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By Stacey Curnow
Illustrated by Daniel Nevins
On shelves now.
Parables. They’re almost impossible to do in children’s books. The problem with a parable is that if it wants to teach something it often has to say what it means. Another way of saying that is that parables for children are explicit. A good parable for kids can be subtle, but most don’t bother. They take their messages and whap children over the head with them repeatedly. Then kids resent the message, and nobody ends up very happy. These thoughts reside in a dark corner of my brain at all times, and when I saw the picture book Ravenna and got the gist of its story I was certain that if I read it I’d find yet another preachy little number. Yet Ravenna is a different kind of book. First off, it bases its story on my favorite King Arthur legend, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady (I’m partial to the Selina Hastings version myself). Second, the illustrations by artist Daniel Nevins set this little black and white title apart from the picture book pack. As for the writing itself, it’s not your usual fare. That’s not a bad thing. In an era of cookie-cutter wordplay it’s refreshing to read something that works as a whole and complete story while also upsetting your expectations. Doubtless there will be folks unnerved by what they find here, but for most this is just a strange, sweet story about a boy and a bear.
Galen’s your average mountain farm kid. He spends a lot of time outside, and then one day he hears that a new neighbor moved in with a bear. Intrigued, Galen pays the man a visit. While there he sees Ravenna, the bear, who is far more lovely than anything he could have imagined. It’s clear that Galen wants Ravenna for his own, but before she transfers her ownership, she tells him that he must first find out what every creature wants. After much discussion and thinking, Galen hits upon it. “All creatures want to be free!” Ravenna agrees that this is the answer and the two pass happy months together. However, it’s not long before Galen realizes that the answer to Ravenna’s question wasn’t just theoretical. And though he loves her, the boy must decide whether or not he’s prepared to do the right thing.
For some folks, there’s just no getting around the fact that this is a story about a boy in love with a bear. I’d agree, and it’s a little unusual sure, but let’s face it. If any kid was living in the wild and came across a pretty dancing bear that could also talk, don’t you think they’d want one too? There’s nothing untoward in Galen’s desire to own Ravenna. He just thinks she’s awesome and wants to be with her all the time. As for the moral of “if you love something, let it go” (those exact words aren’t used, but that’s the basic premise) it may be more pertinent to a kid than the original Sir Gawain story. In that tale, Gawain gives his wife the choice of being beautiful during the day or at night. In Ravenna a boy who owns a bear, a
Nest, Nook and Cranny
By Susan Blackaby
Illustrated by Jamie Hogan
On shelves now
I don’t know about kids in other parts of the country but in New York City kids get a particular assignment, usually around their second or third grade year. When the leaves have long since fallen but spring is still a long ways away we’ll get parents and children alike stomping into our libraries with specific requests: “I need a book on wetlands.” “Deserts”. “Arctic tundra”. “Do you have anything on woodlands?” I’m never entirely certain what to call these assignments. Searches for natural environments, perhaps? Whatever the case, our shelves begin to deplete and we search in vain for new titles to purchase for when the next round of requests pour in the following year. All this was in the back of my mind as I read Susan Blackby’s book of understated natural poems in Nest, Nook and Cranny. It’s a book that was accidentally shelved in my library system in the habitat and ecology section of my library, before someone noticed and reassigned it to the poetry section. It is indeed a series of poems, but I’m not so sure our kooky catalogers weren’t right in the first place. Teachers of the habitat assignments should consider using poems like Blackaby’s to bring to life the environments they are required to educate their students upon. With her words as an aid, kids won’t just the facts about a place. They’ll get the feel, the sounds, and the veritable smells as well. Here’s to poetry with a purpose then.
Desert, Grassland, Shoreline, Wetland, and Woodland. Meet five different habitats, home to an untold wealth of animals, bugs and variegated critters. In the “Before You Begin” section at the start, Ms. Blackaby freely acknowledges that the animals she ascribes to one environment or another sometimes mean bupkiss. “Thanks to accommodations or adaptations or both, some creatures can live anyplace.” That taken care of, she plunges into the poems. Using everything from villanelles to free verse, triolets to cinquains, Blackaby gives each habitat its own special feel. We read about a “dreamy home for beavers feeling dozy” or secluded places from “sandy strand to rocky scarp”. There are great lumbering bears emerging in the spring and coyotes that “hunt for jumpy prey” before becoming “jumpy prey” themselves. The end of the book contains a section of facts on different habitats and a Writing Poetry section that takes each poem and describes it at length.
