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1. A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

In a mere twelve days the world will sit down and hear what the official winners of the 2013 Newbery and Caldecott Awards officially are.  Like you, I will tune in to the webcast to hear the announcements live.  ALA says that the announcement will be made ” 8 a.m. PT on Jan. 28, from the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.”  Um . . . 8 a.m. PT?  So, that would be . . . 5 a.m. ET?  Ruh-roh.  Might have to go to bed a bit early that night. UPDATE: In spite of traveling to the West Coast on a regular basis, clever readers have pointed out that the announcements will be made at 11 a.m. ET.  Clearly am incapable of math.

In the meantime, let’s speculate to our heart’s delight.  We don’t have much to go on above and beyond the Mock Newberys and Mock Caldecotts springing up around the nation.  I wondered if Heavy Medal or Calling Caldecott would tabulate these announcements, but apparently that’s not their bag.  Next year maybe I’ll give it a try.  Beats working.  In any case, I feel like we’ve seen a real increase in Mock Awards nationwide recently.  This is good news.  If you’ve a chance, check out some of the newer blogs like For Those About to Mock, which have been amusing me considerably over the last few months.

But enough jibber jabber!  Let’s talk about what I think will win for 2013.  I’ve heard a couple folks speculate that 2012 was a strong Printz and Siebert year but a weak Newbery and Caldecott one.  Not entirely certain how to account for that.  One thing I do know is that this is a year without villains.  There are some years where a book you loathe has a chance of winning it all.  There were a two or three books like that for me this year, but I don’t think they have a chance in the world, so I’m not worried.  I like pretty much everything.  So let’s look at the top contenders, shall we?

Newbery Medal

And the gold goes to . . .

StarryRiverSky A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin – Here’s my logic on this one.  If you want a simple (and entirely off-base) bit of reasoning you could note that Lin’s previous Chinese folktale-imbued novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon won a Newbery Honor.  This book is better than that one, ipso facto it deserves the gold.  But Newbery committees don’t look at an author’s past work.  They have to take every book as it comes and judge it on its own merits.  Consider then, the merits of Ms. Lin’s book.  Her subtle weaving of folktale and myth into the storyline is flawless, and so beautifully done that you’d suspect she made up those tale just to suit the tale (and you’d be wrong).  The characters have depth even in the midst of their fairytale-like setting.  Is it “distinguished”?  No bones about it.  Plus it’s funny, it has a snail- eating subplot (not a Newbery requirement yet, though it should be), and the tales are cyclical.  You can trace how one tale repeats back on itself later.  Long story short, there’s a reason NYPL made it the cover of the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list for 2012.  I may be off-base, but I’ll be damned if Lin doesn’t at least get an Honor for this.

Newbery Honors
(the likelihood of there being 5 Honors is slim to none but a girl can dream, can’t she?)

Bomb A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – After a long talk with Monica Edinger of Educating Alice I came to the decision that Sheinkin’s book may have a real chance.  Initially I thought it might play too old for the Newbery.  After reading it, though, I can see how 13 and 14-year-olds could certainly get a lot out of the text.  Then I worried that it would suffer the fate of so many other nonfiction books that came before.  You know how it is.  It’s 2 a.m., the committee is exhausted, and when the votes don’t make a clear cut winner then any small controversial fact in a nonfiction book makes it game for excising.  But Bomb seems pretty strong.  Some folks have questioned Sheinkin’s facts, but he can account for every windswept hair or fist hitting a table.  Other folks questioned how important heavy water was to a Allied win/Nazi win.  But if his facts are accurate then I don’t know that this is a real concern.  The book reads like an episode of Mission Impossible, it’s fun, it’s smart, it shows multiple sides, and it is without a doubt one of the most intelligent titles of the year.  So give it some lovin’ committee!

TwelveKindsIce1 A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Obed – Perhaps this is just stubbornness on my part when talking about this personal favorite, but when you’re bandying about the word “distinguished” this book hits on every level.  I’ve been singing its praises for months now, but I’m not listing it here for no reason.  I honestly think it has a shot.  It’s the shortest of my predictions, but it does what it sets out to do better than most books of the year.  If it Honored I would be honored.

SplendorsGlooms A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz – Admittedly when I read it I figured I loved it but that it wouldn’t touch other librarians in the same way.  How wrong I was!  Over and over again folks have informed me that they adore this book.  Ms. Schlitz is one of our best children’s authors of the day, and this title was a long time coming.  Clearly her talent just shines on every page and Newbery committees have a tendency to reward that sort of thing.  Just sayin’.

Crowpaperback A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Crow by Barbara Wright – My boss, as I may have mentioned, has a sixth sense about these things and her mental dowsing rod has been pointed straight at Crow for some time.  If it walks away with the gold, don’t act surprised.  Just watch her closely next year and put down some money.

ivan A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – I would actually be right pleased if it walked away with the gold. Is it distinguished?  Absolutely!  And smart and funny and a talking animal book that will even please folks who can’t stand talking animal books. Ivan, you have my vote of confidence.

So that’s that.  Which, inevitably, brings us to . . .

Where The Heck Is . . . .?

Wonder by R.J. Palacio – You know, I think this may be the Okay for Now of 2012.  It broke early, giving folks enough time to get over their initial sense of . . . . well . . . wonder, before noticing some of the problems.  For a complete listing of those problems I refer you to Peter Sieruta’s post on the matter here.  I think it’s a lovely book and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but in the end it may just have to rest on its massive popularity for comfort.  This book appears to have run its course.

