Beauty by Robin McKinley

“He made a noise somewhere between a roar and a bark, and after an anxious minute, I decided it was probably a laugh. ‘You do not believe  then?’ he inquired.

‘Well-no’ I said, hesitantly, wondering if this might anger him. ‘Any number of mirrors have told me otherwise.’

‘You will find no mirrors here,’ he said, ‘for I cannot bear them: nor any quiet water in ponds.  And since I am the only one who sees you, why are you not then beautiful?'”

Hi, friends!  I promise I didn’t forget you.  It’s just that, when you’re in library school, and reading books about cataloging and coding and reference materials, it sucks all of the time away for reading things you actually want to read.  It seems a little unfair-after all, I went away to school because all I want to do is share books with others, and school gets in the way, big-time, of all that sharing.  So, I’m really sorry.  And I have a stack of good books to tell you about, ok? Actually, this one is on my list of Extra Super Favorites, and has been since I was a teenager myself.  Here’s the story:

Beauty is the self-appointed black sheep of the family.  Awkward and broken-out, she is embarrassed by her nickname and feels ungainly in comparison to her beautiful older sisters.  She takes refuge in reading, riding her horse, and offering pragmatic advice to her sisters. Life isn’t unpleasant for the girls.  However, when her father’s sailing fleet is lost at sea, and the family’s fortune with it, they are forced to leave their city home for the distant country.  Their new home is backed by a forest, eerily empty of wildlife, and the townspeople still pass around rumors of magic…or at least something being “not quite right”.  It is said that once you lose sight of the borders of the forest, it is impossible to find your way home again.

On the way home from a trip to the city, Beauty’s father is lost in a blizzard.  Snow-blinded, he stumbles into the forest and wanders for hours, eventually coming upon a castle.  There, his horse is tended to, and he is provided with food and dry clothing, but his host is mysteriously absent.  When leaving, he picks a single rose-Beauty’s only request for a gift from the city-and is confronted by an enormous, dark beast.  The beast demands either his life, or that he surrender one of his daughters, who must then go and live at the castle.  He gives the man leave to go home to his family and make a decision.  After some deliberation and many protests on the part of her family, Beauty volunteers to go in her father’s place.  And then, you know the story.  The beast, the castle, the magic.  It’s all here, and the parts that have been changed have been changed for the better.

All right, I confess.  I have an obsession-bordering on devotion-with the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast.  I’ve read so, so many retellings, and here, friends: I give you the very best one.  Here’s why:  Robin McKinley’s writing is superb.  The story is lush and dark, just like a fairy tale should be.  Furthermore, nothing breaks my heart more than when Beauty magically transforms into a gorgeous princess at the end of the story, or worse, she is preternaturally beautiful from birth and there is no discussion of her personality at all.  I can’t give the ending away, but in this story, Beauty is not beautiful.  (I apologize for the cover of the paperback.  I wanted to show you, so that if you saw it in the library or the bookstore, you’d recognize it, but the girl on the cover doesn’t resemble the Beauty in the book).  Instead, the readers (and the Beast) love her for the merits of her character: her quick wit, love for reading, and practical nature.  She’s strong, capable, and independent.  Coupled with a retelling that retains the spirit of the original, but doesn’t just parrot it back to readers, this book is so lovely.  I’ve read it more times than I can count.  And the quote I gave you at the beginning?  I’m pretty sure I’ve had it memorized since I was fifteen.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

If you liked this one, you might want to try Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, or Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy.  They are stellar!

McKinley, Robin.  Beauty. Harper & Row: New York, 1978. 247 pp.  Ages 14-18.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed.  Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”

Vera’s former best friend Charlie is dead.  It’s hard enough when your best friend dies, she thinks, but when he stabs you in the back and then dies, it makes things infinitely worse.  Worse still, when he comes back to haunt you, with his ghostly form showing up in the car when you’re kissing another guy, or in the bathroom at school, it is the absolute pits.

