Thursday, October 27, 2011
How to Hug does not really have a storyline, but is rather a lighthearted “how to” guide on, as indicated in the title, giving and receiving hugs. Done in watercolor using a pastel palette, the heartwarming pictures feature children interacting with various friendly animals, such as kangaroos, penguins, koala bears, and elephants. Playfully, the book instructs children on how not to hug—not too tightly, not too long. And hugging someone who is angry, or prickly like a porcupine, is not advised. Many “proper” ways to hug are illustrated as are the responses one might receive, such as bear hugs, sandwich hugs, hugs in return, and kisses on the cheek.
While the book may not have a major lesson or plot, parents will enjoy reading it to their children; it leaves an affectionate feeling. The simple text is also suitable for children in kindergarten or first grade who are learning to read, as the words are easy. My six-year-old niece had a wonderful time figuring out how to read all the words by herself; she proceeded to read the book out loud several times to different family members.
I’ve been an admirer of Chris Raschka’s work for years (see other reviews here). My favorite remains Arlene Sardine. Raschka is a Caldecott Medalist, and I think he’s a front-runner again with A Ball for Daisy.
A Ball for Daisy is wordless. You will thoroughly enjoy the artistically-rendered story of the delightful Daisy’s love for her big red ball. Whether she’s chasing it, rolling it on her paws, wagging her tail simply at the sight of it, cuddling with it on the sofa, or happily off with her helpful mistress to the park to play with it, Daisy is cheerful; her joy makes the reader smile.
But this day at the park—not so good. An interloper in the form of a little brown poodle snatches the ball before Daisy can get to it, carries it smugly a few feet, and then, unintentionally, bites it too hard (how does the reader know it’s an unintentional act? The illustration shows us; the poodle is as surprised as anyone when the ball pops). Daisy is as deflated as the ball. Raschka’s palette introduces a dab of purple to the former happy reds, yellows, and soft grey-browns of Daisy’s world. With empathetic humor, the following pages depict Daisy’s attempt to resurrect her toy and her mistress’ attempts to get her through her loss.
But—at the park a few days later the brown dog and his mistress reappear to give Daisy a present: a brand new ball, this one blue. Everyone’s happy? You bet.
With just his brush and a few strokes, Raschka conveys emotionally-resonant scenes, using not only color but outline and face/body expressiveness. To me, thus, this is an ideal picturebook, not only for its artistry but for much that is depicted through the art, such as the thoughtful but also fair replacement of the punctured ball by the poodle’s owner. Without Raschaka’s use of a single word, the gamut displayed of Daisy’s feelings speaks to readers, helping develop their “mirror neurons,” crucial to learning compassion.
Could there be more books about Daisy forthcoming? I wouldn’t be surprised.
John Lithgow is one of the few celebrity authors whose books are truly exceptional; he’d be a children’s author even if he weren’t a star of stage, screen, and TV. With this carefree, yodeling ode to two dogs, Lithgow lauds his tried and true dogs, true friends who’ve indeed tried everything and, though very different, have found the perfect balance between them. Fanny is little, old, and slow, and Blue is mid-size, young, and quick. Nevertheless, they have things in common, for example, “Neither of ‘em ever learned a single trick.” Their owner loves ‘em, that’s clear—and audible-- on the attached CD. I bet Lithgow’s own dogs yodel along when the CD is played in their house.
Neubecker’s exuberant, very funny illustrations pair perfectly with Lithgow’s humor. Double-truck, pastel pages portray the dog duo giving and getting affection, “happy… huggy,” their pink tongues lolling, their endearing doggy eyes usually utterly focused on something like… a sock or a squirrel. Fanny and Blue are the quintessential dogs, “loyal and true ooo ooo ooo,” and readers will love them too ooo ooo.
Graeme Base’s first best-seller, the 1987 alphabet book Animalia, introduced his gorgeous, intricate, eye-and-imagination-catching art and his playful language, such as “Unruly unicorns upending urns of ultramarine umbrellas” to children and adults around the world. In the nearly quarter century he has been writing and painting since the first book, he has continued to produce distinctive, popular picturebooks. His newest, The Legend of the Golden Snail, is one of his best.
Young Wilbur loves the legend of the Grand Enchanter who sends his great ship, the Golden Snail, to the Ends of the Earth until a new Grand Enchanter appears. Wilbur determines he will be the next enchanter, and, with a captain’s hat made by his mother and with her best wishes, he sets off across the ocean in a rowboat with his cat. Along the way, he stops to save thirsty butterfly flowers, frees a colossal crab tangled in a net, and overcomes the earwig pirates who are stealing the lantern fish’s lightbulbs. But he worries these, to him, less than heroic acts will not exhibit his qualifications to be the next Grand Enchanter. Readers know better: as in the fairy tales, one who does good things selflessly will prosper, and, indeed, when Wilbur is stuck in the Dreadful Doldrums, the butterflies come to his aid, as do the crab and the lantern fish.
Soon Wilbur arrives at the End of the Earth. To his disappointment, the snail ship appears to be merely a little snail stuck in the sand. Ah, but Wilbur, having listened so well to the legend, knows the magic verse to bring the little snail into its full sailing ship size. In a series of stunning double-truck pages, Wilbur’s joyous flight on the glorious snail ship is depicted in memorably beautiful scenes (think of the flying bike scene in E.T. ). The essence of the story comes in Wilbur’s ultimate decision: he chooses to release the magic ship, sending it back for the next Grand Enchanter and return home in the rowboat with his cat. The reward for his humility is: his own tiny rowboat turns to gold and sprouts wings. The final picture is unforgettable; the boy and his cat heading home in the flying golden rowboat, setting off into a fabulously vibrant sky and feeling content to no longer be the Grand Enchanter but rather Wilbur, the Gallant Captain.
The Legend of the Golden Snail, characteristically of Base’s many books, offers interactive games like hidden objects to spot, maps, and beautifully detailed art; it’s a picturebook feast.
