jake Johnson from The New Girl) pitches investigating the person who is running the ad.  The editor agrees and allows him to bring two interns with him, Darius (Aubry Plaza, Parks and Recreation) and Arnau (Karan Soni) to Ocean View, Washington to track down the potential time-traveler, Kenneth (Mark Duplass).

Darius quickly takes over the investigation, building a bond with Kenneth, despite her early skepticism.  Plaza plays Darius so exquisitely that you begin to see Kenneth through her eyes. Quick to roll her eyes or let out an exasperated sigh on Parks and Recreation, she uses subtlety in her facial expressions in this movie that one might not expect. The story is dark, funny, and smart, and the actors all feel fluid and natural, despite their characters being thrust into odd situations.

Fans of Jeff Who Lives at Home, Win Win, Crazy Stupid Love, and Silver Linings Playbook will want to pick up this quirky story about regret and love.

Margo Lanagan is an artist, and Tender Morsels is a potent story, rich in magic and full of feeling. Liga, with a babe in arms and another on the way – both forced on her in the most unpleasant ways you care to imagine – is rescued from her miserable life by an elemental creature, removed to her Heart’s Desire: her personal heaven, a world that narrowly overlaps her real pre-industrial, vaguely-historical, sort-of-European one. The boundary is firm for a while and Liga raises her daughters in peace and safety, but eventually people start poking their way through – in both directions. What follows is a meditative, surprising, totally unique tale of self discovery, familial and romantic love, magic, fear, and growing up. It’s slow paced and knotted with complex, beautiful language. It’s brilliant and mature and devastating, but uplifting at the same time. Tender Morsels is based on the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. It fills in the bones of that story, adding motivation to the characters and a reason to the movements of the plot, which always bends to fit the whims of the magic, and never the other way around.

 “You are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart.”

This book isn’t for everyone: the plot hinges on violence and sexual abuse, so those who are uncomfortable with those topics will be unhappy with this book. It’s written for a teenage audience, but the complexity of the writing and some mature content mean that it’s better suited for older teens or adults who read YA.

Some more novels based on fairy tales:

nelson mandelaI’ve been a fan of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations for years without realizing it.  Nelson is an illustrator and writer who has created some of the most beautiful and powerful books of the past fifteen years. Primarily focusing on African-American history and heroes, Nelson has proven to be adept at writing and illustrating books about challenging subjects gracefully and with age-appropriate illustrations and language. He illustrated the Caldecott Honor books Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, as well as books by Spike Lee, Will Smith, Nikki Grimes, Sharon Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s daughter) and Michael Jordan.

With the release of Nelson’s newest picture book, Nelson Mandela, I took another look at his 2008 release We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.  Both books are written and illustrated by Nelson and feature his signature resplendent paintings.   We are the Ship tells the story of baseball’s segregation from the start of the Negro League baseball in the 1920s, until Jackie Robinson crossed over into the majors in 1947.  This non-fiction book is told in 9 chapters (labeled as innings) and reads as a collective voice.  The writing is inspiring without being overly sentimental and smart while still being accessible.

we are the shipNelson Mandela is a much shorter work, but no less compelling.  The prose is fluid and poetic, and there are few stories more powerful than Mandela’s.  Nelson made some stylistic decisions that really make this picture book stand out.  The front cover of the book is a striking painting of Mandela’s face (above), with all of the book’s text on the back cover.  Light is used prominently throughout the book, from the cover shot of Mandela’s face bathed in light with a black background to the use of a rising sun as the story tells of Mandela’s birth to the absence of light while Mandela was in prison.  This use of literal light to convey the figurative impact Mandela has made on so many people helps give visual cues to readers, while the text does a remarkable job filling in the rest of the story for young readers.  You can find more books written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson at the Davenport Public Library!

As a personal challenge, I have taken on the task of reading all of the Iowa Children’s Choice 2013-14 nominees before voting ends in March 2014.  I am currently seven books down, with 18 books left to read.  I’m really fascinated to see how my reactions to the books compare with the voting of Iowa’s 3rd-6th graders.  I am taking this opportunity to highlight some of the books that stand out from the pack.

belly upTwelve-year-old Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Fitzroy lives in a zoo.  And not just any zoo, but FunJungle, the largest animal amusement park in the world, where his parents work.  When the FunJungle mascot, Henry the Hippo, turns up dead, Teddy is convinced that it was murder. Written by Stewart Gibbs Belly Up, is a funny, clever first novel.

Stewart Gibbs has a degree in biology, and worked in a zoo while in college (at one point he was the foremost expert on capybaras).  He has also written a number of screenplays.  These two occupations are evident in his writing.  This book is filled with interesting animal and zoo facts, cleverly sprinkled throughout the story. The action in the novel is fast paced, well-timed, exciting. Overall, the book feels a lot like a well-informed animated movie, which seems to be a pretty great selling point for a children’s mystery novel.  I would recommend this book for fans of Swindle by Gordon Korman, Scat by Carl Hiaasen, and M.T. Anderson’s Pals in Peril series.

princess academyMiri feels useless.  While her father, sister, and all of her peers work in the quarry mining linder all day, Miri is forced to stay out of the quarry and tend to her home.  She believes that her father keeps her home due to her small stature, and this makes her a burden for the entire Mount Eskel village. When it is announced that the prince will be choosing the next princess from among the girls of Mount Eskel, Miri believes that this is her chance to prove her worth to her father and her community.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale is a gem of a book. One of the biggest criticisms of middle grade fiction is that authors often tell, rather than show. They tell the reader how to feel about a character without letting the reader get to know the character on their own.  But Hale masterfully shows the reader that Miri is moral, quick witted, funny, loyal, and strong through Miri’s words and actions.  Just like Miri, the reader is conflicted about whether she would be better off marrying the prince and getting to travel and learn or if she should return to her village that she loves to help better her people.  This is a conflict that many smart, talented young women deal with as they make their transition from hometown life, to college, and then to a career.

While there are a number of fantastic princess books from Ella Enchanted to The Secret Lives of Princesses to The Princess Knight, Hale is able to do something unique with this book.  She isn’t just presenting an internal conflict of a young woman wanting to prove herself (although that conflict plays an important role in the novel), but Hale goes beyond that to create a protagonist that understands the importance of community and family.