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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: 2012 reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Review of the Day: Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human by Lynn Messina

HenrySmartHuman Review of the Day: Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human by Lynn MessinaHenry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human
By Lynn Messina
Tater Tot Books
$7.99
ISBN: 978-0984901845
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Every year I swear to myself that I’ll review at least one self-published book written for kids. And every year I manage to do it, but only after sifting through countless manuscripts. The process is as close as I ever come to living the swanky life of an unpaid publishing company intern. Your slush piles ain’t got nothin’ on my slush piles. Why do I do it? Because every once in a great while I hit gold. Pure, uncut, rarified gold, my friend. I find a book that really is remarkable. Really is worth reading. Finding a picture book that falls into that category is hard enough. Chapter books for middle grade readers can be even trickier. The last time it happened was back in 2008 when I reviewed B.B. Wurge’s Billy and the Birdfrogs. Now at the tail end of 2012 I find the remarkable, hilarious, exciting, and downright diamond-in-the-rough worthy Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human. A smart little novel with a catchy hook I’ve not seen in a book for kids before, hand this one to the next kid who comes you whining that their teacher told them to read something “science fiction”. They’ll moan no more, guaranteed.

They say the 13th upgrade is the hardest. Insufficient comfort for a robot like Henry, though. Because of a bug in his system Henry just can’t keep up with the other kids in his class. Things seem pretty gloomy until good news arrives. Henry’s dad has just received a fantastic new appliance. It’s the HueManTech ETC-420- GX-2, a top of the line human meant to do menial tasks around the home. Trouble is, the human’s good. Too good. And the more time Henry spends with it, the more he comes to suspect that this human might be so smart it could be used as a weapon by the government itself. What’s a kid to do when his best friend’s an appliance? Save the day, of course.

The basic premise that robots are the productive members of society and humans merely their appliances is a joke that by all rights should get old fast. What’s remarkable is that not only does Messina pull it off, she turns it into world building. Slowly you begin to envision the fields where wild consoles are harvested and turned into video games. Where prisons are kept at ridiculously high temperatures to keep rogue robots in check. Where fire isn’t a concern but water can be death itself. To make the idea of robots human and humans robots, Messina had to be extraordinarily clear from page one onward about where Henry lived and what his world was like. At the same time, she sets him in a space that’s familiar to many a kid reader. What child can’t relate to being called on in class and unable to conjure up the correct answer at a moment’s notice? That’s the sly trick of the novel. It couches the strange in the familiar and ends up the stronger for it.

If the child reader is anything like myself then they’ll begin the book by trying to figure out if this is an entirely alternate reality, or if it’s some kind of post-apocalyptic world where robots have taken over and humanity has long since been forgotten. I kept wavering between the two possibilities for the better part of the book. This feeling was fed into by little hints Messina posed from time to time. For example, at one point E asks Henry where original ideas come from if robots are programmed to replicate only the same ideas over and over again. Henry finds this to be an impossible paradox, suggesting perhaps that robots aren’t the be all and end all. Later it becomes clear that there may be a conspiracy surrounding the creation of humans in the first place. I won’t ruin for you whether one theory or another was correct. Regardless, it satisfies sufficiently.

There are some distinct horrorific elements to the tale, but they’re told as matter-of-factly as if this were everyday fare. Humans that fail in their programming are sent to be compacted, easy peasy. It sort of has a slow creeping horror when you hear that. And really it isn’t until E is on the precipice of his own compaction that it’s drilled home to the reader. I had visions of the song “Worthless” from The Brave Little Toaster as all this happened. Or maybe Soylent Green. The funny thing is that though Messina ratchets up the tension, you don’t get a clear sense of the bloody process involved. And that is a-okay with me.

Alas, due to the number of times the book repeats the human’s official name of HueManTech ETC-420- GX-2, I’m afraid this won’t exactly be a readaloud, unless the reader is willing to shorten the little human’s name “E” or “ETC” for the bulk of the book. Aside from that it’s a pretty compact, smart bit of a novel. The kind of book that’ll make kids question the ease with which they treat their own iPads, iPods, and other handy dandy devices like things without feelings. A great discussion topic would be a thought about a next generation tablet so smart it has opinions of its own. Hey, man. Stranger things could happen. Just read this book if you don’t believe me.

On shelves now.

Source: Copy sent from author for review.

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4 Comments on Review of the Day: Henry and the Incredibly Incorrigible, Inconveniently Intelligent Smart Human by Lynn Messina, last added: 1/9/2013
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2. Review of the Day: Pickle by Kim Baker

Pickle1 199x300 Review of the Day: Pickle by Kim BakerPickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School
By Kim Baker
Illustrated by Tim Probert
Roaring Brook Press (a division of Macmillan)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-1-59643-765-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

When I was in college I took a course in journalism to fulfill an English credit. I had no real desire to report the news in any way, shape, or form so when the time came to write an article for the paper I had to find something that would be in my wheelhouse. Ultimately I decided to write a piece on the history of pranks at my alma mater. It was a fun piece to write and instilled in me not a love of reporting but rather a love of pranking and all it entails. A good prank, a true prank, does no harm aside from a minor inconvenience for the poor schmuck who has to clean it up. It does not destroy school property, causing only joy for those innocents who witness it. And pranks, the really good ones, are almost impossible to think up. Now it’s hard enough to think up a prank for a liberal arts college in eastern Indiana. Imagine how much more difficult it is to think up a whole roster of pranks for a fictional elementary school. That is the task Kim Baker gave herself and the end result is a book that I simply cannot keep on my library shelves. Kids eat this book up with a spoon.

What would you do if you found out your favorite pizza joint was getting rid of all the balls in their ball pit for free? If you’re Ben Diaz, the answer is simple. You make several trips with the balls to your elementary school, dump the lot in your classroom window, and then sit back and enjoy the show. It’s an auspicious beginning for an up-and-coming prankster, and once Ben gets a taste of the havoc (and admiration) his act garners, there’s no stopping him. Next thing you know he’s started a prank club with school funds. Okay… technically the school thinks that he’s started a pickle club, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right? Trouble is, once you’ve started something as silly as a prank club, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed a line and gone a little too far.

Pickle2 274x300 Review of the Day: Pickle by Kim BakerThere’s been a lot of talk in the press and the general public about the fact that when it comes to Latino characters in children’s books you may as well be asking for the moon. They exist, but are so few and far between when compared to other ethnicities that one has a hard time figuring out who precisely is to blame. Pickle, I am pleased to report, stars a Hispanic kid who is featured on the cover front and center, no hiding his race or getting all namby pamby on who he is. And let me tell you now that the only thing rarer than a children’s book starring a Latino boy is finding a children’s book starring a Latino boy that’s hilarious and fun. The kind of book a kid would pick up willingly on their own in the first place. It’s like a little diamond on your bookshelf. A rara avis.

Now the key to any realistic school story, no matter how wacky, is likable characters. Not everyone in this book is someone you’d like to hang out with (personally I wouldn’t cry a tear if Bean took a long walk off a short pier) but for the most part you’re fond of these kids. Ben himself is a pretty swell guy. I don’t think anyone’s going to accuse Baker of failing to write a believable boy voice. Best of all, he’s a can do kind of kid. He takes charge. His solution to the pickle problem is well nigh short of inspired, and a nice example of a protagonist using their special skills to problem solve. And though the true antagonist of the book is the principal, it’s clear that his best friend Hector is a likable but lowly worm that serves as the emotional antagonist to our hero. You can’t help but like the fact that Hector is such a stoolie/squealer that he will not only confess crimes he and Ben have committed but crimes they NOT committed as well. There is no better way to get a reader on your side than to tap into their sense of injustice and unfairness. It is a pity that the only girls in the group are the only people incapable of really good pranks. Or, rather, one is incapable of coming up with a good prank and the other is perfectly good but goes rogue with it.

Pickle3 287x300 Review of the Day: Pickle by Kim BakerBaker distinguishes nicely between pranks that merely annoy and pranks that upset and destroy. Undoubtedly there will be adults out there that worry that by reading this book kids are going to immediately go out and start putting soap in their own school’s fountains/drinking fountains/what have you. Aside from the fact that most of the pranks in this book would be difficult to pull off (unless your kids have access to abandoned ball pits, I think you’re pretty safe) the book distinguishes nicely between those pranks that do good and those that do harm. I’m sure there are adults who believe that there is no “good” prank in the world. Those are the folks who should probably steer clear of this one.

Pranking requires a certain set of requisite skills. You need to be smart enough to figure out what the pranks should be and how to make them work. You need to have the guts to pull them off, regardless of the consequences. And you need to know when you’ve gone two far. Include only the first two requirements and leave off the third and you’ve got yourself one heckuva fun book like Pickle. Celebrating the kind of anarchy only pranking can truly inspire, this is one of those books for kids that are truly FOR kids. Gatekeepers need not apply. Show one to a kiddo and watch the fun begin.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from author for review.

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  • The faux pickle related website that “Ben” created is pretty fun.  Hard not to love a site that promotes popsicles made out of pickle juice.  Mmm mmm!
  • Read an excerpt of the first chapter here.

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One hot and piping book trailer, just ready for you!

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3. Review of the Day: The Chicken Problem by Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson

The Chicken Problem
By Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson
Random House
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-86989-1
Ages 3-7
On shelves now.

I was once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn when I passed a very small child wearing a porkpie hat running as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. Behind him his father yelled out (to little avail), “Pontius! Pontius, slow down!” I mention this because there is a particular Brooklyn aesthetic to a picture book like The Chicken Problem. Consider, if you will, its heroine Peg. Here she is sporting a mighty trendy little outfit replete with striped tights and buckled red boots. Even her name, Peg, suggests that she was named after Peggy Lee or someone of equal caliber. Notice too that she’s playing a ukulele on the endpapers and that pretty much clinches it. Peg is trendy. Too trendy for your preschooler? Not in the least. Peg may be a specific type of heroine peculiar to a single geographical location but with her urbane Cat and her trouble with high-spirited chicks this is one of those memorable heroines and one-on-one readalouds that add a little bit of math to a little bit of story alongside a whole lot of fine and beautiful art to bring us one fine fine book.

It’s a bright and beautiful day when young Peg and her cat Cat go to the farm to have a perfect picnic with a pig. Peg is one of those girls who like everything to be just so, and when she discovers that she accidentally cut an extra slice of pie she feels it’s a dire problem. Cat solves the imbalance by removing a very small chick from a nearby coop and surely that would be the end of that . . . if he’d managed to remember to close the coop door. Suddenly one hundred chickens are free and roaming the farm. It’s up to Peg, Cat, and maybe that pig they picked up, to figure out a way to cajole these freedom loving fowl into returning from whence they came. When that mission is finally accomplished that leaves one final matter: Time for pie!

I’ve read the occasional professional review that snarked about the svelte story found here, but to be honest I was rather charmed by it. It’s not the most dire straits that Peg and Cat must escape but in the simplest sense it’s a story with a mistake, a solution, and a conclusion that feels satisfying. The language itself repeats in good ways and sounds pleasant on the tongue (“The pie was fresh and juicy and gooey”) while the plot appeals to the pint-sized obsessive compulsives out there that insist that everything be exactly right.

The art is particularly charming, though I found I couldn’t figure out the medium. If I was going to harbor a guess I’d say that it was digital art doing a stand-up and cheer imitation of mixed media. I might have figured it to be done by hand, were it not for the fact that on more than one occasion a chicken will repeat in a large crowd scene. No matter, since it’s the charm of the characters that ultimately pull this puppy through. Peg, noseless though she may be, is a likeable soul. Cat, a feline I initially considered lacking in smiles, turns out to have quite a bit of nuance to his rotund eggplant-like little body. The pig is always referred to as “a pig”, as if he were just some barnyard stray the duo stumbled over on their travels. He seems so content wherever he is, legs neatly crossed beneath him, that you suspect he’d follow Peg and Cat to the ends of the earth if they asked. As for the chickens themselves, they’re beautifully expressionless and yet you spend a lot of your time just trying to keep up with their antics.

Speaking of endpapers, I’ve seen inside jokes in my day. I’ve seen clever details and little pokes of fun. What I have never seen are endpapers that are SO o’erfilled with details and ideas that you could spend the better part of twenty minutes parsing them. It is important to know that the front endpapers are incredibly different from the back endpapers. I mention this in part because I know that libraries have a tendency to glue their bookflaps to their books’ front and back covers and the result is going to cover up quite a bit of content. At the front of the book you can find six scenes drawn from Peg and Cat’s adventures. Sometimes they might be rowing George Washington over the Delaware while other times they’re jamming with a band of bears. Quick flip to the back of the book and you’ve the strangest collection of one hundred chickens you ever did see. An explanation is provided in the special thanks section. It says, “And, for posing so patiently for the pictures, the one hundred chickens,” and then names each and every last one of them. It took a while for me to realize that the names correspond with the pictures on the opposite page. I had already looked at the pictures of the chicks before and noticed odd details about them (like the fact that one of them resembled President Obama on his HOPE poster) but didn’t realize that each one had a name (“Barawk Obama”). Look closely enough and you’ll find references to Lady Gaga, Mahatma Gandhi, Rumpelstiltskin, St. John, George Bernard Shaw, and many others. My personal favorite was the preppy turtleneck donning Cluck C. Cluck III. Even without reading his name I knew he was a 1% chicken, if you know what I mean.

As the bookflaps explain, Peg and Cat are well on their way to becoming a television series on PBS that teaches preschoolers math someday. And while that might account for some of the adventures on the endpapers, the story stands perfectly well on its own. I don’t need to see Peg on my TiVo to know she’s a special kind of kid. Whether or not the show occurs, I do hope that we’ll see more of Peg and her erstwhile purple companion on good old-fashioned paper and board in the future. I suspect folks will end up picking up the book more for the art and story than the math, and that’s okay. Fun pretty much sums it up.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Interview: Nerdy Book Club

Video:

There was a cute little book trailer, of course:

And though its website is gone, you get a pretty clear sense of Peg, Cat and their world here.

I am now entertaining the ridiculous hope that when the show premiers they make Peg-with-ukelele YouTube videos like the millions already out there.  Just Peg, a ukelele, a blank wall, and one of her songs.  I mean, might as well at this point, right?

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4. Review of the Day: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Splendors and Glooms
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick Press
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5380-4
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

Do you remember that moment in the film version of The Princess Bride where the grandfather is trying to convince his stubborn grandson that the book he’s about to read is fantastic? He lures the kid in by saying the book contains, “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” If I had a kid standing in front me right now looking at Splendors and Glooms with equal suspicion I would probably tell them that the book has a witch, an evil puppet master, transformations, a magical amulet, small dogs, orphans, lots of blood, and Yorkshire pudding. And just as the grandfather’s description fails to do The Princess Bride justice, so too does this description just wan and pale in the presence of Laura Amy Schlitz’s latest. This is a book infused with such a heady atmosphere that from page one on you are so thoroughly sucked into the story that the only way to get out is through.

The witch is dying. The girl is lonely. The children are hungry. Four people unconnected until the puppet master Grisini brings them, in a sense, together. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are orphans who have lived with the man for years, doing his puppet work with him, received almost nothing in return. When they perform for Clara Wintermute, a rich little girl who requests a performance for her birthday, they are unprepared when the next day policeman come around asking questions. Clara has disappeared and Grisini is under suspicion. When Grisini himself disappears, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall find something that makes Clara’s fate seem out of the ordinary. All the more so when they are summoned by a witch to a beautiful distant estate and everyone, even Grisini, is reunited once more for a final showdown.

