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1. Review of the Day: Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson

BoysBlur Review of the Day: Boys of Blur by N.D. WilsonBoys of Blur
By N.D. Wilson
Random House Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-449-81673-8
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 8th.

I like a kid’s book with ambition. It’s all well and good to write one about magic candy shops or goofy uncles or simpering unicorns or what have you. The world is big and there’s room for every possible conceivable type of book for our children you can imagine. But then you have the children’s book authors that aim higher. Let’s say one wants to write about zombies. Well, that’s easy enough. Zombies battling kids is pretty straightforward stuff. But imagine the chutzpah it would take to take that seemingly innocuous little element and then to add in, oh I dunno, BEOWULF. N.D. Wilson is one of those guys I’ve been watching for a very long time. The kind of guy who started off his career by combining a contemporary tale of underground survival with The Odyssey (Leepike Ridge). In his latest novel, Boys of Blur Wilson steps everything up a notch. You’ve got your aforementioned zombies as well as a paean to small town football, an economy based on sugar cane harvesting, spousal abuse, and rabbit runs. It sounds like a dare, honestly. “I dare you to combine these seemingly disparate elements into a contemporary classic”. The end result is a book that shoots high, misses on occasion, but ultimately comes across as a smart and action packed tale of redemption.

There is muck, then sugarcane, then swamps, then Taper. The town of Taper, to be precise, where 12-year-old Charlie Reynolds has come with his mother, stepfather, and little sister to witness the burial of the local high school football coach. It’s a town filled with secrets and relatives he never knew he had, like homeschooled Sugar, his distant cousin, with whom he shares an instant bond. Together, the two discover a wild man of the swamps accompanied by two panthers and a sword. The reason for the sword becomes infinitely clear when Charlie becomes aware of The Gren. A zombie-like hoard bent on the town’s obliteration (and then THE WORLD!), it’s up to one young boy to seek out the source of the corruption and take her (yes, her) down.

I had to actually look up my Beowulf after reading this. The reason? The opening. Wilson doesn’t go in for the old rules that state that you should begin your book with some kind of gripping slam-bang action scene. His first page? It reads like an ode. Like a minstrel has stepped out of the wings to give praise to the gods and to set the scene for you. Only in this case it’s just the narrator telling you what’s what. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” Read that line aloud for a second. Just taste and savor what it’s saying. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Like you’ve read it somewhere else before (particularly that “look for the” part). Then there’s that last line. “Out here in the flats, when the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, there can be only quick. There’s quick, and there’s dead.” So I looked up the beginning of Beowulf just to see if, by any chance, Wilson had cribbed some of this from his source material. Not as such. The original text is a bit more concerned with great tribal kings past, and all that jazz. That doesn’t make Wilson’s book any less compelling, though. There’s a rhythm to the opening that sucks you in immediately. It’s not afraid to be beautiful. It begs to be heard from a tongue.

And while I’m on the topic of beautiful language, Wilson sure knows how to turn a phrase. If he has any ultimately defining characteristic as a writer it is his complete and utter lack of fear regarding descriptions. He delves into them. Swims deep into them. Can you blame him? Though a resident of Idaho, here he evokes a Florida that puts Carl Hiaasen to shame. Examples of some of his particularly good lines:

“As for the church bell, it crashed through the floorboards and settled into the soft ground below. It’s still down there, under the patched floor, ringing silence in the muck.”

“Charlie looked at the sky, held up by nothing more than the column of smoke he’d noticed during the service.”

“Charlie stopped at the end, beside a boy with a baby face on a body the size and shape of someone’s front door.”

And I’m particularly fond of this line about new siblings: “When Molly had come, she had turned Charlie into a brother, adding deep loves and loyalties to who he was without asking his permission first.”

The book moves at a rapid clip, but not at the expense of the characters. For one thing, it’s nice not to have to read about a passive hero. From early in the book, we know certain things about Charlie that are to serve him well in the future. As the story says, thanks to experiences with his abusive father, “he could bottle fear. He’d been doing it his whole life.” This gives Wilson’s hero a learned skill that will aid him in the rest of the story. And when there are choices to be made, he makes them. He isn’t some child being taken from place to place. He decides what he should and should not do in any given moment and acts. Sometimes it’s the right choice and sometimes it’s wrong, but it is at least HIS choice each time.

The sugarcane fields themselves are explained a bit late in the narrative. On page 64 or so we finally get an explanation about why the boys are running through burning fields to catch rabbits. For a moment I was reminded of Cynthia Kadohata’s attempts to explain threshing in her otherwise scintillating book The Thing About Luck. Wilson has the advantage of having an outsider in his tale, so it’s perfectly all right for Charlie to ask why the only way to successfully harvest cane is to burn it, “Fastest way to strip the leaves . . . Stalks is so wet, they don’t burn.” Mind you, this could have worked a little earlier in the story, since much of the book requires us to take on faith why the rabbit runs occur.

It’s also an unapologetically masculine story as well. All about swords and fighting and football and dangerous runs into burning sugarcane fields. The football is particularly fascinating. In an age when concussions are becoming big news and people are beginning to turn against the nation’s most violent sport, it’s unique, to say the least, to read a middle grade book where small town football is a way of life. Small town football almost NEVER makes it into books for kids, partly because baseball makes for a better narrative by its very definition. Football’s more difficult to explain. Its terms and turns of phrase haven’t made it into the language of the cultural zeitgeist to the same extent. For an author to not only acknowledge its existence but also give it a thumbs up is almost unheard of. Yet Boys of Blur could not exist without football. Charlie’s father went pro, as did his stepfather. The book begins by burying a coach, and there are long seated animosities in the town behind old high school football rivals. For many small towns, life without football would be untenable. And Boys of Blur acknowledges that to a certain extent.

The women that do appear are few and far between, but they are there. One should take care to note that it’s Wilson’s source material that lacking in the ladies (except for the big bad, of course). And he did go out of his way to add a couple additional females to the line-up. It’s not as if Charlie himself doesn’t notice the lack of ladies as well anyway. At one point he ponders the Gren and wonders why there aren’t any girls. The possible explanation he’s given is that much as a selfish man is envious of his sons, so would a selfish woman find her own daughters to be competition. Take that as you may. We veer close to Caliban country here, but Wilson already has one classic text to draw from. Shakespeare can wait.

Charlie’s mother would be one other example of a woman introduced to this story that gets a fair amount of page time. On paper you’d assume she was just a victim, a woman who continues to fear her ex-husband. But in reality, Wilson gives her much more credit. She’s the woman who dared to get out of an untenable situation for the sake of her child. A woman who managed to find another husband who wasn’t a carbon copy of the first and who has done everything in her power to protect her children in the wake of her ex-husband’s threats. And most interesting, Wilson will keep cutting back to her in the narrative. He doesn’t have to. There’s a reason most children’s fantasy novels star orphans. Include the parents and there’s a lot of emotional baggage to attend to. But Wilson’s never liked the notion of orphans much, so when his story cuts back to Natalie Mack and what she’s up to it’s a choice you go along with. In Wilson’s books parents aren’t enemies but allies. It goes against the grain of the usual narratives, wakes you up, and makes for better books.

Where do heroes find their courage and resolve? In previous books Wilson had already gone underground and into deep dark places. In Boys of Blur he explores the dual worlds of cane and swamp alike. Most epic narratives of the children’s fantasy sort are long, bloated affairs. They feel like they can’t tell their tales in anything less than 300 pages, and even then they end up being the first in a series. Wilson’s slick, sleek editing puts the bloat to shame. Clocking in at a handsome 208 pages it’s not going to be understood by every child reader. It doesn’t try for that either. Really, it can only be read by the right reader. The one that’s outgrown Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. The one who isn’t scared off by The Golden Compass and who will inform the librarian that they can’t possibly impress him or her because they’ve read “everything”. This is a book to stretch the muscles in that child’s brains. To make them appreciate the language of a tale as much as the action. And yes, there are big smelly zombies that go about killing people so win-win, right? Some may say the book ends too quickly. Some will wonder why there isn’t a sequel. But many will be impressed by what Wilson’s willing to shoot for here. Like the boys in the cane, this book speeds out of the gate, quick on its feet, willing to skip and hop and jump as fast as possible to get you where you need to go. If you’ve read too much of the same old, same old, this is one children’s book that’s like no other you know out there. Gripping.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from author for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi – Lots of similarities, actually. Particularly when it comes to beating down zombies in cane fields / corn fields.
  • Beowulf by Gareth Hinds – Undoubtedly the best version of Beowulf for kids out there, this is Hinds’ masterpiece and is not to be missed.
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton – Bear with me here. It makes sense. In both books you’ve mysterious African-American men hiding a secret of the past, scaring the local kids. I draw my connections where I can.

First Line: “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.”

Other Blog Reviews:

Misc: Read some of the book yourself to get a taste.

Videos:
Remember, if you will, that Wilson both shot and narrated the following book trailer. One of the best of the year, too:

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2. Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery

Chasing Cheetahs: the race to save Africa's fastest cats Scientists in the Field Series Text by Sy Montgomery; Photographs by Nic Bishop Houghton Mifflin. 2014 ISBN: 9780547815497 Grades 5 thru 12 I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library The decision as to who reviews what goes fairly smoothly between Cathy and I until there is a new Scientists in the Field book, then,

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3. Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

RulesofSummer 300x279 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanRules of Summer
By Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
$18.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-63912-5
Ages 4 and up
On shelves April 29th

When I was a young teen my favorite book was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Steeped in Bradbury’s nostalgia for his youth, I was in the throes of adolescence, probably on some level nostalgic for my own younger days. In this book I reveled in a childhood that was not my own but felt personal just the same. Summer seemed like the perfect time to set such a tale, what with its long days and capacity for equal parts mischief and magic. I loved my summers, even as I failed to know what exactly to do with them. I think of Bradbury’s novel from time to time, though its use for me has long since passed. I found myself going back to it after seeing Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer. Encompassing a full summer season, Tan indulges his capacity for the odd and extreme while also managing to delve deeply into a relationship between two brothers. The family story is this book’s heart and soul meaning that when all is said and done this is a book for big siblings and little siblings. Miraculously both will see themselves reflected in the pages of the text. And both, if they approach it from the right direction, will find something to pore over in here for years and years to come.

“This is what I learned last summer,” says the book. It’s the kind of statement you might expect to find in an essay on How I Spent My Summer Vacation. Instead, what follows is a series of imaginative, wholly original extremes. Two brothers live in a world of fantastical creatures and gizmos. The younger continually breaks the rules as the elder either berates him or tries to save him from himself. A dinner party of well-dressed birds of prey contains the sentence, “Never eat the last olive at a party” as the older brother pulls his younger away from the potentially deadly entrée. “Never leave the back door open overnight” sees them both facing a living room awash in vegetation and giant lizards, the older boy clearly put out and the younger carrying a bucket and shovel. As the book continues you realize that the younger boy is often at odds with the rules his elder is trying to instill in him. The final straw comes after a massive pummeling, after which the elder brother sells his little bro off to a flock of black birds (“Never lose a fight”). Fortunately, a rescue is made and the book subtly shifts from admonitions to positive statements (“Always know the way home”). The final shot shows the two boys sitting on the couch watching TV, the walls of their living room wallpapered with drawings of the out-of-this-world creatures encountered in the rest of the book.

RulesSummer4 300x211 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanAs a general rule I try to avoid reading other reviews of the children’s book in my hand until I’ve read the stories myself and gotten a sense of my own perspective. In the same frame of mind I avoid reading the bookflaps of books since they’ve a nasty tendency to give away the plot. Usually I’ll even avoid looking at them after I’ve read the book in question, but there are exceptions to every rule. After reading Rules of Summer I idly turned the book over and read this one on the back cover: “Never break the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.” Huh. Oddly insightful comment. Aw, heck. I couldn’t resist. I looked at the bookflap and there, lo and behold, the book started to make more sense. According to the flap the rules are those seemingly arbitrary ones that younger siblings have to face when older siblings come up with them. Slowly a book that before had seemed to have only the slightest semblance of a plot began to make a lot more sense. Had I not read the flap, maybe I would have come up with an entirely different interpretation of the pages. Not sure. Whatever the case, I like where the flap took me, even as I suspect that some kids will have entirely different takes.

Tan’s strength here lies partly in the fact that these brothers command your equal respect. When I read the book through the first time I thought that the younger brother was the hero. A couple more reads and suddenly the older one started to get more and more sympathetic. Consider, for example, that very first shot of the two after the endpapers. The text reads, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” There, hunched against a fence, the two brothers huddle while a scarlet-hued red-eyed rabbit eyes the sock in question. The older brother has one arm protectively around the younger’s back and his other hand gently cupping his mouth. In later images the younger will mess something up and the older won’t bother to hide his frustrations. The lack of parents in this book is the only way to make it work. When kids deal with one another in the absence of adults, they make their own rules. Even when the elder sells his brother to a flock of birds for a dented crown (his least likable moment) you’re almost immediately back on his side when he rescues his little brother with a pair of bolt cutters a couple pages later. And honestly, what older brother and sister hasn’t fantasized at some point about selling off their annoying little brothers and sisters (see: The great Shel Silverstein poem “Brother for Sale”)? Tan is capable of seeing both sides of the sibling equation. Few picture books even dare.

Tan’s always had a bit of a fascination with the surreal world of middle class life. Suburbia is his Twilight Zone, and he hardly has to add any mechanical monsters or sentient birds to make it unusual. In Tales from Outer Suburbia it was language that primarily painted suburban Australia’s canvass. Here, words are secondary to the art. As I paged through I began to take note of some of the mechanics present on a lot of the pages. Water towers, oilrigs, and even the occasional nuclear power plant. Most beautiful and frightening were the extremely large structures holding the power lines. In one picture the younger brother plays a paddle-based game against a robot opponent while his older brother arbitrates. The sky is an overcast slate gray with these unnerving grids of line and metal towering over them in the background. Extra points if you can find the single black bird that makes an appearance on almost every spread until that climatic moment when it no longer appears.

RulesSummer3 300x168 Review of the Day: Rules of Summer by Shaun TanEven the endpapers of this book have the power to make you sit and stare for long periods of time. They inspire a feeling that is just impossible to put into words. The endpapers are also the place where Tan makes it clear that he’s going to be playing with light quite a lot in this book. For a fun time, try to figure out where the light source is coming from in each and every one of the book’s pictures. Sometimes it’s evident. Other times, the answer could well be its own little story.

The thickness to Tan’s paints also marks this as significantly different from some of his other books. Nowhere is this more evident than the cover. Look at the Picasso-like grassy field where the older brother scowls at his younger sibling. The midday sun, the paints so thick you feel like the cover would feel textured if you stroked it, and even the pure blue of the noonday sky has a different Tan tone than you’re used to.

I don’t know if Tan has sons of his own. I don’t particularly care. For all I know the inspiration behind this book came from a relationship with his own brother at an early age. Wherever it might have appeared, one cannot help but feel that Tan knows from whence he illustrates. Thanks to films like Frozen we’re seeing an uptick in interest in stories about siblings of the same gender. Brothers have a tendency to tricky to render on the page (see: the aforementioned Dandelion Wine) but it can be done. Tan has perfectly rendered one such relationship with all its frustrations, betrayals, fights, complaints and deep, enduring love. This book sympathizes with those kids, regardless of their birth order. The rules of childhood are built on shifting sands, causing children everywhere to look longingly at the seeming sanity of adulthood. It’s only when they cross over that these kids will find themselves nostalgic for a time of outsized rules and their overblown importance. Without a doubt, the best book about what summer means to child siblings I’ve ever read.

On shelves April 29th.

Source: Galley acquired at ALA Conference for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews: Australian Comics Journal

Interviews: Gillo talks to Shaun Tan about the book here.

Misc:

  • The book is available as an app, with music by the hugely talented Sxip Shirey.
  • Download the Teacher’s Guide for the book here.
  • If you don’t mind knowing as much as Tan himself knows about this book, you can read his commentary about each image here. And yes, he was quite close to his own older brother growing up.  So that solves that mystery.

Video:

Seven videos about this book exist on Tan’s website.  Check ‘em out if you’ve half a mind to.

And here’s a sneaky peek at the aforementioned app:

And here’s an interview with him about the book on ABC RN:

 

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4. Review of the Day: Sparky! by Jenny Offill

Sparky Review of the Day: Sparky! by Jenny OffillSparky!
By Jenny Offill
Illustrated by Chris Appelhans
Schwartz & Wade (an imprint of Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-87023-1
Ages 4-8
On shelves March 11th

The sloth is not a noble animal. Few people spend time contemplating their heroic qualities and distinguished countenances. Had I an Oxford English Dictionary on hand I’d be mighty interested to learn whether or not the term “sloth” as in “a habitual disinclination to exertion” was inspired by the tropical, slow-moving animal or if it was the other way around. Perhaps it is because of this that we don’t see them starring in too many picture books for kids. Sure you’ll get the occasional Lost Sloth by J. Otto Seibold, A Little Book of Sloth by Lucy Cooke, or even Slowly Slowly Slowly, Said the Sloth by Eric Carle, but unlike other animals there is no great slothian icon. When you say “sloth” to the average person on the street, they don’t instantly think of a famous one. Sparky! may come close to changing that. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the sublime and subversive Jenny Offill pairs with first timer Chris Appelhans to give us a subdued but strangely content little tale about that most classic of all friendships: a girl and her sloth.

