“A boisterous balance of potty humor and geek pride in this rollicking adventure…”

With less than two months to go until the first book of the EngiNerds series hits shelves, reviews are starting to roll in. Here’s one from Kirkus Reviews:

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A gang of science nerds unwittingly unleashes a squadron of destructive robots and must engineer a way to save the town in Lerner’s debut novel.

When a mysterious box appears outside Kennedy’s house, he enlists the help of best friend and fellow EngiNerd Dan to sift through the metal parts and hardware. Together, they piece together a polite but ravenous robot named Greeeg. The robot eats all the food in the house—refusing only radishes—and Kennedy discovers that Greeeg is both insatiable and unmanageable. The potential for catastrophe is fully realized when Greeeg propulsively “disposes” (that’s robot defecation) tiny, window-shattering, brown-black cubes. Is the robot from Grandpa K., Kennedy’s hero and a former engineer? Is it coincidence that his best friend also hates radishes? Unfortunately, Kennedy isn’t the only one with a robot problem. Eighteen bullet-farting robots storm town, and the EngiNerds must band together and use ingenuity to prevent the robots from consuming and destroying everything in their wake. Sci-fi readers will enjoy the science and tinkering, but dangerous excreta is pure schoolboy horseplay. The story includes clever duct-tape solutions, the construction of catapults from disposable chopsticks, and a good, old-fashioned water fight in this action-packed celebration of nerd culture. The absence of ethnic markers implies that Kennedy is white, but the surnames of the EngiNerds suggest a diverse assemblage.

A boisterous balance of potty humor and geek pride in this rollicking young engineer’s adventure, the first of two. (Science fiction. 8-12)

Visit the Kirkus website for more great kid lit reviews and recommendations, and keep an eye out for more EngiNerds-related information as the pub date approaches!

Inspiration in a Chinese Restaurant

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I recently came across an article titled “That Song Doesn’t Mean What You Think.” Being someone who constantly mishears song lyrics – thus making it impossible to accurately understand the meaning of any given song – I took a look.

The article features ten songs, and if there’s a trend among them, it’s that people tend to brighten and simplify songs that are in fact written about dark and complex matters. Some of the artists included in the list have griped about this. But they should know better – an artist effectively cedes control over their work once they offer it up to the public. All they can do is steer a listener (or reader, or viewer) toward a particular meaning. For better or worse, consumers of art become co-authors, using their imaginations to fill in the gaps and arrive at meanings unique to themselves.

But that’s not what I’m really here to talk about. Because there was one song on that list that stood out to me for operating in the opposite way. Instead of twisting complex and dark into simple and bright, the public found depth and melancholy in a song that had decidedly humble, straightforward origins.

The song is Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion.” Maybe you know it. It’s a reggae-inflected tune built upon a series of infectious melodies. The refrain in the chorus is as follows:

Oh, the mother and child reunion

is only a motion away.

Taking their cue from the rest of the song’s lyrics – which, admittedly, steer listeners fairly forcefully in this direction – most listeners assumed the song was about a strained mother-and-child relationship, about a gulf that had formed between mom and kid that might be bridged if only one or the other of them would reach out to do so.

But what was Paul Simon actually singing about? A chicken and egg dish that he once ate at a Chinese restaurant.

“I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained in an interview, and “there was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’”

Paul Simon is and was, of course, well aware of what happens to a work of art once it’s sent out into the world. He knew his fans wouldn’t be able to intuit from the song’s lyrics alone that he’d found his inspiration for it in a Chinese restaurant. And by adding moody phrases like “false hope” and “strange and mournful day” – and not mentioning anything about chickens, eggs, or Chinese restaurants – Simon gave listeners a strong shove a different way.

But the real lesson to be taken away from this anecdote isn’t one about purposefully vague lyrics, about the gaps that songwriters leave in songs for listeners to fill (and that those listeners often fill in surprising ways). The real lesson here is about inspiration, and about how it can creep up on you in the most seemingly modest settings and most seemingly common situations.

Paul Simon was out to eat. He looked at a Chinese food menu and – bam – one dish in particular caught his eye. According to the fount of all knowledge (i.e., Wikipedia), the curiously named dish got Simon thinking about a pet dog that had been run over and killed: “It was the first death Simon personally experienced, and he began to wonder how he would react if the same happened to his wife at the time.”

Obviously, not everyone’s imagination would take such a gloomy turn. But you don’t need to go dark to produce a great piece of art. What you do need to do is keep your eyes open and your imagination alert – otherwise you might just miss the next great idea, sitting right under your nose.

. . .

Listen to Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” here.

Read about the other nine “misunderstood” songs here.

ENGINERDS available for pre-order!!!

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Is there a farting robot-sized hole in your life? If so, and you can’t bear to wait a single day longer than you must to fill it, pre-order the first ENGINERDS book today! It will arrive on your doorstep the day it comes out (having perhaps been delivered by one of the below retailers’ very own fleet of flatulent drones).

