Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

First Read | Finished 17 Sept 2014

Eisner-winner and young-crowd pleaser! NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WOULD BE QUITE SO MUCH CRINGE-INDUCING DENTAL WORK. Not for the weak of heart or perhaps the long-suffering of mouth. If you are neither, you will probably still wince for poor baby-Raina. Telgemeier has expressive, consistent artwork–I definitely want to check out her Babysitter Club adaptations now. And she manages to fit a whole arc of growing up–several years’ worth–into a single volume, moving from one school year to the next and one phase of life to the next without dropping any strands or making any jarring time jumps. Young Raina is infinitely familiar in her struggles with mean friends (and how much you should put up with), ill-fated crushes, and learning to love your own looks and abilities. I am really looking forward to reading Sisters.


8.7.14 Alex Reads COUNTING BY 7S

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan | audio book by Robin Miles

first read : 7:15/7:15

Warnings for: cancer, car accident, parental death, traumatic loss, references to child abuse, authorial fatshaming


Very recently, two of the closest people in the world to me lost their stepfather, and it’s really horrible. He was part of my family, too, but he wasn’t my dad; so while I personally am off my normal rhythm, my version of sadness seems to be showing up in the way where all the emotions I expect aren’t always in me when I look for them. So this sad book, which is about very real people, some of whom die and the others of whom have to keep living, and are good at it, and are just good, was a cathartic choice of reading instead of an emotionally catastrophic choice of reading. I wouldn’t hand it to my two close people for a very long time.

I want to be clear about that: maybe you are the kind of person who won’t be personally injured by reading about this kind of sudden, violent, world-rending loss, or about the discovery of being terribly, frighteningly ill, or about being a child who is unable to fit herself into the comfortable shapes other people want out of her, who is suddenly alone. But if you’re vulnerable to those things, it will find you where your heart hurts most.

Willow is a twelve-year-old, adopted, self-identified P.O.C. who is absolutely brilliant. There are untold numbers of genius children in literature, but Willow’s is specifically characterized even if it’s all-encompassing. She loves plants, she loves primes, she is unceasingly logical, she is shamelessly fascinated in human illness (especially skin conditions). (Willow is exquisitely voiced in a thoughtful, sometimes awkward staccato by Robin Miles, who also keeps a firm grip on characters’ Spanish and Vietnamese accents, never descending into racist parody.)

Her parents are killed in a car crash on the way home from a very upsetting doctor’s visit. Willow doesn’t have friends and her family is not close to their relatives or to many other people. They are good but solitary. So when her parents die, it’s kindness, chance (like her last name), and the will to love that will pick her up out of her grief, and give her a new, good home. 

The found family Willow accumulates include a Vietnamese woman and her two children (one of whom sees the same counselor as Willow at school), a Hispanic taxi driver named Heiro Hernandez, and the school counselor, who doesn’t care about much of anything–his job, himself, other people–until Willow and her new caretakers force themselves into his everyday life. 

Some of the things that happen in the story, that are demonstrative of what love and attention and a brilliant little girl can do, aren’t 100% likely. But I really have to think it’s all right that this is the case, because the human heart of the story is unquestionably real, and the idea that things can be okay is good, and the choice to make them more than okay is a dream that maybe sometimes people need to clutch at, to find okay of any kind. 

The only real objection I have with the book–well, there are two. One is a stolen cat. The other is that Dell Duke, the lackluster counselor, is fat, and his weight is observed by Willow and also by the author’s third-person segments, as a negative and dangerous quality associated with sloth and dirtiness. THIS IS NOT COOL. DO NOT DO THIS. I think when it comes to Willow, the presence of this attitude is acceptable, because lots of twelve-year-old girls are taught to think in this way. But if that’s the only attitude you wish to demonstrate in the whole book, I’m less happy about it. I got back at the book for this, though–Mai Nguyen is supposed to be skinny, but she was like a panel of solid, chubby, immovable teen oak in my mental picture, and she will stay that way in my mind forever.

 But with this one failing in mind–I loved this book, and it gave me some of what I needed. I think I cried for about 65% of its total run time–which, by the way, not counting opening and closing credits, is 7 hours and 14 minutes. Just what Willow would like.