“You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” Our heroine’s mom probably regrets telling this to her daughter but it’s too late now. The minute she said it the girl headed straight to the library and there, in the S volume of the Animal Encyclopedia, she learned about sloths. In no time at all one appears via Express Mail and she names him Sparky (thereby giving away the fact that she harbors impossible sloth-related dreams). Her know-it-all neighbor Mary Potts is not impressed, so our heroine determines to show off her pet in a “Trained Sloth Extravaganza”. Naturally, this does not go as planned, but even after everyone has left and it’s just her and Sparky, she can’t help but love the little guy. With a quick tag to his claw she makes it clear that he is it. “And for a long, long time he was.”

Sparky1 300x163 Review of the Day: Sparky! by Jenny OffillI was talking with some folks about picture books earlier today and in the course of our conversation I discovered something interesting about the way I judge them. While art is definitely something I take into account when I decide to love or loathe an illustrated work for kids, it’s the writing that always tips the balance. I’d read some of Offill’s picture books before and while I liked them fine they did not inspire in me the kind of rabid fan response I’ve seen other librarians profess thanks to 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. Sparky! is different. Here, the book cuts to the chase right at the start. Our heroine (who remains unnamed throughout) makes it clear that her raison d’être is to have a pet. When Sparky arrives she pours herself into his care, never mind that he’s about as needy as a houseplant in this regard. There was something so enticing about her cheery demeanor, even in the face of cold hard facts. Her mother right from the get-go also has this world-weary air that suggests more than it tells. As for the repeated lines of “a promise is a promise”, it’s a line that clearly reflects our heroine’s worldview. The combination of wordplay and story definitely made this one of the more interesting picture books I’d seen in a while.

Illustrator Chris Appelhans comes to us from the world of animation, having worked on such films as Coraline and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Comparisons to Jon Klassen, another animation escapee, are not entirely out of left field either. Like Klassen, Appelhans prefers a subdued style with a limited palette. He knows how to get a great deal of humor out of a character’s lack of movement and emotion. The sequence where the girl plays everything from King of the Mountain to Hide-and-Seek with Sparky would not work particularly well unless Appelhans utilized this technique. Add in the funny little story and I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of folks comparing this to Extra Yarn or something equally wry. That said, Appelhans is his own man. Emotion, for example, is something he alludes to beautifully. Note the bags of worry under Sparky’s eyes. I’ve never quite known what to call these, but they show up periodically in books and comics for kids. They’re great character reference points. The kind of bags that Charlie Brown would sport. Here, they suggest more about Sparky’s state of mind than anything else.

Sparky3 473x500 Review of the Day: Sparky! by Jenny OffillNote that Publishers Weekly was not charmed by Sparky! In fact, Publishers Weekly was pretty much bummed out by the whole experience of reading the book at all. Talking about it, they dowsed their review with words like “glum”, “lonely”, “miserable”, and (my personal favorite) “burdened with pathos”. A reading of this sort happens when you walk into the book expecting it to cater to your already existing expectations about what “pet” books should do. Where PW found the book depressing, I found it smart and serious. Yep, Sparky looks mildly perturbed for most of the book, but that’s only when he’s taken out of his natural environment. The very last image in the book of him finally getting to lie in his tree next to his girl is the only time we ever see him smile. As for the girl herself, she knows perfectly well what she got herself into and why her dream of getting him to perform fell through. And she’s a happier person than the seemingly self-assured Mary Potts, that’s for sure, having a fair amount in common with Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. As such, this isn’t the downer fare you’d necessarily expect.

The School Library Journal review, for that matter, did a small bit of hand wringing over whether or not children would come away from this book with the clearly misbegotten understanding that having a sloth for a pet would be fun. Since this is a work of fiction (and the underground sloth procurement market remaining, for the most part, elusive to their needs) I hardly think we need fret about whether or not kids will take the wrong message away from Sparky! After all, it makes sloth ownership look just about as appealing as whale ownership in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem. Sparky is awfully cute but as our heroine is quick to learn, he’s not about to do much of anything he doesn’t want to do. The only time he does something the heroine suggests, it’s when he munches slowly on a cookie she’s offered him (and then proceeds to take back when it’s clear he’s going to take all day with it).

It’s a much quieter picture book than those full of glam and glitz, cluttering up our shelves. Like its color scheme Sparky! suggests that pet ownership is not a predictable path. Or maybe it’s saying that imposing your will on others, particularly the barely sentient, isn’t the way to go. Or maybe it’s just a funny book about a funny sloth. That works too. However you look at it, there’s no denying that though it’s a silly idea (telegraphed by the silly contrast between the title and explanation mark and the cover image) with a slow, steady feel and delightful premise. You read into the book what you want to read into it. For me, that means reading into it a great story with beautiful art (that final sunset is a doozy), and likable characters. What more need you in life?

On shelves March 11th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews:

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5. Review of the Day: The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

NightGardener 203x300 Review of the Day: The Night Gardener by Jonathan AuxierThe Night Gardener
By Jonathan Auxier
Illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1144-2
Ages 10 and up
On shelves May 20th

For whatever reason, 2014 is a dark year in children’s middle grade fiction. I speak from experience. Fantasy in particular has been steeped in a kind of thoughtful darkness, from The Glass Sentence and The Thickety to The Riverman and Twelve Minutes to Midnight with varying levels of success. And though none would contest the fact that they are creepy, only Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener has had the chutzpah to actually write, “A Scary Story” on its title pages as a kind of thoughtful dare. A relatively new middle grade author, still young in the field, reading this book it’s hard to reconcile it with Auxier’s previous novel Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. It is almost as if Mr. Auxier took his whimsy, pulled out a long sharp stick, and stabbed it repeatedly in the heart and left it to die in the snow so as to give us a sublimely horrific little novel. Long story short this novel is Little Shop of Horrors meets The Secret Garden. I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that. Even if I am, I regret nothing. Here we have a book that ostensibly gives us an old-fashioned tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, but that steeps it in a serious and thought provoking discussion of the roles of both lies and stories when you’re facing difficulties in your life. Madcap brilliant.

Molly and Kip are driving a fish cart, pulled by a horse named Galileo, to their deaths. That’s what everyone’s been telling them anyway. Living without parents, Molly sees herself as her brother’s guardian and is intent upon finding a safe place for the both of them. When she’s hired to work as a servant at the mysterious Windsor estate she thinks the job might be too good to be true. Indeed, the place (located deep in something called “the sour woods”) is a decrepit old mansion falling apart at the seams. The locals avoid it and advise the kids to do so too. Things are even stranger inside. The people who live in the hollow home appear to be both pale and drawn. And it isn’t long before both Molly and Kip discover the mysterious night gardener, who enters the house unbidden every evening, tending to a tree that seems to have a life of its own. A tree that can grant you your heart’s desire if you would like. And all it wants in return? Nothing you’d ever miss. Just a piece of your soul.

For a time, the book this most reminded me of was M.P. Kozlowsky’s little known Juniper Berry, a title that could rival this one in terms of creepiness. Both books involve trees and wishes and souls tied into unlawful bargains with dark sources. There the similarities end, though. Auxier has crafted with undeniable care a book that dares to ask whether or not the things we wish for are the things best for us in the end. His storytelling works in large part too because he gives us a unique situation. Here we have two characters that are desperately trying to stay in an awful, dangerous situation by any means necessary. You sympathize with Molly’s dilemma at the start, but even though you’re fairly certain there’s something awful lurking beneath the surface of the manor, you find yourself rooting for her, really hoping that she gets the job of working there. It’s a strange sensation, this dual hope to both save the heroine and plunge her into deeper danger.

What really made The Night Gardener stand out for me, however, was that the point of the book (insofar as I could tell) was to establish storytelling vs. lies. At one point Molly thinks seriously about what the difference between the two might be. “Both lies and stories involved saying things that weren’t true, but somehow the lies inside the stories felt true.” She eventually comes to the conclusion that lies hurt people and stories help them, a statement that is met with agreement on the part of an old storyteller named Hester who follows the words up with, “But helps them to do what?” These thoughts are continued later when Molly considers further and says, “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ‘em. And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.” Nuff said.

As I mentioned before, Auxier’s previous novel Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes was his original chapter book debut. As a devotee of Peter Pan and books of that ilk, it felt like more of an homage at times that a book that stood on its own two feet. In the case of The Night Gardener no such confusion remains. Auxier’s writing has grown some chest hair and put on some muscles. Consider, for example, a moment when Molly has woken up out of a bad dream to find a dead leaf in her hair. “Molly held it up against the window, letting the moonlight shine through its brittle skin. Tiny twisted veins branched out from the center stem – a tree inside a tree.” I love the simplicity of that. Particularly when you take into account the fact that the tree that created the leaf may not have been your usual benign sapling.

In the back of the book in his Author’s Note Auxier acknowledges his many influences when writing this. Everything from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes to The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon Gent. by Washington Irving to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s simple only on the surface The Secret Garden. All these made sense to me (though I’m not familiar with the Irving yet) but I wondered if there were other ties out there as well. For example, the character of Hester, an old storyteller and junk woman, reminded me of nothing so much as the junk woman character in the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. A character that in that film also straddles the line between lies and stories and how lying to yourself only does you harm. Coincidence or influence? Only Mr. Auxier knows for sure.

If I am to have any kind of a problem with the book then perhaps it is with the Irish brogue. Not, I should say, that any American child is even going to notice it. Rather, it’ll be adults like myself that can’t help but see it and find it, ever so briefly, takes us out of the story. I don’t find it a huge impediment, but rather a pebble sized stumbling block, barely standing in the way of my full enjoyment of the piece.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling offers some very good advice on dealing with uncertain magical beings. “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.” Would that our heroes in this book had been handed such advice early in life, but then I guess we wouldn’t have much of a story to go on, now would we? In the end, the book raises as many questions as it answers. Do we, as humans, have an innate fear of becoming beholden to the plants we tend? Was the villain of the piece’s greatest crime to wish away death? Maybe the Peter Pan influence still lingers in Mr. Auxier’s pen, but comes out in unexpected ways. This is the kind of book that would happen if Captain Hook, a man most afraid of the ticking of a clock, took up horticulture instead of piracy. But the questions about why we lie to ourselves and why we find comfort in stories are without a doubt the sections that push this book from mere Hammer horror to horror that makes you stop and think, even as you run like mad to escape the psychopaths on your heels. Smart and terrifying by turns, hand this book to the kid who supped of Coraline and came back to you demanding more. Sweet creepy stuff.

On shelves May 20th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

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6. Review of the Day – Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko

FireflyJuly 257x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoFirefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4842-8
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

Is reviewing works of poetry essentially a ridiculous thing to attempt? I’m not trying to be facetious or anything, I honestly want to know. It took me a long time to appreciate poetry on any level, but when I did I was able to come to it understanding that its closest relative in the arts world is music. Music that a person enjoys is a deeply personal experience. Only you can replicate the feelings and emotions that certain combinations of notes inspire. By the same token, poetry should be purely a one-on-one experience. And part of the job of books of collected poems for kids is to get each child reader to find that one poem that speaks to them. Maybe if they find one, just one, that hits home then that person will seek out other poems. Maybe it’ll expand their little minds, lead them to modes of thought they might not have reached otherwise. If the ultimate goal of children’s poetry is simply to inspire in kids a love of words and wordplay, then critiquing books that seek to do that is a uniquely difficult proposition. I mean, how can you judge something that’s so subjective? The best that you can do is simply determine if the poems in a collection are good, put together in a logical way, and worthwhile reading. And in the case of Firefly July the answer to all three of those queries is yes and yes and you betcha.

Four seasons yield 36 poems. Selected by children’s poet Paul B. Janeczko, Firefly July slowly introduces each time of year with gentle, short verses that lure you in. Each poem highlights a different element of the season, whether it’s a cat stalking through the daisies in the summer or winter wind “tearing itself to shreds / On bared-wire fences.” A pleasing mix of canon poets (Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, etc.) and canon children’s poets (Charlotte Zolotow, J. Patrick Lewis, James Stevenson, etc.) the book touches lightly on those elements that make a season memorable. With illustrator Melissa Sweet’s interpretations of each poem in tow, this collection proves to be the kind of book of poetry no library or poetry-minded household can seriously be without.

FireflyJuly2 258x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoLike I said before, so much of critiquing poetry is subjective. So on an entirely personal level, I can at least tell you that I didn’t really begin to warm up to these poems (no pun intended) until we hit the Summer section. Nothing against the Spring, mind you. It’s there that you’ll find a lot of the old standards like the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. But Summer proved a lovely surprise. Langston Hughes waxing eloquent on “Subway Rush Hour” followed by Joyce Sidman’s lovely “A Happy Meeting” (which conjures up memories of the e.e. cummings poem “in Just”) and then the titular “Firefly July” by J. Patrick Lewis (which really does deserve to have its name appropriated for the title of this book) combine to give one a true, rounded sense of the season. Teachers and parents would do well to read this book to kids and then ask them what their favorite season is. Mine now appears to be summer. Who knew?

The real advantage to this book is in the subtitle. “A Year of Very Short Poems”. Though I struggle in vain to find the right way to sell my poetry collection in months other than April, I can’t help but think that maybe size does matter. Books containing long and lengthy poems (like the delightful A Pond Full of Ink by Annie M.G. Schmidt) will be ideal for the already indoctrinated, but if you’re trying to lure in the poetry shy, short is the way to go. Short and sweet. And brother, it hardly gets any sweeter than this.

Melissa Sweet’s art was an interesting choice as illustrator. It makes sense when you think about it. After all, her Caldecott Honor was bestowed upon the picture book biography of poet William Carlos Williams A River of Words. In this book she is the sole artist interpreting these various works. There are no head scratching moments. No times when you feel as though she’s taking advantage of her position as the illustrator. She switches vantage points and views consistently as well, keeping the viewer awake and interested. Of all the pages, my favorite Sweet was the two-page spread accompanying Carl Sandburg’s poem “Window”. There, panel after panel after panel show scenes from a railway car looking at the countryside. Later, Ted Kooser’s “Snow Fence” contains the striking image of crows perched on a simple red fence set against the pure white drifts. One might argue that Sweet takes few risks with this book but if I’m going to trade in beauty for risk, I figure that’s a pretty fair deal.

FireflyJuly3 257x300 Review of the Day   Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. JaneczkoAs I am a librarian and not a teacher I don’t usually think up classroom applications for books when I read them. Firefly July proves to be the exception to the rule. Reading this book I could imagine all sort of interesting uses. For example, teachers might want to actually revive an old school standard and have the kids in their classroom memorize one of these poems for recitation type purposes. We’ve seen some books collect poems for this very specific purpose (see: Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, selected by Mary Ann Hoberman) but in this particular case I think the quality of the selections recommend it highly. There is, after all, no better way to learn a poem heart, body, and soul than to incessantly read it over and over and over again.

With its pedigree in place it’s little wonder that Firefly July entranced me as much as it did. I don’t consider myself a poetry connoisseur so it takes something special to break through to me as much as this book did. I still maintain that reading poems of any sort is a personal business and that what suits the goose will never do for the gander. That said, for a work of introductory poems specially selected so as to calm and comfort the reluctant poetry reader, Firefly July ain’t a bad way to go. Lulling and lovely, there’s something for everyone inside. All you have to do is just give it a chance.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc: Jules Danielson considers the book at her Kirkus blog.

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7. Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam

FoxCrow1 300x274 Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi SubramaniamThe Fox and the Crow
By Manasi Subramaniam
Illustrated by Culpeo S. Fox
Karadi Tales
$17.95
ISBN: 978-81-8190-303-7
Ages 4 and up
On shelves now

In the classic Aesop fable of The Fox and the Crow where do your loyalties lie? You remember the tale, don’t you? Long story short (or, rather, short story shorter) a prideful crow is tricked into dropping its bread into the hungry mouth of a fox when it is flattered into singing. Naturally your sympathies fall with the fox to a certain extent. Pride goeth before the bread’s fall and all that jazz. Now there are about a thousand different things that are interesting about The Fox and the Crow, a collaboration between Manasi Subramaniam and Culpeo S. Fox. Yet the thing that I took away from it was how my sympathies fell, in the end, to the prideful crow victim. His is a miserable existence, owed in part due to his own self-regard and also to not seizing the moment when it presents itself. Delayed gratification sometimes just turns into no gratification. Lofty thoughts for a book intended for four-year-olds, eh? But that’s what you get when something as lovely, dark, and strange as this particular The Fox and the Crow hits the market. Gorgeous to eye and ear alike, the story’s possibilities are mined beautifully and the reader is left reeling in the wake. If you’d like a folktale that’s bound to wake you up, this beauty has your number.