Near the end of the book Blackaby explains that her poem about a bat is based on a Burmese poetic form called a “than-bauk”. She explains how it works and how in the third line “the second syllable rhymes with the third syllable in Line 2″. This is followed closely by a confession that “I cheated a little bit in line 3 by leaning on assonance and ignoring the word ending, which bends the rule without completely breaking it.” Blackaby’s fondness for assonance over rhyme was something I’d noticed long before I read this note of hers, but it was nice to hear her say it straight out. When I was a kid I was a very particular child with a definite sense of how poems worked. They rhymed. End of discussion. Over the years I’ve had to beat that belief out of myself, and for the most part I’ve been successful, but there are mo
By Elisha Cooper
Orchard Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
On shelves now
As a children’s librarian living in New York City, I get a really skewed view of the world. For example, a book like Christoph Niemann’s Subway will get released and all the children I see are hugely into it. For them, the subway is a part of life and that book shows them what they already know. What I have to remind myself is that Manhattan children, for all their charms, are aberrations. Lots of kids in the United States haven’t a clue what a working subway system looks or feels like. So when a book like Farm falls into my lap my brain has to do a 180 in the opposite direction. Lots of city kids have never been to a real working farm before. They understand them in the vaguest of senses. Growing up they learned that animals lived on the farm with a moo moo here and a baa baa there. Actual working farms, however, are the kinds of things you see outside your car window on your way from one part of the country to another. They are near magical places. All that land. All that sky. That’s why I’m delighted that a book like Farm even exists. It has a twofold purpose. For kids who have never experienced a farm firsthand, it provides a glimpse into a world as different and magical as any fantasy land. And for kids who already have a working knowledge of farms and the countryside, the book is a magnificent mirror that takes the practical beauty of their everyday lives and spins it into storytelling gold.
We begin in that time when spring has only started to make some headway against winter. When the days start to warm up but the fields are just a mass of brown dirt. We meet the equipment, the family, the hired hands, and the animals. We watch the tiller turn the soil, “the fields change from the color of milk chocolate to the color of dark chocolate.” We see seeds being planted, rains come, and crops grow. We meet the cats and the cows, and follow the family into town on occasion. There are summer nights and days and kids going back to school once again. To crops come in, the winter falls, and it’s all in the life of a single farm.
Kids love process. Not all kids, but a lot of them. They like to know how things are made and how things come to be. Farm, in a sense, is all about process, but it doesn’t get hung up on the concept. So you’ll learn about different kinds of farms, how tractors work, and what the various seasons resemble. But you’ll also see the downtime of the farmer and his kids. They go to town and chat with neighbors. The boy amuses himself by throwing tomatoes at birds or building forts out of straw. The girl, who is getting older, spends time reading books or staying away from home more and more often. Best of all, kids these days have a tendency to think that farming is an occupation of the past. So this book works in current technology without making it so prominent that the book will date anytime soon. A broken tractor means that a farmer has to call a neighbor on his cell to get it fixed. Much later during the harvesting “The farmer checks the corn’s yield on his computer and ta
By: Betsy Bird
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Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection
Edited by Matt Dembicki
On shelves now.
This year I helped a committee come up with the 100 best books for children. This list has been produced for a while and each year we make sure to include a folk and fairytale section. The problem? With each passing year publishers produce less and less folk and fairytales for kids. In the past this was a serious category, with a variety of different authors and illustrators all battling it out for folktale supremacy. Nowadays, you can read through a big publisher’s full catalog for the upcoming season and not find a single solitary folktale gracing their lists. It’s sad really. Maybe that’s part of the reason that Trickster, as edited by Matt Dembicki, appealed so strongly to me. This isn’t just a graphic novel and it isn’t just a pairing of smart writers and great artists. Dembicki has come up with a way of collecting a wide variety of Native American folktales into a single source, done in such a way that kids will find themselves enthralled. When was the last time a book of folktales enthralled one of your kids anyway? It’s remarkable. Not that it’s a perfect collection (there are a couple things I’d change) but generally speaking I hope Trickster acts as a sign of good things to come. I wouldn’t call it the ultimate solution to the current folktale crisis but I would call it a solution. And in this day and age of publishing, there’s something to be said for that.
Twenty-one Native American storytellers are paired with twenty-one artists. Each storyteller tells a tale about a trickster type character. Coyote, raven, rabbit, raccoon, dog, wolf, beaver, and wildcat all have their day. The sheer range of storytellers is impressive, calling upon folks from Hawaii to the Eastern shore, from Alaska to Florida. Sometimes the stories are told traditionally. Sometimes they utilize a lot of modern terms (you don’t usually run across the term “crystal cathedral thinking” in a book of folktales these days). The final result is an eclectic collection, where each story plays off of the ones paired before and after it. Though oral in nature, editor Matt Dembicki finds a way to make these tales as fresh and spontaneous on the printed page as when they were told to generations of eager listeners.