As odd as it is to say, what this book reminded me of more than anything else was A.S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects. To be fair, I felt that way about Ms. Schlitz’s previous novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair too. Though written for adults, Byatt’s novel consists of two short stories, one of which concerns séances and a woman with multiple dead children in her past. Thoughts of that woman came to me as I read more about Clara’s story. At first glance a spoiled little rich girl, Clara is cursed in a sense to be the one child that survived a cholera epidemic that wiped out her siblings when she was quite young. Forced to honor them at her birthday (not to mention other times of the year) she is understandably less than in love with their figurative ghosts. Like Byatt, Schlitz taps so successfully into a time period’s mores that even as you wonder at their strangeness you understand their meaning. You may not agree with them, but you understand.

Where A Drowned Maiden’s Hair was a self-described melodrama, Splendors and Glooms is Victorian Gothic. It brings to mind the dirty streets of London and books by authors like Joan Aiken. In Lizzie Rose and Parsefall’s world you can get dirty just by walking through the yellow fog. Never mind what you encounter on the street. The first three chapters of the book are split between three different characters and you go down the class ladder, from upper-upperclass to kids who feed only when they can get away with it. It’s a distinctive period and Schlitz is a master and plunging you directly into that world. I am also happy to report that her ear for language is as pitch perfect as ever. She’s the only author for kids that I know of that can get away with sentences like, “Lizzie Rose corrected him, aspirating the h.”

At the same time no one acts the way you would expect them to. You walk into the novel thinking that orphans Lizzie Rose and Parsefall will be perfect little pseudo-siblings to one another and you’re repeatedly surprised when Parsefall rejects any and all affection from his devoted (if not doting) friend. In fact he’s a fascinating character in and of himself (and at times I almost had the sense that he knew himself to BE a character). He has only one love, one devotion, one obsession in this world and it’s difficult for anything else to make a dent in it. Likewise, when Lizzie Rose interacts with the witch you expect the standard tale where she melts the old woman’s heart against her will. Schlitz doesn’t go in for the expected, though. You will find no schmaltz within these pages. Though the characters’ expectations may line up with the readers’, beware of falling too in love with what somebody on the page wants. You might find your own heart breaking.

Even as a child I had a strange habit of falling in love with storytime’s villains. Captain Hook most notably, but others followed suit. That was part of what was so interesting about the villain Grisini in this book. By all logic I should have developed a crush on him of some sort. Yet Schlitz manages to make him wholly reprehensible and just kind of nasty to boot. He actually doesn’t appear in all that many pages of the book. When he does you are baffled by him. He’s not like a usual villain. He’s almost impotent, though his shadow is long. He also suffers more physically than any other bad guy I’ve encountered in a book for kids. If you’ve ever worried that a no goodnik wasn’t paying sufficiently for their crimes you shall have no such similar objections to Splendors and Glooms. The wages of sin are death and perhaps a bit of bloodletting as well.

I admit (and I’m ashamed to say so now) that when I first read this book I thought to myself, “Well that was delightful but I’m sure I’ll have a hard time persuading other folks to like it as much as I do.” Chalk that one up to my own snotty little assumptions. I’m sure the underlying thought was that I was clearly the right kind of reader and therefore my superior intellect was the whole reason I liked what I had read. Fortunately I was to find that I was nothing more than a snobby snob when it became clear that not only did other librarians love it (librarians who would normally eschew most forms of fantasy if they could possibly help it), kids were enjoying it too! As of this review there are twelve holds on my library’s print copies of Splendors and Glooms and six holds on our two ebook editions! So much for lowered expectations. It is exceedingly rare to find an author who hits it out of the park, so to speak, every single time she writes. Ms. Schlitz has written six published works for children and not one has been anything but remarkable. As adept at fairy stories as fairytales, at straight biographies or melodramatic ghost stories, at long last we see what she can do with a Dickensian setting. Result: She does wonders. Wonders and splendors with just a hint of gloom. The sole downside is sitting and waiting for her next book. If it’s half as good as this one, it’ll be worth the wait.

On shelves now.

Source: Finished copy sent from publisher for review.

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First Sentence: “The witch burned.”

Notes on the Cover: Hands down brilliant.  Bagram Ibatoulline (the artist behind it) spends so much time being sweet and meaningful that it’s almost a relief to watch him doing something adequately creepy.  Be sure to spot that wonderful skeleton marionette on the back cover.  Worth discovering, certainly.

I was also unaware of the British change to both the cover and the book’s very title:

Other Blog Reviews:

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  • Read a sample chapter here.
  • What are it’s Newbery chances? Heavy Medals has an opinion on the matter.

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5. Review: The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

HerosGuide hc c 210x300 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyThe Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom
By Christopher Healy
Walden Pond Press (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-211743-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Since when did fairytales become the realm of the girly? I blame Disney. Back in the days of Grimm your average everyday fairytale might contain princesses and pretty gowns and all that jazz, but it was also just as likely to offer its own fair share of dragons and murderers and goblins as well. Once the Disney company realized that princesses were magnificent moneymakers, gone was the gore and the elements that might make those stories appealing to the boy set. If you actually sat down and watched the films you’d see plenty of princes fighting beasts (or fighting beast princes) but the very idea of “Sleeping Beauty” or “Snow White” or any of those films has taken on a semi-sweet and sickly vibe. By the same token, it’s hard to find fractured fairytale children’s novels that can be loved just as much by boys as by girls. The great equalizer of all things is, to my mind, humor. Make something funny and gender is rendered irrelevant. There are certainly a fair number of funny fairytale-type stories out there, but to my mind none are quite so delightful and hilarious as Christopher Healy’s newest series. Starting with The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (and followed by The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle), Healy takes that most maligned of all fairytale characters and finally gives “him” a voice. You heard right. Prince Charming is finally getting his due.

Meet Princes Liam, Frederic, Duncan, and Gustav. If their names don’t ring a bell with you, don’t be too surprised. Known better by their pseudonym “Prince Charming” the princes are a bit peeved at the lousy P.R. their adventures have garnered. The bards have found that their stories tell better when the girls get all the credit (and actual names) and it isn’t just the princes that are peeved. A local witch is more than a little upset, and that anger may have something to do with the slow disappearance of the bards themselves. Now it’s up to our four heroes, brought together through the strangest of circumstances, to band together to defeat an evil witch, strike down a giant or two, outwit bandits, and generally find a way to make their faults into strengths.

HeroGuide2 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyI take a gander at debut author Christopher Healy’s credentials and I am oddly pleased. A reviewer of children’s books and media he has written for Cookie, iVillage, Parenting, Time Out New York Kids, and Real Simple Family. In short, he’s from the parenting sphere. Clearly he’s taken what he’s learned and applied it here because it’s his wordplay that stands out. For example, he might list the jobs Cinderella has to perform as using “every waking hour performing onerous tasks, like scrubbing grout or chipping congealed mayonnaise from between fork tines.” By the same token, the sneaky sidenote is a delicate beast. It requires of the author a bit of finesse. Go too far as a writer for children and you end up amusing only the adults who happen to pick up your book. With this in mind, Healy is a sneaky sidenote master. He’ll give away a detail about the future and then say, “Oops, sorry about that. I probably should have said, `Spoiler alert’.” That’s 21st century foreshadowing for you. Or he might sneak in a Groucho Marx reference like “Captain Spaulding” once in a while, but it works within the context of the story (and amuses reviewers like myself in the meantime). Or he’ll mention that part of the witch’s plan is shooting bears at people out of cannons. It’s hard not appreciate a mind that comes up with that kind of thing.

HeroGuide3 300x249 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyIn his New York Times review of the book Adam Gopnik took issue with the sheer enjoyment one can have with the book, going so far as to say, “Each page offers something to laugh at, but it can be an effort to turn each page.” His objections were steeped in the world building happening here, unfavorably comparing it to The Princess Bride (an unfair comparison if ever there was one) and even shooting quite low when he dared to invoke the name of the Shrek films. Oog. The fact of the matter is that if you’re looking for deep insightful probes into the human psyche, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a perfectly fun story that meanders a bit but always stays on its feet, here’s your book. The princes are broad portraits, stereotypes that break out of their chosen roles, if reluctantly. They are also fellows you would follow from book to book to book. They have on-page chemistry (my wordier version of on-screen chemistry). You believe in these guys and you want them to succeed and not get beaten up too badly. It’s a fun and funny book and though it won’t win huge children’s literature awards it will be adored by its readership and discussed at length on the playgrounds of this good great nation. And that is just fine and dandy with me.

HeroGuide4 262x300 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher HealyConsidering how many contemporary updates to fairytales there are in pop culture right now (Once Upon a Time, Grimm, Snow White & The Huntsman, etc.) it’s strange to me that I can’t think of a book to quite compare with this one. A book that takes standard fairytales and familiar characters, renders them unfamiliar but human, and then loads the storyline up with bucketfuls of humor. I mean, books like A Tale Dark and Grimm and In a Glass Grimmly are newfound looks at old standards but they haven’t the light bouncy breezy quality of Healy’s work. These are fairytales for folks who love Disney, hate Disney, love fractured fairytales, love the original fairytales, and/or just like a good story in general. It’s perfect bedtime fare and ideal for those kids who want something amusing to read on their own. You know when a kid walks up to you and says they want a “funny” book? This is for them as well. Basically it’s for everyone, fantasy fans and fantasy haters alike. If ever you feel sick of the sheer seriousness of some fantasies (*cough* Eragon *cough*), this is a book for you too. Put it on your To Read list and pronto.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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First Sentence: “Prince Charming is afraid of old ladies. Didn’t know that, did you?”

Book Jacket Nattering: Love it. It’s nice when a cover artist makes it clear that they actually read the book. And Todd Harris must have read this puppy several times because not only are his cover illustrations dead on, the interior ones are great as well. Mind you, I have had a lot of kids complain to me about the fact that though the four princes do appear on both the front and back covers of this book, if you look just at the front cover only two of them made the cut with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella thrown on there as well. This problem has been fortunately remedied with the sequel where you will find all four of our heroes front and center. Here’s the full front and back of the first book’s cover:

HeroGuide5 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Oh.  And love that British cover, I do.  Just not as much.

HeroGuide6 Review: The Heros Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Misc:

  • The official website is here.

Video:

  • A book trailer!  Huzzah!

  • And here’s an interview with the author, who is rather charming himself.  Clearly he writes what he knows.

  • And a Vlog Review.  Awwwww.

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6. Review of the Day: It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle

ItsATiger1 300x285 Review of the Day: Its a Tiger! by David LaRochelleIt’s a Tiger!
By David LaRochelle
Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
Chronicle Books
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8118-6925-6
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

There is an art to reading a picture book but I’ve not encountered many schools that actually teach that skill. Librarians will learn it in their graduate courses, of course, but what about parents and booksellers? Are they doomed to stumble through their readings without getting some of the insider tips and tricks? Yup, pretty much. The only thing you can really do is just recommend to them picture books that make reading aloud one-on-one or to large groups a painless experience. Books that have an inherent interior rhythm and logic that kids will naturally adhere to. So each and every year I sit and wait for those great picture book readalouds of the year. For 2012 I’ve seen a couple that lend themselves to groups. Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long is ideal for preschoolers. Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds is perfect for the 1st and 2nd graders. But the all-around best readaloud of the year, bar none as far as I can tell, has got to be It’s a Tiger! A boon to librarians and booksellers looking for new storytime fare as well as parents and grandparents, David LaRochelle’s latest is a hoot, a holler, and could even be called a hootenanny if you’re so inclined to call it that.

So you’re walking through the forest, minding your own business, checking out monkeys when you realize that the orange and black tail over there isn’t a vine at all. It’s a TIGER!! Like a shot you (which is to say, the boy in the book) take off lickety split. Still, it doesn’t matter where you go. Whatever you do, that darned tiger seems to follow. Dark caves, ships at sea, desert islands, the tiger is everywhere! At the end you realize that the tiger doesn’t really want to eat you. So to put it to sleep you decide to tell it a story. A story about a boy walking through the forest until he sees a green scaly vine. Wait a minute . . . that’s not a vine . . . .

ItsATiger2 300x144 Review of the Day: Its a Tiger! by David LaRochelleIt took a couple readings before I realized something essential about this particular book. Turns out, this is one of the rare picture books written in the second person. You do this. You do that. The reader actually is the little boy who finds himself inexplicably running into the same orange and black foe over and over again. It’s a narrative technique that I just know that I’ve seen in picture books before, but when I try to think of them I find myself stumped. They’re not as common as you might think and I certainly can’t come up with any that are also great read alouds for large groups. By making the audience the narrator they get all the requisite chills and thrills without actually feeling like they’re in direct danger. It would be a good companion to Michael Rosen’s We’re Going On A Bear Hunt honestly. Same threat level. Same you-are-there aspects.

I think what I like best about the book is the fact that it goes from surprising to funny in fairly short order. The first three or four times you turn the page and encounter a tiger the kids are still uncertain about the order of occurrences. Once the pattern is firmly established, that’s when they can kind of let go and enjoy. Then LaRochelle ratchets up the silly factor and the kids really begin to have fun. We don’t always remember that children have a relatively refined sense of the absurd. They’re literalists, every last one, and though they might point out the flaws in your logic as you read the book (how can you swing and land on the tiger when you just escaped the tiger?) there’s a different kind of fun to be had in telling grown-ups they can’t possibly be right about something. It’s a Tiger! combines several different kinds of reading pleasures then. Interactive (kids can yell “It’s a tiger!” along with the reader). Power plays (telling adults they must be mistaken). The element of surprise. The controlled fear factor. It’s all there. And it’s awesome.

ItsATiger3 344x500 Review of the Day: Its a Tiger! by David LaRochelleIt is difficult for me to be impartial about a book that features the art of Jeremy Tankard. A couple years ago he burst onto the picture book scene with three books that changed the way I do preschool storytimes (Grumpy Bird, Me Hungry!, and Boo Hoo Bird). Even when he’s working on other people’s books, as in the case here, he has a distinctive style that can’t be beat. In this book he utilizes his usual ink and digital media style, but the colors are extraordinary. They just pop off the page with these magnificent blues, greens, oranges, yellows, and reds. It was interesting to note that the pages themselves have a sheen and gleam I’ve not noticed in a picture book before. Hold them up to the light and watch as the thick black lines and colors seem as though they should be transparent, if that makes any sense. That visual pop means that when you reach the every-other-page “surprise” of the tiger, Tankard can really make the animal’s appearance seem surprising. He uses some anime-type lines around the tiger from time to time to direct the eye to the center of the page, which as of this review still has a new and contemporary feel to it. We’ve seen it in books by folks like Dan Santat for years, of course. My suspicion is that though it will certainly make the book feel like an early-21st creation, that doesn’t mean it’ll age poorly. It’s simply a work of its time now.