Ashley Ramsden’s retelling of this Norwegian folktale evokes a deep response from the reader. A winter traveler, nearly at death with exhaustion, stumbles upon a house, “blazing with lights,” a beacon of hope amid the snow and cold. Each man he meets at the house sends him further in to “the father of the house,” each one older than the last, until finally he is speaking with a speck of dust, whose response, “Yes, my son,” clues the reader into the broader spiritual element of the text. In a moment of mysterious heavenly splendor, all the men of the house, now equal in age, join the traveler in a magnificent feast.
Ed Young’s combination of cut paper collage, paint splattering, and pastel create multi-dimensional illustrations that both leap off the page and draw the reader further into the folktale. The illustrations, while sometimes abstract, are evocative – one can almost feel the temperature change from the bitter cold of the Norwegian winter to the warm indoors as the traveler proceeds further into the house.
The metaphor of spiritual quest might not be understood by very young children, but the endearing warmth and comfort of the story, particularly the ending, in which the weary traveler lies down on a bed, saying a prayer of thanks that he had, “at last, found the true father of that house,” lends itself nicely as a bedtime story to be treasured and re-read.
Rocket, a black and white spotted dog, has no interest in learning to read. He simply wants to nap under his favorite tree! But a little yellow bird’s clever use of suspense propels Rocket to want to learn to read. The story follows Rocket’s experience as he learns his letters, sounds out words, spells new words, and finally, reads on his own.
The book has a well-balanced mix of easy spelling words like “dig,” “wag,” “sun,” and “melt,” and more difficult story words. The text is far enough above a beginning reader’s instructional level that it would need be read to the child, but includes many spelled-out words, so the child participate in the story-telling as well.
The author has an ironic sense of humor. For example, when Rocket learns that napping is not allowed at school, he moves his nap to a nearby bush. Many reluctant students may identify with Rocket’s impulse!
Hills’ illustrations are bright and cheerful. Each page is filled with bright outdoor colors, and the changing of the seasons is beautifully represented, particularly Hills’ depiction of “mud,” the harbinger of spring. Rocket’s facial expressions, while simple, are unfailingly endearing. Overall, the story is delightful, both for reluctant and eager early readers.
Phillis Gershator’s wonderful retelling of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” nursery rhyme expands this classic into an adorable bedtime tale. The soft, colorful illustrations depict a little boy on a farm asking each of his barnyard friends about the benefits of their gifts. The black sheep, the gray goose, the red hen, the yellow bee, and the brow cow all give the rhyming “yes sir, yes sir…” response to the child’s questions before we follow each of them to their beds, and get a peek into their dreams. Fun surprises like the sheep knitting a blanket and the hen wearing an apron will bring joy to you and your little reader as you revisit this beloved nursery rhyme again and again.
An adorable tale about a boy whose mother gives him a sunflower in place of a sword, The Sunflower Sword is full of imagination and fun, while it also challenges our assumptions. Sperring and Latimer’s colorful picture book follows the little knight (who wears a colander as his helmet) as he whooshes and swooshes his sunflower slaying imaginary dragons atop Dragon Hill. When the little knight encounters a real, fire-breathing dragon with only his sunflower (and colander) as protection, he is surprised to discover that dragons can be even better as playmates than as prey. Soon, the other knights take up sunflowers in place of their swords, while the little knight’s mother smiles at the peaceful change she and her son inspired. This delightful, playful story will bring a smile to children and adults alike.
Once upon a time, in a land of knights and dragons, a little knight wanted to be big and fight dragons with a sword. But instead of a sword, his mother gives him a sunflower “to whoosh and swoosh in the air.” The little knight whooshes and swooshes his way all the way to Dragon Hill, where he slays three imaginary dragons! But one day, he meets a real dragon – suddenly his sunflower sword doesn’t seem as powerful! Or perhaps, it’s even more powerful than he can imagine, as the dragon, flattered by being offered a flower, befriends the little knight, setting a precedent for all the other knights in the kingdom to lay down their armaments.
Sperring and Latimer’s tale is delightful. The little knight’s story reflects the idea that honey is more effective than vinegar, and that friendship is stronger than war, but without becoming cloy or cliché. The illustrations are bright, colorful, and playful and even the font choice fits perfectly with the story. The bright red, many-toothed dragon has an endearing shape and face, particularly when he’s holding the tiny sunflower! The book is whimsical and cheerful – the perfect combination of excellent illustrations and a down-to-earth fairy tale story.
Little Oink is the sweet story of a “neat little pig” struggling with the societal expectations that he act more…like a pig. Our protagonist is a little pink piglet named Little Oink. He likes to do almost everything that the other piglets do, except making messes. When encountered with “Mess up time,” Little Oink envies how all his non-pig friends get to clean their rooms, rather than making their rooms messy. Contrary to his unsoiled inclinations, Little Oink’s parents remind him that “to be a respectable pig,” he must “learn how to make a proper mess.”
This fun picture book playfully encourages us to take another look at indoctrinating kids into societal norms. In the culture of pigs, one that values messiness, Little Oink finds a refuge for his subversive preference for cleanliness via a traditional childhood escape – “playing house.” This neat little piglet “Sweep(s), Scour(s)” and “Scrub(s)” a tree house into his own “hog heaven.”
Kiss Me! (I’m a Prince!) breathes new life into a familiar fairy tale. No doubt the children who read this book and whoever reads along with them will be familiar with the standard fairy tale fixture, a prince who has been turned into a frog. But McLeod and her illustrator, Kerrigan, signal a departure from the familiar storyline as soon as the book is opened.
The story begins with a familiar request by the frog prince—he needs a kiss in order to be restored to his human form. The girl he asks for that kiss, however, is anything but conventional. Ella, wearing a baseball cap backwards and an old pair of sneakers, is not interested in kissing. She just wants to play with the talking frog. He, however, points out how “unseemly” it is to play and get dirty. Life at his palace is all about education and etiquette. As soon as Ella teaches the frog prince the joyin being children, they spend many happy days swimming in the pond andplaying hopscotch.