I liked the sheer array of kinds of tricksters in this book. In some cases they were villains that had to be outsmarted. Other times they were unrepentant bad boys (never bad girls, alas) who always got their way. Sometimes they were wise and powerful, and other times very small and more sprite than single entity. I also enjoyed seeing similar stories repeat in different places. For example, in three different stories a trickster pretends to be dead in order to lure its prospective meal nice and close. These include “Ho
It’s a Book
By Lane Smith
Roaring Brook Press (a division of Holtzbrinck)
On shelves now.
Where to begin? Begin at the beguine, I suppose. I’ve had It’s a Book sitting on my shelf for months and now the time is ripe. As you may have heard one place or another, it contains an off-color word at the end (“jackass”, belated spoiler alert) and it makes fun of folks who prefer online zips and whizbangs to good old-fashioned paper books. So what are we to make of it? Well, I hate to lob this designation on any author or illustrator I like, but this is so clearly a picture book for grown-ups that it squeaks. While kids today slip from electronic readers to paper books and back again like svelte otters, it is the grown-ups around them that are heard cooing and purring every time a shiny new electronic toy hits the market. For those who love the printed page, such enthusiasm can be scary. Kids don’t fear for the so-called “death of the book” but some of their caregivers certainly do, and so for them Lane Smith has penned an exchange between a pixel-happy donkey and the monkey (slash ape) who just wants to read his book in peace.
Hedging his bets right from the start, Smith begins by pulling his punch as far back as it can reasonably go. Turn to the title page and you read, “It’s a mouse. It’s a jackass. It’s a monkey.” Ignoring the fact that the monkey is actually an ape (though he may be hiding his tail beneath his, uh, muumuu?), the story begins with the donkey asking the primate what he’s got there. “It’s a book.” Not understanding the donkey tries to figure out the use of such an object. “Can it text?” “No.” “Tweet?” “No.” “Wi-Fi?” “No.” Eventually the donkey gets to see what a book really can do and when his companion asks if he can have his book back he gets a pretty straightforward, “No,” echoing his own earlier dismissals. The donkey, to his credit, offers to charge the book up when he’s done, but the mouse perched on the top of the monkey’s (slash ape’s) head clarifies everything, “You don’t have to . . .” Turn the page. “It’s a book, jackass.”
In the past, Smith was king at walking the fine line between adult humor and children’s humor. Books like The Happy Hockey Family remain spot on. Kids find them funny just on a basic humor level and adults love the sly jabs at easy reading books of yore. This balance was once a Smith trademark, but lately he’s been falling too far on the adult side of the equation. When I mention The Elephant in the Room to other children’s librarians I often meet with blank stares. Though it came out just a year before It’s a Book, this title was a pretty strange concoction. In it a donkey (a jackass?) asks another about “the elephant in the room”. His companion then launches into a series of unspoken topics that might be that elephant until, at the end, we see an actual elephant sitting in the room. After trying to figure out if there was a political point to the story (donkeys and elephants rarely co-mingle for any other reason) it occurred to me that the book made no sense. Of course the first thing a child reader is going to assume when they hear the term “elephant in the room” is that there’s an actual elephant there. Only adults would go along with the donkey’s string of inte
By: Betsy Bird
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By Leslie Connor
Katherine Tegan Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves now.
Leslie Connor forgive me; I sometimes forget how awesome you are. It’s nice to rely on an author. To know that you can trust them to write book after book that isn’t crap. That’s true on the adult side of things, but I feel it’s particularly important to remind folks of this on the children’s literary side as well. When a parent or a teacher or a librarian discovers a writer that fills a gap in their collection and fills it well, they’re allowed to go a little nuts. I went a little nuts when I realized the sheer awesomeness of Leslie Connor for the first time. I had loved her picture book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel. Sure. Of course I did. I’m human. I’d missed her YA novel Dead on Town Line (which, I’m now thinking I’d kind of like to read). But it was her middle grade book that convinced me of her brilliance. Waiting for Normal. A book that by all rights, due to its premise and its title, I should have hated on sight, and yet I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Now Connor has settled a little more thoroughly into the middle grade range and once more she tries her hand at something new. Every fiber in my being makes me want to sell this to you as a post-apocalyptic hellscape world without oil with a family tale right out of The Penderwicks. That’s not entirely accurate but if it gets you reading this book, fantastic. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.