Long story short, we haven’t seen a boy/tiger relationship this complex since the days of Calvin and Hobbes. Tigers are such cute and cuddly carnivores, and honestly it’s very difficult to be perfectly afraid of something as soft and fluffy as a tiger. That sort of makes them ideal picture book threats. LaRochelle has written innovative picture books for years now (The End, etc.). Pairing him with Tankard just guarantees a hit. Put this one on your Must Have list and stat.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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  • A behind the scenes glimpse at the making of the book.

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A handy dandy book trailer, here for the viewing.

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7. Review of the Day: Zombie Makers by Rebecca L. Johnson

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead
By Rebecca L. Johnson
Millbrook Press (an imprint of Lerner)
$30.60
ISBN: 978-0761386339
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now

There’s this podcast I like to listen to called RadioLab, which is essentially just a show for people who like kooky science but are still a little foggy on what exactly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity actually means or why the sun is hot. Science for the English majors, let’s call it. Often the show will come up with really original stories, like the guy who purposefully gave himself tapeworms to cure his asthma (it worked). That story came from a show about parasites and it was accompanied by these strange unnerving stories about insects and viruses and worms that could turn their hosts into . . . well . . . zombies, basically. And though I am a children’s librarian, the thought never occurred to me that these stories could, combined with others of the same ilk, create the world’s most awesome work of nonfiction. Fortunately for all of us, Rebecca L. Johnson has not my shortsightedness. In Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead you will meet a whole range of horrifying creatures. It is, without a doubt, probably the grossest book for kids I’ve ever read. And boy howdy let me tell you I have read a LOT Of gross books in my day.

What do you think of when you think of zombies? Do you think of lurching undead ready to feast on your braaaaaains? Or do you think of something a little more insidious like the REASON those zombies don’t seem to have a lot of will of their own? As it happens, zombies are real. Not in the corpse-walker sense, necessarily, but in nature there are plenty of creatures willing to make others into their mindless slaves. Meet the hairworm Paragordius Triscuspidatus, which can convince a perfectly healthy cricket to drown itself. Or Toxoplasma Gondii which, aside from being the reason you’re not supposed to let pregnant women near cat poop, turns rats into suicidal kitty lovers. Page by page author Rebecca Johnson presents us with examples of evolution gone amuck. Zombie makers exist, it’s true, and as their hosts we’d better learn as much as we can about them before they get to us next!

Zombies actually get a lot of play in children’s literature these days. Insofar as I can tell there are two ways to play them. They can’t be romantic like vampires or other members of the monster family so they must either be funny or horrifying. Funny is the route that I’d say 85% of kids’ books about zombies go. Whether you’re talking about Zombiekins or The Zombie Chasers or Undead Ed or any of the other books out there, funny is usually the way to go. I say that, but a lot of what kids want when they enter a library is to be scared. And if you can scare them with real stuff, and maybe even gross them out a little, you are gold, my friend. That’s why this book works as well as it does.

Johnson cleverly sets up the book so that readers can compare and contrast what they know about zombies, zombie talking points let’s say, with these zombie-esque diseases, parasites, and insects. I’d never really thought about Old Yeller as a zombie story, but that’s what it is, isn’t it? A beloved member of the family is bitten by something evil and suddenly the boy who loves it most must put it down before something worse happens. That’s a zombie plot, but it’s Johnson who makes you realize that rabies is just another form of zombie fun. By couching her nonfiction tale within popular zombie fiction tropes, she has an easy in with the child readership.

The writing is superb in and of itself, no doubt, but I wonder if interest in this book would be quite so high if it were not for the accompanying disquieting photographs. The book as an object is beautifully designed from start to finish, which only helps to highlight the photographs found inside.  What I really liked about the photos was that they had two different ways of freaking the average reader out. On the one hand you have the photos that go for the immediate ARGGGG! reaction. I am thinking specifically of the worm. The worm that infects human beings. That makes them want to plunge themselves into the water where it breaks out of the skin and leaves the body. Alien much? The image of someone slowly and painfully removing the worm without water is enough to make you lose your lunch. But even better are the photos that elicit a slow dawning sense of horror. The fungus O. unilateralis is a clever beastie, and its greatest trick is in forcing ants to clamp onto leafs and die (but only where the temperature is just right). There’s a shot of a dead ant with a long horrible reproductive stalk emerging out of its head, spreading its spores to other innocent ants. It’s a quiet photo and lacks the urgency and pain of the leg worm shot, but it’s worse somehow. It has this brooding malice to it. You actually do not want to touch the page in the book for fear of somehow touching the fungus. That’s how effective it is.

Children’s librarians often try to lure kids into reading nonfiction by doing what we call booktalks. If you’re a good booktalker you can get your audience to fight over even the dullest looking book. Some books, however, sell themselves. Hold up this book and there’s not a child alive who won’t be instantly fascinated. Describe even one of the stories inside and you might have at last found the book they want even more than the latest edition of Guinness World Records. Informative even as it makes you want to go hide in a clean, sanitized hole somewhere, Johnson has created a clever little book that is bound to keep adult and child readers who find it, enthralled. Ick. Bleach. Awesome.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley borrowed from fellow librarian for review.

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  • Scary by Joaquin Ramon Herrera

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8. Review of the Day: Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds

Creepy Carrots!
By Aaron Reynolds
Illustrated by Peter Brown
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-4424-0297-3
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

A children’s librarian is half media specialist, half psychic. It isn’t enough to have to know the books in your collection. You have to know what that pint-sized patron standing before you REALLY wants when they say they want “a scary book”. For a while there I had this very persistent three-year-old who would beg me for scary fare and wait as I dutifully pulled picture book after picture book for him. After a while I’d begin to wonder what would happen if I actually gave him what he said he wanted. What if I’d handed him Alan Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)? Would it have scarred him for life? Fortunately the shelves of your average children’s room abound with titles that are “scary” enough for a small fry. The trick is to find something that manages to balance the funny and the frightening in equal measures, never overplaying its hand. Had Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds been available when I met that kid, it would have been the first thing I’d have pulled from the shelf. With pitch perfect illustration by the increasingly talented Peter Brown, this beautifully shaded creation is a great example of how to get the tone of a picture book exactly right. Strange and wonderful and weird in all the right places.

Jasper Rabbit. You average everyday hare. Jasper has a penchant for carrots. Stands to reason. He’s a rabbit. Every day he plucks them from the Crackenhopper Field. Never has a care in the world either. But one day Jasper has a suspicion. Carrots in his tummy he understands, but carrots in his bathtub? In his bedroom? In the tool shed? Seems that Jasper is being stalked by vegetation. Without realizing it, Jasper Rabbit is crossed out of his everyday existence and into . . . the carrot zone.

Before we get into anything else, let’s talk text. As difficult as it may be, I tried reading this book without paying attention to the accompanying illustrations (no small feat) to get a sense of what author Aaron Reynolds is doing here. What I discovered when I went through it on a word alone basis was that Reynolds has penned a really good readaloud. There’s a great inherent drama to lines like, “Jasper was about to help himself to a victory snack.. when he heard it. The soft… sinister.. tunktunktunk of carrots creeping. He turned… but there was nothing there.” This passage is just begging to be read aloud with Vincent Price-esque cadences. The inherent ridiculousness of creeping carrots being scary is paired with the rather effective “tunktunktunk” sound. It reminded me of the sound of the dead son in that old short story The Monkey’s Paw. It speaks of unnatural slowness, always creepy to kids who move at lightning speeds themselves. Reading this book you hit that dichotomy of potentially frightening and potentially funny over and over until, at last, you reach the end. The book’s finale is one of those twist endings that some kids will get while others just enjoy the visuals. I love a picture book with a good twist, and so do child audiences. Particularly when they don’t see where the story is going.

It’s interesting that though Reynolds has specialized in child lit noir for years (his Joey Fly Private Eye comic books practically typify the genre) there’s nothing ostensibly noir-ish about the text for Creepy Carrots! Just the same, Peter Brown saw something atmospheric there to be plundered. The decision was the right one and Brown cleverly culled from not a single noir source but from many. There are hints of Hitchcock, Wells, Twilight Zone, and other influences (Vertigo being the most direct reference of them all). The result is a picture of psychosis running rampant. Kids are naturally afraid that there might be monsters under their beds, so they understand paranoia. Only a few books think to take advantage of that fact. Meet one of the few.

Atmospheric black and white, when done right, yields picture book gold. Think about the Caldecott Honor winner The Spider and the Fly as illustrated in a 1920s movie house style by Tony DiTerlizzi. Brown’s work isn’t wholly black and white, of course. He allows himself a single color: orange. This is a deep dark orange though. One that goes rather well with the man’s copious shading. Previous Brown books like The Curious Garden had fun with the borders, filling them with creeping smog around the edges. In Creepy Carrots! the borders now teem with encroaching darkness. Each picture is enclosed in a black border that seeps a foglike substance into the images. It’s like watching a television show or a movie where you know something’s gonna get the hero sometime. You just don’t know when.

Fair play to Brown with his carrots too. As you can see from the cover alone, he takes care to make them funny and scary all at once. They have a random smattering of gappy teeth like jack-o-lanterns, crossed eyes, and a variety of tops. They’re like The Three Stooges in vegetable form, only more intimidating. Brown also makes the rather interesting decision to give much of this book a cutout feel. His style consists of drawing in pencil on paper and then digitally composing and coloring his images. The result is that he can give his scenes some real depth. That first shot of Jasper sitting merrily amongst the carrots really makes it look as if he’s cut out from the scene, nearer the audience, much like the tufts of the trees behind him. And finally there’s Jasper himself. You’d think the book would just feature the regular emotions like happy and frightened, but Brown does a lot more than that. The scene where Jasper laughs at himself for being so ridiculous to think that the carrots were following him is a triumph of mixed emotions. Worried eyes, smiling mouth, uncertain eyebrows, and hubris-filled ears. Beautiful stuff.

Though it has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween, thanks to its black, white, and orange palette (to say nothing of its subject matter) expect to see this book read aloud in many a Halloween storytime for years and years to come. There are worse fates. I would simply remind everybody that scary books aren’t seasonal. That kid who requested them of me asked me for them month after month, never tiring of what I put before him. Kids love to be scared within the safety of their parents’ arms. Happy endings and gorgeous art are just a nice plus at that point. More fun than it deserves to be and thrilling to the core, expect to be asked to read this one over and over again and to willingly acquiesce so that you can pick out more details on a second, third, fortieth reading. A masterpiece of the scary/funny balance.

On shelves now.

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Other Blog Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Videos:

Don’t believe me when I say Peter Brown was influenced by certain noirish folks?  Then get it straight from the horse’s mouth:

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9. Review of the Day – All the Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket

All the Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”
By Lemony Snicket
Illustrated by Seth
Little, Brown and Company
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-316-12308-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves October 24th

Last year I was running a bookgroup for kids, ages 9-12, when the subject of children’s books adapted into films came up. We talked about the relative success of Harry Potter, the bewildering movie that was City of Ember, and the gorgeous credit sequence for A Series of Unfortunate Events. Then one of the younger members, probably around ten years of age, turned to me and asked in all seriousness, “Do you think they’ll ever make a movie out of The Spiderwick Chronicles?” I was momentarily floored. It’s not often that kids will remind me that their memories of pop culture are limited to their own experiences, but once in a while it happens. This girl couldn’t remember back five years to that very film adaptation. And why should she? She was five then! So when I see a new Lemony Snicket series acting as a kind of companion to the aforementioned A Series of Unfortunate Events I wonder how it will play out. The original series was popular around the time of that Spiderwick movie. Does that mean that the new series will founder, or will it be so successful that it brings renewed interest to the previous, still in print and relatively popular, books? Personally, I haven’t a clue. All I know is that the latest Lemony Snicket series All the Wrong Questions is a work of clever references, skintight writing, and a deep sense of melancholy that mimics nothing else out there on the market for kids today. That’s a good thing.

To be a success in Snicket’s line of work it’s important to know how to ask the right questions. And this is a problem since Snicket finds it difficult doing precisely that. He was supposed to meet his contact in the city. Instead, he finds himself whisked away to the country to a dying town called Stain’d-by-the-Sea. Once a bustling harbor, the town’s water was removed leaving behind a creepy seaweed forest and an ink business that won’t be around much longer. With his incompetent mentor S. Theodora Markson he’s there to solve the mystery of a stolen statue. Never mind that the statue wasn’t stolen, its owners don’t care who has it, and their client isn’t even a real person. When Snicket finds a girl looking for her father and learns the name of the insidious Hangfire things start to get interesting, not to mention dangerous. Can multiple mysteries be solved even if you keep following the wrong paths? Snicket’s about to find out.

What is more dangerous: Evil or stupidity? It’s a trick question since there’s nothing “or” about it. If there’s one lesson to be gleaned from the Snicket universe, it is that while evil is undesirable, stupidity is downright damaging. Many is the Series of Unfortunate Events book that would show clear as crystal that while stupid and ignorant people may not necessarily be evil in and of themselves, they do more to aid in evil than any routine bad guy ever could hope for. In All the Wrong Questions the adults in charge are still inane, but at least the kids have a bit of autonomy from them. Our hero, the young Snicket, is still omnipotent to a certain degree, and only cares to share personal information with the reader when the plot requires that he do so. And because the book is a mystery, he’s almost required to move about at will. He just happens to be moving between stupid people much of the time.

Of course the trouble with having Lemony himself as your protagonist is that the guy is infamous for never giving you good news. If adult Snicket is the kind of guy who warns off readers (in a voice that I’ve always connected to Ben Stein) because of his own sad worldview, reading this series means that we are going to see failure at work. We saw failure at work with the Baudelaires but with them it was always the fault of the universe using them as punching bags more than their own inadequacies. That means that the author’s trick with this book is to keep it from disintegrating into depression even as its hero ultimately screws up (yet seems to be doing the right thing the whole time). How do you pull this dichotomy off? Humor. Thank god for humor. Because like other post-modern children’s mysteries (Mac Barnett’s The Brixton Brothers, most notably) being funny is the key to simultaneously referencing old mystery tropes while commenting on them.

I always had a certain amount of difficulty figuring out how exactly to describe A Series of Unfortunate Events. The term “Gothic” just didn’t quite cut it. PoMo Gothic, maybe. Or Meta-Gothic. Dunno. The All the Wrong Questions series makes it much easier on me. This book is noir. Noiry noir. Noiry noirish noirable noir. As if to confirm this the author drops in names like Dashiell and Mitchum, which like all of Snicket’s jokes will fly over the heads of all the child readers and 82.5% of the adult readers as well (I kept a tally for a while of the references I knew that I myself was not getting, then just sort of stopped after a while). There are dames, or at least the 12-year-old equivalent of dames. There are Girl Fridays. There are mistaken identities and creepy abandoned buildings. There are also butlers who do things, but that’s more of a drawing room murder mystery genre trope, so we’re going to disregard it here.

Let us talk Seth. The man comes to fill the shoes left by Brett Helquist. He’s a clever choice since there is nothing even slightly Helquistian to this comic legend. This is, to the best of my knowledge Seth’s first work for children, though there may well be some obscure Canadian work of juvenilia in his past that I’ve missed. His work on the cover is remarkable in and of itself, but in the book he works primarily in chapter headings and the occasional full-page layout. The author must have relayed to Mr. Seth what images to do sometimes because there is a picture at the beginning and a picture at the end that continue the story above and beyond the written portions. As for the spreads inside, Seth does an admirable job of ever concealing young Snicket’s face. He also lends a funny lightness to the proceedings, not something I would have expected walking into the novel.

