Sweep

sweepby Jonathan Auxier
First sentence: “There were all sorts of wonderful things a person might see very early in the morning.”
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Content: There are some scary moments, and some talk of death. Plus the prose just feels “older”. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but it could easily go older as well.

Nan Sparrow has been a chimney sweep her whole life. She started out with a man she called Sweep, until one day he just didn’t come back, and so she took up with her current master, Crudd. He, if you can’t tell from his name, isn’t terribly nice.

Then one day, the worst thing that can happen to a sweep happens to Nan: she gets stuck. They try to get her out, but nothing works, and so they try the Final Option: burning her out. She blacks out, and when she wakes up… she’s rescued. And there’s a creature there. She ends up calling him Charlie — he was made from a small piece of char that the Sweep left her — and it turns out he’s a golem.

It has a tough beginning, but after Charlie comes into the story, it settles down into small adventures: Nan tries to keep from getting caught — she is supposed to be dead, after all — and tires to find out more about Charlie and his purpose as Charlie himself learns more about the world. It’s very atmospheric (in all the best ways), as Nan and Charlie end up relying on each other. There is a couple of small sub-plots, dealing with the horrid conditions of chimney sweeps in Victorian England (and they are horrid) and with Crudd’s vengeance for Nan “escaping” her indenture. But, mostly it’s a charming little tale of Nan and Charlie and their friendship.

Auxier, when he was here for school visits, said that he considers himself more of a storyteller than a writer, and that shows: although his writing is elegant, it’s the storytelling that comes through. He knows how to tell a story to keep a reader reading, and to make the characters come to life. It’s a strange, sweet story and I adored every moment of this one (even the ending, which made me cry).

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Reread: The Scorpio Races

by Maggie Stiefvater
First sentence: “It is the first day of November, and so, today, someone will die.”
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Content: It’s violent. But, if there’s a kid, say, 11 years old or so, who is interested in dark fairy-type tales, I’d give it to them. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up again after Maggie visited the store on her All the Crooked Saints tour, and I took pictures of fans for her, and listened to her chat them up. She said, over and over, that Scorpio Races was her favorite. And so, I decided that while I’d read it before, it had been a while, and I should revisit it.

And it was everything I thought about it and SO MUCH MORE. I don’t think, six years ago, that I was prepared for the awesomeness that is Maggie’s writing. Now, after Raven Cycle and Saints, I think I’m beginning to appreciate how wonderful a wordsmith she is. She captured a place — granted it doesn’t really exist — and a mythology so well, it could be real. And she made me FEEL so much that I cried during the last couple of chapters. Maybe this isn’t the best place to start with Maggie’s writing, but it’s definitely a truly breathtaking book.

She really is one of my favorite authors.

Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods

fearsomecreaturesby Hal Johnson, illustrated by Tom Mead
First sentence: “While he lived, Paul Bunyan served as the master of the Michigan lumberwoods; since his death, its only master has been the hodag.”
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Content: It’s purportedly scary, but it’s really not. Some of the illustrations might be disturbing for younger readers, however. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

There’s not really a plot to summarize in this one; it’s a collection of tall tales about mythical/made-up beasts designed to scare you. It’s not really that scary, at least for an adult. The tales are simple and sometimes spooky (I could see reading these aloud, after dark, by firelight). But what I really loved was the presentation of the book. It’s gorgeously illustrated with black-and-white line drawings of the creatures, with some bonus glow-in-the-dark pages. I spent a good while just looking at the illustrations.  Additionally, the some parts of the text were set apart in a different font, just adding to the overall look.

It is an impressive package, even if the stories didn’t affect me the way they were supposed to.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)