That is, until the day a courtier from the frog prince’s palace comes to take him back home. He does not stay away, however. Two weeks later, he returns to Ella’s and tells her that although he received many kisses while at his castle, none was able to restore him to his former self. What he really needs is a kiss from a true friend. Ella asks whether he really wants to be a prince again, since he will be stuck again in his old stuffy existence. His parents, the frog prince explains, have agreed to give him time every day to play. With this good news, Ella kisses her frog friend, and they play happily ever after.
One of my favorite aspects of this version of the fairy tale is its shift in emphasis from marriage to friendship. Young children typically do not desire to find their one true love. They desire friendship and play. McLeod taps into the inclinations of her young readers. The beautiful watercolors and often-humorous visuals add to this book’s considerable charm.
As implied by the title, Noah’s Bark is a playful retelling of the classic biblical Noah’s Ark story. In this adaptation, the world is full of familiar animals children know, such as cows, pigs, snakes and sheep, but the animals are all making the wrong noises! Cows are hissing and sheep are meowing. Not only that, they are loud—so loud, that Noah is having trouble concentrating on building the ark—so he “barks” a command to the animals to quiet down. Once it begins raining and all are on the boat, Noah assigns the proper sounds to each animal, and forevermore, animals make the sounds that we are familiar with today. It is a simple, yet humorous chaos-to-order story.
With vibrant and colorful illustrations, this entertaining and interactive book is one that parents and children can enjoy together. The illustrations depict the animals making incorrect noises. Children will like pointing these out, demonstrating the noises the animals should be making, and matching which animal should be associated with the various “wrong” noises. I had a lot of fun with this book and hope readers do, too.
The beat is HAPPENING on the pages of Protopopescu’s story, Thelonious Mouse! The tale is clearly a tribute to Thelonious Monk, the famous jazz pianist, but is in no way biographical. In this story, Thelonious Mouse cannot keep himself from taunting the cat of the house with his tapping and beating and swishing. Fat Cat could eat him for dinner in one swipe, but he prances and skitters his way around the house, making rhythmic music the whole time. One day, when Thelonious Mouse discovers a piano, he and the cat learn to make beautiful music together!
The text is lively and upbeat with alliterative and frequently rhyming language bouncing to the rhythm, making it perfect for reading aloud. The illustrations are colorful and whimsical. For kids who can’t stop fidgeting, for kids who are constantly making “music,” or for any parent wanting a fun way to introduce jazz, Thelonious Mouse is a perfect, unusual addition to their collection of storybooks.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
The beloved Nutbrown Hares strike again! In this beautiful addition to the Guess How Much I Love You collection, McBratney and Jeram create four stories, one for each season. In the spring, Big Nutbrown Hare teaches Little Nutbrown Hare about growing up; in summer, they find and identify colors; in autumn, they play pretend; and in winter, they learn about nature.
All four stories deliver the high quality of text and illustrations readers expect from a Guess How Much I Love You book. I remember the original classic from childhood; this one does it justice while adding an educational dimension.
Filomena is a seamstress well-known for making bridal gowns, but she dreams of making the dress of her own dreams for her own wedding. She gets the chance when Rusty, the mechanic, finally asks for her hand, and she says yes! However, Rusty is not so happy when Filomena spends more time on her dress than spending time with him. And, when he sees her wearing the gigantic gown as she walks down the aisle, he’s struck with a fear that forces him to flee the church! What will happen when Filomena catches up with her scared groom?
The book seems to refer to adult issues. I can imagine a man giving his girlfriend this book, saying, “Let’s forget the big wedding and just go to Las Vegas.” On the other hand, many girls like fairy tales and Disney films that involve romance and marriage, so they might enjoy Masini’s story. In addition, the book was originally published in Italy and written for children in a different culture, which may something to keep in mind.
The illustrations by Cantone are full-page, with flowing lines and cartoonish characters. They sometimes overwhelm the words, but kids might enjoy the busyness and fanciful textures.
Wright presents a lovable raccoon family as they gather food stuffs from garbage cans and fruit trees around human homes after dark. There are three main things to like about this book: the lyrical text, the flowing lines and colorful, textured full page illustration, and the portrayal of a family working together harmoniously and having fun. Critics might complain the book implies that it’s okay to steal; they need to understand the animal world first, and then they need to relax. Johanna Wright has done no wrong with Bandits.
What would a techo-modern version of the Three Little Pigs look like? Little Red Riding Hood? Cinderella? Solar panels, discos, and salons meet fairy tales when a child and mom read together at bedtime.
Codell’s text is simple, maybe seemingly simplistic, but actually quite smart. She presents three elements that readers who are familiar with fairy tales will recognize, then throws in a fourth element that does not traditionally belong with the fairy tale at all. On the page this is show as pictures on a white background with the words above them. Then, the following illustrations by Chiavani put the fairy tale in a modern setting involving the fourth element. There are so many children’s books, both picture and chapter, that revamp traditional fairy tales. This is a nice fun addition to the pile.
The actual lack of text works by not being too descriptive, so kids’ imaginations can make up their own details, and the pictures are bright and cartoony. It’s only serious in terms of its fun!
For any family struggling to deal with the loss of a pet, I’d highly recommend Robert Burleigh’s Goodbye Sheepie. The story of the passing of young Owen’s best canine friend, Sheepie, is told with grace and sensitivity. When Sheepie dies, Owen and his father bury the dog’s body, speak some final words and create a homemade grave marking. Owen’s father treats his son’s grief with understanding and compassion, teaching Owen (and the reader) that, although Sheepie will never come back, he will always be a part of their happy memories.
Peter’s Catalanotto’s illustrations, done in watercolor and gouache, are soft and colorful, evoking the blurry sadness that accompanies death.
When the power went out in San Diego County on Sept. 8, I picked a book to read while the sun was going down. Krull’s warm biography of the remarkable Jim Henson did not disappoint. It’s the story of a person who knew exactly what he wanted to do, did it, and pleased the world with his genius for puppetry.