5.3.14 The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones / completed by Ursula Jones. First read: 350/350.


The Islands of Chaldea is simple and gentle in comparison with many of Diana Wynne Jones’s books, and also relatively brief. There are four islands; one is blocked off by a magical barrier and the high king’s son (and his hunting party) are trapped behind it. Only a Wise Woman, the guardians of the islands, and a man from each island can tear it down. Aileen accompanies her wise woman Aunt Beck on the quest; but it is Aileen’s story, so it contrives fairly quickly to put her in charge of the quest and its snowballing (but never crowded) troupe of adventurers. She learns rather classically to understand and use power she did not know she had–and also how to stop thinking that incredibly irritating prince is a perfect future husband.

The pacing is not perfect–some of the jumps and skips in character development. Literal and personal growth spurts are incredibly common to DWJ’s young characters, and they are always surprising. Here they are a little more rushed and less convincing than in some of her books. (For example, Ogo gets very much taller in a few short weeks while they’re traveling, and Aileen is supposed to be impressed by prince Ivar, but he’s so blatantly whiny and pointless from day one that even Aileen doesn’t seem to really think much of him.)

However–the story pushes along, and it feels important. It feels like a real rich place that has been alive and magical for thousands and thousands of years. Green Greet the parrot feels like the heart of his island. Plug-Ugly (the hideous cat not drawn as hideous, I notice, on any of the covers) is magical in such a specifically real CAT way that he feels equally true and credible as a common cat and the soul of his lost land, Lone. The whole world felt like a blanket you could wrap yourself in, with the tug of the tide underneath you; and it was fun. It felt like such a comfort and relief.

I’m really glad about that. This is the last new Diana Wynne Jones book. She grew too sick to write before she finished it, but her sister Ursula found the partial manuscript (with a habitual lack of extra-textual hints or notes of any kind) and ended up writing an ending to it herself. It’s a lovely success and I’m really glad she did–some of DWJ’s later books (The Pinhoe Egg, The Game, and Enchanted Glass) are among my least favorite of her books, but Islands of Chaldea feels full and perfect.

There is speculation about where Ursula’s writing begins (and she says at the end that no one had guessed correctly to her where the line is). I myself have a very specific idea of the moment–those who do not want to know, avoid the rest of this paragraph: I think it happens when they first arrive on Gallis, somewhere in the time when they’re being shuffled between priests. It’s about here that the characters grow a little more aware of people’s body types. Aileen’s narration reminds you she speaks from the future with slightly more frequency than it should. At one point you read the word “panties,” which as far as I recall offhand happens in no other book by Diana Wynne Jones. And there are lines, here and there, that give you a little more help than Diana likely would.

But with the line in mine, the book is still satisfying, rhythmic, round, and full of living green mythology. There is imperfect pacing–but it did not ruin the soothing, confident, comfortable push of the story toward a good ending. There are those tiny differences you can detect between Ursula and Diana–but the tiny differences would not be weaknesses in a book that wasn’t matching two writers to one incredibly particular, practiced style.

Without the line in mind–well, I do not think a new Diana Wynne Jones reader will sense the line at all, and I can’t think of a reason in the world not to hand this book to a young lover of fantasy. Or to yourself. If you’re old.


12.30.13 The Book of Three

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. Reread: 186/186.


Probably the thing that is MOST like Lord of the Rings is the dirty king on a quest who is the only person worthy of a mythical sword. He is wise and weary and Taran doesn’t immediately think that much of him because Taran is basically the Hobbit of the story and Gwydion is not sparkling enough for his ideas of ULTIMATE HERODOM. But Taran grows as a person and for awhile everyone thinks Gwydion is dead, and at the end he is not dead, but very beautiful and shiny and wise and possessing of the mystical sword.


So a nice thing about this book is that they beat the bad guy that they’re after, and it’s the hero who does it. Taran, who is a kind of ignorant kid, helps things along, but he doesn’t do the Heroic Acts, per se. That’s…everyone else. And it’s great! It is actually a fantasy book about a group of people who actually rely on teamwork, and the big finale doesn’t land on the main character by default. In fact, he kind of passes out for most of it.

Another nice thing is that Eilonwy is never made stupid or sweet in this book. She is a smart, opinionated, somewhat obnoxious, frequently correct character who talks in imagery and demands respect. And she knows what she wants! She is a much more interesting person than Taran and obviously is my favorite.

A third nice thing about this book is that it has a pronunciation key at the back for those of us who do not in fact know anything about Welsh.

I am looking forward for wandering through more of these books (perhaps I’ll read the whole series someday???). There’s almost nothing as pleasant as finishing something and thinking, I can’t wait to give this to somebody else!