There is a passage in the book where Snicket reflects on his life that just kills me. It comes a quarter of the way through the novel and is the clearest indication to the reader that the action in this novel happened a long time ago. It goes on for a while until finally ending with, “Stretched out in front of me was my time as an adult, and then a skeleton, and then nothing except perhaps a few books on a few shelves.” Put another way, this isn’t your average mystery novel for kids. It’s not even your average Lemony Snicket novel. It is what it is, the first part in a new series containing a familiar character that need not be previously known to readers. I have no idea if kids will gravitate towards it, but if you’ve a hankering to recommend a beautifully written if uncommon mystery to kids that ask for that sort of thing (and they do, man, they do) hand this over. Worse case scenario, they don’t like it. Best case scenario it blows their little minds. Blew mine anyway. Good stuff.

On shelves October 24th

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Notes on the Cover: Recall if you will Mr. Snicket’s The Beatrice Letters. Was a book, or whatever the heck that was, ever more frustrating and enjoyable all at once? If there are any similarities to that cluster of documents and this book it lies in Seth’s art. I dare say the pictures you’ll see on this jacket may show scenes we are never privy to in the book itself. Note the shadow of the screaming woman. We know what that picture leads to, but we never see it in the book itself. Note now the spine. There’s a gorgeous little call number there that will undoubtedly get covered up by real call numbers in libraries throughout this great nation (oh, irony). For the record it reads, “LS ATWQ ?1” which makes sense when you think about it. But the thing that really made me give a deep sigh of contentment was under the jacket entirely. Look at the actual cover of the book here. Look at the spine and the cover. If I were to take this book and shelve it without its jacket next to my Nero Wolfe titles, and it would fit in like a dream.

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Misc: Not to disparage the fine work of the Australian and New Zealand publishers of this book, but when you’ve hit gold why keep digging? Put another way, when handed the world’s most beautiful book jacket, why replace it with this?

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10. Review of the Day: National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry, edited by J. Patrick Lewis

National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar!
Edited by J. Patrick Lewis
National Geographic
$24.95
ISBN: 978-1-4263-1009-6
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

Animals make for good poetry. That’s just common sense. When humans get misty eyed and start thinking their great grand thoughts, they tend to be inspired by some form of nature. Naturally, some animals in particular are replete with awe-inspiring tendencies. Bald eagles, say. So where does that put your average hamster or flamingo? Not all animals are built to accompany great grand thoughts after all. Some of them are best suited to small, sly, clever verses instead. Taken as a whole, there are probably more animal poems in the world than a person could imagine. That’s why it’s rather clever of J. Patrick Lewis to pair with National Geographic’s talented photography department to bring us a gorgeously designed book of animal poems. You name the animal, the man has found (or perhaps solicited?) a poem to fit. Containing everything from limericks to haiku, this collection of two hundred poems and who knows how many photos is a visual feast for eye and ear alike.

“If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear the chicken hatching,” reads the first poem in this book. It’s “The Egg” by Jack Prelutsky and it starts off National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry’s “Welcome to the World” section. Split into eight different sections, the book categorizes its contents not by genus or species but by only the grandest of terms. There are “the big ones”, “the little ones”, “the winged ones”, “the water ones”, “the strange ones”, “the noisy ones”, and “the quiet ones”. Each poem is accompanied by a photograph, and sometimes the photograph is accompanied by more than one poem. There are verses poignant and funny, thought provoking and wild. Finally, at the end of the book, there is a section on “writing poems about animals” that aids kids by giving them a range of different forms to try. This is followed by a two-page spread of resources and four indexes at the end, one by title, one by poet, one by first line, and one by subject.

What is unclear to me is the ratio of poems Lewis knew about and found verses the poems he went out and asked for. I noticed quite a few contemporary children’s poets between these pages. Janet S. Wong, Jane Yolen, Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Michael J. Rosen, Bobbi Katz, Betsy Franco, etc. And I could not help but notice that those contemporary poets tended to write for some of the more difficult animals. The anemone, the blue jay, or the raccoon, for example. Here’s another question for you: Which came first, the photograph or the poem? Did Mr. Lewis plow through untold hundreds of National Geographic photos, old and new, cull the best and then find the poems, or did he find the poems first and then match the photos to fit? Certainly some of the National Geographic’s better known images are in this book (the picture of the flamingoes standing in the shape of a flamingo, for example). Sadly no note exists in this book telling us what Mr. Lewis’s process was.

There is a form to the chapters of this book but not so much form within the chapters. You might wonder at this at first, but since it’s easy enough to locate your favorite critter by using the subject index at the end of the book, it’s understandable why you might want to take the advice Mr. J. Patrick Lewis proffers at the beginning of the collection and know that “This book is not for reading straight through.” You dip in and find old favorites and new with ease. One librarian commented to me her surprise that the tiger poem in this book wasn’t William Blake’s “The Tyger”. True enough, but the anonymous poem with its classic limerick about the lady from Niger is rather well known within its own right. I was also amused in a very fifth grade boy kind of way by Michael J. Rosen’s blue-footed booby poem. You’ll have to see it for yourself to understand why.

There are a couple times when the poem paired to the photo is a bit misleading or confusing. For example, for the picture of a butterfly still within its chrysalis, the poem is instead about a cocoon. I suppose cocoons are significantly less impressive photography-wise than chrysalises, but I’ve little doubt that kids will find the terms interchangeable now. Similarly there’s a poem about a sea horse that is inexplicably paired with an impressive but very different image of a weedy sea dragon. Credit where credit is due, each photograph is accompanied by a very small written description of its subject matter, but nine times out of ten the child reader will be relying on the poem to explain what they’re seeing. Probably because nine times out of ten that would be the right move.

I can only imagine the sheer amounts of blood, sweat and tears that went into the collection and design of the book itself. It has its little quirks here and there, but if you’re seeking a poetry book for kids that children would willingly pick up and flip through, even if they have hitherto professed to not like poetry in the slightest, this is your best bet. A gorgeous little number that has the occasional slip-up, it is nonetheless a magnificent collection and book that is well worth the space it takes up. Add a little natural wonder to your poetry shelves. Because if we’re talking about the best possible compliment to your eyes and ears alike, few have as many perks and grand moments as this.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Videos:

Be sure to watch J. Patrick Lewis reading the poem “Make the Earth Your Companion here:

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11. Review of the Day: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets
By William Alexander
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-442434523
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

I think it is time to declare the birth of the clockwork children’s novel. If you have been watching the literary trends over the last decade or so, you will note that amongst adults there has been a real rise in interest in a form of pop culture labeled “Steampunk”. The general understanding is that as the 21st century grows increasingly reliant on electronics, there is a newfound interest in books/movies/video games/costumes (etc.) that incorporate steam, gears, and other accoutrements of the visual mechanical past. This is, I should note, almost exclusively an adult fascination. I have never encountered a single child who walked up to a reference desk and asked, “Do you have any more Steampunk?” That said, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work as a genre. The trouble comes when an author tries to shoehorn a Steampunk story into a fantasy mold. The best writers know that if you’re going to incorporate odd mechanical details, the best thing to do is to set up your own odd mechanical internal logic. I think that’s probably what I like best about William Alexander’s “Goblin Secrets”. It’s not the first story I’ve read about a boy joining a troupe of traveling performers. And it’s not the first middle grade Steampunk adventure I’ve come across. Yet there’s something definitely one-of-a-kind going on in this book. An originality that you only find once in a pure blue moon. And that’s worth reading, you betcha.

Rownie’s life hasn’t been worth much since the disappearance of his older brother Rowan. Living with “grandmother”, an old witch named Graba who holds a Fagan-like power over the orphans in her sway, Rownie runs various errands until one day he finds that goblins have come to his city of Zombay. They are conducting theatrical performances, an act forbidden to humans, so it’s as much a surprise to Rownie as to anyone when he joins their little troupe. Rownie is also still determined to track Rowan down, but that may mean using extraordinary means to escape from Graba’s all-knowing, all-seeing ways.

It’s little wonder that the book was nominated for a National Book Award when you take into account the writing. In terms of description, the book has a wonderful and well-developed sense of place. At one point this is what you read, “All roads to the docks ran downhill. They wound and switchbacked across a steep ravine wall, with Southside above and the River below. Some of these streets were so steep narrow that they had to be climbed rather than walked on. Stairs had been cut into the stone or built with driftwood logs lashed together over the precarious slope.” With a minimal amount of words you get a clear sense of the location, its look, its feel, its dangers, and perhaps its beauties as well.

The details found within this strange Steampunk world are delicious, and that is in the book’s favor. You hear about “small and cunning devices that did useless things beautifully.” From gears in mechanical glass eyes to the fact that a river is something that can be bargained with, there’s an internal logic at work here that is consistent, even if Alexander is going to leave the learning of these rules up to the reader with minimal help. For example, there is the small matter of hearts and their removal. To take out a heart is not a death sentence for a person, but it can leave them somewhat zombiefied (the city’s name “Zombay” could just be a coincidence or could not, depending on how you want to look at it). And goblins aren’t born but are changed humans. Why are they changed and for what reason? That’s a story for another day, but you’re willing to wait for an answer (if answer there ever is).

Exposition. It can be a death knoll in a book for kids. Done well it sucks the reader into an alternate world the like of which they may never have seen before. Done poorly they fall asleep three pages in and you’ve lost them forever. And done not at all? That’s a risk but done right it pays off in fine dividends. “Goblin Secrets” takes place in Zombay, a fact you find out five pages in. It’s a city that contains magic, a fact you find out on page three. There are goblins in this world (page twelve) but they didn’t start out as goblins (page . . . um . . .). Facts are doled out at a deliberate but unexpected pace in this book. There are no long paragraphs of explanation that tell you where you are and what to expect. It’s only by reading the story thoroughly that you learn that theater is forbidden, Rownie’s brother is missing, Graba is relentless (but not the only villain in the story), and masks are the book’s overriding theme. In the interest of brevity Alexander manages to avoid exposition with something resembling long years of practice. Little wonder that he’s published in multiple magazines and anthologies on the adult fantasy (not that kind) side of things. Many is the adult writer who switches to writing for children that dumbs down the narrative, giving too little respect to the young audience. I think Mr. Alexander’s gift here is that he respects his younger readers enough to grant them enough intelligence to follow along.

Alexander makes his own rules with this book, and not rules I’ve necessarily seen before. With that in mind, with as weird a setting as you have here, it can be a relief to run across characters you like and identify with. They act as little touchstones in a mad, crazy world. Rownie is particularly sympathetic right from the get-go. He has a missed beloved older brother, an independence that’s appealing, but he’s not a jerk or anything. Nor is he a walking blank slate that more interesting characters can use to their own ends. Rather, Rownie is the kind of character who keeps trying to talk himself into bravery. He does it when performing and he does it on his own (“Rownie tried to summon up the feeling that he was haunting the Southside Rail Station and that other sorts of haunting things should be afraid of him…”). That’s why Alexander’s use of masks and theater is so effective. If you have a protagonist who just needs a little push to reach his potential, what better way than through performance? On the flipside, the bad guys are nice, if perhaps a little two-dimensional. Graba is nothing so much as a clockwork Baba Yaga, mechanical chicken legs and all. By extension the Mayor is a good power hungry villain, if stock and staid. There is no big bad in this book quite worthy of the good folks they face down. Graba comes close, but she’s just your typical witch when all is said and done. A little gearish. A little creaky. But typically witchy, through and through.

By turns beautiful and original, it’s a testament to Alexander’s skills that the book clocks in at a mere 200-some odd pages. Usually worlds of this sort end up in books with five hundred or six hundred pages. The end result is that when a kid is looking for a good fantasy in a new world, they are inclined to be scared off by the thick tomes gathering dust on library shelves and instead will find friends in old classics like The Black Cauldron or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Add to that list William Alexander’s latest then. A smart piece of writing that conjures up a new world using a new method.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Last Line: “His fingers twitched and his mouth watered, but he waited for his supper to cool.”

Notes on the Cover: The unfortunate hardcover will happily be replaced with a far more kid-friendly paperback.  As you can see, the previous incarnation showed a Frankenstein’s monster-esque goblin juggling.  Alas the shot made it look as if the lit torch in hand was impaling him.  It was a bit of odd CGI.  The new cover is a traditional illustration and show Rownie hiding from his possessed former bunkmates.  If I were to go with a good cover seen I might go with fighting the possessed masks, but I suspect they wanted to avoid the goblins entirely with this particular jacket.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

Misc:

  • Good news for fans.  The sequel, Ghoulish Song, is already scheduled to be released next year.  Happiness all around.

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12. Review of the Day: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

Goblin Secrets
By William Alexander
Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-1-442434523
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

I think it is time to declare the birth of the clockwork children’s novel. If you have been watching the literary trends over the last decade or so, you will note that amongst adults there has been a real rise in interest in a form of pop culture labeled “Steampunk”. The general understanding is that as the 21st century grows increasingly reliant on electronics, there is a newfound interest in books/movies/video games/costumes (etc.) that incorporate steam, gears, and other accoutrements of the visual mechanical past. This is, I should note, almost exclusively an adult fascination. I have never encountered a single child who walked up to a reference desk and asked, “Do you have any more Steampunk?” That said, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work as a genre. The trouble comes when an author tries to shoehorn a Steampunk story into a fantasy mold. The best writers know that if you’re going to incorporate odd mechanical details, the best thing to do is to set up your own odd mechanical internal logic. I think that’s probably what I like best about William Alexander’s “Goblin Secrets”. It’s not the first story I’ve read about a boy joining a troupe of traveling performers. And it’s not the first middle grade Steampunk adventure I’ve come across. Yet there’s something definitely one-of-a-kind going on in this book. An originality that you only find once in a pure blue moon. And that’s worth reading, you betcha.

Rownie’s life hasn’t been worth much since the disappearance of his older brother Rowan. Living with “grandmother”, an old witch named Graba who holds a Fagan-like power over the orphans in her sway, Rownie runs various errands until one day he finds that goblins have come to his city of Zombay. They are conducting theatrical performances, an act forbidden to humans, so it’s as much a surprise to Rownie as to anyone when he joins their little troupe. Rownie is also still determined to track Rowan down, but that may mean using extraordinary means to escape from Graba’s all-knowing, all-seeing ways.

It’s little wonder that the book was nominated for a National Book Award when you take into account the writing. In terms of description, the book has a wonderful and well-developed sense of place. At one point this is what you read, “All roads to the docks ran downhill. They wound and switchbacked across a steep ravine wall, with Southside above and the River below. Some of these streets were so steep narrow that they had to be climbed rather than walked on. Stairs had been cut into the stone or built with driftwood logs lashed together over the precarious slope.” With a minimal amount of words you get a clear sense of the location, its look, its feel, its dangers, and perhaps its beauties as well.