Henson was very successful with the Muppets early on; by the time he’d left college, he’d had a local TV show for years and had performed in multiple venues. Thus, when he got the call from the visionary Sesame Street producer Joan Ganz Cooney, after giving it some thought he was ready to go. The rest, as they say, is history. Kermit (named after a childhood friend of Henson) the Frog, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert, and Ernie appeared on TV in late 1969 and have been on air ever since. The first episode of Saturday Night Live was begun with the Muppets, and a year later The Muppets Show became “the most popular puppets in history”…. watched by “as many as 235 million people each week” (32). The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth remain movie cult classics.
Henson was 53 when he died, and as one fan who remembers the shock and sadness of that, and both my sons' sheer enjoyment of Sesame Street, I am glad such a fine biography for young readers has been published. Johnson and Fancher each illustrates a highlight of Henson’s life, showing him roller blading with his family or doing Kermit in front of a mirror. The final painting, of the huge crowd at Henson’s funeral and the jazz band that played, is a perfectly-chosen closing image.
This very funny perspective on bugs as the real aliens is deadpan right on both in words and eye-popping illustrations. I have it in this non-fiction section because everything said in it is true, but it is really unclassifiable, as it is imagination at its best. In pithy prose, insect and other wildlife conservationist Huggins-Cooper homes in on suspicious bug traits that give us regular folk the creeps, like “They watch us with camera-like eyes. Are they taking pictures?” Or, “I hear them whisper in secret languages. I see them dance strange dances.”
How is this funny?
The art elevates the already excellent text onto a higher level. Actually, this is my first time seeing Bonnie Leick (‘Like”)’s art and I’m stunned. The “They set up camp in our gardens” painting is 3-D and must be, the observer concludes, done digitally. Yet, the book’s flap states Leick’s medium is watercolor. Well, hats off! The art for the “Are they taking pictures?” page ought to be framed. It reminds one of the 3-Dish photos of Dogs!, and are all the more impressive for being as hilarious and memorably peculiar, yet done with paint.
I’m forwarding this to an American Library Association friend to ask she look at it for the Caldecott.
These short reversible story poems are intellectual delights: each page’s left side poem is read top to bottom, then is reversed line for line in the right side poem, which, enjoyably, also makes perfect sense as well as a good poem. Word order isn’t changed, only occasional punctuation. Singer’s originals are a model for potential writing sessions in classrooms. Poetry can be fun!
The poems are versions of famous fairy tales, so content like “Rapunzel” and “Snow White” is readily recognizable. On the opposite page are illustrations rich in color and design, also mirroring the poems—the left side illustration matches the left side poem, and the right side painting encapsulates the poem, the story element, in its reverse. Masse juxtaposes the two paintings superbly so they play off each other, as in the Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast. The sense of design is beautiful.
This version of Mother Goose is superb. Lipchenko’s remarkably fine illustrations accompany Tundra Books’ unusual selection of nursery rhymes. With full color, full page pastel wonders of detailed perspective on the right page and two smaller, soft black and white pictures, page decorations, and two poems on the left, Lipchenko’s ingenuity is everywhere evident. A color page such as the one illustrating “Robbin the Bobbin,The big-bellied Ben…” are full of angles and sub-scenes and surprises, enough on each page to last a long time. In addition, this collection features rhymes not in the typical canon. For example:
The captain was a duck
With a packet on his back;
When the ship began to move,
The captain said, “Quack, quack!”
The illustration of this poem is hilarious, as are they all.
This is a darling but superficial interactive book with lots of little details about the “big city,” presumably New York. Gigi leads the reader through the book into different places she explores. The first two pages – an inside-cover spread – find Gigi arriving in a taxi, which is a flap you can pull down to see the inside of the taxi and Gigi and the cabbie within. In this introductory spread alone there are 14 flaps to open to see the tenants in a skyscraper, the poses in a yoga studio, hats and dresses in stores, and students taking art classes, among other things.
Each page follows this conceit, offering flaps to lift to see the inside of stores and museums along with wheels to spin to see different varieties of gemstones, hairstyles, and expressions. You could spend an hour just changing Gigi's outfit in one segment. The many details crammed into just a few pages echoes the experience of a city – so many people, so much artwork, so many activities going on all at once in a relatively small space.
The interactive aspects of the book are delightful and intricate, and I can see young girls enjoying this book for its fun-and-flash factor, but the message of the book is shallow. While there are some educational details in the museum spreads and a few people of different ethnicities, Gigi in the Big City is largely materialistic. Gigi’s explorations take her out on a town seen by privileged kids with money to burn. She goes shopping; she looks at shoes; she reads frilly magazines; she gets her hair done. The book could have gone beyond fluff by including more details about the people, neighborhoods, and jobs that make up a big city.
Reinhart’s many awesome pop-up books top any list of engineered and imaginative marvels. I like Puppies, Kittens, and Other Pop-Up Pets because of its beautiful paper-cut precision art and because his presentation of possible pets captures their natures so well.
But I especially like it because it’s inexpensive. The $6.99 price means many people can enjoy this admittedly small-sized, but no less enjoyable for that, pop-up. I am especially fond of the rabbit. In fact, this is a good first pop-up book before you buy Reinhart’s more intricate, more amazing, and more expensive books.
The Great Depression was rough for farmers in the Saskatchewan Prairie like Ellen Jackson’s father. After four years of drought with no crops and no end in sight, he must leave the farm, going west to find work and support his family. Ellen and her mother must leave, too, or starve. They head to the big city of Toronto to stay with her Aunt Gladys. A shy child, Ellen is used to small town life where her best friend is the only other girl in her grade. In Toronto, she can’t possibly just go outside and meet the other children in the neighborhood like everyone expects her to. The big elm tree in front of her window becomes her solution—she can crawl into the tree, hide among the leaves and branches, and just observe the other kids for a while, getting to know them before actually meeting them. But one night while hiding in her tree, Ellen overhears two men talking and planning trouble for her next-door neighbors. She has to make a decision: stay in her comfort zone and do nothing, or step up, rising above her fear to do the right thing.