A murder of crows gathers on the telephone wires. Says the text “When dusk falls, they arrive, raucous, clamping their feet on the wires in a many-pronged attack.” One amongst them, however, cannot help but notice a fresh loaf of new bread at the local bakery. Without another thought it dives, steals the bread, and leaves the baker angrily yelling in its wake. Delighted with its prize the crow takes to a tree branch to wait. “Bread is best eaten by twilight.” Below, a hungry fox observes the haughty crow and desires the tasty morsel. She sings up to the crow. “A song is an invitation. Crow must sing back.” He does and, in doing so, loses his prize to the vixen’s maw. The last line? “A new day breaks. An old hunger aches.”

Turning Aesop fables into full picture books is a bit of an art. If you read one you’ll find that it’s remarkably short on the page. It requires a bit of padding on the author’s part. Either that or some true creativity. Look, for example, at some of the best Aesop adaptations out there. Some artists choose to go wordless (The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney). Others get remarkably loquacious (Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes by Margie Palatini). In the case of Subramaniam, she makes the interesting choice of simplifying the text with long, luscious words while expanding the story. The result is lines like “Crow’s stomach burns with swallowed song” or “Oh, she’s a temptress, that one.” No dialogue is necessary in this book. Subramaniam shoulders all the work and though she doesn’t spell out what’s happening as simply as some might prefer (you have to know what is meant by “Crow’s pride sets his hunger ablaze” to get to the classic Aesopian moral of the tale) it’s nice to see a new take on a story that’s been done to death in a variety of different spheres.

Artist Culpeo S. Fox is new to me. From Germany (for some reason everything made a lot more sense when I learned that fact) the man sort of specializes in foxes. For this book the art takes on a brown and speckled hue. Early scenes look as though the very dirt of the ground was whipped into the air alongside the crows’ wings. Yet in the midst of all this darkness (both from the story and from the art) there’s something incredibly relatable and kid-friendly in these creatures’ eyes. The crow in particular is rendered an infinitely relatable fellow. From his first over-the-shoulder glance at the bread cooling on the windowsill to the look of pure eagerness when he alights on a private branch. It’s telling that the one moment the eye is made most unrelatable (pure white) is when he’s overcome with fury at having basically handed his loaf to the fox’s maw. Fury can be frightening.

FoxCrow3 500x228 Review of the Day: The Fox and the Crow by Manasi SubramaniamIt’s also Fox’s inclination to change from a horizontal to a vertical format over and over again that makes the book unique in some way. It’s probably the element that will turn the most people off, but it’s never done without reason. To my mind, if a book is going to go vertical, it needs to have a reason. Caldecott Honor book Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens, for example, knew exactly how to make use of the form. Parrots Over Puerto Rico in contrast seemed to do it on a lark rather than for any particular reason. In The Fox and the Crow each vertical shift is calculated. The very first encounter between the fox and the crow is a vertical shot. Most interesting is the next two-page spread. You find yourself not entirely certain what the best way to hold book might be. Horizontal? Vertical? Upside down? Only after a couple readings did I realize that the curve of the crow’s inquiry-laden neck echoes the fox’s very same neck curve (albeit with 75% more guile).

It’s not just the art and the story. The very size of the book itself is unique. It’s roughly 11 X 12 inches, essentially a rather large square. Work with enough picture books and you get a feel for the normal dimensions. But normal dimensions, you sense, wouldn’t quite encompass was Fox is trying to accomplish here. You need size to adequately tell this story. The darkness and beauty of it all demand it.

I am consumed with professional jealousy after reading the Kirkus review of this book. Their takeaway line? “Aesop noir”. It’s rather perfect, particularly when you consider that one reading of this book would fall under that classic noir storyline of a seedy soul done in by the wiles of a woman. Or vixen, rather. I don’t know that any younger kids would necessarily take to heart the moral message of the original story, but slightly older readers will jive to what Subramaniam is getting at. We need folktales in our collections that shake things up a bit. That aren’t afraid to get original with the source material. That aren’t afraid to get, quite frankly, beautiful on us. The pairing of Subramaniam and Fox is inspired and the book a lush treat. An Aesop necessity. Aesop done right.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Fables by Aesop, illustrated by Jean-Francois Martin

Professional Reviews:

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8. Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary Blackwood

Curiosity Review of the Day: Curiosity by Gary BlackwoodCuriosity
By Gary Blackwood
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3924-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 10th

Blackwood’s back, baby! And not a minute too soon. Back in 1998, the author released The Shakespeare Stealer which would soon thereafter become his best-known work. A clever blending of historical fiction and adventure, the book allowed teachers the chance to hone Shakespeare down to a kid-friendly level. Since its publication Mr. Blackwood has kept busy, writing speculative fiction and, most recently, works of nonfiction for kids. Then there was a bit of a lull in his writing and the foolish amongst us (myself included) forgot about him. There will be no forgetting Mr. Blackwood anytime now though. Not after you read his latest work Curiosity. Throwing in everything from P.T. Barnum and phrenology to hunchbacks, Edgar Allan Poe, automatons, chess prodigies, murder, terrible fires, and legless men, Blackwood produces a tour de force to be reckoned with. In the press materials for this book, Penguin calls it “Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction.” They’re not wrong. The man’s about to acquire a whole new generation of fans and enthusiasts.

Fear for the children of novels that describe their childhoods as pampered or coddled. No good can come of that. Born weak with a slight deformity of the spine, Rufus lives a lovely life with his father, a well-respected Methodist minister in early 19th century Philadelphia. That’s all before his father writes a kind of predecessor to The Origin of the Species and through a series of misadventures is thrown into debtor’s prison. Fortunately (perhaps) Rufus is a bit of a chess prodigy and his talents get him a job with a man by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Maelzel owns an automaton called The Turk that is supposed to be able to play chess against anyone and win. With Rufus safely ensconced inside, The Turk is poised to become a massive moneymaker. But forces are at work to reveal The Turk’s secrets and if that information gets out, Rufus’s life might not be worth that of the pawns he plays.

Making the past seem relevant and accessible is hard enough when you’re writing a book for adults. Imagine the additional difficulty children’s authors find themselves in. Your word count is limited else you lose your audience. That means you need to engage in some serious (not to mention judicious and meticulous) wordplay. Blackwood’s a pro, though. His 1835 world is capable of capturing you with its life and vitality without boring you in the process. At one point Rufus describes seeing Richmond, VA for the first time and you are THERE, man. From the Flying Gigs to the mockingbirds to the James River itself. I was also relieved to find that Blackwood does make mention of the African-Americans living in Richmond and Philly at the time this novel takes place. Many are the works of historical fiction by white people about white people that conveniently forget this little fact.

Add onto that the difficulty that comes with making the past interesting and accurate and relevant all at once. I read more historical fiction for kids than a human being should, and while it’s all often very well meaning, interesting? Not usually an option. I’m certain folks will look at how Blackwood piles on the crazy elements here (see: previous statement about the book containing everything from phrenology to P.T. Barnum) and will assume that this is just a cheap play for thrills. Not so. It’s the man’s writing that actually holds your focus. I mean, look at that first line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.” Heck, that’s just a drop in the bucket. Check out these little gems:

“If my cosseted childhood hadn’t taught me how to relate to other people, neither had it taught em to fear them.”

“I was like some perverse species of prisoner who felt free only when he was locked inside a tiny cell.”

“Maelzel was not the sort of creator imagined by the Deists, who fashions a sort of clockwork universe and winds it up, then sits back and watches it go and never interferes. He was more like my father’s idea of the creator: constantly tinkering with his creations, looking for ways to make them run more smoothly and perform more cleverly – the kind who makes it possible for new species to develop.”

As for the writing of the story itself, Blackwood keeps the reader guessing and then fills the tale with loads of historical details. The historical accuracy is such that Blackwood even allows himself little throwaway references, confident that confused kids will look them up themselves. For example, at one point Rufus compares himself to “Varney the Vampire climbing into his coffin.” This would be a penny dreadful that circulated roundabout this time (is there any more terrifying name than “Varney” after all?). In another instance a blazing fire is met with two “rival hose” companies battling one another “for the right to hook up to the nearest fireplug.” There is a feeling that for a book to be literary it has to be dull. Blackwood dispels the notion, and one has to stand amazed when they realize that somehow he managed to make a story about a kid trapped in a small dark space for hours at a time riveting.

Another one of the more remarkable accomplishments of the book is that it honestly makes you want to learn more about the game of chess. A good author can get a kid interested in any subject, of course. I think back on The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, which dared to talk up the game of Bridge. And honestly, chess isn’t a hard sell. The #1 nonfiction request I get from my fellow children’s librarians (and the request I simply cannot fulfill fast enough) is for more chess books for kids. At least in the big cities, chess is a way of life for some children. One hopes that we’ll be able to extend their interest beyond the immediate game itself and onto a book where a kid like themselves has all the markings of true genius.

It isn’t perfect, of course. In terms of characterization, of all the people in this book Rufus is perhaps the least interesting. You willingly follow him, of course. Just because he doesn’t sparkle on the page like some of the other characters doesn’t mean you don’t respond to the little guy. One such example might be when his first crush doesn’t go as planned. But he’s a touchstone for the other characters around him. Then there’s the other problem of Rufus being continually rescued by the same person in the same manner (I won’t go into the details) more than once. It makes for a weird repeated beat. The shock of the first incident is actually watered down by the non-surprise of the second. Rufus becomes oddly passive in his own life, rarely doing anything to change the course of his fate (he falls unconscious and wakes up rescued more than once,) a fact that may contribute to the fact that he’s so unmemorable on the page.

But that aside, it’s hard not to be entranced by what Blackwood has come up with here. Automatons sort of came to the public’s attention when Brian Selznick wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Blackwood takes it all a step further merging man and machine, questioning what we owe to one another and, to a certain extent, where the power really lies. Rufus finds his sense of self and bravery by becoming invisible. At the same time, he’s so innocent to the ways of the world that becoming visible comes with the danger of having your heart broken in a multitude of different ways. In an era where kids spend untold gobs of time in front of the screens of computers, finding themselves through a newer technology, Blackwood’s story has never been timelier. Smart and interesting, fun and strange, this is one piece of little known history worthy of your attention. Check and mate.

On shelves April 10th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Line: “Out of all the books in the world, I wonder what made you choose this one.”

Notes on the Cover: And now let us praise fabulous cover artists. Particularly those creating covers that make more sense after you’ve finished the book. The glimpse of Rufus’s eye in the “O” of the title didn’t do much more than vaguely remind me of the spine of the The Invention of Hugo Cabret at first (an apt comparison in more than one way). After closer examination, however, I realized that it was Rufus in the cabinet below. The unnerving view of The Turk and the shadowy Mr. Hyde-ish man in the far back all combine to give this book a look of both historical fervor and intrigue. And look how that single red (red?) pawn is lit. It’s probably not actually a red pawn but a white one, but something about the image looks reddish. Blood red, if you will. Boy, that’s a good jacket.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc:

  • Care to read Edgar Allan Poe’s actual article for The Messenger about The Turk?  Do so here.
  • A fun BBC piece on the implication of The Turk then, now, and for our children.  It appears to have been written by one “Adam Gopnik”.  We’ll just assume it’s a different Adam than the one behind A Tale Dark & Grimm.

Videos: Want to see the real Turk in action?  This video makes for fascinating watching.

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9. Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus

GrandfatherGandhi 287x300 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusGrandfather Gandhi
Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus
Illustrated by Evan Turk
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon and Schuster)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-2365-X
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

Are you familiar with the concept of booktalking? It’s a technique librarians developed to get people interested in books they might otherwise not pick up. The whole concept is to develop a kind of movie trailer style talk that gives a sense of the book’s allure without giving up the plot. Typically booktalking is done for middle grade and young adult works of fiction, but enterprising souls have had a lot of luck with nonfiction as well. Now with an increased interest in nonfiction in our schools it’s more important than ever to make the books we hawk sound particularly good. It doesn’t hurt matters any when the books actually ARE good, though. Now let’s say I’m standing in front of a room of second and third graders with a copy of Grandfather Gandhi in my hands. How do I sell this book to them? Easy peasy. Some books practically booktalk themselves. Here’s how you sell it:

“Have any of you ever heard of Einstein? Yes? He’s the guy that was a total genius. Now imagine you’re his grandkid and you’re not that smart. Okay now, have any of you heard of the Beatles. Yes? Well imagine you’re one of THEIR grandkids . . . and you’re bad at music. Now here’s the big one. Has anyone heard of Gandhi? He was a great guy. He managed to free his country and stop a lot of oppression and he did it without any violence at all. Martin Luther King Jr. got some of his ideas from Gandhi about nonviolence. All right, well, now let’s image you are Gandhi, the most peaceful man IN THE WORLD’s grandson. What if you get mad? Can you imagine what it would be like to have everyone whispering every time you got a little steamed about something?”

So there you go. Quick. Simple. To the point. I’ve met a fair number of picture book memoirs in my day, but Grandfather Gandhi may well be my favorite. Smartly written with an unusual hook and art that will just knock your socks off, this is one title you are going to have to see firsthand for yourself.

GrandfatherGandhi2 300x258 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusWhen young Arun and his family first arrive in his grandfather Mahatma Gandhi’s village, he’s mighty shy around his incredibly famous relative. Yet right away Grandfather is warm and welcoming to them, and when he praises Arun for walking the distance from the train station the boy swells with pride. Unfortunately, having Gandhi as your grandpa means having to share him with the 350 followers who also live in the village. Arun struggles with his lessons in Gujarati and the fact that there are no movie theaters around, but there are upsides to village life too. He’s pretty good at soccer with the other kids, and occasionally Grandfather will take him for a walk just mano a mano. But then, one fateful day, Arun gets into a skirmish on the soccer field and his anger is overwhelming. Shamed that the grandson of Gandhi himself would react in anger he confesses to his Grandfather immediately, only to find the man isn’t angry or disappointed in him in the least. Anger, Gandhi explains, is like lightning. You can use it to destroy or you can use it to light the world, like a lamp. Which will you choose?

I think it’s fair to say that there have been a fair number of children’s picture books from family and relatives of famous peacemakers. Most notable would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s clan, where it sometimes seems like every son, daughter, niece, and nephew has his or her own spin on their infinitely famous relative. Gandhi’s a bit different. One wouldn’t expect his own descendants to have much in the way of access to the American publishing industry, so biographies of his life in picture book form have concentrated occasionally on his life and occasionally on The Great Salt March. When I saw that this book was co-authored by his fifth grandson I expected the same sort of story. A kind of mix of “this guy was fantastic” with “and I knew him!”. Instead, Hegedus and Gandhi have formulated a much more accessible narrative. Few children can relate to having a famous relative. But what about controlling their anger in the face of injustice? What’s fascinating about this book is that the authors have taken a seemingly complex historical issue and put it into terms so child-friendly that a five-year-old could get the gist of it. That Gandhi’s anger went on to become what spurned him to make lasting, important changes for his people is the key point of the book, but it takes a child’s p.o.v. to drill the issue home.

GrandfatherGandhi3 300x176 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusAbove and beyond all that, this is a book that advocates quite strongly for peace in all its myriad forms. Hardly surprising when you consider the subject matter but just the same I sometimes feel like “peace” is one of those difficult concepts without a proper picture book advocate. I went to a Quaker college where PAGS (Peace and Global Studies) was a popular major, and it was in making Quaker friends that I learned about picture books dedicated to the concepts embraced by that particular religion. Books like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, The Table Where Rich People Sit by Byrd Baylor, Thy Friend, Obadiah by Brinton Turkle, and more. I’m sure that many is the Quaker household, or really any household that believes that peace is a practical and attainable solution, that will embrace Grandfather Gandhi as one of their own.