You can pre-order RIGHT THIS VERY MOMENT from any of the below sites:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

BAM! (Books-A-Million)

IndieBound

. . .

EngiNerds

by Jarrett Lerner

The battle between boys and bots is on in this funny, fast-paced novel.

Ken is an EngiNerd: one of a super-smart group of friends—all nerds—who have been close since kindergarten.

They may be brainiacs, but they’re just like everyone else: they fight with one another, watch too much TV, eat Chinese food, and hate walking their dogs. Well, maybe not just like everyone because Ken’s best friend Dan has been building robots. He then secretly sent one to each of the EngiNerds, never letting them know he’s the mastermind.

At first Ken is awed and delighted: what kid hasn’t dreamed of having a robot all their own? Someone who can be their friend, clean their room, walk the dog, answer homework questions…how amazing is that?

But be careful what you wish for: Dan’s robot, Greeeg, may look innocent, but his ravenous consumption of food—comestibles—turns him into a butt-blasting bot. And once the other robots ‘come alive’ it’s up to the motley crew of EngiNerds to not only save the day, but save the planet!

BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES), by Lisa Yee (Illustrated by Dan Santat)

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When BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY), the first book in the Bobby series, came out, reviewers praised Lisa Yee for creating such a diverse cast of character and, importantly, not making a big deal about it. Kids’ books which feature and are explicitly about race and diversity are needed, of course, but so are those that don’t have these issues as their main, or sole, focus.

These sorts of books contribute to the “normalizing” of children’s literature, something I’ve posted about here before. But it would be a shame to write about the Bobby novels and talk only about this aspect of them, because the books are exceptionally well-written (and well-illustrated to boot).

One thing I especially like about the Bobby books is Yee’s treatment of skateboarding. I grew up skateboarding, for years and years doing it pretty much constantly, and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it (you can read about some of them here). And so it always drives me a little crazy when a kid lit character is made a skateboarder in a clumsy sort of way, and for some reason – possibly a misunderstanding on the authors’ part of what skateboarding means to kids – loads of kid lit characters are thoughtlessly outfitted with skateboards and a handful of (inevitably misused) skateboarding terminology.

I’m not sure why so many authors fail to do the necessary research when it comes to skateboarding. And yes, I know that I am perhaps uniquely sensitive to this problem. But think of a novel that features some other activity, say football or ballet, and then imagine coming across a phrase such as “he kicked a touchdown” or “she did a super awesome really hard spin move.” It’d grate against your ears. It’d pull you out of the story, the same as it would any other reader even vaguely acquainted with football or ballet. And if kid lit authors are so sure that skateboarding is a big deal with today’s kids (and if they weren’t sure, why would it turn up in so many books?), then they ought to put in a little more effort to get it right.

For these reasons, I’m always extra appreciative and excited when an author does put in that extra effort. And after reading her books, it’s clear that Lisa Yee did her homework. At the very least, she considered what skateboarding might mean to kids – and, in this case, to her character Bobby. But I’d be willing to bet that she did more, reading up on it or talking to a young skater in her life.

There’s one moment in BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES) that made this much clear to me. It comes during a low moment for Bobby, when he’s feeling particularly worried that he, unable to throw or catch a football to save his life, will never make his ex-NFL star father proud. To take his mind off all of this, Bobby goes skating, and after he does a few quick tricks, we read this:

There was something liberating about skating. Planting your feet on the deck and the feeling of the sidewalk beneath you. The freedom of flight when you got air, and the hard solid landings when you ollied just right. Getting speed and then cruising. With skating, it was just Bobby and his board. No teams. No teacher. No rules.

That right there is the essence of skateboarding, the aspect of the activity that has, for decades now, gotten so many kids so passionately hooked. It can be done with friends, of course – and is often most fun that way – but it is, at base, an individualistic endeavor. The self-reliance it requires, the diligence it demands, and the way it morphs something as ordinary-seeming as a street corner into a blank canvas – this is what kids find so addictive. It speaks to a part of them that can’t be easily or otherwise reached, and fulfills a set of desires that organized and rule-bound team sports simply can’t.

The Bobby series is great for a number of reasons. Not only does Yee tell good stories, but the world she’s built has the potential to teach young readers lots of good lessons. And I’m glad she put in the time and effort needed to make her main character’s relationship to his favorite activity feel so real and true. Because if the false notes so common in other kid lit books about skateboarding leave me feeling frustrated and alienated from the story, its characters, and its author, imagine how a younger reader might feel. None of the good that books like Yee’s have to offer would get through to them, and that’s just a silly risk to take.

HORTEN’S MIRACULOUS MECHANISMS, by Lissa Evans

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Breathlessly paced, carefully plotted, and packed with more wit and humor than should possibly fit in a book of its size, HORTEN’S MIRACULOUS MECHANISMS is a gem. It has mystery, magic, and – true to the promise the title makes – many miraculous mechanisms.