The story parallels Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Not only is Ellen herself actually reading The Secret Garden, she thinks of her listening tree as her “secret garden,” a place of beauty that is all her own where she can be herself. By the end of The Secret Garden, the main character finds she no longer needs the garden; likewise, Ellen eventually overcomes her shyness and also finds she no longer needs the listening tree.
In addition to being a story about a young girl’s courage, the book details life during the Great Depression. It was a time where families had to separate to earn money. Men left home to find jobs to feed their families; women, who had been stay- at- home caretakers, had to go out and find jobs. Children could no longer be carefree. Older children had to stay and mind their younger siblings. For everyone, food and clothing were scarce. At one point, the only food Ellen and her mother have is oats actually meant for their horse, but the oats remain whereas they’ve had to sell the horse.
The Listening Tree depicts life during one of history’s most difficult economic times, yet it is a moving story of how good life can be especially in tough times, when you are with people who love you and whom you can trust.
San Diego author Carolyn Marsden has created a touching story of two young girls, Susanna and Pina, growing up in a convent orphanage in post-WWII Italy. Susanna is mixed race, the child of an Italian woman and an African-American soldier. Pina, a beautiful blond, does not know anything about her mother. The girls struggle with issues of self-identity, self-worth, and belonging. As opportunities to leave the orphanage and connections with their “real families” manifest, the girls navigate the tension between their desire to remain together and their desire to belong to a family.
The story is elegantly told, and the reader enjoys getting to know the girls. Young girls, particularly those from broken homes, may identify well with the characters and their struggles.
Review: THE ADVENTURES OF SIR LANCELOT THE GREAT and THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GIVRET THE SHORT by Gerald Morris
-- The Adventures of Sir Givret the Short. Illus. Aaron Renier. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-618-77715-0. $15.00. Ages 9 – 12
These two books are part of a larger collection called The Knights' Tales. Author Gerald Morris takes the stories and characters of Malory's La Morte D'Arthur and other Arthurian works and adapts them for elementary aged boys. He weaves the enormous corpus of Arthurian literature into short, easily digestive, often hilariously funny narratives. Each book centers around one character's adventures. As a medieval studies major, with a sizeable knowledge of Arthurian literature, Morris impressed me with his accuracy.
In Sir Lancelot the Great, Morris brilliantly manages to make many sticky issues of the Lancelot legend, such as his possibly illegitimate birth, his relationship with Guinevere, and his vanity, completely appropriate for children. Lancelot in this tale is comically obsessed with keeping his armor shiny, he cherishes his daily afternoon naps, and refuses to accept a lady's tournament token – all while maintaining his status as the greatest fighter in all the land.
Overall, Morris' tales are absolutely delightful. I enjoyed every moment of reading them and will pass them along to the first 11-year-old boy I meet! Morris has written an extensive collection of Arthurian children's books – if they are all as good as these two, I would like to read them all!
Yale Strom is an internationally-acclaimed musician and a professor at San Diego State University; he is also a gifted story-teller. His publisher, Kar-Ben, specializes in Jewish-themed children’s books, and the collaboration here of writer, artist, and publisher is ideal.
Strom’s vibrant, culturally-representative tale takes place in old Pinsk, located now in Belarus, but back in the old days it was in the “Pale of Settlement,” the territory Jews were confined to during the reigns of the Czars. (Pinsk is where my own grand-parents came from). In Strom’s story, the little village’s problem is an epidemic of cholera, not an uncommon phenomenon in the swampy, humid land of the Pale. OY! What to do? Cleaning the streets, boiling water, even prayer have not yet helped.
Time for the rabbi to call in the itinerate wedding musician Yiske and explain to him the need for a “Black wedding”: the marriage in a cemetery of two orphans whose deceased loved ones will bless the wedding and thus the town. The problem? Only the bride has been found. As the town contributes wedding cake, a wedding gown, and a wedding dinner, the story moves to finding a suitable orphaned groom. The criterion? Goodness of heart. Yes, such a person exists, and, moreover, he already loves the bride.
The wedding happily happens, accompanied by klezmer music (the thrilling music traditional in Jewish Eastern Europe) and hopeful villagers. Guess what else—the leader of the klezmer band gets a telegram shortly afterward letting him know the cholera epidemic has ended. The story closes with a smiling Yiske thinking to himself, “… maybe miracles do happen!”
Strom’s prose captures the expressive cadences of the Old World, for example, not just one “Oy!” but three—“Oy! Oy! Oy!” making for a most enjoyable read-aloud experience.
Promitsky’s art is perfect, comical and warmly expressive of life in a shtetl (small Jewish town) from the cobblestone streets to the water buckets carried on people’s shoulders to the horse-drawn wagons. The art fits the story and adds enjoyable little details to the text, like Yiske’s cat scratching itself and, later in the text, the rabbi himself dancing to the klezmer music at the wedding.
A glossary of Yiddish words is appended, e.g. “shtetl” and “klezmer.”
I hope to see more collaborations between Strom and Promitsky published by Kar-Ben.
Spielman’s excellent biography of the Master of Mime engages one from the outset by introducing young Marcel as he is raiding his father’s wardrobe to dress up as Charlie Chaplin and entertain neighbors on the streets of pre-World War II France. We see that Marceau was, from his own outset, a performer and much in demand.
He was also a Jew, and this fact altered his life, which is an understatement. His father died in Auschwitz. At the age of 16, he and his older brother worked for the French Resistance in Limoges. The artistic young Marceau forged documents and dangerously led groups of Jewish children secretly to the Swiss border. At 20, Marceau was in Paris studying mime and later performed for Patton’s troops in Germany. Once the war was over, Marceau concentrated on his art, honing his clown character Bip. His fame spread worldwide, and many of us have been privileged to see him on one medium or another. His legacy, through his school for mime and also through the lives of the children he saved during WWII, is assured. His mime communicated beyond language. (Oh, and BTW, he spoke excellent English.)