It’s been a long time since I ran across a picture book with as long and lengthy a list of materials used in the illustrations as I have here. On the publication page it reads, “The illustrations for this book are rendered in watercolor, paper collage, cotton fabric, cotton, yarn, gouache, pencil, tea, and tin foil. Cotton hand spun on an Indian book charkha by Eileen Hallman.” Phew! You might think that all that “stuff” might yield something clogged up or messy, but that would be doing Mr. Turk a disservice. Observing how well he gives his pictures depth and texture, life and vitality, you might be shocked to learn that Grandfather Gandhi is his first picture book. From the spinning wheel endpapers to montages of sheer explosive anger, Turk makes a point of not only adhering to some of the more metaphorical aspects of the text, but finding new and creative ways to bring them to visual life. To my mind, the materials an artist uses in his or her art must, in the case of mixed media, have a reason for their existence. If you’re going to use “cotton fabric, cotton” and “yarn” then there should be a reason. But Turk clearly did his homework prior to doing the art on this book. He doesn’t just slap the images together. He incorporates the fibers Gandhi knew so well and turns them into an essential aspect of the book’s art. The art doesn’t just support the text here. It weaves itself into the story, becoming impossible to separate from the story.

GrandfatherGandhi4 300x213 Review of the Day: Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany HegedusIt’s Arun’s anger that proved to be the most visually interesting aspect, to me, in the book. Turk deftly contrasts the calm white thread produced by Gandhi’s spinning with the tangled black ones that surround and engulf his grandson whenever his feelings threaten to break free. The scene where he’s tempted to throw a rock at the boy who shoved him down is filled with thread, Arun’s magnificently clenched teeth, and black shadow figures that reach out across the field to the soccer net, dwarfing the three other little figures below. Later you can see the negative space found in cut paper turning from a representation of lightning into a thread of cotton in the hands of Gandhi illuminating a passage about making your anger useful. Yet Turk doesn’t just rely on clever techniques. He’s remarkably skilled at faces too. Arun’s expressions when he gets to see his grandfather alone or makes him proud are just filled with wide-eyed eager hope. And his frustrations and anger pulse off the page from his features alone.

Picture books for kids about dealing with their anger tend towards the fictional. There’s Molly Bang’s When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry and Robie H. Harris’s The Day Leo Said, “I Hate You”. These are two of the good ones. Others veer towards the preachy and paternalistic. Imagine if you started using something like Grandfather Gandhi instead. More than just a memoir, the book offers a broad look at the benefits of channeling your anger. Better still, it’s a true story. Kids respect the true. They’ll also respect young Arun and his uncomfortable position. Fair play to author Bethany Hegedus for hearing him speak more than 13 years ago about this moment in his life, knowing that not only was there a picture book story to be had here, but a lesson kids today can grasp. As she says in her “Note from the Authors” at the end, “We world we live in needs to heal – to heal from the wars that are fought, to the bullying epidemic, to mass killings by lone gunmen, to poverty, to hunger, and to issues that contribute to internal anger being outwardly expressed in violent actions.” Gandhi’s message never grows old. Now we’ve a book that helps to continue his work for the youngest of readers. A necessary purchase then.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

  • ReaderKidZ speaks with Ms. Hegedus about the book.
  • Meanwhile Kirkus interviewed the two authors and the illustrator here.

Misc: This is a book with a very nicely maintained and updated website of its own.  Some of my favorite posts include this one from Evan Turk on how he got access to the spun cotton fiber featured in the book.  I also light his piece on Light & Shadow and this one on how he chose his art.  Arun even has posts up containing family Gandhi stories that would make an excellent follow up books should the need arise.  Be sure to read the one on pumpkins and eggs when you get a chance.

Video:

One of the top best book trailers I’ve seen in a really long time.  Accomplished and it does a brilliant job of highlighting Turk’s art.

llustration & Animation by Evan Turk

Music: “Ambwa” used by permission of artist Ustad Ghulam Farid Nizami
Voices: Arun Gandhi & Bethany Hegedus
Sound: Evan Turk, Carrington MacDuffie & The Block House, Justin Yelle & Kaotic Studios, and William Dufris & Mind’s Eye Productions.
Project Management: Curious City

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10. New York Public Library releases the 2013 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List

Happiness is a new list.

For 102 years, NYPL has consistently been producing the same list highlighting some of the best books for kids in a given year.  Now we’re pleased to announce our 2013 list and all the myriad titles it holds.  Admit it.  This is one of the most gorgeous covers on a booklist you ever did see, isn’t it?

100Titles2013 New York Public Library releases the 2013 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List

The back cover isn’t shabby either.

100Titles2013Part2 New York Public Library releases the 2013 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List

Enjoy!

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11. 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2013

Well, every year I like to put out my list of 100 Magnificent Children’s Books from the publishing year. So far I’ve done this in 2010 and 2011 and 2012.  And every year the list looks suspiciously similar in some spots to the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list that NYPL produces. Little wonder, but I always like to use my own particular list to highlight those titles I love more than life itself but that are getting passed over. Here then were some favorites of the year. Not all my favorites, obviously (I read quite a bit of magnificent stuff) but at the very least 100 I care for with links to those I reviewed.  And yes. I’m shamelessly self-promoting at the same time.

Picture Books (For Children Ages 2-6)

Battle Bunny by Mac Barnett and Jon Scieszka. Illustrated by Matthew Myers. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Ben Rides On by Matt Davies. Roaring Brook Press
The Dark by Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Daniel Handler. Candlewick Press
Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle. Chronicle Books
Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. Greenwillow Books
Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley. Peter Pauper Press
Here I Am by Patti Kim. Illustrated by Sonia Sanchez. Capstone
Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon. Roaring Brook Press
It’s Monday, Mrs. Jolly Bones by Warren Hanson.  Illustrated by Tricia Tusa Beach Lane Books
Journey by Aaron Becker. Candlewick
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick
The Mighty LaLouche by Matthew Olshan. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade
Mr. Tiger Goes Wild! by Peter Brown. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales. Roaring Brook Press
No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah OHora. Dial
Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams Books for Young Readers
Picture a Tree by Barbara Reid. Albert Whitman & Co.
The Silver Button by Bob Graham. Candlewick
Take Me Out to the Yakyu by Aaron Meshon. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea. Disney – Hyperion
Water in the Park: A Book About Water and the Times of Day by Emily Jenkins. Illustrated by Stephanie Graegin. Schwartz & Wade
Wild by Emily Hughes. Flying Eye Books
Yes, Let’s by Galen Goodwin Longstreth. Illustrated by Maris Wicks. Tanglewood Publishing 

 

Folktales and Fairy Tales

Aesop in California by Doug Hensen. Heyday
Can’t Scare Me! by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Demeter and Persephone by Hugh Lupton & Daniel Morden. Illustrated by Carole Henaff. Barefoot Books
Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters. Roaring Brook Press
Hansel and Gretel by The Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Sybille Schenker. minedition
Nasreddine by Odile Weulersse. Illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Treasury of Egyptian Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Monsters & Mortals by Donna Jo Napoli. Illustrated by Christina Balit . National Geographic
Whiskers, Tails and Wings: Animal Folktales from Mexico by Judy Goldman. Illustrated by Fabricio Vanden Broeck. Charlesbridge

 

Poetry

Digger, Dozer, Dumper by Hope Vestergaard. Illustrated by David Slonim. Candlewick
God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Marla Frazee. Beach Lane Books
Rutherford B., Who Was He? Poems About Our Presidents by Marilyn Singer. Illustrated by John Hendrix. Hyperion Books for Children
Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Carin Berger. Greenwillow
We Go Together: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse by Calef Brown. HMH Books for Young Readers
What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms and Blessings by Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Pamela Zagaresnski. HMH Books for Young Readers
When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders by J. Patrick Lewis. Chronicle Books

 

Stories (For Children Ages 6-8)

Bowling Alley Bandit (The Adventures of Arnie The Doughnut #1) by Laurie Keller. Henry Holt and Co.
Call Me Oklahoma by Miriam Glassman. Holiday House
Gum Girl: Chews Your Destiny by Rhode Montijo. Disney – Hyperion
The Meanest Birthday Girl by Josh Schneider. Clarion Books
Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. Illustrated by P.J. Lynch. Candlewick
Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow Books
Starring Jules (As Herself) by Beth Ain. Scholastic
The Truth of Me by Patricia MacLachlan. Katherine Tegen Books

 

Graphic Novels

Ariol: Just a Donkey Like You or Me by Emmanuel Guibert Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Papercutz
Bluffton: My Summer With Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan. Candlewick
Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox. Graphix
Donner Dinner Party by Nathan Hale. Harry N. Abrams
Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists ed. by Chris Duffy. First Second
Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson. Flying Eye Books
Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt. Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. Groundwood
Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown. Scholastic, Inc.
Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell. Top Shelf Productions
The Silver Six by A. J. Lieberman. Illustrated by Darren Rawlings. GRAPHIX

 

Stories (For Children Ages 9-12)

Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad by Monica Edinger. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick
Ballad by Blexbolex. Enchanted Lion Press
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federele. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond. Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Candlewick
The Center of Everything by Linda Urban, Harcourt Children’s Books
Doll Bones by Holly Black. Margaret K. McElderry Books
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by K.G. Campbell. Candlewick Press
A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
The Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. Harper Collins
Hokey Pokey by Jerry Spinelli. Alfred A. Knopf
How to Catch a Bogle by Catherine Jinks. HMH Books for Young Readers
One Came Home by Amy Timberlake. Knopf Books for Young Readers
The Other Side of Free by Krista Russell. Peachtree Publishers
Platypus Police Squad: The Frog Who Croaked by Jarrett Krosoczka. Walden Pond Press
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu. Walden Pond Press
Rose by Holly Webb. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co.)  by Jonathan Stroud. Disney-Hyperion
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis. Candlewick Press
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore. Walker Children’s
Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones. Candlewick
Written in Stone by Rosanne Parry. Random House Books for Young Readers
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow

 

Nonfiction

Best Foot Forward: Exploring Feet, Flippers, and Claws by Ingo Arndt. Holiday House
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős by Deborah Heiligman. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Roaring Brook Press
The Boy On the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible… On Schindler’s List by Leon Layson. Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Amistad
The Case of the Vanishing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle. Lerner Publishing Group
Courage Has No Color, the True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tonya Lee Stone. Candlewick
Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton by Meghan McCarthy. Paula Wiseman Books
Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People by Susan Goldman Rubin. Abrams Books for Young Readers
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin. Readers to Eaters
Ick! Yuck! Eew! Our Gross American History by Lois Miner Huey. Lerner Publishing Group
Jumping Penguins by Jesse Goossens, illustrated by Marije Tolman. Lemniscaat
Locomotive by Brian Floca. Richard Jackson Books
The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan. Roaring Brook Press
Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfe Ferguson Delano. National Geographic Children’s Books
Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery by Margaret Weitekamp and David DeVorkin. Illustrated by Diane Kidd. Abrams Books for Young Readers
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf Books for Young Readers
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport. Illustrated by C. F. Payne.  Disney  -Hyperion
The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever  by H. Joseph Hopkins. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Beach Lane Books
Wild Animal Neighbors: Sharing Our Urban World by Ann Downer. Lerner Publishing Group.

 

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12. Review of the Day: The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman

SilverSix Review of the Day: The Silver Six by AJ LiebermanThe Silver Six
By A.J. Lieberman
Illustrated by Darren Rawlings
Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic)
$22.99
ISBN: 978-0-545-37097-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Ambition. It’s not a term I usually associate with children’s graphic novels. Your average everyday children’s comic is not particularly ambitious. There are so few of them out there that you can’t make any grand sweeping statements about them, except maybe to stress that the difference between a GN for adults and a GN for kids is scope. While an actual prose novel for the kiddos can set its sights rather high (see: The Golden CompassHokey PokeyThe Book of Everything, etc.) children’s graphic novels have more of a tendency to limit themselves. They might encompass sprawling narratives over the course of several books (see: the Bone series, the Amulet series, etc.) but in a single book? Usually there’s not a lot you can say (unless you’re Shaun Tan, of course). So I would have thought prior to picking up Lieberman and Rawlings’ The Silver Six. What looks on the outside to simply be yet another tame adventure tale for the kiddos turns quickly into a story so packed with excitement that in any other author’s hand this could easily have been split into a trilogy (at the very least). With a large diverse cast, a relatable heroine, and a good old-fashioned evil corporation, Lieberman and Rawlings dare to dream big and it pays off. Like I say . . . ambitious!

Phoebe Hemingway’s been doing okay. Sure, her parents died in a mysterious crash about a year ago and ever since she’s been faking it with her robot Oliver, living on their own. But when child welfare services track her down and send her to the ultimate nasty futuristic orphanage she discovers she may be in grave dangerd. Fortunately she meets up with five other kids that share some shocking similarities to Phoebe. Like the fact that their parents all died in the same crash. Or that they all willed to their children the same moon registration forms. Now the team is on an epic quest to escape the orphanage, travel off the planet, dodge the bad guys, and find out the true conspiracy behind their parents’ deaths.

They say that people relate to action movies/books/comics etc. because immediate peril is instantly understandable and accessible to an audience. That said, you can write all the action thrillers in the world but unless you’ve a little additional heart it’s not going to have a lot of emotional impact. What makes “The Silver Six” a little different from the other books out there is that it isn’t afraid to go for the emotional heart more than once. So you’ve six orphans, and that’s fairly heartrending on paper. And you’ve one of the villains dealing with his own tragic past as well. But the moment that makes all the difference in the world comes when Phoebe must willingly give up the one last family member she has for the greater good. When you sacrifice the comic relief to stop the baddies, that’s tough enough. When you actually LIKE said comic relief? Pull out those hankies and blow.

And I love the way the book rewards rereadings. As you read through and pick apart the conspiracies, the first page is going to make a lot more sense. Throwaway moments, like when a character sees the initials S.O.S. scrawled on a wall, are explained at length later. Then there are the little in-jokes. My personal favorite was the tech geek who worries that he didn’t feed his fish that morning, with a glance later at the fish he’s since raised in their absence. Trust me, it makes sense in the book.

The art itself wasn’t a lure at first. Darren Rawlings hails from the world of animation and motion graphics, so there’s going to be a certain level of slickness to any enterprise he stands behind right from the start. I’ve no idea if Mr. Rawlings did his own inking and coloring (no one else is credited) but it’s a good job. Still, the first thing you’ll notice is how much the man has had to cram onto each and every page. I’m not just talking words but number of panels and even images that appear on those panels. You get the distinct impression over the course of this book that Rawlings would do best if the pages were long and extended as you might find in a Tintin or Little Nemo collection. Yet for all that, I never had the feeling that the pages felt cramped. The art packs a punch but at the same time it has a way of carrying you along. I wouldn’t give it to a novice GN reader, but for those kids with some experience it’s going to be enormously satisfying.

If there’s a problem with the book, and there are surprisingly few, I suppose it’s the ending. The big showdown with the baddie happens and then everything looks lost. Then we get a LOT of exposition and badda bing, badda boom, end of story. In a book of false climaxes and honestly awesome moments where the action rises and falls, this letdown of an ending momentarily sours an otherwise skillful outing. I won’t deny that there’s a sweet justice in the way the villain personally brings about his own destruction, but it’s odd watching your heroes stand idly by while the world comes around to their way of thinking.

Many is the parent who decides to buy their kids some comics for vacation only to find that within the first 20 minutes of the car trip their children have read every single one. If you want something with a little more meat that’s going to keep their attention for AT LEAST an hour, The Silver Six is your friend. Also recommended for fans of epic adventures, bored kids, comic lovers, boys, girls, anyone who likes snarky robots, and people who has to read these kiddos bedtime stories. A quick and exciting little package (the book literally begins with an explosion) with a surprising amount of depth. Nicely done.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Videos: And here’s the book trailer -

The SILVER SIX – Book Trailer from Rawls on Vimeo.

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13. Review of the Day: Wild by Emily Hughes

Wild1 Review of the Day: Wild by Emily HughesWild
By Emily Hughes
Flying Eye Books
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-909263-08-6
Ages 3-7
On shelves now.

There lives in every child an animal. A wild, untamable creature that will emerge without fail at the worst possible moments, rendering its parents helpless and hopeless all in one swoop. There also exist in this world picture books that touch on this restrained/free duality. You might even argue that the BEST children’s books touch on this in some way (Where the Wild Things Are being the most obvious example). In 2013 alone we saw Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild talk about the need in every child for order as well as wild uninhibited freedom. Wild, in contrast, is a simpler story. Following just one girl from her path from nature to the city and back again, it has a different lesson in mind. It is all well and good for some to find a happy medium between chaos and order but for some kids chaos is clearly MUCH more appealing!

“No one remembered how she came to the woods, but all knew it was right.” A green-haired baby smiles contentedly on a forest floor as a bear, bird, and fox look on. Over the years the bird teaches her to speak, the bear to eat, and the fox to play. Unfortunately a hunter’s trap catches the child by her foliage-like hair and a pair of baffled hunters takes her back with them to civilization. There the child is forced to reside in the home of a well-meaning psychiatrist and his wife. Attempts to normalize her fail resoundingly and at last she flees back to the wild, the family dog and cat in tow. After all, “you cannot tame something so happily wild.”