The details found within this strange Steampunk world are delicious, and that is in the book’s favor. You hear about “small and cunning devices that did useless things beautifully.” From gears in mechanical glass eyes to the fact that a river is something that can be bargained with, there’s an internal logic at work here that is consistent, even if Alexander is going to leave the learning of these rules up to the reader with minimal help. For example, there is the small matter of hearts and their removal. To take out a heart is not a death sentence for a person, but it can leave them somewhat zombiefied (the city’s name “Zombay” could just be a coincidence or could not, depending on how you want to look at it). And goblins aren’t born but are changed humans. Why are they changed and for what reason? That’s a story for another day, but you’re willing to wait for an answer (if answer there ever is).

Exposition. It can be a death knoll in a book for kids. Done well it sucks the reader into an alternate world the like of which they may never have seen before. Done poorly they fall asleep three pages in and you’ve lost them forever. And done not at all? That’s a risk but done right it pays off in fine dividends. “Goblin Secrets” takes place in Zombay, a fact you find out five pages in. It’s a city that contains magic, a fact you find out on page three. There are goblins in this world (page twelve) but they didn’t start out as goblins (page . . . um . . .). Facts are doled out at a deliberate but unexpected pace in this book. There are no long paragraphs of explanation that tell you where you are and what to expect. It’s only by reading the story thoroughly that you learn that theater is forbidden, Rownie’s brother is missing, Graba is relentless (but not the only villain in the story), and masks are the book’s overriding theme. In the interest of brevity Alexander manages to avoid exposition with something resembling long years of practice. Little wonder that he’s published in multiple magazines and anthologies on the adult fantasy (not that kind) side of things. Many is the adult writer who switches to writing for children that dumbs down the narrative, giving too little respect to the young audience. I think Mr. Alexander’s gift here is that he respects his younger readers enough to grant them enough intelligence to follow along.

Alexander makes his own rules with this book, and not rules I’ve necessarily seen before. With that in mind, with as weird a setting as you have here, it can be a relief to run across characters you like and identify with. They act as little touchstones in a mad, crazy world. Rownie is particularly sympathetic right from the get-go. He has a missed beloved older brother, an independence that’s appealing, but he’s not a jerk or anything. Nor is he a walking blank slate that more interesting characters can use to their own ends. Rather, Rownie is the kind of character who keeps trying to talk himself into bravery. He does it when performing and he does it on his own (“Rownie tried to summon up the feeling that he was haunting the Southside Rail Station and that other sorts of haunting things should be afraid of him…”). That’s why Alexander’s use of masks and theater is so effective. If you have a protagonist who just needs a little push to reach his potential, what better way than through performance? On the flipside, the bad guys are nice, if perhaps a little two-dimensional. Graba is nothing so much as a clockwork Baba Yaga, mechanical chicken legs and all. By extension the Mayor is a good power hungry villain, if stock and staid. There is no big bad in this book quite worthy of the good folks they face down. Graba comes close, but she’s just your typical witch when all is said and done. A little gearish. A little creaky. But typically witchy, through and through.

By turns beautiful and original, it’s a testament to Alexander’s skills that the book clocks in at a mere 200-some odd pages. Usually worlds of this sort end up in books with five hundred or six hundred pages. The end result is that when a kid is looking for a good fantasy in a new world, they are inclined to be scared off by the thick tomes gathering dust on library shelves and instead will find friends in old classics like The Black Cauldron or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Add to that list William Alexander’s latest then. A smart piece of writing that conjures up a new world using a new method.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Last Line: “His fingers twitched and his mouth watered, but he waited for his supper to cool.”

Notes on the Cover: The unfortunate hardcover will happily be replaced with a far more kid-friendly paperback.  As you can see, the previous incarnation showed a Frankenstein’s monster-esque goblin juggling.  Alas the shot made it look as if the lit torch in hand was impaling him.  It was a bit of odd CGI.  The new cover is a traditional illustration and show Rownie hiding from his possessed former bunkmates.  If I were to go with a good cover seen I might go with fighting the possessed masks, but I suspect they wanted to avoid the goblins entirely with this particular jacket.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews:

Misc:

  • Good news for fans.  The sequel, Ghoulish Song, is already scheduled to be released next year.  Happiness all around.

0 Comments on Review of the Day: Goblin Secrets by William Alexander as of 1/1/1900
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13. Review of the Day: The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau
By Michelle Markel
Illustrated by Amanda Hall
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
$17.00
ISBN: 978-0-8028-5264-6
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

I’m not ashamed to say it, though perhaps I should be. Still, it’s true. Though I grew up in the middle class with a good education and a stint at a liberal arts college there are huge gaping gaps in my knowledge that have consistently been filled in over the years by children’s books. I know that I am not alone in this. When I worked in NYPL’s Central Children’s Room we had any number of regular adult patrons that would come in seeking children’s books on a variety of different topics so that they could learn about them in a non-threatening fashion. At its best a children’s book takes a complex subject and synthesizes it down to its most essential parts. Simple enough. But if you’re dealing with a picture book biography, it then has to turn a human life in a cohesive (child friendly) story. No mean feat. So when I saw this picture book bio of the artist Henri Rousseau I was immediately arrested by its art. Then I sort of came to realize that when it came to the man himself, I knew nothing. Next to nothing. I may never win a Jeopardy round or a game of Trivial Pursuit but thanks to great books like this one I may someday attain the education of a seven-year-old. There are worse fates in the world. These days, seven-year-olds get all the good stuff.

Your everyday average forty-year-old toll collector doesn’t usually drop everything to become a painter, yet that’s exactly what one did back in the 19th century. His name was Henri Rousseau and though he never took an art course in his life (art lessons aren’t exactly available on a toll collector’s budget) he does his research, looks at art, sits himself down, and begins to paint. He’s incredibly excited after his first big exhibition but his reviews say mostly “mean things” about his art. Still, he clips them, saves them, and continues to paint. Over the years he meets with very little success but is inspired by greenhouses and the lush topiary found inside. He can’t afford to ever see a jungle of his own so he makes them up. Finally, after decades and decades, the new young crop of artists takes note of his work. At last, he is celebrated and appreciated and his naïf style is seen for what it truly is; Simultaneously ahead of its time, and timeless.

As far as I can tell the picture book biography can go in a certain number of directions when it comes to its interior art. It can seek to emulate the original artist, mimicking their style with mixed results. Or it can eschew the original artist altogether and only show their paintings as images on walls or in the notes at the book’s end. Artist Amanda Hall takes a slightly different take with her art, inserting Mr. Rousseau into his own works. As she says at the end “Instead of my usual pencil crayon and watercolor technique, I used both watercolor and acrylics for the illustrations, as I wanted to get close to the feel of Rousseau’s own paintings. I decided to break the rules of scale and perspective to reflect his unusual way of seeing the world. For some of the illustrations I drew directly on his actual paintings, altering them playfully to help tell the story.” That right there might be the book’s difference. I think that for many of us, the joy of an Henri Rousseau painting lies not in the composition necessarily (though that is a plus) but the sheer feel of the piece. Rousseau’s jungle scenes do not look or feel like anyone else’s and Hall has done a stellar job capturing, if not the exact feel, then a winning replica of it for kids. The endpapers of this book are particularly telling. Open the cover and there you find all the usual suspects in a Rousseau landscape, each one creeping and peeking out at you from behind the ferns and oversized blossoms.

A poorly made picture book bio will lay out its pictures in a straightforward dull-as-dishwater manner never deviating or even attempting to inject so much as an artistic whim. The interesting thing about Hall’s take on Rousseau is that while, yes, she plays around with scale and perspective willy-nilly, she also injects a fair amount of whimsy. Not just the usual artist-flying-through-the-air-to-represent-his-mental-journey type of stuff either. There is a moment early on when a tiny Rousseau pulling a handcart approaches gargantuan figures that look down upon him with a mixture of pop-eyed surprise and, in some cases, anger. Amongst them, wearing the coat and tails of gentlemen, are two dogs and one gorilla. Later Hall indicates the passing of the years by featuring three portraits of Rousseau, hair growing grey, beard cut down to a jaunty mustache. On the opposite page three critics perch on mountains, smirking behind their hands or just gaping in general. It’s the weirdness that sets this book apart and makes it better than much of its ilk. It’s refreshing to encounter a bio that isn’t afraid to make things odd if it has to. And for some reason that I just can’t define . . . it definitely has to.

But to get back a bit to the types of bios out there for kids, as I mentioned before Hall inserts Rousseau directly into his own painting when we look at his life. Done poorly this would give the impression that he actually did live in jungles or traipse about with lions, and I’m sure there will be the occasional young reader who will need some clarification on that point. But in terms of teaching the book, Hall has handed teachers a marvelous tool. You could spend quite a lot of time flipping between the paintings here and the ones Rousseau actually created. Kids could spot the differences, the similarities, and get a good sense of how one inspired the other. Near the end of the book Hall also slips in a number of cameos from contemporary artists, and even goes so far as to include a key identifying those individuals on the last few pages. Imagine how rich an artistic unit would be if a teacher were to take that key and pair it with the author bios of THOSE people as well. For Gertrude Stein just pull out Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter. Pablo Picasso? A quick look at The Boy Who Bit Picasso by Antony Penrose. Lucky kids.

Just as the art of a picture book biography can go any number of directions, the storytelling is in the same boat. You want to tell the life of a man. Fair enough. Do you encompass everything from birth to death, marking dates and important places along the way? Do you synthesize that life down to a single moment and then use your Author’s Note at the end to tell why that person is important at all (many is the Author’s Note forced to do the heavy lifting). Or do you just zero in on what it is that made that person famous in the first place and look at how they struggled with their gift? Author Michelle Markel opts for the latter. A former journalist, Markel first cut her teeth on the author bio with her lovely Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall. Finding that these stories of outsider artists appealed to her, the move to Rousseau was a natural one. One that focuses on the man’s attempts to become an artist in the face of constant, near unending critical distaste. Markel’s gift here is that she is telling the story of someone overcoming the odds (to a certain extent . . . I mean he still died a pauper an all) in the face of folks telling him what he could or couldn’t do. It’s inspirational but on a very gentle scale. You’re not being forced to hear a sermon on the joys of stick-to-itativeness. She lands the ending too, effortlessly transitioning from his first successful debut at an exhibition to how he is remembered today.

I remember having to learn about artists and composers in elementary school and how strange and dull they all seemed. Just a list of dead white men that didn’t have anything to do with my life or me. The best picture book bios seek to correct that old method of teaching. To make their subjects not merely “come alive” as the saying goes but turn into flesh and blood people. You learn best about a person when that person isn’t perfect, has troubles, and yet has some spark, some inescapable something about them that attracts notice. A combination of smart writing and smarter art is ideal, particularly when you’re dealing with picture book biographies. And The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau is nothing if not smart. It typifies the kind of bios I hope we see more of in the future. And, with any luck, it will help to create the kinds of people I’d like to see more of in the future. People like Henri Rousseau. Whatta fella. Whatta book.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Interviews: With Michelle Markel at I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Kids)

Misc: Read what Ms. Markel has to say about the book herself when she writes the guest post at Cynsations.

Videos:

A nice little book trailer exists as well.

There’s even a director’s cut.

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14. Review of the Day – Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover by Cece Bell

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover
By Cece Bell
Candlewick Press
$14.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5475-7
Ages 5-8
On shelves now

It would be simpler if kids read at exact levels at all times. Wouldn’t it be grand if you had a kid go strategically from easy books to early chapter books to older chapter books without so much as a glitch in the system? But as it happens the road to literacy is not this smooth varnished path off into the sunset. There are bumps, and valleys, and wobbly bits where the pavement chips off. That’s why certain school systems have introduced concepts like “Levels”. A kid reads at a certain level, masters it, and moves on to the next one. Of course, the danger with that kind of thing is that it never gives kids a chance to challenge themselves. If they’re Level L and are handed Level O, many adamantly refuse to consider trying something that “hard”. That’s why the world needs more books like this here Rabbit and Robot. Here you have that rarest of rare beasts, the early early chapter book. Harder than Frog and Toad, easier than Magic Tree House, it’s a transitional title that’s the perfect thing to get kids out of their reading ruts and into the wide and wonderful world of chapters. Lots of books attempt to do that sort of thing, but it takes a delicate hand like Cece Bell’s to also pepper the book with memorable, hilarious characters and a simultaneously familiar and unique plotline. This is only the first in the adventures of uptight Rabbit and groovy go-with-the-flow Robot, but I trust we’ll see more of them in the future. The world demands more of the same, consarn it!

Good buddies Rabbit and Robot (just go with it) are about to have their first sleepover at Rabbit’s place and both of them are very excited. Rabbit, a by-the-book kind of guy, has every evening activity written out and planned to the letter. And Robot, an easygoing fellow bearing a vague resemblance to a cell phone on wheels, is just the kind of stand up friend to throw a distinct wrench in the works. First Rabbit’s plan to “Make Pizza” is changed slightly when Robot removes the bulk of the home’s nuts and bolts to top his own pizza pie. Then Rabbit can’t find the remote and a near nervous breakdown occurs before Robot reveals the simple solution. A game of Go Fish takes a header when something odd happens to Robot. And finally, bedtime is the perfect moment to review and see that even if everything didn’t go precisely to plan, it was still a really nice day.

The distinct advantage of being your own author/illustrator is that you never have to consult with your collaborator. Bell’s style has always been akin to that of Crockett Johnson and the like. It’s this pure-lined style that embraces simplicity over clutter. When working in her usual picture book vein, Ms. Bell’s books are straightforward in their plots and visuals. Here in Rabbit & Robot she uses her lines to convey the characters’ moods with great verve. Rabbit is as easy to smile as he is prone to overwrought hysterics. Robot, in comparison, is simultaneously laid back and energetic. This comes across particularly well when Rabbit first presents Robot with his anal retentive list of what their evening will have to consist of. Robot, we know from our reading, has other ideas about what they’ll be doing, but you can tell from the picture that he’s mostly keeping that to himself. There’s a bemused smile playing about his metallic lips. You get the feeling from pictures like that that he knows precisely how this evening will go, and it’s Rabbit who’ll be the surprised one in the end. Then there’s the characters’ look. It took me a while to realize it, but there’s something oddly satisfying about looking at that perfect triangle that serves as Rabbit’s nose and the elongated rectangle that’s Robot’s. It just works.

You could say the book has a classic feel and this would be true. Does it have an old-fashioned feel or a contemporary feel, though? I’m going to side with contemporary in terms of the characters and the interactions. While I’ve no doubt that kids 50 years down the road could still get a kick out of these characters, the book doesn’t feel like it belongs to the past. The art, however, definitely relies on some tried and true historical tropes. Note, if you will, the telephones that Rabbit and Robot speak into on the title page. Aside from the fact that they appear in little bubbles ala Bye-Bye Birdie there is the fact that they both are on landlines (with cords and everything!). Be ready to explain to your kids what exactly those types of phones are when they ask you. Then there’s Rabbit’s television set. He does indeed have a nice little remote for it, but who else noticed the awesome bunny ears (ho ho) perched on top of the TV? The TV itself is perched on a kind of Jetsons-esque stand, which is cool in and of itself. One get the distinct feeling that if a camera were to appear in the course of this tale they’d be buying film for it and taking it down to the local photomat to get it printed.