Speilman’s language in this book soars, even poetic when describing what Marceau could do through mime. And the art is outstanding, very expressive and using the page space gorgeously through color, placement, and design. Gauthier fits the palette to the prose, making for a very successful collaboration.
This isn’t your typical spoiled princess book; you know the contemporary fairy tale versions in which Cinderella becomes a princess without paying any dues first. Contemporary princess just stamps her little feet and gets what she wants.
Nope, this book shows a family working/playing together to make Shabbat even more special by inviting not only the Queen of Shabbat (Shabbat itself is the Queen) but also the princess, none other than the little girl who loves Shabbat but wonders why there’s no princess. She and her parents all contribute to making their little girl the princess by finding dress-up clothes, taking out their best candlesticks, polishing the silver, and having the first of some very special Friday nights. The little girl might wish for diamond decorations but is very happy with what the family can provide.
This lovely story is enhanced by warm, colorful illustrations, notably depicting not fair-skinned Ashkenazi Jews but brown-tone Mexican Jews, reminding us all of the geographical and cultural reach of Judaism.
Nandini Nayar’s engaging picture book What Should I Make? tells the story of Neeraj, a little boy who engages his imagination while making chapatis with his mother. Neeraj plays with a ball of dough, shaping it into different animals and imagining what they might do. Roy’s warm, colorful illustrations depict each step as Neeraj forms his dough into various creatures, and also give a glimpse into what the little boy sees in his imagination as he crafts each animal. Finally, Neeraj rolls out a delicious chapatti. The book includes a detailed, child-friendly, step-by-step recipe for making chapatis.
This wonderful little story of a child having fun while helping his mother cook will also encourage your little ones to share in imaginative play and cooking.
Siddal and Wolff’s rhythmic encouragement to composting all kinds of stuff—well, an A-Z of stuff to stuff—is fun for eye and ear. It’s educational and encouraging, too. You collect natural vegetable matter mostly and mix in some dirt: “Dirt clods, crumbled. Eggshells, crushed. Fruit pulp left behind, all mushed.” All year long you add stuff, and all year long it percolates into nutritious condiments for your garden.
Accompanying the alphabet are glorious illustrations of kids in their garden, along with a goose and a Dalmatian. These are part collage, part painting and very engaging. The collages, additionally, are done from found material, demonstrating that recycling can be aesthetic as well as useful.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Dia Reeves’ Bleeding Violet is set in the fictional town of Portero, Texas. Like any other sleepy supernatural town, there is certainly more to this one than meets the eye. The inhabitants are divided between some locals who are well aware of the dangerous, hidden, supernatural portals that populate the town, while others live in ignorance.
Sixteen year-old heroine Hanna attempts to reconnect with the mother she has never met and to navigate teenage existence in this odd town filled with secret doors to different dimensions. Her story is complicated by a host of psychological conditions for which she is medicated, and by the supernatural monsters that she encounters. Hanna struggles to merge her primarily Finnish (Anglo/Caucasian) upbringing with her physical resemblance to her absent African-American mother. She is forced to balance this racial and cultural uncertainty with the discrimination she faces as a supposed non-supernatural outsider in Portero.
Once Hanna learns that her psychoses are a result of her supernatural heritage rather than an actual psychological condition, she embraces her gifts in the hope of saving her mother from the evil spirit that has possessed her corporeal form. Helping Hanna is the brooding Wyatt. He is a member of the Mortmaine, a militia-esque group that protects the residents of Portero from the unsavory entities that dwell on the other side of the town’s many doors.
The writing is rich and the story psychologically complex. There is some sexual content, and the violence, while beautifully described, is graphically intense, and perhaps better suited for a more mature adolescent reader.
I should have known, after reading Katherine Paterson’s hearty endorsement in the introduction, that this book would be dangerous for my sleep. I couldn’t put it down and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning finishing it!
Words in the Dust, Reedy’s first young adult novel, is inspired by a real girl he met while serving in Afghanistan. The main character, Zulaikha, has a cleft lip; in traditional Afghanistan, she’s always been the brunt of jokes and shame. But writing provides her the opportunity to express herself beyond the limits of her disfigured appearance and to remind herself of her deceased mother. When American solders enter her village, they offer her cosmetic surgery, her older sister gets engaged, and she begins to take secret reading lessons with an older woman named Meena – her dreams have all come true. But Zulaikha learns that fulfilled wishes are not as simple as they seem, and life is often very complicated.
The text is filled with relatable, engaging characters. There are moments of intense action and suspense, such as the flashback to Zulaikha’s mother’s murder by the Taliban, as well as moments of heart-rending sympathy, such as the scene of the tragedy that befalls Zulaikha’s sister. Zulaikha deals with difficult adolescent issues like self-identity, bullying, and fairness, as well as larger adult issues of freedom, like women’s rights, honor killing, arranged marriage, and war. Zulaikha is a positive example for young girls: her choices are not easy, and she manages to pass through challenges with sincere grace and maturity.
Cindy Pon continues the adventures of Ai Ling in Fury of the Phoenix, the 2009 sequel to her debut novel, Silver Phoenix. Chapters alternate between two complementary story lines. In one, Ai Ling joins her friend Chen Yong as he seeks his father. The (unlikely) second story line occurs in the distant past, following the rise to power of Zhong Ye, our heroine’s immortal adversary from the first novel in the series.
The story begins with Ai Ling attempting to stow away on the Gliding Dragon. A dream has told her she must get aboard; Chen Yong’s life depends on it. Once Ai Ling is aboard and Chen Yong is safe, they decide it is best for them to pose as siblings. The perilous voyage, combining pirates and sea monsters, is complicated because the young duo must share a cabin. And, as if dealing with palpable sexual tension weren’t dangerous enough, both hero and heroine must navigate the customs and politics of a foreign land. The storylines merge when Ai Ling battles Zhong Ye for Chen Yong’s soul.