Wild2 300x125 Review of the Day: Wild by Emily Hughes

A British/Hawaiian author/illustrator, Emily Hughes’ art is fascinating to look at, partly because it’s so incredibly European. It’s something about the eyes, I think. Or maybe just the way the landscape and the animals intertwine. The bears, for example, reminded me of nothing so much as the ones found in The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud (a Frenchman). The heroine herself is somehow big-eyed without devolving into preciousness (a delicate balance). Her plant-like hair almost looks like it might be sentient at times. People in general are rendered with a fine hand. My favorite shot is of the wild child being brought to civilization by the two clearly shell-shocked hunters. As the men, and even their dog, drive in the rain, their eyes ringed with worry, the child sits on the front seat with only her eyes visible over the dash. She is clearly silent and livid.

It’s interesting to look at the settings and colors in the book as well. As the girl is raised there isn’t a white page to be seen until the last fateful line of “And she understood, and was happy.” Then, when humanity intervenes, the white pages begin to proliferate. Interior spreads are either grey/green or peach/brown and nothing else. It’s as much a relief to the reader’s eye as it is the child’s spirit when she escapes again into the wild. I was particularly pleased too with the two-page wordless humanless spread displaying only the child’s wanton path of destruction. As for the wild itself, here we have a utopian Eden, where animals might eat the occasional fish but never a green-haired baby child. Or, for that matter, one another.

Wild3 300x259 Review of the Day: Wild by Emily HughesOne quibble I have with the book is the final line. It ends on an ellipsis, you see. Now I’m as big a fan of your average everyday ellipses as the next gal. And I understand that there must have been long editorial discussions with the author/illustrator that justified its presence on the last page. I just have absolutely no idea what those justifications could possibly be. The line reads, “Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…” Maybe the dot dot dot is there to suggest that this isn’t the end of the story? I haven’t a better idea.

Oh, they’ll tag this as an eco-centric morality tale, I’m sure. Wild/nature = good, civilization/standardization = bad. That sort of thing. Honestly, I think it has a lot more to say about the inner life of a young child than any overt messagey message about Mother Earth. But there aren’t any rules governing how you use a book, so go on! Use it to talk to kids about nature and the outdoors. Use it to talk about acceptable and non-acceptable behavior and when those rules break down. Use it to discuss tropes most common in European vs. American books, or what makes this book a stand out in its field. Talk about it any old way you like, but make sure you talk about it. A surprisingly lovely little piece that bears similarities to hundreds of pictures books out there, but isn’t really like a single one. One of a kind.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Misc:

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14. Review of the Day: Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey 300x268 Review of the Day: Journey by Aaron BeckerJourney
By Aaron Becker
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6053-6
$15.99
Ages 3-8
On shelves now.

I’ve encountered something new and exciting at this late stage of the game. For years I’ve been reviewing picture books written for children. Working with them on almost a day-to-day basis as a children’s librarian, I did not doubt that my experience helped me to separate out the wheat from the chaff (so to speak). Then I had my own kiddo and together we were able to plumb the depths of the board book genre. Now the small child has grown quite fond of picture books, so together we’ve explored books that would be within her age range and those that are, perhaps, a tiny bit of a stretch. I will tell you right now that Journey by Aaron Becker is not intended for the toddler crowd. Not necessarily. With its fine attention to detail and jaw-dropping storyline, Becker has created a modern day classic in the midst of an overpopulated genre. That said, do not hesitate to introduce this book to any and all kiddos you have at hand. Give it to your teenagers. Give it to your ankle biters. The more people that sit down and take in the pages of the book, the better off the whole of humanity will be. For my part, I’m just delighted that repeated one-on-one readings of books like this one yield all sorts of additional information and details that will help my reviewing. There’s a lot to be said for this whole parenting thing, eh?

A girl is bored. Bored bored bored bored bored. With her mom cooking and yakking on the phone, her dad glued to his computer and her older sister consumed by some kind of electronic handheld device, there’s no one to play with. But when the girl’s cat reveals itself to have been sitting on a bright red writing implement (is it a marker, a crayon, or chalk?), she knows immediately what to do. A door is drawn on the wall of her room and passing through it instantly yields a glorious lantern lit world, replete with tall green trees and a meandering stream. When the girl draws a boat with which to explore the stream she is drawn into a massive water-driven city full of friendly residents, canals, and locks. An accidental slip over the side causes her to draw a hot air balloon and all is well until she spots a beautiful purple bird. Pursued by a relentless villain, the creature is caught and caged. Our heroine attempts a daring rescue but is caught herself in the attempt. Fortunately, things turn out well in the end and she finds that maybe in her humdrum drab little world at home there’s someone else there willing to share an adventure or two.

Journey1 300x135 Review of the Day: Journey by Aaron BeckerSeems this book can’t get a review without someone comparing it to Harold and the Purple Crayon. That’s fair, I suppose. After all, it’s about a kid creating solutions to the world around them with the help of a brightly colored . . . I guess I’ll call it a crayon, though at no point does it ever establish itself as one thing or another. And there’s even a falling-and-drawing-a-hot-air-balloon sequence that is straight upHarold, no question. That said, all other similarities to Harold stop right there. You see, I’ve always personally been a bit creeped out by Harold. Sure, I recognize the brilliance in the simple writing and the art is a dream to the eye in its minimalism. Yet there was always something cold and lonely to the Harold books. Nothing he draws ever moves. He’s creating his own reality, but everything he encounters originally sprouted from his own crayon. Journey is vastly different. Here our heroine meets new people, some of whom are friendly and some are not. She interacts with them. Instead of being limited to the world of her crayon, her crayon instead introduces her to whole new worlds she would never have seen otherwise. So while Harold exists in the cold white plain pages of a book, destined to provide only one color for variety, this girl uses her one color to explore other colors and other worlds and other people and cultures. There’s a metaphor just ah-brewing here, you know it, but I’ll leave it to you to extend it to its natural end.

Not afraid of architecture is Mr. Becker. Nope. Not a jot afraid. When you turn the pages of the book and see the castle-like city for the first time with its golden domes and green parasol-carrying residents, it’s a jaw-dropper. Honestly awe-inspiring. I may have to credit it with my daughter’s current obsession now with castles. The first person it made me think of, actually, was David Macaulay. Macaulay’s books featuring expansive architecture are the closest kin to what Becker is doing here. But unlike Macaulay, Becker does not seem to sport any actual degrees in architecture. He’s a trained artist, and clearly a well-trained one, but if he excels in this area it is due to his talent rather than his experience. I then showed this book to my husband and he looked at it with interest. “It has a lot of similarities to Avatar: The Last Airbender,” he pointed out. Boy howdy, I’m glad he pointed that out. It most certainly does! I don’t know how many of you have taken the time to studiously watch the Nickelodeon hit animated television show, but in truth there’s a lot of Avatar to be found here. From the city with the waterways and locks to the boats in the sky to even the sensation of flying over unfamiliar cities and lands, at the very least this makes a darned good companion to “Avatar”, if not an outright introduction to it.

Journey2 300x135 Review of the Day: Journey by Aaron BeckerI don’t know how many authors and illustrators know this, but in my experience there are a lot of teachers out there who send their students into libraries to ask for wordless picture books. Often these are used for writing exercises where the kids write the plot of the books, but once in a while you’d get a creative soul who understands that visual storytelling is the great unifier. Take a kid from another country that has recently immigrated, hand them a wordless book, and watch as they find (much to their own relief) that they are able to “read” the text. This goes for reluctant readers and kids that are reading below their grade levels. It’s also great for very young readers who cannot yet read words but delight in telling stories. Becker easily could have added text to this book. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but it could have happened. Instead, he and his editor and even his publisher took a chance and let the images and the storytelling do the talking. Sometimes you have to shut your trap to truly hear what a book has to say.

I’ll confess a small quibble I had at one point involving the villain. There’s not a ton of diversity in this book, and I do prefer titles that aren’t afraid to show folks from a variety of different races. That’s why I was a bit unnerved at first by the baddie. Dressed in full regalia worthy of a villain, with his Fu Manchu moustache and samurai dress, there’s something distinctly Asian about him. This struck me as a bit unfortunate, but upon closer examination I realized that I couldn’t tell the race of the girl either. And for that matter, it’s not like Becker is pinpointing a single nation or ethnicity as his big bad. There appear to be Egyptian decals on some of his architecture. His house for the bird has a somewhat pagoda look to it. Maybe I’m justifying everything, but it seems to me that Becker was trying more than anything else to have a bad guy who was easy to spot (note the golden helmet) and that looked different from the residents of the water-based city. Becker himself spent time in Japan, I believe, so it’s not out of the question that his art style might be affected, but I hardly think he’s guilty of playing on stereotypes.

Journey3 300x135 Review of the Day: Journey by Aaron BeckerThere is a very different argument against this book that I should address, however. I was at a nice little shindig the other day, talking with librarians about picture books we think should win big awards and the subject of Journey came up. “Oh,” said a woman to me, “I love it, but one of my librarians had a real problem with the gun.” I blinked a little and then searched my memory banks. The gun? I had no idea the book had a gun. Well, you can bet I ran back home and looked the book over cover to cover. After some work I finally located the alleged “gun”. It’s tricky, but I think this is what the woman meant. There is a scene in the book where the bad guy is seen from a distance, directing his two men to place the captured purple bird in a cage. He is pointing at them, but the way Becker drew the image the hand takes on the shape of, yes, a teeny tiny gun. This is clearly a quirk of the art. Look on a previous page and you can see the villain doing the same hand movement in his little airship, just with his fingers (some folks think his hand is a gun as well, but if you look you’ll see that the colors of said “gun” are the same as his arm, suggesting that this is just a very insistent pointer finger). That same pointing movement is replicated on the next page, but because of an extra bump of his glove, the hand itself looks somewhat gun like. Of course, it would make NO sense for it to even be a gun. The baddie is just directing his men. He’s not holding them up at gunpoint. More to the point, if this guy was to carry a gun, a typical handgun wouldn’t make a lick of sense. He’s sport a blunderbuss or something that fits in with the environment around him. Plus, why would he be waving a gun at a bird he just wants to capture and cage? This is just a quirk of an image. A person reads into it what they themselves want to see. If you want to see a gun, you’ll see a gun, but trust me when I say it’s just going to be wishful thinking on your part.

Usually when we talk about stunning wordless picture books we talk about artist David Wiesner. With his three gold Caldecott medals and who knows how many awards to his name, it’s nice when someone else can also give us a glimpse into whole new worlds. Becker’s debut isn’t afraid to go epic on his first turn around the block. Packed with details, the book rewards readings and rereadings. It’s a true original, though it certainly harkens back to classic picture books of yore. I don’t get to use this word very often when I’m talking about books for young children but I’m going to dust it off and use it now: Beautiful. There’s no other way to describe Journey. Take your own today.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Videos:

When I want to show people the best picture book trailers of all time, I lead off with this one.  Seriously.

And here is The Making Of video as well:

The Making of “Journey” from Aaron Becker on Vimeo.

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15. Review of the Day: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

Mr.Tiger  298x300 Review of the Day: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownMr. Tiger Goes Wild
By Peter Brown
Little, Brown and Company
$18.00
ISBN: 978-0-316-20063-9
Ages 3-7
On shelves now.

Here’s a fun exercise to liven up a gloomy day. Find yourself a copy of the picture book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. Now turn to the publication page. It’s the green one opposite the title page at the beginning of the book. Now scroll down until you find the Library of Congress subject headings for this title. The very first one reads, “Self-actualization (Psychology)”. I am no cataloger, nor do I particularly mind it when they attribute terms of this sort to picture books, but anyone can see that this is a pretty amusing way to describe a book about a tiger with issues with civilization. It is rare to find a picture book this easy to love on sight, but author/illustrator Peter Brown is beginning to perfect his form. Hard to believe that the man who started out with Flight of the Dodo and Chowder has figured out how one goes about writing and illustrating modern day classics. With influences as diverse as Rousseau and 1960s Disney animators, Brown creates a wholly believable universe in a scant number of pages. Now prepare to turn said pages over and over and over again.

No one expected Mr. Tiger to be such a troublemaker. At first he was like everyone else. Sporting starched collars and silk top hats. Attending dignified tea parties and engaging in the usual chitchat about the weather that day. But Mr. Tiger is bored. “He wanted to loosen up. He wanted to have fun. He wanted to be… wild.” But wildness is not tolerated in the city, a fact Mr. Tiger discovers when his explorations into wildness involve pouncing across the rooftops, roaring in public, and going au naturel. It’s that final sin that has him dismissed from the city to the wilderness, where he gets to completely let go. It’s great for a time, but soon Mr. Tiger misses his friends and his home. When he returns he finds more comfortable clothes and the fact that the people there have loosened up a bit themselves, thanks in no small part to his influence.

MrTiger1 300x143 Review of the Day: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownNow I know there are folks out there for whom The Curious Garden is the top of the pops and Brown will never be able to make anything that good again. And that was a very nice book, no question but here is a book where Brown has hit his stride. First off, he has tackled the old anthropomorphic animal question; If you put a tiger in a suit, is he even a tiger anymore? Kids are very used to seeing animals wearing clothes and fulfilling human roles. I’ve always said that if you ever want to write a book about adults for kids, all you need to do is turn those adults into furry woodland creatures (hey, it worked for Redwall!). The idea that an animal might want to return to its wilder roots is a novel one for them. Imagine if Donald Duck tore off his sailor suit to peck at bread on the water, or Mickey Mouse removed those red shorts and started hunting down some cheese rinds. It’s almost, but not quite, obscene. Brown taps into that seeming obscenity, and uses it to give kids a mighty original tale.

2013 was a very good year for picture books with wordless two-page spreads. When used incorrectly, such spreads stop the action dead. Used correctly, they make the child reader stop and think. In a particularly Miss Rumphius-ish two-pager, Mr. Tiger walks alone in a wide-open field. He isn’t prancing or running or leaping anymore. His expression is utterly neutral. It’s just him and the flowers and the scrub bushes. Little wonder that when you turn the page he’s lonely once more. Brown uses this spread to bridge the gap between Mr. Tiger’s catharsis and his desire for company. Without it, the sudden shift in mood would feel out-of-character.

MrTiger3 300x150 Review of the Day: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownIt’s hard to find folks who dislike this book but occasionally one comes out. The only real criticism I’ve seen of it was when I heard someone complain that Brown’s style is just like a lot of books coming out these days, particularly those of Jon Klassen. Hardly fair, though you can see what they mean when you hold this up next to This Is Not My Hat. But Brown is quite capable of manipulating his own style when he sees fit. Compare this book to others he’s made and you’ll see the difference. The noir feel of Creepy Carrots or the folksy faux wood border of Children Make Terrible Pets are a far cry from Mr. Tiger’s Rousseau-like setting. Brown has culled his influences over the years, and in this particular book he flattens the images purposefully, emulating the backgrounds of 1960s Disney films like Sleeping Beauty. The colors here are particularly deliberate. There’s the orange of Mr. Tiger (and his speech balloons), the green of the wilderness, and the orange of the sun. Beyond these and the blue of Mr. Tiger’s new shirt and the water of the fountain/waterfall, the palette is tightly controlled. And that doesn’t feel like anyone’s choice but Mr. Brown’s.

MrTiger4 280x300 Review of the Day: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter BrownAnother criticism I encountered came from someone who felt that the ending didn’t make sense to them. The animals all criticize Mr. Tiger then emulate him in his absence? But I have read and reread and reread again this book to my 2-year-old enough times that I know precisely how to answer such questions. Look closely and you’ll see that while some animals are very vocal in their disapproval of Mr. Tiger’s free-to-be-you-and-me ways, others are less perturbed. For example, in one scene Mr. Tiger is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As he does so a bevy of onlookers comment on his actions. True, a bear shakes his fist and declares the tiger to be “Unacceptable” but look at the rhino and bunny. One is saying “Wow” and one “Hmm.” Then there’s the nude sequence (perhaps the only picture book centerfold shot in the history of the genre). First off, the pigeons are riveted. I loved that. And yes, a bunch of animals are pointing out of town, indicating that he should leave. But there’s a young fox that is absolutely enthralled by his actions, you can tell. It’s clear he has a far-reaching influence. I wasn’t surprised at all by the changes in his absence then.

Every child is a battlefield. In them rage twin desires, compelling in different ways and at different times. One desire is for the wildness Mr. Tiger craves. To run and yell and just go a little wild. The other desire is for order and organization and civilization. What Mr. Tiger Goes Wild does so well is to tap into these twin needs, and then produce a kind of happy medium between them. To entirely deny one side or another (or to entirely indulge one side or another) is an unhealthy exercise. We’ve not many books that touch on the importance of balance in your life, but let me just say that the lesson Mr. Tiger learns here would probably be greatly appreciated by large swaths of the adult population. Kiddos aren’t the only ones that chafe under their proverbial starched collars. A grand, great book with a lot of very smart things to say. Listen up.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Videos:
Peter Brown introduces his book to you:

And here he talks about his process:

Author and Illustrator Peter Brown On His Process from School Library Journal on Vimeo.