The book is built around an elaborate puzzle, a scavenger hunt that stretches across both space and time. But unlike many similarly premised novels, HORTEN’S MIRACULOUS MECHANISMS has a big beating heart at its center. Whether it’s the guilt and grief surrounding a long-lost sister, the desire to belong, or the need to end the crushing boredom of a summer spent all alone, it’s this emotional element that gives depth to Evans’s characters and helps propel them along.

One other thing I found both exciting and refreshing: the magic that HORTEN’S MIRACULOUS MECHANISMS revolves around is (at least initially) stage magic. Now don’t get me wrong – I love me some novels about telekinetic teenagers and awkward, lonely, orphaned boys who are whisked off into worlds populated by wizards and witches. But it’s rare to find a kids’ book that concerns itself with that other sort of magic, the kind performed on a stage, in an auditorium. Rarer still is the way in which Evans is constantly celebrating the ingenuity behind the illusions, that special blend of hard work, creativity, and technical skill that 19th century magicians needed in order to entertain and stimulate their audiences.

As much as it made me want to have an adventure of my own, HORTEN’S MIRACULOUS MECHANISMS made me long to get my hands greasy, to tinker with an old piece of machinery. And that is a very exciting thing for another old piece of machinery – a book – to do.

NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK, by Ellen Raskin

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Ellen Raskin may be my all-time favorite novelist. She is certainly in my Top 5. Her novels – she wrote only four of them before her untimely death at the age of 56 – are some of the most unique I’ve ever encountered, and contain countless delightfully quirky and deeply affecting characters. She is also, arguably, the creator of an entire sub-genre of children’s books – the novel as a series of puzzles to be solved by the reader right along with the protagonist(s) – one which is currently thriving more than ever.

Raskin’s books are also filled with her exquisite illustrations, many of which are infused with her love of typography. Among my favorites are those from THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF LEON (I MEAN NOEL). Every chapter of this novel is accompanied by an expressive full-body portrait of the characters that appear therein, and each characters’ “clothing” is, in fact, a patchwork of words that you will almost certainly come to associate with them. (Which, besides being visually exciting, is a very clever way to get kids thinking about concepts like identity and personality.)

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I’ve always known that, in addition to her longer works, Raskin wrote and illustrated a dozen picture books, but until recently I’d never even seen one. Her novels are still in print, thanks in large part to the success of THE WESTING GAME, which won the Newbery Medal in 1979. But her picture books are simply harder to find. None of them ever reached “classic” status, and it’s been forty years since the last one was published.

Recently, though, I came across a copy of Raskin’s NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK, her very first picture book – and actually the first book she both wrote and illustrated herself. Reading it, I found the same intoxicating mix of intellectual stimulation and visual delight that her novels offer, but simplified to such an extent that even the youngest of minds can enjoy it.

NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK is about Chester Filbert, a boy who believes himself to live on the most boring block in New York City. The book, narrated by Chester, consists of one long complaint, which Chester delivers from his perch on the curb outside of his apartment building. Each of the book’s pages consists of an almost identical black-and-white “template” of sorts, and black-and-white (i.e., colorless, boring) is exactly how Chester thinks of his neighborhood.

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But behind Chester, as he continues to complain, a dozen different scenes unfold in bright splashes of color – a mishmash of dramatic happenings that could only conceivably occur on a New York City block: a roof catches fire . . . and is then repaired; a pair of girls break the world’s record for most consecutive jump rope jumps . . . and then trip and fall; a crime is committed . . . and the criminal is then caught; a group of mischief-makers play doorbell ditch . . . and then play it again; a parachute drops in; a landscaper digs up some buried treasure. Then there’s a fender-bender, and a rainstorm, plus a cat and her kittens and either one or several dozen different witches (read the book and you’ll understand this last part). With every turn of a page, the existing visual storylines are advanced and new ones are added, leaving readers unable to help but seek out each shift and fresh element.

Sooner or later, every kid will get bored, whether they live way out in the boonies, miles from the nearest patch of decent cell phone service, or on the busiest, craziest street in New York City. NOTHING EVER HAPPENS ON MY BLOCK takes these feelings seriously while simultaneously poking fun at them, and also, by inviting the reader (or the child being read to) to play a fun finding game at the protagonist’s expense, Chester’s story might just get kids to be more observant and creative the next time they’re feeling like nothing ever happens on their block.

 

SCUBA DOG, by Ann Marie Stephens (Illustrated by Jess Golden)

It’s STILL Picture Book Month.

To continue celebrating, here’s a quick review of the excellent Ann Marie Stephens’s SCUBA DOG, illustrated beautifully by Jess Golden. Get a copy for yourself and/or the kids in your life, and keep an eye out for Stephens’s upcoming CY MAKES A FRIEND.

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Warm, whimsical, and wise, SCUBA DOG is a must-have for your children’s book collection. Scuba Dog’s story will encourage kids to pursue their curiosities and interests, explore their creativity, and show them that distances between individuals can always be bridged, even if it sometimes requires a little ingenuity and hard work. Also, fair warning: SCUBA DOG does not come with an oxygen tank, scuba mask, or snorkel, but it may very well get readers asking for them.