Librarian Preview: Chicken House Spring 2010
You may ask yourself, "Why is there an imprint of Scholastic named ‘Chicken House’? What on earth do its books, which encompass a fine range of imported European titles, have to do with the abode of a hen?" The answer came when I attended a recent librarian preview for Chicken House held in Scholastic’s home base in Soho.
I had never been to a Scholastic preview before. Rumor has it that once in a while they display their upcoming lists in an auditorium-like setting, but I’ve never been privy to seeing such a thing. This particular event, as it happened, bore as little similarity to an auditorium-based PowerPoint as it was possible to be. And why not? After all Barry Cunningham was in town! And he doesn’t pass through just every day. Barry is the Publisher and Managing Director of The Chicken House, which began roundabout ten years ago. In celebration for his arrival Chicken House threw us a little high tea. This entailed champagne (which I will now expect at every high tea), finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, scones, tea (naturally), and loose tea brought over from the British Isles by Barry in small boxes designed to look like red British phone booths. Little Brown now has an official challenger to the white tableclothed preview throne.
After seating ourselves John Mason, the director of Scholastic’s educational marketing, said, "I don’t think you expected to hear one Brit introducing another Brit." They were both seated at my table, as it happened, so had he not said that I would have just assumed that every table in the room was equipped with the standard two Brit minimum. He introduced Mr. Cunningham who rose to speak. I had heard that he had a bit of the gift of the gab. This was, as it turned out, an understatement.
Barry began by clarifying that Chicken House is "Mainly from Europe but really from the world market." Next year, as it happens, they will even open a Chicken House chapter in Germany. Then Barry spoke about what got him into children’s books. One of his earliest jobs was working for Puffin where he had to, and this is true, dress up in a giant puffin costume. The danger with that particular occupation turned out to be how easy it was to accidentally "beak" the children. Still, it allowed him to tour with the likes of Roald Dahl and Mary Norton, seeing firsthand how children’s authors really are "the secret friends of children."
As he grew comfortable speaking, Mr. Cunningham adopted an unassuming manner. He spoke in a straightforward style that appeared to pluck the right words from the ether at just the right moment. Those of us reliant upon our notecards for such talks could only enviously covet this talent. Watching him I suddenly understood how it was that Cornelia Funke was successfully introduced to the children of North America. Only Barry could have charmed a company’s marketing team into buying into "the German J.K. Rowling" (as Ms. Funke was originally dubbed).
Ah, but what you want to hear about are the books, yes? And what books there were!
First up, those of you who read Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams and then continued to follow the series through Deeper will be pleased to hear that the third book Freefall is due out soon. It’s funny, but if you look at the cover it seems almost to say that the title is "Frefail" with a big brown rock dotting the nonexistent "i". Hm. Barry introduced this book by mentioning that for as long as there have been humans we have been continually fascinated by what rises, or lurks, under our feet, "and where nasty people may have gone." He went on to paraphrase someone by saying that laughter and fear in children’s books are very close. Laughter is delayed fear and fear delayed laughter. The authors of this particular series are an interesting duo. One a conceptual artist and one a fund manager. Movie rights have been sold, which is sort of standard. Less standard is the fact that the project actually has a director attached. But any more than that Barry would not say, and so we moved on.
Moved on to Numbers by Rachel Ward. Ward’s an interesting case. She never actually meant to be a writer, writing instead for relaxation. Clearly relaxation time is over now that she’s written a novel about a girl who, when she looks at you, can see the date of your death imprinted on you. I hate to admit that I know this, but there’s actually a music video out there with an identical plot. Only in the case of this book, the girl can’t give up her power. Then she meets a boy, can see his date, they try to be happy and "it all goes hideously wrong." I showed the book to my bookgroup at work and the kids liked the cover. However, when asked what they thought it was about based entirely on the jacket they said, "getting stabbed in the eye?" I’ll upload a photo of that cover when it’s available. You’ll see what they meant.
The novel Stolen comes via a first time author by the name of Lucy Christopher. Barry called this one a book about terrifying dilemmas. Teenagers, after all, are the kinds of creatures that can be "full of joy and grief all in the same afternoon." In this book a girl is kidnapped and wakes up in Australia with her kidnapper. She falls in love with Australia while there and begins to even sympathize with her captor as well. And by the end she has his fate her hands.