Vera is eighteen, living with her father (you will love him, I think.  He’s pretty much the Best. Dad. Ever!), an accountant and recovering alcoholic who invests his whole heart in making sure she has the best future possible.  She works full time at a pizza place, and spends the rest of her time drinking to forget Charlie and the secret she is determined not to tell.  Of course, it’s not as easy as all that-Charlie’s ghost keeps showing up at inopportune times, a silent, shaming reminder urging Vera to tell what she knows and clear his name.

The best part of this book?  The format!  See, the story is told in a creative way-all first person, addressed right to you, and by different speakers.  I think readers will love Ken Dietz, Vera’s dad.  He chimes in during the story, in chapters titled things like “A Brief Word from Ken Dietz (Vera’s Frustrated Dad)” and with flow charts, like “Ken Dietz’s Face Your Shit Flow Chart”.  I kid you not, I actually made a copy of that flowchart and pasted it up on my bulletin board.  And besides Ken and Vera (and even Charlie, who pipes up every few chapters), there is the Pagoda.  That’s right, a building.  The Pagoda is a park building with special significance to Ken and his ex-wife (she left them when Vera was 12), and it gets a few chapters of its own. Trust me, the Pagoda is hilarious-I think it’s the best and funniest part of the novel.

This book combines creative elements (a haunting, a mystery, a talking Pagoda) with a great format (many voices, FLOW CHARTS!), and very common social problems of young people.  I think you’re going to love it! (And others did, too-this is a Printz Honor book, and a nominee for the Edgar Allen Poe mystery award!)

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: (The website is really funny-the giant header describes her as “a corn lover” and “wearer of magical writing pants”. Awesome!)

All right, folks, since I’m in library school now, I think I’ll change the way I give the book information.  If you hate it, please let me know, and I’ll change it back!

ISBN 9780375865862
Personal Author King, A. S.1970-
Title Please ignore Vera Dietz /A.S. King.
Edition 1st ed.
Publication info New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2010.
Physical descrip 326 p. ; 22 cm.

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

“Have you ever

had so much to say

that your mouth closed up tight,

struggling to harness the nuclear force

coalescing within your words?”

Here’s a change of pace from what I normally review.  This is Ellen Hopkins’ semi-autobiograhical account of a young woman’s descent into drug addiction, and all the usual accompanying miseries.  Kristina is a 16-year old high-schooler, a good student who has a fairly close relationship with her mother.  She spends three weeks over the summer visiting her father, where she gets involved with an older boy…and drugs.

Things go downhill from there, as Kristina struggles with a growing addiction, keeping up with school, and family fights as her mother and stepfather fear for her safety and health.  An unexpected pregnancy leaves her reeling with the implications of her lifestyle, and forces her to make some tough decisions.

This is a tough, gripping book.  The genius of it is that it is written entirely in verse.  Now, don’t think “dead white guy poetry…SNORE” when you hear verse.  That’s not this novel at all.  Ellen Hopkins uses the poetry to pack the most emotion possible into a single phrase, and arranges the words meticulously on the page, so that each poem can be read in several different ways.  I’ve never seen anything like it before.  Even though it’s technically poetry, the story holds you so tightly in its clutches that you don’t ever stop to consider that it’s in verse.  That said, it’s excellent poetry, and each single poem can stand on its own.  Another benefit, and the reason why it was chosen by the ALA as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, is that the verse format speeds things along:  with a gripping story and few words, before you know it, you’ve finished a 500-page novel.  Awesome.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:

Hopkins, Ellen.  Crank. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.  537 pp. Ages 15 and up (explicit drug use, sexual situations).

If you liked this book, Ellen Hopkins has two sequels, Fallout and Glass.  She’s a prolific writer, and you will probably enjoy all of her other books.  If the verse form wasn’t your thing, try the classic Go Ask Alice, written by an anonymous author.  (Do a title search, rather than an author search in your library’s website). Enjoy!

A note to parents:  I have heard some criticism of books discussing these tough topics, such as drug abuse or sex.  Some people are concerned that these types of books can glamorize the highs and overlook the consequences, but that doesn’t apply to this book.  For every poem Kristina shares about being high, there is another one describing the crushing lows, where she is physically ill from withdrawal and in the depths of depression.