The odd couple format has proved to be a tried and true way of getting kids into early chapter book fare. Whether you’re reading about Frog and Toad, Houndsley and Catina, or Bink and Gollie, opposites attract. They attract one another and they attract burgeoning readers who need something a little silly, a little sly, and a little enticing if they’re going to keep doing this whole “reading” thing folks keep trying to push on them. Go into most libraries and you’ll find that easy books and early chapter books are some of the most popular in the system. All the more reason to let something like Rabbit & Robot into your life. It’s new and fresh and thoroughly enjoyable, whether you’re reading it to a kid or they’re parsing it on their own. There’s a new odd couple in town and hopefully they’ll return to us again soon.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Other Reviews:

Interviews:

Misc:

  • Read a sample of the book here.

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15. Review of the Day: Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed

Twelve Kinds of Ice
By Ellen Bryan Obed
Illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-618-89129-0
Ages 6-10
On shelves November 6th

Every year the children’s librarians of the New York Public Library system come together and create a list of 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. The list, now entering its 101st year, originally had a dual purpose. On the one hand it was meant to highlight the best children’s books at a time when finding books written specifically for kids was difficult in and of itself (the “100” number idea came later). On the other hand, when printed out the list was intended to serve as a Christmas shopping guide for parents looking to give away quality works of children’s literature with the potential to someday be considered “classics”. These days, that idea of using the list as a shopping guide has become less important, but the search for books that aim for “classic” ranks never ceases. Such books are difficult to find, partly because the ones that try to feel that way utilize this sickening faux nostalgia that, in particularly egregious examples, can make your hair curl. That’s why a book like Twelve Kinds of Ice strikes me as such a rarity. Here we have something that feels like something your grandmother might have read you, yet is as fresh and fun and original as you could hope for. Original and difficult to categorize, the one thing you can say about it is that it defies you to sum it up neatly. And that it’s delightful, of course. That too.

In this family there are twelve kinds of ice. All the kids know this fact. “The First Ice” is that thin sheen you find in pails. “The Second Ice” can be pulled out like panes of glass. As the winter comes on, the days grow colder and colder and the kids wait in anticipation. Finally, after the appearance of “Black Ice” it’s time to turn the vegetable garden into a skating rink that will last the whole winter. The whole family creates the sides and uses the hose to create the perfect space. With crisp prose designed to make you feel excited and cozy all at once, the author goes through a full winter with this family. There are sibling rivalries for ice time, skating parties, comic routines, an ice show, and then finally those spring days where you can only skate an hour before the sun starts making puddles. Fortunately for all the kids there’s one kind of ice left and that is dream ice. The ice where you can skate everything from telephone wires to slanting roofs and it will last you all the year until the first ice comes again.

My instinct here is to just start quoting large sections of the text out of context so that you can listen to the wordplay. The trouble is that much of this book works precisely because those very words, when read as part of the story, simply feel like there was no other way to say that exact thing at that exact moment. So, for example, when we read “Black Ice” section where the ice has arrived before the snow, we have to know that the kids are skating on a Great Pond. We read that “We sped to silver speeds at which lungs and legs, clouds and sun, wind and cold, race together. Our blades spit out silver. Our lungs breathed out silver. Our minds burst with silver while the winter sun danced silver down our bending backs.” It helps to know that until now the kids have been limited to Field Ice (narrow strips) and Stream Ice (uneven and broken by rocks). This is the moment when they’

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16. Review of the Day: Freaky Fast Frankie Joe by Lutricia Clifton

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe
By Lutricia Clifton
Holiday House
$16.95
ISBN: 978-0-8234-2367-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Realistic fiction for kids has more baggage than other fictional genres for that age group. Fantasies and comedies and science fiction get to rely on the extraordinary to weave their tales. Historical fiction, meanwhile, has the nice veil of history in place to aid the writer in making their point. What does realistic fiction have? Reality. Cold, cruel, dead dogs and incurable disease-ridden reality. When people think of middle grade realistic fiction their minds sometimes go to deeply depressing works where horrible things happen to perfectly nice kids. Blame schools that equate misery with learning for that crime. My favorite works of realistic fiction move beyond obvious metaphors and big honking deaths to make their points in subtler, more amusing ways. No one’s going to necessarily accuse Lutricia Clifton’s Freaky Fast Frankie Joe of being a laugh riot, admitted. But with its appealing hero, recognizable cast of characters and strong plot this is one subtle little novel that wins you over before you even realized you needed convincing. Consider discovering it.

Here’s a basic rule of thumb. Anytime you run into four boys named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, odds are you’re going to find them less than saintly individuals. That’s bad. What’s worse is if you suddenly discover you’re their big brother. Frankie Joe always led a life that he liked. He had lots of folks in the trailer park to watch over him and a mom that’s a lot more fun than the ones that make their kids go to school every day. Everything was just ducky until she went and got herself arrested. Now Frankie Joe’s father, a guy he’s never even met, appears out of the blue and takes the boy to middle-of-nowhere Plainview, Illinois. The deal is that Frankie Joe will stay there for the ten months his mom’s in the hoosegow, but ten months is too long for this boy. Not only are his newfound younger brothers a bother (particularly alpha male Matt) but his father’s some kind of stickler for self-improvement. That’s when a brilliant idea occurs. Frankie Joe’s fast on a bike. Really fast. Freaky fast. What if he started a delivery service and earned the money he needed to buy the stuff he’d use to get back to the old trailer park to wait out his mom? It’s a crazy plan but he’s sure it’ll work. That is, if he can just harden his heart to Plainview and the people who are in it.

Foster boys of the The Great Gilly Hopkins ilk are, as far as I can ascertain, less common than foster girls in middle grade literature. For every Frankie Joe you’ll find a dozen Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies or The Road to Paris titles. Why is it that foster girls are appealing but foster boys aren’t? To be perfectly frank, Frankie Joe isn’t really a foster kid either. He has a loving father and new family just sitting there waiting for him. The kind of situation many a kid would kill for . .

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17. Review of the Day: Step Gently Out by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder

Step Gently Out
By Helen Frost
Photographs by Rick Lieder
Candlewick Press
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-5601-0
Ages 3-8
On shelves now

I have lots of little soapboxes scattered around my home that I like to pounce on in idle moments. Big soapboxes. Little soapboxes. Anyone who knows me is forced to hear me expound from one of them at least once daily. It’s rare that I get to shove two of them together, though. Usually they represent separate entities that don’t overlap. Picking up the remarkably gorgeous work that is Helen Frost and Rick Lieder’s Step Gently Out, however, allows me to stack one soapbox on top of another. That may make them a little more difficult to balance on, but with practice I’ll have it down pat. From that perch I can then cry to the heavens above, “Why is there no poetry award for children’s books given out by the American Library Association?” while also bemoaning, “Why has a work of photography never won a Caldecott Award?” Yes, Step Gently Out appears to be a double threat. Poetry meets photography in a single undulating poem. And if my soapbox seems strange, it will make all the more sense when you learn that the pair behind the book includes the remarkable poet Helen Frost and photographer extraordinaire Rick Lieder. Put them both together and you’d be a fool to overlook this book for any reason whatsoever.

“Step gently out,” the book urges us. “… be still, and watch a single blade of grade.” As we follow the words and instructions we are brought in close to a wide array of common backyard insects. An ant lifts its head from the center of a yellow flower and is “bathed in golden light.” A spider weaves webs soaked in droplets and we hear that “they’re splashed with morning dew”. By the end we begin to understand them better and the text closes with “In song and dance and stillness, they share the world with you.” A final two-page spread at the end identifies all the insects shown in the book and gives some facts about their lives.

Reading through the book a couple times I couldn’t help but wonder if the photos came first or the poem. Did Ms. Frost see Lieder’s work and construct just the right poem to accompany the images? After all, there are specific mentions of many of the bugs you’ll find in the photographs. Or did Mr. Lieder read Ms. Frost’s poem and then set out to find the right insects required to carry her vision? Or (a third idea just came to me) was this a case of an already existing poem and already existing photographs coming together by a clever editor, seeming to fit from the start? I simply do not know.

For parents wishing to instill in their children a sense of Zen, often they’ll turn to something like Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts and the like. A worthy choice, but if what you are trying to do is to give your kids a sense of communion with nature on its most basic and essential level, Step Gently Out is the bett

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18. Review of the Day: The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Swing
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Illustrated By Julie Morstad
Simply Read Books
$8.95
ISBN: 978-1897476482
Ages 0-3
On shelves August 15th

There comes a moment in a new parent’s life when they realize that they have become their own parents. It’s different for everyone. For some folks it won’t happen until they’re berating their teenagers, conjuring up terms and threats from their own youth that they swore they’d never use. For others, it happens at practically the moment after conception. And for me, it happened when I read my one-year-old daughter Julie Morstad’s simply irresistible adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem The Swing. As I read the book aloud I realized that I had heard this poem myself as a child. I could even recall the images that accompanied it, filled with sickly sweet children with cheeks so large they’d make the Campbell Soup kids seem wan in comparison. And when later I heard my own mother recite this poem I was amazed to discover that my reading, which I’d done several time for my own daughter, contained the exact same cadences and turns of phrase as my mother’s rendition. The difference for my daughter will be the fact that while the art accompanying my The Swing was tepid, the images that appear in Julie Morstad’s gorgeous little board book are utterly lovely creations. For all those parents desperate to introduce their toddlers to poetry, or just folks who want to read their kids something beautiful for once, here is the answer to your prayers.

“How do you like to go up in a swing / Up in the air so blue?” I should think you’d like it very much if you were one of the children in Julie Morstad’s clever little book. Adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, Ms. Morstad fills her pages with kids on their way up, their way down, and everywhere in-between. They glide under cherry blossoms, observe the even rows of plants and vegetables, and swing like superheroes on their bellies. The result is a haunting but thoroughly enjoyable update to a poem that feels as fresh and fun as it was the day it was first published in the late 1800s.

Etsy has been a simultaneous boon and problem for the children’s picture book world. On the one hand, there is no better place for editors to find up and coming artists. Never before has a public forum of this scope yielded such rich artistic talent. On the other hand, there is a kind of Etsy “look” that typifies the people found there. It’s what allows reviewers like myself to view certain kinds of children’s books and sniff “Etsy” when we want to put them down. Now at a first glance Morstad’s work on The Swing might strike you as falling in the Etsy vein. An unfair assumption since as far as I can tell Ms. Morstad sells her art herself and not through Etsy. More to the point, this book is better than that. Granted I wouldn’t mind taking some of the images found in the book and framing them on my wall (particularly that cover image with the black background and white haired girl swinging through a field of vibrant blossoms). But there’s a quality to Ms. Morstad’s art that feels more than merely trendy. There’s a lot of beauty here, and it

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19. Review of the Day: Robin Hood by David Calcutt

Robin Hood
By David Calcutt
Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith
Barefoot Books
$12.99
ISBN 978-1-84686-799-6
Ages 6 and up
On shelves October 1st

Robin Hood has, for years now, been the bane of my existence. And yes, I’m well aware that this statement makes me sound like nothing so much as the Sheriff of Nottingham. That doesn’t make it any less true. There I’d be, sitting merrily at my reference desk in the children’s room of the library when someone, adult or child, would wander up and ask “Where’s your Robin Hood?”. Then I’d be stuck. Stuck explaining that unless you wanted some long extended version by Howard Pyle you were pretty much up a tree. Robin Hood related picture books, easy readers, or early chapter books are, were, and evermore shall be in short supply. Into this gaping lack comes one of the finest editions ever to grace a library’s shelves. With slam bang writing, all the Robin Hood related hits (The Friar! Maid Marian! Little John!) are included and I think it safe to say that any library or literary collection worth its salt would be well advised to grab this ultimate Robin Hood tome forthwith if not sooner. At long last we’ve a RH we can all enjoy.

You say you think you know the story of Robin Hood? Sure you may have some vague particulars in mind, but sit ye back and hear the tale of a man who fought the odds. Targeted by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s corrupt foresters, the bloke known as Robin Hood quickly became an outlaw, living in the woods, recruiting like-minded fellows to be part of his band. Chapter by chapter we learn of his adventures with Little John, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale, and even Maid Marian. Tales like “Robin and the Widow” and “The Golden Arrow” lead to a climax with the King’s men. Robin and friends escape but “Robin’s Last Battle” shows how the hero of the woodland met his final end. Backmatter includes a note on research and a complete Bibliography with many useful websites.

As I mentioned earlier, for all his cultural cache why is the man in green as elusive in children’s literature as, say, King Arthur (a different rant for a different day)? The trick may lie in the source material. Which is to say, there isn’t any. When parents would ask me for “the original Robin Hood” book for their kids, I am without resources. The closest thing I can come up with would be an edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Part of the problem lies in the story itself. To make an ultimate Robin Hood book you’d have to do a crazy amount of research into old sources. That’s where Calcutt really shines. Explaining that the first Robin Hood ballads weren’t even collected until the 19th century, Calcutt explains in the Research and Bibliography section of the book that his stories come from an amalgamation of several sources. Combining them expertly alongside ballads translated into modern English the final product feels like a Robin Hood designed to please purists and those of us raised on Hollywood’s vision of the man alike.

That’s the upside. There is a downside to faithful renditions, though. After all, it’s not as if the original stories were written or told with young readers in mind. As such there are some distinctly amoral moments here and there in old Robin Hood’s wanderings. The book itself begins with a story called “Robin Hood Becomes an Outlaw” where Robin’s surefire shooting skills systematically pick off and kill a whole slew of men from a tree. Similarly later in the book we learn that the Merry Men are in trouble with the law because they found some dozing members of the king’s guard and kinda sorta slaughtered them in their sleep to get their clothes. There’s something oddly refreshing about a story for kids that isn’t sanitized within an inch of its life, but readers would be well-advised to know beforehand that there’s a fair share of corpses strewn about the pages before you get to the end. I had the distinct impression as I read this book that Calcutt was doing his darndest to play it both ways too. For example, a storyline where Robin and his men decide to rob an abbot on some pretty shaky grounds is quickly justified by going into the abbot’s head and showing that he’s a greedy guts who has it coming. Parents may raise an eyebrow on some of the morality here but kids won’t notice a thing.

Granted the book is not a picture book, so itty bitties trying to get their Robin Hood fixes may be out of luck. On the other hand, it’s not as if this edition lacks for illustrations. Artist Grahame Baker-Smith’s style incorporates a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Says the book, “The artwork was painted in acrylic, painted in watercolor, and drawn in pen and ink, then combined, blended and composed in Photoshop.”. The end result is a book with art on almost every page. It’s full and lush and green with the occasional double page spread for a big scene, like the fight between Robin and Little John. There is a mild CGI flavor to the proceedings but it doesn’t overwhelm the senses.

If it’s any additional incentive, it can’t hurt matters any that the World Wide Robin Hood Society placed their own seal of approval on this book saying, “A twenty-first-century classic where author and artist have woven their individual magic to breathe new life into the popular story of the world’s most famous outlaw.” Interestingly, though the king is mentioned in the book we never hear his name. So while this is undoubtedly the most complete Robin Hood you’ll encounter, there will still be the occasional naysayer. Fortunately for all of us they’ll be few and far between. Calcutt and Baker-Smith have met a need and a gap in library collections nation, nay, worldwide. A lovely object, a rip-roaring adventure tale, and fun to its core. A necessary purchase.

On shelves October 1st.

Source: Advanced readers galley sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus.