It doesn’t get much worse than this. You see every year Dewey’s parents go on a kind of pseudo-honeymoon to New England (his dad’s a trucker) leaving their sons Dewey and Vince and Angus and Eva (the five-year-old twins), with their eldest teen daughter Lil. Only this year, there was a snag. Due to forces beyond their control, the country is out of oil. No oil. Zip, zero, zilch. And as it happens, Dewey and his family happen to run the local bike repair shop. Now that all their neighbors are bike-bound, they’re getting some serious business. Dewey is dedicated to keeping the shop going, but that’s before he discovers there’s a thief stealing from it. Who’s the culprit? Is is someone they know? Worse still, the crises doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon, mom and dad are halfway across the country, and the family is growing tense. Something, it’s clear, has gotta give.
We don’t get as many realistic worst-case scenario books for kids as you might think. Back in the 70s, when there was an actual oil shortage, you couldn’t throw a dart in a children’s library without hitting about ten different futuristic In-a-World-Without-Oil novels for kids and teens. These days, dystopias are far grander. They’re all pseudo-perfect societies or violent reality-show offspring. Books that actually de
Art & Max
By David Wiesner
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
On shelves October 4, 2010
Illustrators of children’s books are easier to deal with if you can lump them into little boxes. Multicultural family stories that tug at the heartstrings? That’s the Patricia Polacco box. Cute kids in period clothes frolicking with goats? Yup, that’s Tasha Tudor. So my problem with David Wiesner is that he throws my entire system off. Though his style is recognizable in each and every one of his books (Freefall, Sector 7, etc.) his storylines zigzag around the globe. One minute he has a book about frogs that unexpectedly take flight. The next it’s a wordless tale about a boy who finds a fantastical camera from beneath the sea. He remains an unpredictable force. You literally never know what he will do next. When Art & Max was first discussed, folks had a very difficult time figuring out what it was about. There are lizards? And painting? As always, Wiesner considers his reader first, then creates a story that will be both fun to read and visually stimulating. Consider this your Example A.
Art, a horned lizard with an artist’s temperament, is doing a bit of portraiture in his desert environment when along bounces happy-go-lucky Max. Max wants to paint just like Art, and the grumpy elder agrees grudgingly, informing the little guy, “Just don’t get in the way.” When Max asks what he should paint, Art suggests himself. Unfortunately for him, Max takes this advice a little too literally and Max finds himself covered in oils, turned into pastels, and eventually nothing more than a mere outline of his former self. By the end, however, he has come around to Max’s exuberance and the two decide to paint. Max makes a portrait. Art throws paints at a cactus.
The thing I forget about Mr. Wiesner is that he always has the child reader in mind. Sure, he may break down the fourth wall in The Three Pigs, but he’s still having fun with the kids reading the book when he does so. That said, a friend of mine suggested that Art & Max differed from The Three Pigs in this way. She was concerned that Art & Max wasn’t kid-friendly enough. She said it deals with characters coming to terms with the fact that they themselves are drawn, but not in a way that k
Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I
By Ann Bausum
Ages 10 and up.
On shelves November 9, 2010
Who could have predicted that WWI would become the hot literary topic for child readers in 2009-10? I remember when I was a kid and WWI was glossed over in the midst of my time-pressed teachers’ efforts to explain about WWII. WWII was always the war that got more attention, and for good reason. What is there to say about a war that was fought for no good reason and left a nation ripe for the rise of Hitler? Lately, though, a couple authors have found ways to present WWI for young readers in ways that not only explain the war but also delve into its deeper meanings. There was Truce by Jim Murphy, which talked about the first year of the war and how close the soldiers on the home front came to ending it on their own. Then there was The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman which may be the most thorough examination of the war as written for young readers yet. I like both of those books, but the title that has particularly captured my heart is Unraveling Freedom by Ann Bausum. Taking the war away from the reader’s focus, Bausum places her attention not on the front, but at home. Why does America fight for freedom while simultaneously denying its citizens their own freedom at home? This is more than just a single war Bausum is talking about. When examined under the right circumstances, WWI is just a standard operating plan for a lot of wars fought before the 20th century, and a lot of wars since.
Thousands of Germans lived in America on the eve of WWI. Then the hysteria began. It is easy to forget that even as the United States fought abroad for freedom, back at home many of its citizens were oppressed for their beliefs, customs, language, and heritage. Mobs created to “root out spies and enemies” ended with 70 dead and lynched Americans (and not a single one a true spy). Businesses died, the German language was no longer taught, and lives were destroyed. Ann Bausum chronicles with amazing clarity what happens to a country when freedoms are allowed to disappear in the name of war. The parallels between WWI and what’s happening today are unavoidable, and teach a definite lesson about what we should remember when we find ourselves fighting. Backmatter includes a Guide to Wartime Presidents, a Timeline, a Bibliography, and a Resource Guide.