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16. Review of the Day: Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light

HaveSeenDragon1 300x267 Review of the Day: Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve LightHave You Seen My Dragon?
By Steve Light
Candlewick Press
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-6648-4
Ages 2-6
On shelves April 8th

When I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan I would get this little thrill every time my city appeared in a children’s book. Which is to say, every time it was mentioned in Horton Hatches the Egg. Honestly, for all that it had a cool name it really didn’t come up anywhere else. New York kids must be rather jaded in this regard. Anytime a city book is set somewhere other than Manhattan or Brooklyn, they probably scratch their little heads in confusion (I can attest to this personally as my two-year-old calls any and all cities she sees in books “New York City” and will not be corrected). As a NYC transplant I’d probably mind this more if it weren’t for the fact that so many of these books are so doggone splendid. Take Steve Light’s latest, Have You Seen My Dragon? A riot of miniscule details, numbers, colors, familiar city elements, and a magnificent, fantastic creature always hidden in plain sight, Light gives us a city dragon worth remembering long after the pages are turned.

You would think it would be difficult to mislay a dragon. You would be wrong. When our story begins a young boy is asking a doorman whether or not he’s seen his dragon. “No? I will look for him.” Never you mind that if the boy merely turned his head 90 degrees to the left he’d see his ginormous pet sniffing an understandably wary pup. From here it’s a race across the city. Everywhere the boy goes the numbers go up. The dragon perches atop a hot dog stand where they are selling “2 Hot dogs”. It peers down from a roof at the “3 Buses” below. It gets a quick drink from one of the “5 Water towers.” On the endpapers you can see the circuitous path the dragon takes through a slightly compacted lower Manhattan until, at last, the boy spots him in Chinatown, smiling widely from between the “20 Lanterns”.

HaveSeenDragon2 300x134 Review of the Day: Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve LightThere is a perception out there that it is near impossible to publish a black and white picture book in today’s market. This may be so, but Light comes pretty darn close to doing so. Though there is a different color for every number in the book, most of what you’re seeing is just good old-fashioned pen and inks. More to the point, the man has gone rather wild in his details. I haven’t seen intricate work at this level since I read Mark Alan Stamaty’s picture book cult classic Who Needs Donuts? Whether he’s detailing the myriad wires that curl around the sewer pipes below the street or paying homage to the detailing on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there’s a method to the man’s madness. Now add in the fact that Light isn’t afraid to go vertical with his two-page spreads and that he occasionally gets incredibly creative with his perspective (the “8 Fire hydrants” two-page spread is an exercise in internal logic) and you have a rather beautiful affair. Little wonder that he chose to only dot the pages with color. It’s lovely to watch how the artist uses these colors to direct your eye across the page.

If the name “Steve Light” has been triggering some kind of latent amnesia in your cranium, it probably has to do with his board books with Chronicle Books. Let me tell you right now that if you have not read Trucks Go, Trains Go or Diggers Go aloud to a small child then your life, nice as it is, is little more than a pale hollow shell of what it might someday be. In those three books Light used bright, thick paints to convey an array of vehicles. He then gave each and every one of them original, amazing sounds, ideal of reading aloud either one-on-one or to a large group. Have You Seen My Dragon differs widely from that series in terms of look and feel. But what it does have in common is the age of the audience (toddler heaven is what we have going on here) and the read aloud potential. Good readalouds are rarities. For every 100 picture books published in a given season, maybe four of them are titles you’d like to test on a group of squirmy squirmers. And this, ladies and gentlemen, should be one of those four. It’s simple and interactive and I can already hear a room of small fry screaming at you as to where the dragon is “hiding”.

There may be the occasional New York child that complains that the buses in the book are purple when, in fact, our buses are no such of a thing. Meh. I say purple buses would be a heckuva lot more fun, so if Mr. Light wants to bestow that particular hue to them, let him. And that goes for the blue subway cars as well. Slightly more problematic are the “monkeys”. You will find that for the number 6 one is supposed to find “6 Monkeys”. The zoo picture is, if you follow the map, sort of supposed to be the Central Park Zoo, but it doesn’t really resemble it. That’s okay too. Artistic liberties I am a-okay with. Far more of a problem is the fact that the monkeys in question have no tails. Yup, what we’re dealing with here is a page of six apes. It’s a classic Curious George problem and not one that sinks the book or anything. Still, wouldn’t mind a tail or two on those primates. It would be just the thing.

All told, I see a lot of New York City picture books in a given year. This one goes beyond our city’s borders. It’s the kind of book that’s going to appeal to any kid that’s drawn to the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area. The words “New York City” never even appear in the text, allowing a lot of young readers to simply think of the location as an everycity. Lithe and lovely, overflowing with good will and copious details, expect the sentence, “Have you seen Have You Seen My Dragon?” to appear on the lips of parents and children everywhere. Because if you haven’t seen it, now’s the time.

On shelves April 8th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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17. Review of the Day: Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

UnderEgg 300x300 Review of the Day: Under the Egg by Laura Marx FitzgeraldUnder the Egg
By Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Group)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-4001-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves March 18th.

Let me ask you a question. You seem like an intelligent individual. Have you ever read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? And, if your answer is yes, did you love it? At the very least, do you remember it? I think it fair to say that for significant portions of the population the answer to both these questions would be yes. But before we go any further, consider for a moment precisely WHY you love the book. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it’s most probable that what you remember from the title was the whole kids-running-away-to-live-in-a-museum aspect. What you might have forgotten was that there was also a mystery at the heart of the book. The mystery had to do with a statue and had a solution that, let’s face it, was a bit contrived for its young audience. If you ever felt that Konigsburg could have done better in the whole solving-an-art-mystery department, allow me to lead you by the elbow over here to where I’m showing off my latest delight Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald marks a strong debut, daring to take the reader from contemporary New York City to WWII and back again without breaking so much as a sweat. It’s gutsy and ambitious by turns,

Things could be better. A lot better. When Theodora’s grandfather Jack was alive, the family didn’t have a ton of money but at least they got by pretty well on his salary as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was after Jack died in a freak accident that things took a downward slide. With a mother incapable of dealing with reality (and addicted to pricey tea), Theo knows their money is coming to an end. Soon they won’t have enough to live on. It’s when things look particularly dire that Theo accidentally spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s favorite paintings. And as strange as it sounds, beneath his plain picture of an egg lies an incredibly old image of Madonna and Child. The more Theo starts to look into the painting and its history, the more determined she is to track down its story. Now with the help of the daughter of a pair of acting celebrities, a punk librarian, an Episcopalian priest, a guy selling nuts on the street, and more, Theo’s about to peel away not just the mystery behind the painting, but also her own grandfather’s role in one of the greatest WWII capers of all time.

The crazy thing about the mystery at work here is that Fitzgerald honestly makes you believe that a pair of 12-year-olds, with a whole summer of nothing to do, could indeed successfully identify a Renaissance painting and, with a little research and intelligence, determine its origins. There’s one moment that involves an x-ray machine that strains a bit of credulity, but the strength of the other elements more than make up for it. The professional reviewer at Kirkus also had a problem with a coincidence that arrives at the end of the book like a kind of Deus Ex Machina. Personally, this didn’t disturb me in the least, mostly because Fitzgerald does a pretty dang good job of justifying why it happens. It’s a little pat, but hardly a deal breaker.

As for the writing itself, I grew very fond of it. You’d have to have a pretty hardened heart not to enjoy lines like “Mother Nature had draped a wet wool sweater around the city’s shoulders that day.” As a character, Theo’s in a pretty nasty position. As caregiver and pseudo parent to a mother who can’t break out of her own brain, the stakes are fairly high. They’ve been selling this book on the premise that it’s about a loner who finds ways to connect with the characters, oddballs, and generally good people who’ve surrounded her all this time and that she never noticed before. That’s true to a certain extent, but I always found the relationship between Theo and her grandfather Jack to be the most interesting relationship in the book. He may be dead, but his character points are loud and clear, even from beyond the grave.

This book also managed to fulfill for me personally a wish I’ve harbored for about 10 years now. In that time I’ve been a children’s librarian and I’ve seen a lot of middle grade novels set in NYC. From time to time these books will mention libraries in the city. If they mention any library in particular, it tends to be the main branch of NYPL. This is understandable, but my first library job was in a branch of NYPL that I still to this day consider the best of them all. Called the Jefferson Market Branch, I served as its children’s librarian for about two years. During that time I became obsessed with the building and yearned to see it mentioned in a book for kids. I came closest when Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller was released, but was thwarted at the last minute when the author, for some ungodly and unknown reason, chose to MAKE UP a branch rather than have her characters walk over to Jefferson Market. Now, in the year 2014, I am happy to report that for the first time in my own memory, the branch has appeared in a book. And not just as a sly mention either. Under the Egg gives Jefferson Market the credit it has been long due. So if I sound a little gushy about this book, you can probably safely assume that my loyalty was, one way or another, kind of compromised along the way.

In terms of timing, Under the Egg could not be better situated. In February of this year (2014) our movie theaters will feature the film The Monuments Men with an all-star cast, based on a true bit of little known history. A bit of history that was SO little known, in fact, that I’d never seen it mentioned in a world of children’s books, whether fiction or informational. Now, practically on top of The Monuments Men, we have a title for 9-12 year olds that uses this bit of history as a pivotal plot point. Well timed, Ms. Fitzgerald!

It’s difficult to write a tense thriller of a middle grade mystery without a good antagonist. In this book, that part is played by one “Uncle” Lyndon, a man whose greatest crime is his desire to get art into museums. This is a bit of a tough sell for a reader who grew up with Indiana Jones’s cry of “It belongs in a museum!” ringing in her ears throughout her youth. To read this book in the way the author intends, you are put in the position of wondering who should own great art. The book, surprisingly enough, makes the argument that famous works of art can indeed belong to individuals and they can do whatever they want with them. If that person wants to hide the art away from the rest of the world, that is their right. And if that art is taken from that person by force and circumstance allows that the former owner can be tracked down, to procure it for a museum would be an immoral act. This is a bit of a stretch, to be sure. It is, however, excellent fodder for book discussion groups. The Under the Egg mentality versus the Indiana Jones mentality. Who should win?

When they tell you that the book is “From the Mixed-Up Files meets Chasing Vermeer” I suggest you not believe them. Yes, there is a famous piece of art and yes there is a mystery, but the mystery in this book is so much stronger than any art-related children’s book mystery I’ve read before that everything else just pales in comparison. If there’s a coincidence or two in this storyline, it has a strong justification beside it. Interesting from start to finish, even when it’s discussing the personal lives of 16th century painters, this won’t make every kid that reads it into an art fanatic, but what it may do is cause a whole bunch of them to start researching the painter Rafael on their own. Uniquely readable, entirely charming, and a pleasure from start to finish. Debuts this good are meant to be discovered.

On shelves March 18th.

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18. Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman Rubin

EverybodyPaints Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinEverybody Paints! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family
By Susan Goldman Rubin
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8118-6984-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves February 4th

For years it was my pleasure to work in the New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room, located in the Donnell Library. The Central Children’s Room was the crown jewel of children’s literature in the city, and amongst its many treasures (which included a parrot-headed umbrella owned by Mary Poppins/P.L. Travers and the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys) were N.C. Wyeth’s original paintings from the book Robin Hood. I might be mistaken, but I’m pretty sure we owned them all. Certainly we didn’t put them all on display, but a fair number of them were available for the public and they turned out to be quite a draw for the local illustrators. Since those days the Donnell has been sold and the paintings transferred to the main branch of NYPL where they now grace the walls of the President of the library’s office. If you would like to see them it is not out of the question, but it is also not as easy as it once was. I, for my part, haven’t seen them in years. With that in mind, I think it makes perfect sense why I was drawn to Susan Goldman Rubin’s latest artistic picture book biography Everybody Paints! Not content to tell merely the story of one famous painter, Rubin dares to encapsulate the lives of three generations, with a particular focus on one painter in each. N.C., Andrew, and Jamie are presented to kids here in a clear-cut way that honestly displays their very interesting work.

NCWyethRobinHood 241x300 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinMeet the bronco buster. That’s one name you might give to N.C. Wyeth. Born to parents that thought he’d be better suited as a farmhand than as an artist, N.C. set about to prove himself. Before long he was apprenticed to the great Howard Pyle and became his star student. Wyeth became adept at cattle round-ups as well as painting scenes of action and adventure. His talents brought his lucrative illustration projects like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Robin Hood. Along the way he sired talented offspring, each of whom had some kind of talent. Andrew Wyeth pursued his art with the same fervor as his dad, but while the fine art community had never officially accepted his father, Andrew was embraced almost immediately. In his footsteps followed Jamie, a painter who could work on everything from picture books to portraits of presidents. This is their story.

Writing a biography of the Wyeths for children isn’t as fraught with potential peril as writing a biography of other artists might be. Having cut her teeth on bios about Diego Rivera (Diego Rivera: An Artist for the People) and Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol: Pop Art Painter) the Wyeths must have struck Ms. Rubin as a true relief. This is not to say that there haven’t been rumors floating around them for years, but vague rumors are far easier to elide than numerous confirmed affairs and “The Factory”. The content is presented in a very nice, straightforward style. We meet each Wyeth in turn, and the narrative will slip from one to another without so much as a herk or a jerk. The sections are not particularly long. Indeed, the book itself is infinitely readable at just a scant 112 pages. That means that if a kid wants to do a bit of serious research they may need to find some additional books to cover the material more extensively. That said, Rubin provides the basic overview and allows the reader to fill in gaps on their own. Nothing wrong with that when you’re dealing with children’s book biographies.

AndrewWyethTrodden 273x300 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinIt was a Kirkus review of this book that sniffed that this particular book is “undersized and overdesigned.” The “undersized” criticism strikes me as particularly silly, perhaps in light of the fact that as a librarian I’ve seen too many art books rejected by child readers because they were “too big” to comfortably carry home. I’m a New York City librarian, so kids in my town have to lug and tote every book they take from the library themselves. There is no helpful waiting car to dump the load into. With that in mind our little patrons become quite savvy in the ways of pick up and retrieval. Imagine, if you will, that you are attempting to woo a kid with the assignment to read a book about a famous artist into reading this book. I can attest that there’s nothing worse than being cut off mid-spiel by a child who points out, quite logically, that the book is “too big”. I mean there’s no comeback to that! So yes, it’s true that the images in this collection aren’t the size that they are in real life. But that is more than made up for when it comes to the sheer number of images present.

To the second criticism, that of being “overdesigned”, the book actually one in a series of artistic biographies done in a “gift book” style. Some of you may recall the rather gorgeous Sparky: The Life and Art of Charles Schulz that came out a couple years ago by Beverly Gherman. Like this book it wasn’t afraid to play around with an eclectic design. Lots of large fonts, different colored pages, and images, images, images. In this book Rubin skillfully alternates between photographs of her subjects and their families and their paintings. To an adult, I suppose the layout of this book might feel jarring but I’m quite fond of it. It kept me awake, allowed my eye to travel from text to image and back again freely, and best of all when Rubin mentions a famous photograph it’s right there for you to look at.

JamieWyethJFK 300x172 Review of the Day: Everybody Paints! by Susan Goldman RubinYou see, one complaint I’ve heard fielded at artistic biographies is that they don’t contain enough images of their subject’s work. How are you supposed to care about someone if you can’t see what it is that they themselves cared about? When Ms. Rubin wrote Diego Rivera I adored it. Some librarians, however, wanted a lot more images. Full paintings would be described but never seen. One might point out that in an internet age it’s fairly easy to see pictures of things whenever you want to, but the point stands. A book about an artist should do its duty and give its subject proper due. With that in mind, Everybody Paints! fairly pops with pictures. I don’t know enough about the rights to reproduce painted images in the way Rubin presents them here. What I do know is that she’s done a stand up and cheer job of it. Nothing major feels like it’s missing.

In spite of the fact that there’s been a real push to promote great nonfiction books with kid readers, it can be a hard sell. Adults that are my age or older have a hard time remembering any particularly great books of nonfiction from when we were young (and no, the Childhood of Famous Americans series does NOT count). Few of us are aware that we’re in a golden age of great children’s informational titles. What Everybody Paints! does is typify this kind of book. It’s a hard subject that requires a deft hand. And with her abundance of experience in this particular area, Susan Goldman Rubin does her subjects proud. As beautiful as you would expect, and three times as fun as you might think to read.

On shelves February 4th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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19. Review of the Day: Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

NightingalesNest Review of the Day: Nightingales Nest by Nikki LoftinNightingale’s Nest
By Nikki Loftin
Razorbill (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISNB: 978-1-59514-546-8
Ages 10-14
On shelves now.