The second narrative takes place three hundred years in the past and follows the young Zhong Ye as he chooses castration to enter the service of the emperor in the Palace of Fragrant Dreams. The ambitious eunuch gains the favor of the emperor by saving his life and providing him with a fertile concubine to give him an heir. In the process, Zhong Ye begins a love affair with the concubine’s handmaid, Silver Phoenix. As the story unfolds, Zhong Ye must choose between his love for Silver Phoenix and his desire for immortality.
Pon braids both narratives beautifully with fast paced action scenes and detailed descriptions. It’s not often, well, perhaps ever, that an author creates a story with a truly sympathetic villain, much less an emasculated protagonist. Fury of the Phoenix navigates a sexual, political, and racial politic so as to challenge the stereotypical themes in most of the novels in the genre.
Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia is the debut novel by author Cindy Pon. Set in the fictional land of Xia, the story follows seventeen year-old Ai Ling hopes on a quest to find her father, who is being held captive at the kingdom’s imperial Palace of Fragrant Dreams. In turn, she hopes to save herself from a forced marriage to a despicable local merchant. Her journey includes supernatural powers, mythical lands, magical monsters, and the realization that her destiny is controlled in part by an incarnation from a past life.
We learn Ai Ling can read minds and control the actions of others; we discover that her past and present are inextricably bound to the Silver Phoenix, consort of the immortal Zhong Ye, advisor to the imperial line. Of course, this is the reason that Zhong Ye holds her father captive at the imperial place. Master Zhong wishes to return the full spirit of his heart’s desire to Ai Ling’s corporeal form, and knows the only way to draw her to the palace is by using her father as bait!
Of course, what would a high fantasy adventure be without a couple of travel companions? Joining Ai Ling on her quest are brothers Chen Yong and Li Rong. Chen Yong is the illegitimate son of one of the Emperor’s consorts and an emissary from the land across the sea, Jiang Dao. Both brothers are athletic and dashing, but Chen Yong struggles with his orphaned existence and mixed race identity. He’s not just here to help Ai Ling, he’s searching for the truth about his parents and his origins.
Pon weaves Silver Phoenix’s past with Ai Ling’s present and Chen Yong’s search rather neatly. The story is action filled and artfully descriptive. Pon is obviously a foodie-- I can’t remember the last time a story made me feel so hungry!
The narrative does contain mature scenes with graphic violence, including a near rape.
In the current trend of young adult fantasy and science fiction, the high fantasy mode hasn’t been particularly prolific. Pon provides not only highly developed fantasy but also, notably, a much needed non-Caucasian heroine in a non-Western context.
Lish McBride’s debut novel, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, stars Sam, a young necromancer, as he learns a little bit about life, love, and, of course, raising the dead. It’s touted as a comedy-injected addition to the current wave of YA speculative fiction. The author biography even jokingly declares that McBride was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest.
Meet Sam LaCroix, community college drop-out, Plumpy’s burger joint employee, and necromancer. Sam doesn’t know he can raise the dead until a chance encounter with Douglas, another local necromancer, who calls him out to stop loafing and accept his true nature. Douglas decides Sam’s time is best spent learning to use his newly discovered powers. While Douglas teaches him necromancy, Sam finds himself sharing a cage with a pretty werewolf. And, provided the were-girl doesn’t decide he’s dinner, Sam might learn about more than just his new powers.
McBride’s humorous title is promising, but the disjointed narrative shift between the first and third person dampens the prospect. Also problematic is the temporality of the pop culture references. While these references are sure to be a hit with an adult (crossover) reader, I expect the humor will be lost on any young adult without the Wikipedia app on his or her smart phone.
The Agency: A Spy in the House is the first novel in Y.S. Lee’s Mary Quinn Mystery series for young adults. Set in Victorian London, the story introduces us to seventeen year-old Mary Quinn, the orphaned daughter of a Chinese sailor and an Irish seamstress. It follows Mary on her first assignment for the Agency, a “collective” of secret agents working out of Miss Skrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.
As the story opens, a twelve year-old Mary finds herself before a magistrate, convicted of theft and sentenced to death. Rescued from the gallows, she accepts a position at Miss Skrimshaw’ Academy. Though Mary learns how to navigate London’s polite society, but restless nature desires more. When she admits this to her instructors Miss Treleaven and Mrs. Frame, they proudly offer Mary a position with the Agency. Of course, she accepts, and after an expedited training period, is placed in the Thorold residence. Posing as a hired companion to the family’s haughty daughter, Mary gathers information about possible nefarious dealings in Mr. Thorold’s shipping business.
This assignment takes a turn as she is almost caught searching Mr. Thorold’s home office. When she ducks into a closet, she discovers that she isn’t the only one investigating Mr. Thorold! Mary eventually teams up with the handsome young stranger from the closet, James Easton. The two follow a trail that leads them to a refuge for Chinese sailors. While searching the refuge, Mary is discovered by a caretaker who recognizes her, remembers her father, and provides her the opportunity to learn about her father-- and herself. As the plot thickens, Mary and James find themselves rushing to solve a mystery fueled by greed, piracy, and murder.
Lee, a Ph.D. in Victorian literature and culture, has modernized the period detective novel by raising issues of diversity, gender roles, and classism. Writing in third person, Lee alternates between Mary’s and James’ perspectives. This is Mary’s story though, so James’ voice sometimes seems an afterthought. The story includes some romantic tension, but not so much that it overshadows the rest of the plot. Overall A Spy in the House is an enjoyable read.
Set in New York City and rural upstate New York, Liar follows Micah, a high school senior with a penchant for compulsive lying. She is seeking the truth about her boyfriend’s murder, and she seeks her own peace about being a werewolf. Her attempts to reconcile human and wolf are complicated by race, sexual orientation, and socio-economic stratification in a complex high school and urban environment.