As I mentioned earlier, WWI got kind of glossed over when I was in elementary/middle/high school. As such, I was a bit sketchy on the whole Lusitania business. Even after reading the aforementioned Truce I was still unclear. I knew it was a big boat and it was blown up by Germany but did anyone actually die? Did Germany mean to blow it up or was it an accident? Bausum rightly gives over a full chapter to the Lusitania disaster. And though she mentions 9/11 in passing, the parallels between Lusitania’s sinking and the destruction of the World Trade Towers is remarkable, both in terms of life lost and how small elements contributed to a gigantic disaster. Kids are often so wrapped up in how the Titanic sank that they might never know how much worse, in some ways, the Lusitania’s sinking was. As a result
By Erica S. Perl
Illustrated by Julia Denos
Abrams Books for Young Readers
On shelves now.
Seems to me that picture books get split into very particular genres pretty quickly. I actually keep lists of them on my computer at work, depending on how many requests I receive. There are the Bully picture books. The Dinosaur picture books. The People in Our Community picture books. And then there are two genres that sometimes get split up and sometimes merge together. These would be the Invisible Friend picture books and the Starting School picture books. Now you’ll see a fair amount of bringing your blankie to school picture books out there (Owen being the best example). And you’ll see more than a few anxiety-ridden titles. Imaginary friends at school books are rarer, though you do see them occasionally (the Kevin Henkes title Jessica comes immediately to mind). Now with Dotty we’ve a title that takes two different ideas, combines them, and comes up with a way of showing that putting away childish things is a selective process.
On the first day of school Ida takes care to bring with her a new lunchbox, a pair of striped leggings, and her imaginary friend Dotty. Dotty resembles nothing so much as a benign combination of cow and toadstool. At school, Ida discovers that many of her classmates have similar companions. There are Max’s twin sea serpents, Benny’s razor-toothed R.O.U.S., and Katya’s doodle-brought-to-life Keekoo. As the school year progresses, however, Ida discovers that more and more of her schoolmates have stopped bringing their friends to class. By the time spring comes around Ida is on the receiving end of the now worldly Katya’s teasing and she reacts angrily. The two girls write “apology” notes, and then Ida has a discussion with her teacher Ms. Raymond. After promising that she’ll explain to Dotty that pushing people is inappropriate, Ida spots a red leash belonging to her teacher, not dissimilar at all from Dotty’s leash. It may well be that special friends are the kinds you keep with you always.
Essentially, in this book you’re looking at the changes a kid goes through in the course of a single year of school. With that in mind, Perl’s choices are pretty interesting. For example, Ida’s friend Katya begins the book with a tiny imaginary friend that swings on her braids. Later she gets a haircut and keeps the creature in her pocket secretly. That haircut sort of marks a rite of passage for Katya. The growing out of imaginary friends is shown in different ways. I would have liked some clarification on what grade Ida was in, of course. This seems to be her first day of school ever, which would mean that this is Kindergarten. Still, these kids look older than Kindergarteners, and the pseudo-apologetic notes written near the end are more 1st or 2nd grade material.
2 Comments on Review of the Day: Dotty by Erica S. Perl, last added: 10/9/2010
By Truus Matti
Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier
On shelves now.
Translated children’s novels have a tough row to hoe. In my experience as a children’s librarian I’ll often find that folks react to them in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they like them, but often they’ll dislike the books and then fail to express what it is about the book they don’t like. Often it all breaks down into feelings. I’ve had people tell me that they found The Swan’s Child by Sjoerd Kuyper “special”, though they couldn’t pinpoint why. Others have said that The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties by Toon Tellegen just wasn’t their cup of tea. I find this reaction to translated works frustrating but there’s little that I can do about it. I mean, you can’t contest a reader’s gut reaction, right? So it is with the deepest pleasure that I discovered Departure Time by Truus Matti. Part mystery, part fantasy, part philosophy (I keep comparing it in my head to Sophie’s World, but in a good way), I guarantee that once you start reading you may never feel inclined to stop. This is a book for the smart kids.
Two girls. The same girls? Impossible to say. When the book opens there are two competing narratives, and which one should you trust? Story #1 is about a nameless girl. She can remember nothing of her past and has no idea why she is struggling through a desert with only a bag full of music books by her side. Soon she finds a dilapidated hotel in the distance and upon entering is met by a gray fox and a large white rat. The two seem to mistake her for someone else at first, but as time goes on she earns their trust and their help in solving who she is and who the mysterious denizen of the hotel’s top floor might be. Story #2 weaves around Story #1 and is seemingly straightforward. Mouse’s father has died and in the depths of her grief and guilt, she remembers the events that led to his dying and the fateful letter that she is certain contributed to his demise. As readers parse the two stories they notice similarities between the two. Is Mouse the girl in Story #1? Who is the mysterious music player? The answers will honestly surprise you.