Magical realism in children’s novels is a rarity. It’s not unheard of, but when children’s authors want fantasy, they write fantasy. When they want reality, they write reality. A potentially uncomfortable mix of the two is harder to pull off. Ambiguity is not unheard of in books for youth, but it’s darned hard to write. Why go through all that trouble? For that reason alone we don’t tend to see it in children’s books. Kids like concrete concepts. Good guys vs. bad guys. This is real vs. this is a dream. But a clever author, one who respects the intelligence of their young audience, can upset expectations without sacrificing their story. When author Nikki Loftin decided to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Nightingale into a middle grade contemporary novel, she made a conscious decision to make the book a work of magical realism. A calculated risk, Loftin’s gambit pays off. Nightingale’s Nest is a painful but ultimately emotionally resonant tale of sacrifice and song. A remarkably competent book, stronger for its one-of-a-kind choices.

It doesn’t seem right that a twelve-year-old boy would carry around a guilt as deep and profound as Little John’s. But when you feel personally responsible for the death of your little sister, it’s hard to let go of those feelings. It doesn’t help matters any that John has to spend the summer helping his dad clear brush for the richest man in town, a guy so extravagant, the local residents just call him The Emperor. It’s on one of these jobs that John comes to meet and get to know The Emperor’s next door neighbor, Gayle. About the age of his own sister when she died, Gayle’s a foster kid who prefers sitting in trees in her own self-made nest to any other activity. But as the two become close friends, John notices odd things about the girl. When she sings it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and she even appears to possibly have the ability to heal people with her voice. It doesn’t take long before The Emperor becomes aware of the treasure in his midst. He wants Gayle’s one of a kind voice, and he’ll do anything to have it. The question is, what does John think is more important: His family’s livelihood or the full-throated song of one little girl?

How long did it take me to realize I was reading a middle grade adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen short story? Let me first tell you that when I read a book I try not to read even so much as a plot description beforehand so that the novel will stay fresh and clear in my mind. With that understanding, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world that it took a 35-year-old woman thirty-nine pages before she caught on to what she was reading. Still, I have the nasty suspicion that many a savvy kid would have picked up on the theme before I did. As it stands, we’ve seen Andersen adapted into middle grade novels for kids before. Breadcrumbs, for example, is a take on his story The Snow Queen as well as some of his other, stranger tales. They say that he wrote The Nightingale for the singer Jenny Lind, with whom he was in love. All I know is that in the original tale the story concentrates on the wonders of the natural world vs. the mechanical one. In this book, Loftin goes in a slightly different direction. It isn’t an over-reliance on technology that’s the problem here. It’s an inability to view our fellow human beings as just that. Human beings. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what Andersen was going for in the first place.

It was the writing, of course, that struck my attention first. Loftin gives the book beautiful sequences filled with equally beautiful sentences. There’s a section near the end that tells a tale of a tree that fails to keep hold of a downy chick, but is redeemed by saving another bird in a storm. This section says succinctly everything you need to know about this book. I can already see the children’s book and discussion groups around the country that will get a kick out of picking apart this parable. It’s not a hard one to interpret, but you wouldn’t want it to be.

As for the characters, there wasn’t a person here that I couldn’t recognize as real. I was quite taken with the fact that Loftin continually sidesteps a lot of the usual middle grade tropes. Gayle’s nasty foster brother Jeb, for example, could easily have been labeled the typical bully type character for this book. Bullies in children’s books, after all, have a tendency to be one-note characters. Jeb, in contrast, is capable of talking like a normal human being from time to time. He’s a horrible human being at other times, but at least you get the sense that he’s not just a walking two-dimensional caricature. It makes a difference.

The ending is going to be problematic for some folks. It is not, I should say, unsatisfying. I think even people who don’t have a problem with what it says will only have a problem with HOW it goes about saying it. But the end of the book goes so far as to make it clear that this story really doesn’t take place in the real world in which we live. The characters face real world problems, but that doesn’t preclude the presence of something magical. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio . . .” and all that jazz. For some readers, this may feel like a kind of betrayal. As if the author didn’t have the guts to stay in the real world from start to finish, but instead had to rely on something otherworldly for her climax. I don’t see it that way. Loftin’s choices seem very deliberate here, from page one onward. Just because something is magical, that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret the book in other ways. Don’t like the supernatural element at the end? Then why are you assuming it’s real? After all, we’re getting this whole story through Little John’s perspective. Who’s to say he’s the world’s most reliable narrator? Just because a book is written for children, that doesn’t mean you have to take it at face value.

In any case, I don’t believe the magic detracts in the least from what Loftin is saying here about the banality of poverty. This isn’t a book that romanticizes what it’s like to be poor. It’s just Little John’s everyday existence, to a certain extent. And with the introduction of The Emperor, readers get to see firsthand how money, or the lack thereof, has a lot to do with self-worth and what you have to do with your pride and sense of self-worth when you’re indebted to another person. Little John witnesses firsthand his own father’s humiliation at the hands of the Emperor, and then finds himself in possession (in a sense) of something The Emperor wants. But rather than give him power, this just focuses the rich man’s attention on the boy, making him easy prey. Better that you never have something the wealthy think that they need. And as Little John says at one point, “What was right didn’t have a thing to do with what was.”

Reading the book, I found it enormously painful. But I at least had the wherewithal to realize that it was uniquely painful to me as a mother. Any parent reading this is going to instantly fret and worry and think about Gayle’s position in her foster home. But for kids reading this book they’re going to identify with Little John and Gayle as children, not as parents. This is a book about terrible decisions made, for the most part, by good people. This can, at times, make the story emotionally hard to follow, but I like to think Ms. Loftin had things well in hand when she came up with her tale. There’s a great comfort in knowing that even when you screw up royally, you can still find forgiveness. If kids take nothing else away from this book, I hope that they understand that much. Smart and beautiful by turns, The Nightingale’s Nest does one thing that few will contest. Once you’ve read it, you’ll have a hard time getting it out of your head.

On shelves now.

Notes on the Cover: It was indeed the cover that I noticed first about this book. Unfortunately the name of the artist has been difficult to find, but it’s lovely isn’t it? The girl, clearly Gayle, could be floating or flying or just lying on the ground, depending on how you look at it. Of course, most notable is the fact that she appears to be African-American. There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about showing black faces on our book jackets, so I applaud Razorbill for having the guts to do a cover that isn’t a silhouette. That said, I did notice that at no point in the novel does the book specifically say that Gayle is dark-skinned. In fact, it doesn’t really describe her skin at all. We get a sense of how soft her hair is and how beautiful her voice, but nothing much more beyond that. Could this be one of the very few cases in which a kid’s race isn’t mentioned in a book and yet that kid isn’t just assumed to be white? If so it’s a big step forward in the world of book jackets. Someone should conduct an interview with Razorbill’s art director about the decision to go with this cover. I’d love to know if this is indicative of books in the future. If so, it’s a trend I’ll be watching with great interest.

Source: Galley sent from the publisher for review.

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20. A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd

Sometimes a book will just call out to you.  It tells you that it was meant for you and that you need to read it.  The first time I heard the title A Snicker of Magic, I was intrigued.  The first time I saw the delightful cover, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

Felicity Juniper Pickle is a collector of words.  Not in the same way that some of us are, she is lucky enough to see words.  Words surround certain people and things, and when Felicity sees them, she writes them down in her always present blue notebook.  When her little sister Frannie Jo asks for a poem, Felicity can pluck them out of the air and combine them into a soothing rhyme for her.

There are two things that Felicity Pickle cannot do, however.  She cannot comfortably speak those words in front of anyone, and she can't stay in one place too long.  The first thing she can work on, but the second thing is all because of her Mama.

Her Mama is cursed with a wandering heart.  She loads her girls up into her beat-up van and travels around with them.  This last jaunt has brought the Pickles home to where Mama grew up: Midnight Gulch.  Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, but a few generations ago the magic seemingly up and left town right along with the famous Threadbare brothers.

But for Felicity, Midnight Gulch does turn out to be a magical place.  First of all, she acquires her very first friend - Jonah Pickett.  And Jonah, it turns out, has a secret and a bit of a magical identity as well.  As he takes Felicity under his wing, she sees the things that could be -- the things that she didn't even know she was longing for as Mama shuttled them around "Per-clunkity-clunk, per-clunkity-clunk" across the country.

Natalie Lloyd has created the kind of world that readers want to jump into.  This small Tennessee town should exist and feels like it does.  Perfectly quirky, the characters are interwoven, layered and kind. Turns of phrase verily melt in your mouth, and beg to be read aloud.  This is a heart-song book, if ever there was one.

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21. Review of the Day: The Griffin and the Dinosaur by Marc Aronson with Adrienne Mayor

GriffinDinosaur 254x300 Review of the Day: The Griffin and the Dinosaur by Marc Aronson with Adrienne MayorThe Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science
By Marc Aronson with Adrienne Mayor
Illustrated by Chris Muller
National Geographic
$18.99
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1108-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 8th.

I remember back in 2007 when the American Museum of Natural History in NYC premiered a show called “Mythic Creatures”. It made a fair amount of press and with good reason. It’s not every day you see full-scale models of mythical creatures presented in a serious museum setting. The show got some nice write-ups but though I listened to the explanations of why it was going on, I didn’t quite catch the whole point. To me it just sort of sounded like a cheap ploy to lure more patrons into the museum’s exhibits. A bit of the old P.T Barnum, albeit with a classier imprimatur. Years passed and I forgot about the show right up until the publication of The Griffin and the Dinosaur. As I read the book, memories of the show came back to me, as did my complete and utter misunderstanding of what it had been trying to accomplish. Fortunately, I am happy to report that once in a while in this life a gal gets a second chance. With Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor’s hard work, now I have a book before me that clarifies the true connection between the prehistoric and the mythical. Focused through a single woman’s obsessive search, this book comes off as both a riveting historical mystery as well as a wonderful example of how a person’s passions might take them places they never imagined they might travel. The future isn’t written in stone but it might just be written in bones.

It was kind of a goofy idea. The sort of thing a person might consider off-handedly then forget about five minutes later. But for Adrienne Mayor, the idea stuck. It was simple too. You see, after doing lots of research at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Ms. Mayor noticed a strange pattern. Reading texts by ancient Greeks she noticed that when they discussed creatures like griffins they always sounded like they knew about these animals firsthand. Is it possible that these creatures were conjured up after the Greeks found some ancient bones of one kind of another? Not a natural born scholar, Adrienne always considered herself more of an artist than anything else. Still, this question about the griffin’s origins intrigued her. What she could not have expected was how her search would take her from Greece to Samos to The Museum of the Rockies to distant China. Infinitely interesting, illustrated with multiple photographs, sketches, ancient images and contemporary illustrations, Mayor not only shows where our ancestors got their seemingly goofy ideas, but gives these people a form of credit and respect that is certainly their due.

Every Marc Aronson book is different. Generalizing is not something you can really do when you discuss him as an author. I have found in the past that some of his books ran a bit on the long and lengthy side, but beyond that there aren’t any real connecting threads between one project and another. Yet if I found Mr. Aronson to be a bit more loquacious at times than he needed to be, no such objection could possibly be leveled at The Griffin and the Dinosaur. Coming in at a svelte 48 pages, a number normally associated with slightly longer picture books, Aronson wastes no time getting to the meat of the matter. Turn to the first page and there’s Adrienne, age six. Four pages later she’s studying in Athens while her fiancé works on his ancient Greek fortress research. Aronson cuts to the chase, helped in large part by his interviews with Adrienne. The result is a well-rounded portrait of a single woman going against the odds to prove something both interesting and odd. It’s research presented to kids as adventure in a format they’re going to actually WANT to read. How rare is that?

GriffinDinosaur2 300x155 Review of the Day: The Griffin and the Dinosaur by Marc Aronson with Adrienne MayorI know that one reviewer of this book was dismayed by an interpretation of Marc Aronson’s message here that says that people who closely observe the world around them are just as good as professional scholars in the field. For the record, I do not happen to agree that that is what Aronson is saying. I think it far more likely that Aronson is displaying the need for balance. You can sit behind dusty tomes all day long with your professional degree hanging up upon a wall, but if you don’t go out and try new ideas and speak to new people and even do a bit of exploring (of one kind or another) then you cannot be surprised when a woman like Ms. Mayor goes about making a fabulous, hitherto unknown (or unproved) discovery. By the same token, the person who observes the world around them closely but never picks up a book or does even rudimentary research is going to completely miss the potential connections out there that could justify their work. Mayor exhibited both a willingness to learn and a sharp-eyed curiosity that was willing to question. In an era when so much research is beholden to outside interests, it does the heart good to read a book about a woman who set out to discover what many might have considered impossible to prove.

The extra details turn out to be just as enchanting. The entire history of the Scythians and how they might have been an inspiration for some of the Amazon women tales out there is captivating. Even more so their gold, as well as the discovery of Megalopolis. And then there’s that amazing look at mammoth skulls and how they might have inspired the stories of the Cyclops. It all got me to thinking about the role of myths in the world and their beginnings. Maybe a kid will read this book and begin to wonder what the roots of other great myths might be. Will they start poring over Hindi and Norse myths, looking for clues to the past? Or will they simply get a better sense of one of the big themes of the book: that ancient people had reasons for making up the stories that they did. For me, that was a moral well worth taking away from the story. We have a tendency to look down our nose at our ancient ancestors, but as this book shows, these people had their reasons for thinking the way that they did. We should never be so egotistical as to believe that we are the first people to find the bones of long extinct creatures and to make up reasons for their existence.

As for the art, for the most part it’s okay but artist Chris Muller gets off to a shaky start. His presence in the book makes a lot of sense. I could completely understand the need to ratchet up the kid-friendly elements of the story, of course. If you name your book The Griffin and the Dinosaur then you better bloody well have a couple griffins in there (to say nothing of the dinosaurs). In fact, when Muller is working on the mythical, he is at his best. The cover, for example, is striking, as are his images of an Amazon fighting a griffin or a sleeping griffin protecting its nest. Where it all breaks down is when he has to deal with reality. The publication page says that the paintings were made with “traditional media – pencil and watercolors – and digital painting.” Traditional media is fine with me, but the digital painting proves to be occasionally painful. For example, a preliminary image of young Adrienne dowsing above the skeleton of a dinosaur is baffling partly because I couldn’t find any mentions of dowsing in the text and partly because the CGI cloud cover contrasts horribly with the drawn Adrienne. It feels like a cheap image in an otherwise classy book. Happily, it is the only moment when I felt that way. Other images in the book border or plunge right into the fantastical, and that’s appropriate for the moments they tend to illustrate.

This is the Possession by A.S. Byatt of children’s literature. An honest-to-goodness historical mystery complete with an early hypothesis, a likable heroine, multiple dead ends, and at the end? GOLD! Literally. It succeeds at doing many things at once, but never runs too long or bores the reader with its findings. Mayor is a likable and ultimately unintimidating subject for kids to follow. For those children obsessed with myths and legends, this might be the ideal way to transition them gently from the world of the fantastical into one of research and exploration. For Percy Jackson lovers everywhere.

On shelves April 8th.

Source: Final copy sent from publicist for review.

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  • The American Museum of Natural History offers their own summary of the griffin/dinosaur connection.

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22. Review of the Day: Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty

KnockKnock 231x300 Review of the Day: Knock Knock by Daniel BeatyKnock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
By Daniel Beaty
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
$18.00
ISBN: 978-0316209175
Ages 4-8
On shelves December 17th

There is a perception out there amongst certain types of parents that the only picture books worthy of their little geniuses are those that reflect their own lives perfectly. I’ve complained more than once about this before, but there is nothing more disturbing to me than when a children’s librarian shows a parent a perfectly lovely book only to be asked, “Do you have anything a little less . . . urban?” And this in the heart of New York City no less. Of course we all know what “urban” is code for. Black, obviously (if I’m feeling snarky I’ll then follow up their request with Precious and the Boo Hag or something equally black AND rural). The ideal use of picture books, on some level, is to provide windows and mirrors for the kiddos. Mirrors that reflect their own worlds. Windows where they can see how other children live. So while Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me is ostensibly about a child with an incarcerated father, to my mind this is a book that has far reaching applications. It can be used with any child missing a parent, for whatever reason. It’s one of the very few picture books to talk about the process of growing into adulthood. And the art? Stellar stuff. So though I’m sure kids that find themselves exactly in the protagonist’s shoes will get something out of this book, they are not the only ones. Not by half.