Switching gears entirely is Wolven by Di Toft. For those of you sick of the plethora of vampire and werewolf novels out there, this one makes an interesting change of pace. It’s about a boy who has always wanted a dog. Finally his grandparents, I believe, cave in but the animal they give to him is unexpected. "It’s not really a dog in the sensible sense of the word." No, what the boy has on his hands is a wolven, or werewolf in reverse. The wolven used to be common but now this one (which has escaped from a testing facility) is one of the last left. And the kicker? When it turns into a werewolf inevitably it ends up being at the worst possible moments. Di Toft, for the record, is no stranger to large dogs (as you can see):
A book that I found particularly intriguing and that I’m looking forward to getting my inky mitts on is The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh. With its Joseph Delaney blurb (The Last Apprentice series) this was a runner-up when Chicken House hosted a literary contest. A Medieval mystery, the book is set at a monastery where a boy novice lives part of his time in the nearby surrounding woods. After rescuing a hob ("half man, half biscuit . . . no, I mean elf") it helps to reveal to the boy a big secret. Years ago the monks believe that they buried an angel . . . only that’s not what it is. And dark forces are now scheming to get it (whatever it is) back. Tell me you don’t find that premise just the slightest bit intriguing, eh? As for the cover, do my eyes deceive me or does our old friend cover artist David Frankland strike again? Hm.
Pickle King is by actress and filmmaker Rebecca Promitzer. It’s a mystery set in a rainy town. A group of kids, thrust together entirely because they’re in the same place at the same time, find they don’t much like one another but have little choice in the matter. "And then one of them discovers a body." And that’s before they even realize that body parts are going missing . . . keeping somebody else alive. This apparently is a good book if you’re into black humor and body parts. Who isn’t? Love that cover too.
Clever of them to put her name on the lid.
The Keepers’ Tattoo by Scottish author Gill Arbuthnott was described as "romantic with a small r." In this particular tale a girl lives in a remote island community working the bar. One day bad guys arrive and what they want is her. Under her hair the girl carries half a tattoo. The other half belongs to her twin brother, whom she must now track down before the villains do. Robert Louis Stevenson was invoked when describing this book’s combination of pure salt spray and terror while on the run.
At this point we turn our eyes Germanyward (what, spell-check doesn’t recognize that word either?). The Princess Plot by Kristen Boie came out earlier this year and garnered itself a reputation for being better than people expected. These days you see something that pink and your eyes automatically roll to the back of your head. You might not even notice the cute little crowned skull on the cover, and that’s a shame since the book is a fine exciting tale of betrayals, mistaken identities, kidnappings, assassinations, and (of course) pretty pretty princesses. I read it earlier this year and enjoyed it quite a bit. The sequel The Princess Trap is now on the horizon so keep your ears peeled for that book as well. It is, I can attest, very purple.
We were assured at this point that though there is no book jacket currently available for Andrew Newbound, the title Demon Squad is well worth looking forward to just the same. Instead of a jacket they just put a big blue and white photo of Mr. Newbound himself on the page of our handouts, so I stared at his luminous blueness while I listened to a story of a psychic girl and her disappearing parents. Normally using her powers to discover lost objects, the heroine of this tale runs into some gruesome ghosts and goblins right before going the opposite direction and finding herself facing an angel squad bent on destroying the aforementioned ghoulies and ghastlies. They say it has an Artemis Fowl feel to it. Extra points for Barry not saying "Angels are the new vampires". In fact, there wasn’t a single moment where he described a book as [this] meets [this]. A pity really. Those are often my favorite statements.
Now here’s a book that I have been meaning and meaning and meaning and MEANING to review and the timing just hasn’t worked out on my part yet. However, I urge you to read Raiders’ Ransom by Emily Diamand. I mean it. You know that Chicken House contest for fiction I alluded to earlier? Well this book won it and it’s great. Early galleys pictured a girl holding a glowing red device on the cover. The new jacket shows a girl and her cat on a boat sailing past a submerged Big Ben. That not enough for you? It’s about a world where England has flooded, Scotland has invaded the dry parts, and there are Londoner Vikings sailing about the place. It’s funny, fun, and exciting. And there’s a smart cat. Gah! Read this! The sequel is due out in Spring of 2011 (consarn it…).
I guess I sort of forgot that Kevin Brooks was a Chicken House find. He’s YA which isn’t my bag, baby, but even I have read a book of his or two in my day. Barry praised the man’s ability to "really crawl inside a character" and understand things like the nature of desperation. In Dawn a girl is caught in a terrible relationship within her own family. It was renamed about four different times, apparently.
And then there were a couple picture books mentioned. Pink! by Lynne Richards and illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain appears to be a bit like Pinkalicious but in penguin form. Makes sense. Kids love pink. Kids love penguins. Pink dinosaurs are next to come down the pike, I’d wager.
Cornelia Funke remains Chicken House’s greatest success and we heard that Inkdeath will be coming out in paperback July 2010 while The Thief Lord will be seeing and entirely new cover in the summer of that same year.
Finally, why is it called Chicken House? Because Barry actually owns one. A house. Of chickens. Works for me, said the woman who named her blog after a car part.
And that was that! Not a long list, but there’s more than few titles on there to keep you occupied. My thanks to the folks at Scholastic for the tea, both loose and bagged. Now I just need to figure out how one prepares loose tea. Where’s me cheesecloth . . . . ?
Filed under: Librarian Previews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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