This is going to make me sound a bit off my nut, but you know what this book reminded me the most of? When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. There’s no good reason for this. Stead’s novel was a science fiction/historical fiction bit of realism, with a dash of the unexpected on the side. Departure Time in contrast appears to be realistic fantasy, or fantastical realism. Magical realism, let’s say. Just the same, there are similarities to be found between both books. In When You Reach Me the main character is speaking to us from the future about mysteri
Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders
By Michael Townsend
Dial (a Division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
On shelves now.
It’s been an uncommonly good year for graphic novel Greek myths, don’t you think? From George O’Connor’s amazing new series (starting with Zeus: King of the Gods) to two different takes on the Odyssey by Gareth Hinds and Tim Mucci, I suppose we have Percy Jackson to thank for this bountiful harvest of Greek God magnificence. Of course, all the books I’ve just mentioned are best suited for older readers. Let us not forget that there are nine-year-olds out there who’d like some mythmaking as well. Preferably in color. Preferably with a bit of humor stuck in for spice. If you were to plan the perfect kid-friendly version of these myths, I’ll be frank with you, you wouldn’t dream up Michael Townsend’s Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders. Not because it isn’t good, of course, but because unless your brain has warped in all the right places NOBODY would be able to dream up a book like this one. Townsend taps into his love of pure animal extravaganza, producing a book so madcap, wild, uninhibited, and inspired that it’ll either burst the blood vessels in both your eyes upon contact with its content or you’ll find yourself so sucked in that only a steady diet of Pixie Stix and Yo Gabba Gabba will produce the same thrill. The back of the book reads, “WARNING: These aren’t your parents’ Greek Myths!” Actually they are. But when it comes to the presentation they are 100% kid.
There are several different ways to go about presenting a book of myths. You could be chronological or choose stories that have something in common. Townsend selects nine tales of his own and if there’s any connection between them, maybe it’s how much comic gold each one can potentially yield. So it is that we read about Pandora and her descent into box-related madness, Arachne and her big head, and a Pyramus and Thisbe that rivals A Midsummer Night’s Dream in hilarity. Side characters like a smelly donkey, doomed bunnies, and some stupid sheep add a little spice on the side. Townsend always remains essentially true to the original tales, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have a little fun along the way.
You don’t tend to expect to learn something new from a graphic novel, and I certainly expected to already know all the myths included in this book. ESPECIALLY the story of King Midas. What’s not to know? Midas is greedy, a god grants him the gift of turning stuff into gold, he can’t eat, his daughter gets transformed, end of story. I guess I somehow missed the entire Silenus element. Silenus, in
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors
By Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Beckie Prange
On shelves now.
I believe that there are different muses of children’s literature. You have you Beautiful Spine muses, your Great Editor muses, your Awe-Inspiring Marketing muses, and your Copyediting Magnificence muses. Each one of these references those elements of the production of a book that authors and illustrators cannot wholly control. In terms of picture books, however, the greatest muse of all these, the big mama muse on high, would have to be the Serendipity Muse. This is the muse that pairs great authors with great illustrators to produce books of unparalleled beauty. And as I see it, poet Joyce Sidman and artist Beckie Prange must have independent alters dedicated to this muse tucked in a back corner of their gardening sheds or something. How else to explain their slam bang pairing? Besides a clever editor, of course. I mean first we saw them working together on Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, which immediately went on to win a highly coveted Caldecott Honor. Now this year we get to see their newest collaboration Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Much like Water Boatman this new pairing combines factual information with poems and pictures, but its focus is entirely different. And, of course, it’s an equal pleasure to both ears and eyes. The muse knows her stuff.
“Ubiquitous (yoo-bik-wi-tuhs): Something that is (or seems to be) everywhere at the same time.” Imagine having to select those denizens of earth that at one time or another were or are ubiquitous. The species that have managed to stay in existence long after most have gone extinct. It can’t be easy but poet Joyce Sidman has her ways. In a series of fourteen poems she examines everything from the earliest bacteria on the globe to the very dandelions beneath our feet. Each subject gets a poem about its life and existence, and then Ms. Sidman provides accompanying non-fiction information about the subject. So in the case of coyotes, the poem “Come with Us!” is told in the voice of the coyotes themselves, urging others to “Come drink in the hot odors, / come parry and mark and pounce.” On the opposite page we then learn the Latin term for coyotes, how long they’ve been on this earth, their size, and any other pertinent information about them. Beckie Prange’s linocuts and hand-colored watercolors perfectly offset both the grandeur and the humor of Sidman’s work. A Glossary of terms can be found in the back.