The story opens as Micah deals with her “boyfriend” Zach’s grisly death. When she becomes the prime suspect, she must race to find the real killer. But one side effect of her time in wolf form is memory loss. So, while she suspects that the killer might be another werewolf, she is not altogether sure that she isn’t indeed responsible for Zach’s death herself. As she works through grief and possible guilt, we discover that her need to lie compulsively stems from her parents’ desire to keep the “family illness” a secret. The relationship with her parents is complicated by another mystery, the death of her little brother. Micah hopes to prove her innocence and thus stave off permanent exile to the family’s farm in rural New York. Most importantly, she hopes for the courage to reveal the truth about the “family illness.”
Larbalestier’s story artfully incorporates the supernatural into the complexities of multicultural existence in modern America.
Part psychological thriller, the story is not linear; Micah bounces between telling of present and past events. Sometimes this is confusing. Nonetheless, the writing is smart, fast paced, and beautifully constructed. At its conclusion, we and Micah realize just how inconsequential the truth can be.
Falls, Kat. Dark Life. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0-545-17814-3. 297 pages. $16.99. Young Adult.
Dark Life is probably best classified as dystopian science fiction. Following the catastrophic rise of sea levels, twenty percent of North America is under water. The forty-five remaining states have formed a Commonwealth that functions in a constant state of emergency. Since the new frontier is now the ocean, where scientists and pioneers work underwater farms to provide the Commonwealth with sustenance, the setting is underwater off the Eastern seaboard of the former United States. Families live in “subsea” homes made from soft-sided membranes modeled after deep-sea invertebrates, mostly jellyfish. Children born and raised in these deep ocean settlements are sometimes referred to as Dark Life, and are thought by their Topsider counterparts to have special powers.
One of these Dark Life adolescents, Ty, is the teenage son of scientist/underwater terra-formers. Both Ty and his nine year-old sister Zoe, born subsea, possess unique talents suited for underwater living. In the first chapter, Ty scavenges among the ruins of the now submerged New York City, though doing so violates his parents’ rules. While investigating an abandoned sub, he discovers Gemma, a teenage Topsider and ward of the Commonwealth, who is searching for her brother. Ty agrees to help Gemma, but the search proves way more dangerous than either could imagine. They find themselves caught in an unfolding mystery that involves seagangs, escaped convicts, secret experiments, and the Benthic territory’s struggle for equal representation in the Commonwealth.
Falls’ Dark Life is a neat little gem. Writing in first person from Ty’s perspective, she re-imagines the American Wild West. Her underwater setting is rife with settlers, outlaws, prospectors, and posses. She mixes an appropriate amount of action with world building and character development to create an enjoyable read. And while Ty is a well- rounded character, I wished Gemma was a bit more developed. All in all, Falls’ prose is well constructed and pretty evenly paced.
It’s been a while since I read something so compelling that I took it everywhere I went, just so I could read it whenever I had a spare moment. Stacey’s Jay’s imaginative novel is impossible to put down. The initial concept is outlined in the book jacket, arresting in its so-simple-it’s-amazing hook: “Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted most…Romeo Montague.”
Now come on! How brilliant is that? Don’t you wish you had thought of it? And Stacey Jay takes that wonderful premise and runs with it, creating a novel steeped in intrigue, mystery, and the dueling forces of good and evil.
In Jay’s novel, Romeo kills Juliet as a sacrifice to gain immortality. After her death, Juliet becomes an Ambassador of Light, a spirit who can inhabit bodies on earth when her help is needed to unite soul mates, and Romeo becomes a Mercenary, an immortal soul on the side of evil. The erstwhile lovers meet again and again on earth in their respective afterlives, always fighting each other for soul mates. If Juliet unites them, she scores one for her team of Ambassadors. If Romeo can convince one soul mate to kill the other, the Mercenaries’ power grows. But are Romeo and Juliet simply doing what they have to do to keep their immortal bosses happy, or are they pawns in an ancient game? And when Juliet finds her own forbidden love – and it’s not Romeo – will she ruin her chances at a peaceful afterlife?
Stacey Jay takes the common conception of Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate pair of lovers and turns it on its head. Juliet hates Romeo, and Romeo is slick, sadistic, and deceptive. With vivid descriptions of graphic violence and macabre visions, the novel edges into gothic horror territory. The suspense is thrilling, the characters are just mysterious enough, and the sense of “What is going on?” will have you racing through the book’s 300 pages to see what will happen to these formerly fair lovers.
Along with the mysteries and unanswered questions, the characterization of Juliet and her relationship with Romeo contributes to the suspense. Juliet – always on the side of good but carrying a bitterness and resentment that darkens her – ultimately learns what love is for. And because Romeo and Juliet have such an epic history, there’s an element of wistfulness for what they used to be. While you may not root for them to end up together, you do feel sorrow for the tragedy they both went through.
Overall, Juliet Immortal is a tantalizing exploration of a fantastic concept. It does suffer a little from the common YA ailment of instant, all-consuming love between teenagers who have just met, but… so did Romeo and Juliet.
In Paper Covers Rock, narrator Alex Stromm, a student at a prestigious Virginia boy boarding school in the 1960s, struggles with the death of a friend by keeping a journal – the next “Great American Novel” – using the anonymous pen name “Is Male,” based on Moby Dick’s narrator “Ishmael.”
In the weeks that follow his friend’s accidental drowning, an incident in which Alex played a major role, he struggles with issue of truth vs. falsehood, confronts the reality of loss and his guilt regarding the accident, and realizes that his choices in friends play a major role in the shape of his life. The journal helps him escape his fear and guilt.
Through all of this, Alex’s English teacher, a recent college graduate in her first year of teaching, fosters his creative writing, as well as his fantasies. The hot-for-teacher crush, while slightly “icky,” is written in a believable way and she suffers the consequences for letting down her guard and allowing herself to get too close to a student.
Overall, Paper Covers Rock is an excellent read – not overly exemplary in terms of teenage behavior, but real and pragmatic in terms of the consequences of one’s poor choices.