Misc: Get a glimpse behind-the-scenes into the book and the art with this Barefoot Books blog post.

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20. Review of the Day: Wisdom, the Midway Albatross by Darcy Pattison

Wisdom the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and Other Disasters for Over 60 Years
By Darcy Pattison
Illustrated by Kitty Harvill
Mims House
$11.99
ISBN: 978-0-9798621-7-5
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

If I had a better knowledge of my nonfiction children’s history then I might be able to tell you the exact moment that biographies of individual animals took off. Technically we’ve seen them for years, in books like the Newbery Honor winning Rascal (which is considered nonfiction in spite of some creative liberties) from 1963. The picture book animal biography feels comparatively new to me. I think they may have existed in spurts here and there but in the last ten years there’s been a veritable explosion of them on the scene. This is a very good thing. When done well a good animal bio can provide insight into an otherwise unapproachable species, foster concern beyond our own human lives, and give a glimpse into the wider natural world. True to life incredible journeys of wild animals are difficult to tell, though. If the animal is truly wild then how do you extrapolate its life without relying on fantasy and conjecture? Wisdom: The Midway Albatross offers at least one solution to that question. Add history to facts to the glorious innovation of banding wild animals and you have yourself a bird bio that’s easy to distinguish from the flock.

The life of your average everyday laysan albatross is not often a happy one. Particularly if you have had the monumentally bad luck to have been born around 1950. Having survived the trials of growing up, avoiding sharks, and even a 1952 tsunami, one little albatross lived and was banded by research scientists in the year 1956. After that time she had to survive tropical storms, delicious looking floating plastic and fishing lines until she was caught again (by the same scientist, no less) in 2002. Having survived all that, was she capable of living past the Japanese tsunami of 2011? Pattison follows the bird’s life closely, ending her book with facts about Wisdom (calling her “The Oldest Bird in the World”, which would have been my choice of title) as well as info on your average laysan albatross, and useful websites for further reading.

It’s more than just the story of one small bird and more than just some informational text about the life cycle of an albatross. Under Pattison’s hand Wisdom’s tale takes on an almost epic cycle. You start out thinking that this is just your average animal adventure and by the end you’re wondering how much we even understand about the natural world. If a lucky albatross, avoiding every seaborne calamity on record, can live at least to the age of sixty-one and continue to breed and brood, what other animals are blessed with such longevity? If there’s any problem at all it might be that Pattison repeats the refrain of “Somehow Gooney survived” almost too often. The temptation to do so is understandable but I worried that the momentous weight of that survival didn’t feel quite as powerful when heard so often.

While Pattison is known for her other books in the children’s literary sphere, artist Kitty Harvill’s work remains largely unknown. A wildlife artist and conservationist, Harvill’s watercolors in this book serve the words more than the other way around. They leave a good amount of space for the text, avoiding the pitfalls of some artists unfamiliar with the picture book world that slap white space and text on one page and an image on the other. One point that made me curious was how Harvill chose to deal with Pattison’s suppositions. We can extrapolate Wisdom’s life by knowing both our history of the region as well as the perils facing the bird’s kind. And while the author utilizes the word “somehow” very cleverly in the phrases that explain that she survived, Harvill accompanies these with images of pairs of birds. In many cases one albatross will fall prey to fishing lines or plastic treats while the other abstains. But since we are not specifically pointing to one of those birds and calling her “Wisdom”, the book gets away with it (and, I should note, never really shows any birds dying of sharks or storms, etc.).

It’s a book with a very small press, one going by the name of Mims House. When independent publishers create children’s literature the results are invariably mixed. In this particular case I was encouraged by the writing (and my familiarity with the author), the art to a certain extent, and the design. Though paperback, the paper quality is not bad. However I was a little disappointed in the font and layout. Though the text is expertly laid onto the images, weaving in and out of the pictures with ease, the font itself looks like something you might find in a child’s school report. I’m not entirely certain whether it’s the style or the size or a combination of the two, but whatever the case it’s a misleadingly poor element in what stands as a rather cool informational text.

I don’t usually go so far as to praise the blurbs of a book, but in this case. I’ll make an exception. Some clever soul not only thought to get the wise words of Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (who penned her own nonfiction picture book Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina Friendship and Survival) but also retired Senior Scientist Chandler S. Robbins. Now it sometimes doesn’t take much to get a scientist to blurb a picture book and normally my eyes glaze over about the time we see a degree appear, but in this particular case Robbins is an exceptional get since he’s the very guy who banded the bird back in 1956 in the first place. His words have an almost philosophical ring to them as well. He says at one point, “While I have grown old and gray and get around with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as the day I banded her.” Truth. Stranger than fiction.

As I mentioned before, had I been in charge of this book I would have gone whole hog and named it “Wisdom: The Oldest Bird in the World” or something along those lines. As it stands, Pattison has uncovered one heckuva story. I can say with certainty that no child has ever walked up to my library’s children’s reference desk asking for nonfiction albatross books for pleasure reading, but for those kids assigned animal bios (it happens), easy nonfiction reads, or just books on birds in general, I now know exactly what it is I’m going to want to hand them. A keeper, you bet.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent for review.

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Finally, here’s a video where you can see Wisdom herself feeding her chick.

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21. Review of the Day: Cat Tale by Michael Hall

Cat Tale
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-191516-1
Ages 6-10
On shelves August 28th

When we are old and gray and the stars gleam a little less brightly in the wide firmament above our heads, I have no doubt that there will STILL be children’s librarians out there debating the merits (or lack thereof) of picture books designed with older child readers in mind. To bring this subject up is akin to throwing a lit match on diesel soaked tinder, but what the heck. You see, walk into any decent library and you’ll find a picture book section teaming with fantastic 32-48 page titles that simply do not circulate. And why? Because of the standard belief, sometimes by children, sometimes by adults, that when you reach a certain age you “outgrow” picture books. As if they were a pair of shoes liable to give you blisters if you kept them around too long. This is, naturally, bupkis. Picture books are appropriate for all ages, really (and if you don’t believe me why don’t I just introduce you to a little number I know called The Woolvs in the Sitee). So the fact that a book like Michael Hall’s Cat Tale exists pleases on both the 6-year-old level as well as the 10-year-old level should surprise few. Wielding homonyms like weapons, Hall brings his artistic sensibilities (to say nothing of his love of controlled chaos) to the wordplay realm and the end result is that everyone’s a winner for it.

Meet Lillian, Tilly and William J. Three little cats that are out for a day. In rhyming verse we watch as at first their adventures are small. “They pack some books and kitty chews. They chose a spot. They spot some ewes.” As the book continues they cats become more adventuresome. “They train a duck to duck a shoe. They shoo a truly naughty gnu.” Yet the words begin to get tangled and the cats are in a state. Should they use a rock to squash a berry or use a squash to bury a rock or (after a pause) use their paws to rock a squashberry? Finally everything gets too crazy and the cats find their way out thanks to their tails/tales.

Like many people, when I think of homonyms in works of children’s literature my mind instantly leaps to good old Amelia Bedelia. She continues to reign as the homonym queen to this day. After all, without them she wouldn’t get confused in the slightest. Hall could have done a storyline very much like Amelia’s. The cats could have just wandered about and gotten confused about the difference between boarding a plane and getting to plane a board. Ho and also hum. Instead, Hall takes a risk. He actually connects the sentences and uses his illustrations to make seemingly disparate phrases relate to one another. Now the text reads, “They flee a steer. They steer a plane. They plane a board. They board a train.” All this makes sense in the book since we see the progression from place to place. Note too that just to ratchet up the challenge a little, Hall is making this book rhyme on top of everything else. That’s sort of explained on the title page (Hall wastes no time) where it reads, “From word to word they find their way, Lillian, Tilly, and William J.” Interesting that Hall went with “Lillian” rather than “Lily” since “Lily and Tilly and William J.” has its own nice rhythm. There’s no denying how satisfying it is to begin with a Lillian and end with a William, though. Even if they don’t rhyme precisely.

When Hall wrote his previous book The Perfect Square there was wit on display but it seemed to be mostly of the visual variety. Cat Tale doles out the wit a little more on the verbal end of the spectrum, but there’s no denying that the art is also just great. As with the aforementioned Perfect Square Hall’s art consists of acrylic painted textures and paper cutouts that were combined digitally. Not that you can tell where the computer came in or how it was used. The colors in this book don’t have that faux clip-art coloring so often found in slapdash computer art. Instead it looks like Hall took out his sponge and his brightest hues and created something truly lovely. From the vibrant orange of the train to the deep and satisfying blue of the steer, there’s a method to Hall’s madness. A beautiful sumptuous method.

There is admittedly one moment in the book where I got seriously confused, so I wonder how it’ll fly with the pre-adolescent set. To be fair, that’s sort of the whole point of the spread. As the cats go along the homonyms gets crazier and crazier until there’s a virtual explosion of cats, steer, gnus, ducks, cars, shoes, ewes, you name it. The trouble is that I couldn’t make the mental leap from that image to the next one involving the cats’ tails. I know it makes sense on a practical level, but I felt like the transition was a bit too rough. Something a bit slower, a bit more staid, could have suited the storyline a little better.

I know a librarian who uses older picture books for her 2-3rd grade parent/child bookclub. It’s as good a solution as any I know to get those book circulating, that’s for sure. Of course, my dearest hope is that teachers discover this book as well. With the rise of interest in the Core Curriculum, folks need to remember that teaching homonyms doesn’t have to be rote and dull as dishwater. It can involve naughty gnus and rocked squashberries! A visual feast and too clever by half, Hall’s latest begs to be read aloud and pored over. A little book that deserves all the attention it can receive. Teachers, parents, librarians, and booksellers, take note.

On shelves August 28th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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22. Review of the Day: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Liar & Spy
By Rebecca Stead
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-73743-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

Rebecca Stead is the M. Night Shyamalan of children’s literature, and I mean that in a good Sixth Sense way, not a lame The Happening one. It’s funny, but when I try to compare her other authors I find myself tongue-tied. Who else spends as much time on setting up and knocking down expectations in such a surefire manner? Now Ms. Stead has created the most dreaded of all books: The one you write after you’ve won a major award. Which is to say, she won a Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me and now comes her next book Liar & Spy. Like all beloved authors who don’t follow up their hits with sequels, Ms. Stead is contending with some critics who expected more science fiction. Instead, what they’re getting is a jolt of realistic fiction housed in a story that feels like nothing so much as Rear Window meets Harriet the Spy. Though opinions on it vary widely, in the end I think it’s safe to call this a fun novel with a secret twist and a strong, good heart. Who could ask for anything more?

Don’t call him Gorgeous. Georges has had to live with his uniquely spelled name all his life (gee THANKS, namesake Georges Seurat) and it’s never been anything but a pain. You know what else is a pain? Moving from your awesome home where you had a loft made out of a real fire escape to an apartment with an unemployed dad and an absentee albeit loving mom. When Georges meets the similarly oddly named kid Safer in the new apartment building he becomes enmeshed in the boy’s spy club. Is there someone up to no good in the complex? How far will the boys go to learn the truth? As things escalate and George finds himself facing fears he didn’t even know he could have, he discovers that everything in his life boils down to this question: when it comes to his relationship with Safer, who really is the liar and who really is the spy?

If a book has a twist to its ending but you don’t know that a twist will be coming in the first place, is it a spoiler to mention the fact in a review? I’m counting on the answer to that question to be no since I’d like to talk about the twist a tad. As an adult reader of a children’s book text I did pick up on the fact that throughout the book adults kept looking at Georges in a concerned way. I think it’s fair to say that an intelligent kid with a good eye for detail might also notice as well. Would they think it weird that these looks aren’t explained or would they just write it off as the author’s literary fancy? I haven’t a clue. All I really know at this point is that for probably 96% of the child readership of this book, the ending is going to come flying at them from out of nowhere. In all likelihood.

I’ve had a lot of debates with adults about this novel and it’s funny how diverse the opinions of it range. Some folks think it’s a natural continuation of When You Reach Me. Others take issue with Stead’s use of geography or pacing. But the sticking point that comes up the most when people discuss this book is the fact that Georges is a boy. For a some readers, it isn’t until a good chunk of the story has passed that they suddenly realize that the voice they’ve been hearing is a boy’s voice and not a girl’s. For some, the shock is too much and they deem the speaker to be an inauthentic take on how guys talk. Stead is the mother of two boys, as I recall, so they are not (to cop a phrase) “unknown quantities” to her. Anyway, for my part this was not the problem that it’s proved to be for some readers. I was more concerned about the nature of the taste test. In this book Georges has a science class where a taste-related test will determine whether or not he’s an outcast for good. I loved how the test fit in within the context of the greater story. What I couldn’t quite feel was Georges’ dread of this test. It’s described in such a blasé matter-of-fact way early on that when we are told that he worries about the test it’s just that. We’re told how he feels. We don’t feel how he feels. It’s a fine line.

That said, when it comes right down to it Stead’s writing is stellar. She fills the book with these little insights and conjectures that could only come from a unique brain. I love it when kids speculate about weird things in books, so Georges’ thoughts about his dad as a boy are just great, particularly when he says, “I wonder whether Dad and I would have been friends, or if he would have been friends with Dallas Llewellyn, or Carter Dixon, or what. It’s kind of a bummer to think your own dad might have been someone who called you Gorgeous.” Similarly I was very fond of the characters in this book. Safer was a perfect noir hero, complete with backstory and shady intentions. And seriously, how can you resist a kid that keeps insisting that he’s drinking coffee from his flask? Minor characters are just as interesting too. Bob English, a classmate of Georges, is a redeemed class freak along the lines of Dwight from The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. I’m a sucker for that kind of creation.

Unlike her previous novel When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is set firmly in the 21st century. In an era of helicopter parenting, this book got me to wonder whether or not the economic downturn would create an abundance of latchkey children with parents who work more and more jobs to make ends meet. If so, we may see more characters like Georges free to wander the streets while their parental units exist in absence. Something to chew on. Regardless, the book has engendered a lot of discussion and undoubtedly folks will continue to talk about it and debate it for years to come. The best way to summarize it? It’s about an unreliable narrator who meets an unreliable narrator. It’s also fun. And that, really, is all you need to say about that.

On shelves now.

First Sentence: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue.”

Source: Galley borrowed from friend for review.

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And here’s a fun 60-Second Recap video as well.

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23. Review of the Day: Little White Duck by Na Liu

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China
By Na Liu
Illustrated by Andres Vera Martinez
ISBN: 9780761365877
Graphic Universe (an imprint of Lerner)
$29.27
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

It’s funny to think about, but the fact of the matter is that we’re still in the early days of the graphic novel memoir for children. Adult graphic novel memoirs are capable of winning top literary awards, like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. On the kid side of things the options are far more limited. The top literary prize for kids, the Newbery, has never been handed to a comic work, nor does the American Library Association have a prize for comics of any sort. All this comes to mind when I pick up a book like Little White Duck. Couched in the memories of its author, this groundbreaking work is perhaps the finest marriage of world history and comic art for kids I’ve seen in a very long time. A must read for young and old alike.