Sidman’s poems could easily have all been the same format. They could have all had the same ABAB or AABB structure. Instead, they mix things up a bit. Here we can see concrete poems and poems that follow ABAB with AABB. And some, like the squirrel poem “Tail Tale” (which is my favorite in the book) don’t even rhyme. This constant change keeps r
By Tammi Sauer
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
Simon & Schuster (A Paula Wiseman book)
On shelves now.
After a certain point the sheer number of princess and fairy books a children’s librarian has to handle begins to feel oppressive. The crushing weight of all that pink and all that glitter and all those bows . . . you begin to feel great waves of pity for those little girls who AREN’T into all those things. The kinds of little girls you might find in books like Miss Brooks Loves Books (And I Don’t). Where are the books for the little girl monsters of the world? Enter Mostly Monsterly a book that contains no princesses. No fairies. No glitter or bows or pink (excepting the occasional pig-tailed monster). That said, I’d bet your bottom dollar that you could hand this book to a princess-obsessed little girl OR a little boy who obsesses over single subject picture books, and still manage to capture their attention and win their hearts. It’s cute, this book, but never makes even the slightest attempts to cloy.
Look, no one’s saying that Bernadette is not a monster. She looks the part (two toes, creepy necklace, etc.) and does the requisite amount of lurching, growling, and mayhem. However, Bernadette harbors what you might call a “deep… dark… secret.” She has a penchant for sweetness. Whether it’s petting kittens or baking muffins, she is only “mostly” monsterly. So when Bernadette starts school with the other monsters you might think she’d try to reign in her cutesy qualities. Not so much. Her classmates, in fact, are horrified as one when they see her attempt a group hug or croon into a microphone. Her cupcakes don’t go over any better, and Bernadette comes to realize that though she is only mostly monsterly, sometimes you have to meet others halfway. So she’ll make everyone in the class cards… but they’ll be gross. And she’ll get a group hug…. Underneath a monster pile-on. Sometimes she’s monsterly and sometimes she’s sweet and both are perfectly a-okay when doled out carefully.
Some folks see this as a parable about learning to be true to yourself, and I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. I’m more interested in the fact that this story is about how Bernadette doesn’t continue to pig-headedly act against the will of the crowd, but rather she realizes that compromise is key. She could have just decided all other monsters were wrong and that she was right and continued to bake cupcakes with sprinkles. Instead, she finds a kind of middle ground with the other monsters. That monsterish instincts do not
Sugar and Ice
By Kate Messner
Walker & Company (a division of Bloomsbury)
On shelves December 9th
They say to write what you know. We’ve all heard that line. It’s bounced about countless writing groups. But there’s an unspoken rule amongst children that’s as pervasive as it is harmful: Read what you know. If you’re a soccer fan, only read soccer books. If you like ballet, get a whole bunch of ballet books. Librarians, teachers, and parents can spend countless hours fighting against the sometimes innate understanding some children have acquired that dictates that they can’t read about anything outside of the realm of their own (limited) experience. This might be understandable if you were dealing with a writer that played by his or her own rules and failed to let child readers in on the fun, but it’s absolutely ridiculous when you’re dealing with a book like Kate Messner’s Sugar and Ice. Authors that commit to creating worlds that are outside the experience of your average everyday kid and yet are accessible enough for ALL children to enjoy are rare, but they’re out there. Sugar and Ice is out there. And you don’t have to be a fan of ice skating, Fibonacci, beekeeping, or sugar tapping to enjoy it (though it probably wouldn’t hurt if you were).
For Claire Boucher life is pretty simple. Practice skating on the local cow pond. Help out at the small ice skating rink when possible. And for fun, do a segment during the local competition’s Maple Festival. All that changes when Claire’s routine for fun catches the eye of big-time muckety muck trainer Andrei Groshev. Groshev has a deal for Claire. He’s offering her a scholarship to train with other students like herself for huge ice skating competitions. In return, Claire will have to sacrifice the life she’s always known. Not a natural competitor, Claire accepts then almost immediately wonders what she’s gotten herself into. Most of the kids are nice, but some are jealous of her talent. She hardly has time to do schoolwork as well as training, and worst of all someone is sabotaging her equipment and confidence. In the end, Claire needs to determine if she’s got what it takes to be a serious contender, or if she’s just gonna go back to her cow pond and forget any of this ever happened.