It was the same every morning. The boy would pretend to be sleeping when his father went “Knock Knock” on the door. Then he’d “surprise” his father by leaping into his arms once he came in the room. That is, until the day his father didn’t knock anymore. The man is simply gone, poof! Like he was never there at all. Bewildered and lost, the boy writes his father a letter and leaves it on his desk in the desperate hope that maybe his dad’s in the apartment when the boy’s not home. He tells his dad that he was hoping that when he got older he’d teach him how to dribble a ball or shave or drive or fix a car even. Then, one day, there’s a letter from his father sitting on the desk. “I am sorry I will not be coming home,” it begins. It then proceeds to encourage the boy to seek his own path and grow to manhood without him. “Knock Knock with the knowledge that you are my son and you have a bright, beautiful future.” Years later when the boy has grown, his father returns to him. In his Author’s Note, Daniel Beaty discusses the effect his own father’s incarceration had on him when he was only three. As he puts it, “This experience prompted me to tell the story of this loss from a child’s perspective and also to offer hope that every fatherless child can still create the most beautiful life possible.”

KnockKnock2 Review of the Day: Knock Knock by Daniel BeatyAs you might imagine, I vetted this one with some of my fellow children’s librarians and one concern that arose stemmed from the fact that the boy isn’t told what happened to his father. One day he’s there and the next he’s gone. Shouldn’t a kid be told? To this I have a couple answers. First and foremost, remember that you are getting this tale through the eyes of a child. For that very reason, you have reason to question the narrative. It is all too easy to believe that the kid has been told where his father is and he simply cannot process the information. This might be one of those rare picture book unreliable narrators we come across from time to time. Second, if the kid isn’t willfully ignoring the evidence at hand, it’s just as possible that his mother isn’t telling him. Whether it’s for what she believes to be his own good or because she can’t bring herself to explain, there’s a reality at work here.

But the explanation that rings truest to me is this; If the boy doesn’t know then it opens wide the possible applications of this book. The key to Knock Knock lies in the fact that Beaty’s tale is about an absent parent and not necessarily an incarcerated one. Lots of kids have one parent or another disappear on them. What Knock Knock is telling us is that even if they’re not there, you can grow up and become the man or woman you were meant to be. Now, obviously the book is primarily about incarcerated parents. The ending shows the boy, now grown into a man, hugging his father for the first time in years. Unless we’re going full on metaphorical here, that image is pretty clear. Nonetheless, I like to think that the book has a broader appeal than that. It’s not as if the word “jail” or “arrested” are ever in the text, and the images never follow the father but keep the focus squarely on the kid. As is right.

KnockKnock3 Review of the Day: Knock Knock by Daniel BeatyThe art is the real kicker, of course. Not since Uptown has Collier lavished this much time and attention on the appearance and feel of Harlem. I should know. I live in it. From the Duke Ellington statue on the corner of 5th Avenue and 110th Street to brownstones and housing projects, Collier knows of which he speaks. Then there’s how he chose to bring Beaty’s words to life. According to Collier, he took a real interest in this text when he saw Beaty perform it in a monologue. In this book he then tries to capture the spirit of the performance. For example, he explains in his Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book that the watercolor and collage art affects the boy’s surroundings. “The sky in the art is not so blue”, a fact I’d completely missed. It’s true, though. You wouldn’t necessarily notice at first, but the dulled blue contrasts sharply with the vivid aquamarine on the last page.

To my mind, the eeriest image in the book is a two-page spread that shows the boy seemingly flying on the paper airplane message he’s trying to send to his dad. As his father’s oversized hat flies from his head you see below the fading faces of other children on the tarred roofs below. Their images are sometimes clear, sometimes eerily faint, like they’re memories being erased by time. There are also a fair number of elephants. The elephants are an interesting touch. I’m not entirely certain what to make of them. They trundle along the boy’s bedroom walls, then occasionally break free and appear in his memories, walking across the brownstones, partially obscuring a man’s face hidden behind the windows.

Impressive though the art may be, there are moments in the book that seemed better than others. Faces and features vary, sometimes striking the reader as affecting while at other times they take you out of the book entirely. The aforementioned shot of the boy flying in a paper airplane while his father’s hat drifts towards the faces of other children on the roofs below is a bit unnerving if only because the roof faces are so much more affecting than the boy himself. When done straight on, as on the page that reads, “I am sorry I will not be coming home” the results are much stronger. And that’s even before you notice that the boy has draped his father’s ties around his neck (and did you notice that as a man the boy continues to wear those ties?).

Here’s what might be my favorite line in the book: “Papa, come home, ‘cause I want to be just like you, but I’m forgetting who you are.” Kids everywhere grow up without fathers and a single book isn’t going to necessarily change their lives. But maybe, just maybe, it really will touch somebody in the right way. When Bryan Collier writes in his Note that “This book is not just about loss, but about hope, making healthy choices, and not letting our past define our future,” he’s talking to kids everywhere that are dealing with a deck that’s stacked against them. They don’t get enough books, those kids, about lives like their own. Fortunately, once in a great while, a book comes along that fulfills that gaping need. This year, it’s this book. Next year? Who knows? But as long as there are children struggling along without their parents, Knock Knock is going to have a job to do.

On shelves December 17th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Interviews: Collier talks a bit about his work on this book with SLJ.  Turns out he was the one who had the idea of turning Beaty’s poem into a book!

Videos:

Want to see Beaty perform it for yourself?  Then it’s your lucky day:

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3 Comments on Review of the Day: Knock Knock by Daniel Beaty, last added: 10/10/2013
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23. Video Sunday: World premiere of The Making of “Journey”

It is my supreme pleasure and honor today to present to you a little video that you shan’t find much of anywhere else. Many of you are aware that Aaron Becker’s debut picture book Journey is getting a lot of critical acclaim and book buzz. What you may not know is that back in 2011 he contacted a friend of his to film the book’s progress. The result is today’s video. Ladies and gentlemen I give you The Making of “Journey”.

The Making of “Journey” from Aaron Becker on Vimeo.

Thanks that I cannot repay to Aaron Becker for passing this along to me.

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2 Comments on Video Sunday: World premiere of The Making of “Journey”, last added: 10/13/2013
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24. Review of the Day: Jumping Penguins by Jesse Goossens

JumpingPenguins1 217x300 Review of the Day: Jumping Penguins by Jesse GoossensJumping Penguins by Jesse Goossens
Illustrated by Marije Tolman
Lemniscaat
$19.95
ISBN: 9781935954323
Ages 6-11
On shelves now.

Here’s a puzzler for you. See what you think. There’s been a lot of talk lately about nonfiction for kids and the importance of highlighting those books that adhere strictly to the truth. That means no invented dialog in biographies and no invented facts. If you conflate facts, you start getting into a murky, sticky area. As Walter de la Mare is reported to have said (and no, I’m not blind to the irony of not knowing if he actually said it), “only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” That goes for our nonfiction too. If we can’t trust them with reality (albeit selective reality) what can we trust them with? So with all this in mind, a stanch staid steady trust in the real world at hand, what are we to make of books where the facts are all true (insofar as we know) but the illustrations are fanciful? No one is ever going to say that the Jesse Goossens book Jumping Penguins is anything but one-of-a-kind. The real question is whether or not you think its delightful flights of fancy help or hurt the material at hand.

Without so much as a howdy-do, Jumping Penguins leaps into the thick of it right from the start. Turn the page and here we have a rather delightful turtle birthday party looking at us. The turtle of the hour is wearing a party hat that reads “150” while before him (her?) other turtles pile on top of one another, Yertle-style. As your eye wanders to the text on the far right you start reading startling and interesting facts. There are 33 species of turtles. The largest weighs as much as a small car. The oldest tortoise of all time was 225 years old when it died. Flipping through the book you are struck by the variety of facts. Sometimes these can be incredibly short (including the near non sequitur “A polar bear is left-handed, as are most artists.”) while others fill out the page from top to bottom. Fun, original pictures filling near two-page spreads continue throughout the book. There’s no particular order to the animals, but by the end you feel you’ve seen a wide variety. An index appears at the end of the book.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end a book. Jumping Penguins is memorable for many things, but it’s hard not really love the fact that the very last words you will read mere moments before closing the cover are, “Panther: A black panther is not a panther at all – it is a leopard that happens to be black.” Pithy and to the point. There is, however, a downside to Goossens’ cleverness. It’s a downside that probably does not exist in The Netherlands where this book (under the title “Springende pinguins en lachende hyena’s”, in case you’re curious) was originally published. The trouble is that aside from the Index, there is no backmatter to explain where exactly Ms. Goossens is getting her facts. We’re sort of taking it on faith that if you drop alcohol on a scorpion it will go crazy and sting itself to death. This would probably pose more of a problem if I could envision any way in the world in which this book could be integrated into a school curriculum. Fact of the matter is that it’s just a really fun, and rather beautiful, collection of animal facts. No more. No less. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go spouting these off without doing the most rudimentary of checks, I think we’re okay overall.

JumpingPenguins2 300x200 Review of the Day: Jumping Penguins by Jesse GoossensNot to say there aren’t some moments of confusion. In the seahorse section I already knew that the daddy seahorse is the one who actually lugs about the baby seahorses for long periods of time in his pouch. However, since Goossens doesn’t mention that the females really do give birth to the eggs in the first place, statements like “He gets pregnant again within a few days” can prove more than a little confusing. Alternately, I rather liked the longer words and vocabulary terms that are spotted throughout the text. The casual understanding that the reader is familiar with words like “vertebrae”, “defecate”, and “nocturnal” gives the child reader the benefit of the doubt. I’m rather partial to that.

Clearly illustrator Marije Tolman is supposed to be the main draw here. How else to explain the fact that ONLY her name appears on the spine of the book (the cover doesn’t sport any words at all, so there you go there)? Certainly the art here offers a whole second way of reading the book. What Tolman has done that’s so neat is to illustrate each section with this silly, upbeat style while at the same time including lots of little elements that tie directly into the descriptive text. The Scorpion section, for example, contains about five different little drawn vignettes of various scorpions. It takes a careful reading of the text to realize what they’re getting at. The scorpion wearing three pairs of sunglasses? Well, that connects to the line “Scorpions have six eyes and some even have twelve but they cannot see well”. Slowly you can pair up each picture with the statement, but what becomes clear is that the illustrations in this book will not make any sense unless you do more than skim the pretty pics. Fortunately those same pics are also funny as well as occasionally quite beautiful (I’m personally rather fond of the Giant Octopus).

What Jumping Penguins does better than anything else is simply set up an appreciation for the natural world by way of its modest peculiarities. I mean, what exactly are we supposed to do with the information that “A giraffe has no vocal cords. It has as many vertebrae as you do”? There is no practical application for the knowledge you will find here. And that, I would argue, is actually its strength. Without relying on a specific hook (or precedent, for that matter) the combined efforts of Goossens and Tolman present you with something that looks, at first glance, like a picture book. Linger with it long and it’s rapidly clear that the overwhelming sense at the end is that the natural world is an awesome place. How many other animal fact books can say so much? Read this and you’ll find yourself amazed that you never knew half these facts. This is a book to inspire that most impossible of feelings: Wonder.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: Happy Nonfiction Monday to you!  The roundup of the day is at NC Teacher Stuff.  Head on over there to see everything that everyone is linking to today.

nonfiction monday Review of the Day: Jumping Penguins by Jesse Goossens

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25. Review of the Day: Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

HermanRosie1 263x300 Review of the Day: Herman and Rosie by Gus GordonHerman and Rosie
By Gus Gordan
Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-1596438569
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

New Yorkers are singularly single minded. It’s not enough that our city be rich, popular, and famous. We apparently are so neurotic that we need to see it EVERYWHERE. In movies, on television, and, of course, in books. Children’s books, however, get a bit of a pass in this regard. It doesn’t matter where you grow up, most kids get a bit of a thrill when they see their home city mentioned in a work of literature. Here in NYC, teachers go out of their way to find books about the city to read and study with their students. As a result of this, in my capacity as a children’s librarian I make a habit of keeping an eye peeled for any and all New York City related books for the kiddos. And as luck would have it, in the year 2013 I saw a plethora of Manhattan-based titles. Some were great. Some were jaw-droppingly awful. But one stood apart from the pack. Written by an Aussie, Herman and Rosie, author Gus Gordon has created the first picture book I’ve ever seen to successfully put its finger on the simultaneous beauty and soul-gutting loneliness of big city life. The fact that it just happens to be a fun story about an oboe-tooting croc and deer chanteuse is just icing on the cake.

Herman and Rosie are city creatures through and through. Herman is a croc with a penchant for hotdogs and yogurt and playing his oboe out the window of his 7th story home. In a nearby building, Rosie the deer likes pancakes and jazz records and singing in nightclubs, even if no one’s there to hear her. Neither one knows the other, so they continue their lonely little lives unaware of the potential soulmate nearby. One day Rosie catches a bit of Herman’s music and not long thereafter Herman manages to hear a snatch of a song sung by Rosie. They like what they hear but through a series of unfortunate events they never quite meet up. Then Herman gets fired from his job in sales and Rosie’s favorite jazz club goes belly up. Things look bad for our heroes, until a certain cheery day where it all turns around for them.

HermanRosie3 238x300 Review of the Day: Herman and Rosie by Gus GordonYou can know a city from afar but never quite replicate it in art. I do not know how many times Gus Gordon has visited NYC. I don’t know his background here or how often he’s visited over the course of his lifetime. All I know is he got Manhattan DOWN, man! Everything from the water towers and the rooftop landscapes to the very color of the subway lines is replicated in his pitch perfect illustrations. Maybe the medium has a lot to answer for. I love the map endpapers that identify not just where Herman and Rosie live, but also where you can find a great hot dog place. I like how the art is a mix of real postcards showcasing everything from Central Park (look at the Essex House!!) to the Rose Reading Room in the main branch of New York Public Library.

But the art is far more than simply a clever encapsulation of a location. It took several readings before I could see a lot of what Gordon was up to. Here’s an example: Take a look at the two-page spread where Herman is leaving his office for the last time with all his goods in a box, while on the opposite page Rosie trudges home from the closing club, her high heeled red shoes sitting forlornly in the basket of her bike. The two images take place at different times of the day, but if you look closely you’ll see that they’re the same street corner. Yet where Herman’s New York is filled with loud angry voices and sounds, Rosie’s is near silent, a black wash representing the oncoming night. Note too that while Herman’s mailbox was a mixed media photo, Rosie’s is painted in a black wash with some crayon scribbles. It’s a subtle difference, but I love how it sort of represents how objects become less real when the lights begin to dim. And the book is just FILLED with tiny, clever details. From the pictures and instructions that grace Herman’s cubicle at work to the fact that Rosie clearly washes her clothes at home (the clothesline the runs from her bike to the old-fashioned vacuum tube television was my first clue) to Herman’s bed in the living room, Gordon is constantly peppering his book with elements that give little insights into who these two characters really are.

And that right there is the the crux of the book. Time and time again Gordon returns to this idea of how lonely it can be to live in a busy place. The idea that you can be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and feel as alone as if you were on a desert island is a tricky concept to convey to small fry. Herman’s whole personality, in a way, hinges on the fact that he’s terrible at his job as a telecaller because all he wants to do is talk to people on the phone, not sell them things. He longs for connection. Rosie, meanwhile, finds a certain level of connection through her singing gig. Once that gig leaves, her feelings of extreme loneliness echo Herman’s with the loss of his job. Their sole lifelines to the outside world have been severed against their wills. If this were a book for adults we’d undoubtedly also get a couple scenes of the various failed dates they fine themselves on (well, Rosie certainly… I’m not so sure that Herman’s the serial dater type). Kids understand loneliness. They get that. They’ll get this.

HermanRosie2 Review of the Day: Herman and Rosie by Gus GordonThe book also plays on the natural inclination for a happy resolution, and the near misses when Herman almost meets Rosie and Rosie just barely misses Herman can be excruciating. You are fairly certain the two are made for one another (the natural tendencies of crocs to eat deer notwithstanding) so it can be particularly painful to see so many almost wases. This feeling is, admittedly, partly diluted by the fact that you’re not quite sure what will happen when the two DO meet. Are they going to fall in love? Well, not exactly. There may be a kind of child reader that hopes for that ending, but instead we’re given a conclusion where the two just learn to make beautiful music together, and in the course of that music happen to find financial success as well. This is New York, after all. Love’s great but a steady paycheck’s even better.

The truth of the matter is that Herman and Rosie could be set in L.A. or Minneapolis or Atlanta or even Sydney and I’d still love it as much as I do with its New York flavor, tone, and beat. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, but it’s the bones of the book that are strong. The setting is just a bonus, really. With original mixed media, a text that’s subtle and succinct, and a story that rings both true and original (for a picture book medium anyway), this is a city book, a true city book, to its core. Author Markus Zusak said the book was “Quirky, soulful and alive”. Can’t put it any better than that. What he said.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: If you want to see some alternate covers for this book, scroll to the bottom of this fun blog post.

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