Told in eight short stories, the book follows Da Qin the middle class daughter of two parents, living in the late 1970s/early 80s. Through her eyes we see a number of small stories about growing up in a post-Mao China. There’s the tale of how she and her younger sister attempted to emulate their nation’s heroes by helping some thirsty chicks (to an unfortunate end, I’m afraid), or the one about having to bring in rat tails to prove she was great at pest control. There’s the story of how Mao’s death affected the nation, and useful facts about China during this era. Most impressive is the titular story about Da Qin and what happened to the white velvet duck on her jacket when she and her father visited the village where he was born. Honest, sometimes funny, and unusually touching, this glimpse into another life in another world rings distinctly true.

This book has been a reason for serious debate amongst the librarians of my system. Some wondered about the seemingly unconnected stories and whether or not they gelled properly. Others fretted that there wasn’t enough context given about growing up in China during the post-Mao era. Still others wondered about the authenticity. The book was then handed to a co-worker of mine who grew up in China during the same time period as Na Liu she was floored. The details of the book were straight out of her own childhood. She held up one picture to me of popped rice, explaining what it was and how she had never seen it portrayed in a book before. So on the reality front the book certainly ranks an A.

Actually, when I asked my Chinese co-worker to read the book in the first place she was hugely reluctant. Turned out, she just didn’t want to read yet another kid’s book about the Cultural Revolution, and who could blame her? I would say that the vast swath of books for kids set in China are solely interested in Cultural Revolution stuff (stuff that my poor co-worker would be forced to vet time and time again). Part of what makes Little White Duck work is that without didacticism it simply tells a true story about some of the people who were helped by Mao’s rule. Da Qin’s parents were poor and thanks to changes were able to get an education and treated for polio. The book makes no bones about the hungry times under Mao, but it’s rare to get a nuanced view in a work for youth. Heck, the first story in the book is about the massive weeping that occurred in Da Qin’s village when Mao died and about her very realistic child response of crying because everyone else was crying around her. That’s honestly Liu’s greatest strength with this book. She creates universal stories from her youth that anybody can enjoy, even as she sets them in a very specific time and place. That’s why the fact that they are individual stories rather than one overarching storyline work for me. Each one is like a little glimpse into a realistic kid’s life.

Not to mention the fact that the book deals with class in a remarkable way. I’ve a real penchant for children’s books that know how to deal with class differences. Bad works of children’s literature will usually feature a poor kid hating a rich kid and then inevitably discovering “Gee whiz, we’re not so different after all.”. Smart books for kids handle this enormously complex idea in candid, thoughtful ways. Anna Hibiscus could do it by showing the difference between middle and lower classes in contemporary Nigeria. Little White Duck is the same, using its titular story to tell the tale of Da Qin and her father visiting the poor village where he grew up. Reading that story I went into it confident that I knew how it would work. When Da Qin’s father tells her to go play with the village kids I was sure they’d be mean to her and she’d learn something. Instead they’re perfectly cordial. They are, admittedly, fascinated by the little white velvet duck on her coat and the dirt on their hands coat it black with all their petting. Then for fun, because they can’t afford books like she can, they put sticks up buzzing insects and run about. The next shot is a shell-shocked Da Qin sitting on a train seat while her father asks obliviously, “Did you have a good time?” I loved that. I loved seeing her encounter kids with less at such a young age and coming to an understanding of how lucky she was.

One librarian I spoke too worried that because there are so few books for kids out there, children reading this book today might assume that it shows contemporary China and not the China of the past. Honestly I don’t think that’s a huge danger. It’s possible that will happen, sure, but Liu covers her bases for the most part, and the brown palette of the art gives everything a historical taste. Now the art poses an interesting question. Created by Texan artist Andres Vera Martinez, this is at least his second foray into graphic novels for kids. The style is perfect for the story too. Filled with details realistic, but also fun, it’s a properly moving tone for a book that is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and always interesting. Now that brown palette I alluded to earlier could potentially prove detrimental. There is an understanding out there that kids will not read black and white comics. True. There is also and understanding that kids will not read books with brown covers. Also true. So what do we make of books that are comics colored in a lot of brown? I’m not quite sure but I’m confident that any kid who reads a story or two in the book will be hugely inclined to continue to do so. Good art and writing win out.

Liu says in the book that she wrote it so that her daughter might get a glimpse into what it was like growing up. Sometimes family stories just aren’t enough. You’ve gotta show, not tell. Even now, when I show a book like this to adults, some of them will say to me, “But what kid would ever read it?”. There’s this continuing perception that unless a comic has superheroes or manga characters it, no kid will want to read it. This does kids a serious injustice. We don’t ask why kids would ever pick up a memoir like Diary of a Young Girl even when there are copies of Harry Potter available. The wonderful thing about kids and comics is that some readers will pick up anything, just so long as there are panels and speech balloons to be had. In other cases you have kids that like comics but aren’t big fiction and fantasy readers. For them we hand over this book. Perhaps the strongest graphic novels for kids of the year and undoubtedly unique, this is one way of teaching world history through a lens that cannot be matched. Thoroughly and entirely remarkable.

On shelves now.

Source: Reviewed from galley sent from publisher.

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24. Review of the Day: Jonathan & Martha by Petr Horacek

Jonathan & Martha
By Petr Horacek
Phaidon Press Inc.
$14.95
ISBN: 978-0-7148-6351-1
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

Ever tried to write a picture book before? Blooming bloody hard work they are. Synthesizing a point down to as few words as possible without sacrificing story or character is akin to trying to cram a muffin into a mouse hole. It takes skill and talent, particularly if your subject matter is broad. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if you’re dealing with a very specific subject, like a baby train robber or a dog that wants to fly a rocket to the moon, that is far and away much easier to write about than the big concepts like “love” or “need” or “friendship”. Friendship, as it happens, is at least a little easier since you can pep up your storyline with lots of superfluous details and folderol if needs be. That’s why I sort of get floored when I see something as simple and perfect as Jonathan & Martha. With art and design so beautiful you just want to stroke the pages for a couple hours, as well as story and characters that stand out and demand to be noticed, the eminent Czech author/illustrator Petr Horacek outdoes himself and makes the rest of us a little jealous that he can make it look so very easy.

When we meet our heroes, Jonathan and Martha are two lonely worms living on either side of a large pear tree. One day a magnificently sized green pear falls to the ground. Unaware of the others’ presence, the two eat their way into a fast acquaintance. They immediately set about fighting one another, only to find that their tails are now inextricably linked. Forced to share, the two discover the pleasure of enjoying food, large and small, together. And when a hungry birdie finds a fast (and mildly painful) way of separating them, they now like sharing so much that they’re willing to keep on doing it. Tangled tails or no.

How often do you pet the pages of your picture books? I’m not talking about those tactile board books with their fur and scale elements. No, I mean beautifully crafted picture books where the very paper feels like it could stand up to wind, rain and storm. Books where part of the joy is in running your fingertips over the raised thick illustrations on the book jacket (a pleasure sadly lost to any library system that protects those jackets with plastic covers). Phaidon has pulled out all the stops with this little British import, lavishing their title with thick papers, beautiful die-cuts, covers that beg to be touched, and enough colors to pop out an eye or two.

All that designy stuff aside (and, let’s admit it, that’s just the stuff that gets adults shopping in museum gift shops excited rather than children) there’s a ton of kid appeal to be found here. I have two words for you: worm headlock. Now tell me you’re not interested in seeing that. The book itself looks like it was created in the Eric Carle vein, with beautiful painted sections found alongside parts that may or may not be computer generated (on Horacek’s artistic style the book remains mum). Getting right down to the characters of Jonathan and Martha themselves, I found myself hugely pleased that Horacek chose to make them almost physically identical. Many’s the artist who would have felt obligated to make clear Martha’s femininity with some kind of bow or some long overwrought eyelashes. Part of the charm of the story, though, is the fact that the two worms are pretty much identical (Jonathan’s a touch longer in the tail). Feminizing details would be at odds here.

And did I happen to mention that it reads aloud well? It’s a big book, you see, weighing at around 9″ x 9″. That means it really pops when you read it in a storytime. When you hold it high, a room full of children can make out the details perfectly. And as anyone with any readaloud experience will tell you, die-cuts are a reader’s best friend. It doesn’t hurt matters any that the words work just splendidly as well. I remember a couple of years ago when Horacek’s Silly Suzy Goose was brought to the States and readers were split into two factions. On the one hand you had the folks who thought it was a gift of a readaloud destined for storytime greatness. On the other hand there were a lot of people (present company included) driven positively mad by some of the phrases in the book. No such problems exist here. The writing is incredibly simple and straightforward, punctuated occasionally by a little “Ouch!” on occasion. There’s not a child alive who could watch that ginormous hungry bird and not feel some twinge of fear for the fate of our tangled twosome.

Lots of other picture books come to mind when I read this book. The die-cuts evoke The Very Hungry Caterpillar while the idea of two enemies stuck together so that they become friends is akin to Randy Cecil’s beautifully twisted Horsefly and Honeybee. Jonathan & Martha is clearly it’s own queer little beastie, though. Eye-catching enough to arouse the interest of even the snottiest adult consumer but kid-friendly enough to pass the fearful readaloud-to-a-large-group test, this is the rare book that pleases highbrow and lowbrow alike. Fun and fanciful and far and away one of the best little picture books of the year. You’d do well to make its acquaintance.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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And check out this cool cover of the same book from what I believe to be the UK!

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25. Review of the Day: A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat
By Dave Shelton
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-75248-0
Ages 9 and up
On shelves now

First off, I like it.

I think it’s important to make that note right upfront. Particularly since I’m probably going to break out terms like “bizarre”, “peculiar”, “odd”, “weird”, and “eerily strange” (or “strangely eerie” depending on my mood) when describing this book. I will undoubtedly be simultaneously inclined to warn you off of the whole enterprise while luring you in with terms like “artful writing” and “deft turns of phrase”. I think that it is safe to say that A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is a study in contrasts. A uniquely British import with an internal logic so fixed and solid that you’re willing to go along with it, even when it goes against everything you’ve come to expect in juvenile fiction. It’s Waiting for Godot for kids. Life of Pi for the grade school set. A bit of big picture fiction that dares to challenge reader expectations, even if that reader happens to be nine. It’s brilliant and flawed and pretty much the most interesting chapter book fare for children you’ll read this year, even when it strikes you as dull. One thing’s for certain. There is nothing else quite like it on your library or bookstores shelves.

“Will it take long?” “A little while.” A boy steps into a boat captained by a rather large bear. His destination? The other side. At first all appears to be going well. The sea is calm and the sky clear. The boy even takes a nap, only to wake up to find that he has not reached his destination after all. After a couple days pass it seems fairly clear that the bear has gotten the two of them hopelessly lost. Their survival on the high seas takes the form of many small adventures, from teatime to sea monsters, and everything in-between. In the end, the boy and the bear reach a kind of peace and a desire to keep going, no matter what.

Big picture fiction is what I called this book earlier and I stand by that phrase. Once in a great while you’ll encounter a novel for children that selects the road less taken, for better or for worse. These tend to be books that try to make child readers really sit down and think. They also tend to be imports. Nothing against American writers or publishers, but the market these days is not exactly inclined to give much space to the more speculative and philosophical titles out there. Not today anyway. In the era of Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child I’m certain an American writer could have gotten away with A Boy and a Bear in a Boat easy peasy. These days, not so much. Unless you are dealing with an independent publisher, most big publishers would much rather put out surefire hits than titles where two nameless characters go nowhere for pages on end.

It’s the journey, not the destination that counts. Now try telling that to an eight-year-old when you’ve decided to take the scenic route on any trip. I’ll tell you true that I would have hated this book as a child. But then, I was a pretty unimaginative person. I have distinct memories of reaching the end of Stuart Little only to be appalled and disgusted with its ending. And yes, I am about to discuss the ending of A Boy and a Bear in a Boat so consider this your spoiler alert warning, such as it is. I think Shelton’s intent here is to make the book so engaging and the small adventures so enticing that kids will root less for the characters to find their way and more for them to continue having adventures. Their quixotic quest, however, may make the mistake of starring two characters so loveable that in spite of the enjoyment you derive from watching them on the page, your desire to see them safe and sound trumps all. And when that happens, expect some serious middle grade reader fury to manifest itself when they reach the last page.

So why stick with it at all? Well it’s hard to put in so many words but I suspect it has something to do with the character development. Here you have a boy and a bear, and we don’t find out much of anything about them, not even their names. Where’s the boy going and does he have a family waiting for him? No idea. Why is the bear the captain of his boat and who was the “Harriet” he named it after? Not explained. Actually, this is sort of a feat of writing in and of itself. Try writing a 294-page story without delving into a character’s background even once. Now at the same time, find ways to really highlight what makes these two people tick anyway. Begin their meeting with a low-level animosity that climbs as things go from bad to worse. Now build a believable friendship between them and make it so that you’re rooting for them both. Go boy! Go bear! Find that land! Find it, I say!

And the writing . . . oh the writing. It excels, it soars, it flies. Most important of all, it’s funny. Shelton has a mad genius for squeezing large drops of humor out of what would otherwise be pretty bleak fare. Starving to death on the high seas is nothing to laugh at, but you’d think otherwise when you read some of the man’s lines. For example, when the boy finds some biscuits on a boat the book says, “It was very hard and dry and tasted almost of nothing at all, only not as nice.” There are also moments so sad and funny all at once that you end up hooting rather loudly as you read the book on your morning subway ride. The part where the bear has constructed a rather perfect raft with which to save himself and the boy, then proceeds to lose it all thanks to a stiff gust is this pitch perfect moment of clarity that I would hold up as one of the finest funniest bits of humor writing for kids this year.

I was admittedly a little surprised to find that the illustrations were by Shelton himself. Apologies to Mr. Shelton but when I think of long books written by great artists I think of works of nonfiction (We Are the Ship), illustrated novels that rely as much on visual storytelling as narrative (Wonderstruck), or cute animal tales (A Nest for Celeste). What I do not think of is grade school ennui. Shelton’s illustrations, by the way, are a godsend in a book such as this. You find yourself relying on them to a certain extent. Sequences that feature bored characters in books are always in danger of boring the readership as well. Shelton’s pictures, however, keep eyeballs wide open. They’re just the right combination of cartoonish and classic. And for the record I was hugely impressed with a faux Eastern European comic book sequence that takes place after the boy finds an impossible to decipher comic under his seat, left there by a previous passenger. That two-page spread is worth the price of admission alone.

One librarian of my acquaintance put it far better than I ever could when she said that “the ending is both perfect and slightly infuriating.” You may as well say the same for the book itself. If the book is some kind of allegory then it’s pushing its lesson so lightly you won’t be disturbed in the slightest. To put it another way, this is the book that a decade from now college freshmen will hand prospective mates saying (somewhat untruthfully), “This was my favorite book as a kid,” so as to test their lovers’ resolve. Not the worst fate a book ever suffered. If you wish to feel the kind of frustration that ages like fine wine, here is the answer to your prayers. Guaranteed to, at the very least, put a kink in your brain.

For ages 9-12.

Source: Copy borrowed from fellow librarian for review.

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Notes on the Cover: To say that the American version ramps up the action is accurate. The British jacket was more in keeping with the tone of the book itself.

With a jacket like that you cannot say the readership wasn’t warned.

Video:

Finally, here’s Mr. Shelton himself reading aloud from his book.

5 Comments on Review of the Day: A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton, last added: 9/13/2012
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