Let’s go back to what I was saying earlier about authors who commit to distinct, one-of-a-kind worlds. In the case of this particular book, Ms. Messner has brought the world of competitive ice skating to real and vibrant life. I think a lot of kids have shared in the experience of watching ice skaters during the Olympics leap, and often fall, in their attempts to nab the gold. There’s a very real drama there. But even if you’re dealing with a child who has only the haziest understand of ice skating, Claire’s life is going to ring true for them. That’s because Ms. Messner commits to the bit. She’s going to use emotional situations that everyone can relate to and then work in real facts about skating in the gaps. The result is that even though I don’t know a triple lutz from a double axel, I can follow this story. The result is that the reader gets the same experience they would have if they read something like Jane Smiley’s The Georges and the Jewels about horse training. You don’t have to know, or even be interested in, the material
A Tale Dark and Grimm
By Adam Gidwitz
Dutton (a division of Penguin)
On shelves November 11, 2010
Didn’t want to read this. Nope. Not a jot. Three reasons for that. First off, the title. I’ve said it about twenty times since reading it and every time I can’t quite get it right (derivations have included “Something Dark and Grimm”, “A Grimm Tale”, and “Something Grimm”). Second, the jacket of the hardcover edition of this book isn’t particularly new. Silhouettes against a blue background. Ho hum. Third, I couldn’t believe that I was dealing with yet ANOTHER middle grade novel adapting fairy tales in new ways. After a while the The Sisters Grimm / The Grimm Legacy titles out there begin to meld together. From The Goose Girl to Into the Wild to Sisters Red I sometimes feel as if I am a little tired of fairy tales. I guess it takes a book like A Tale Dark and Grimm to wake me out of this funk. To my surprise, Gidwitz’s debut is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. I’ve never seen a book meld the snarky narrator of something like a Lemony Snicket title so seamlessly with the original tone and telling of the original Grimm fairy tales. And not the sweet tales either. This is a book that isn’t afraid to get to the root of a good story. The fact that it unearths some of the more frightening ones along the way just happens to be a bonus.
We all know some of the better known Grimm fairy tales out there like “Rapunzel” or “Cinderella”. Heck, we probably even know some of their original story elements (chopping of heels and toes, getting blinded by thorns, etc.). The Grimm tales were just that. Grim. Now imagine finding yourself living them. Prince Hansel and Princess Gretel are born in one lesser known Grimm fairy tales, “Faithful Johannes” and when they discover that their mom and dad are potentially unhinged they set off to make their way in the world and find some decent parents. In doing so they wander through a series of little known tales like “The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs” and “The Seven Ravens”. Unfortunately, while doing so they have a tendency to lose digits, lose their humanity, lose their lives (almost), and find that sometimes the fastest way to end your travels to go back to where you started.
There are times in a children’s librarian’s life when it is very useful to own the third edition of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm as translated by Jack Zipes (who, by the way, blurbed this book). You just never know when you might need such a book. In this particular case I
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
By Barry Deutsch
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
On shelves November 1, 2010
“Yet another troll-fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl,” says the byline. Well seriously. How was I supposed to pass that up? I’d grabbed a copy of Hereville at an American Library Association conference along with a whole host of other books. I don’t think I even gave it half a glance at the time. Just nabbed, stuffed, and scooted. It was only back in the comfort of my hotel room as I repacked my bags that the byline got my attention. I sat down for a quick look. Twenty minutes later I was still reading, with no intention at all of repacking anything until I was done. In my experience, fantasy novels for children do not like to involve religion in any way, shape, or form. And children’s graphic novels? Puh-leeze. You’re as likely to find a copy of Babymouse wax rhapsodic on the topic of organized religion as you are a copy of Harry Potter. So to read Barry Deutsch’s book is to experience a mild marvel. There is religion, fantasy, knitting, some of the best art I’ve seen since The Secret Science Alliance, and a story that actually makes you sit up and feel something. This is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before, and I think it’s truly remarkable. Without a doubt, this is the best graphic novel of 2010 for kids. Bar none.
Mirka has a dream, but it’s not the kind of thing that gets a lot of support. More than anything else in the entire world she wants to fight dragons. The problem? She’s eleven, a girl, and she lives in the Jewish Orthodox town of Hereville. Still, Mirka gets a bit closer to her dream when she incurs the wrath of a witch’s pig, then does it a good deed, thereby indebting its witch to her. As it turns out, the witch tells Mirka that there is a good sword in the neighborhood, but the only way to get it is to defeat a troll. And when push comes to shove, Mirka’s going to have to use all her smarts and cunning to defeat an enemy that prizes one of the arts she loathes the most.
Think about children’s fantasy novels and religion for a moment. Religion in fantasies for kids tends to skew one of three ways. You can incorporate it and make it the entire point of the novel (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series which is technically science fiction anyway). You can make up an entirely new religion of your own (as in the novels of Frances Hardinge,
3 Comments on Review of the Day – Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, last added: 8/17/2010