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead – While I can see it winning, I’d be surprised.  I enjoyed it very much when I read it but time has shown me that it may not have quite enough oomph to carry it over the finish line.

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristine Levine – Again, really enjoyed this one.  Didn’t get a chance to review it (doggone it) but if it wins I’ve a copy sitting on my shelf just waiting for that announcement.  Not sure if it’s the one that Levine’s going to be remembered for, though.  I think she has some more good books in her.  The next one she does may be “the one”.

And then there are the books that I adore but are so divisive I can’t see them winning anything.  In my perfect dreamworld Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is the surprise 2013 winner (wouldn’t that be a BLAST?) and everyone’s jaws fall to the floor.  I mean, she’d be a perfect winner.  It took her twenty-eight years between books, she’s charming, the book is funny as all get out, etc.  Unfortunately some folks don’t much care for Southern humor or quirky small-town characters, so I can’t see it happening.  Sara Pennypacker’s Summer of the Gypsy Moths is similar in that way.  I love it, but I dunno.  Louise Erdrich is routinely passed over for this award, though I’d be delighted if Chickadee proved me wrong.  I loved The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds but since I’m the only one I’m fine with acknowledging it may not get so much as a wink or a blink.

So that’s Newbery for ya.  Let’s do the harder award to predict.  Which is to say, I almost NEVER get this right.

Caldecott Medal

And the gold goes to . . .

Green A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger – Long story short, I think it does everything right.  The die-cuts work, the descriptions work, and it has a low ebb of ecological sensitivity running through it that is VERY attractive to a committee.  It’s not didactic, but it still manages to get its message across.  Living as I do in a city that was hit hard by a hurricane this year, I can’t help but notice that few picture books have tackled the environment in any way, shape, or form.  This is one of the few, so it’s timely as well as beautiful and well-written.  If it doesn’t Honor at the very least I am going to pelt the committee with plastic styrofoam peanuts until my rage has abated.

Caldecott Honors

More 300x246 A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

More by I.C. Springmann, illustrated by Brian Lies – Saucy little magpie, isn’t he?  This is a book that I didn’t pay doodly over squat attention to this year.  I liked it.  I thought it was cool.  Heck I even cut up its F&G and turned it into a birdhouse for my baby’s bedroom.  But Caldecott?  Never occurred to me.  Not until it started showing up on Mock Caldecott lists.  Over . . . . and over.  . . . and over.  There’s something about this book that pleases large groups of people.  Someone questioned whether or not it was adult friendly rather than kid-friendly, but I’d disagree heartily with that criticism.  I mean, there’s a lot of enjoyable chaos in this book.  I’m sorry I never reviewed it, but if it wins something I’ll make up for that sin pronto.

ExtraYarn 300x243 A Fuse #8 Prediction: Newbery / Caldecott 2013 (Final Prediction Edition)

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen – Another one that has come up enough times in discussions to convince me that it’s a real contender.  There was some discussion over whether or not the knitting technique in this book is inaccurate and whether or not that would disqualify it.  I happen to be the daughter of a pre-eminent knitter and this did not strike me a big problem.  Trust me when I say that I’ve seen MUCH worse needle techniques in books in my day.  The real question is whether or not the committee will deem Klassen’s restrained style as “distinguished”.  Of that, I cannot say.  I can only hope. Please read the speeches by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen after they won a Boston-Globe Horn Book Award for this book.  It’ll be the best part of your day.

Wild Cards

Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman – Forgot all about this one, didn’t you?  It came out early in 2012 and Priceman, lest you forget, is a previous Caldecott Honor winner.  There is a surprising LACK of diversity in the books we’re discussing this year, so let me at least bring this one up as a contender.  The writing is top-notch and the visuals amazing.  I don’t know how you can show Josephine’s banana dress dance and remain G-rated fare, but somehow Priceman pulls it off.  She should get an award for that alone.

Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten by Hyewon Yum – Who, may I add, is a Brooklyn resident.  It’s a divisive book to a certain extent, but those folks who love it REALLY love it.  Kids totally get the metaphor at work too, and it would be nice to see Yum get a little credit for her unique style.  Don’t count it out.  I could see this one pulling ahead from the rear.

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost, photographs by Rick Lieder – Because this is Helen Frost we’re talking about this book has also been bandied about for the Newbery.  I think it would be a very forward thinking Newbery committee to give the award to something quite this simple and refined.  Come to that, it would take a very forward thinking Caldecott committee to give an award to a book of photography (something that has never happened before).  Still, wouldn’t it be neat?

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex – Adam Rex is, for whatever reason, continually passed over for Caldecotts time and time again.  I like to think that if he ever won one, it would be for this book.  It’s so smart and funny and clever, and it seems to me that since this is the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott, a book that is entirely ABOUT the relationship between the artist and the author would be a no-brainer of a win.  The timing couldn’t be any more perfect.  *hint hint* oh, committee *hint hint*

Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee – Well she has a penchant for winning Honors, and this book’s delightful.  I don’t know that it’s coming up in that many conversations, but it would be nice to see it get a little kick.  Plus I’m a sucker for, as Kirkus put it, “erroneous bereavement”.

Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown – Oh it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in h-e-double hockey stick.  But a luuuuuuuurve it.  I want to go live in the universe where this wins.

Where the Heck Is . . . ?

And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogiano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead – Is it lovely?  Oh yup yup yup.  And I would NOT be surprised if it won it all.  But for some strange reason I just don’t think it will.  I can’t account for this feeling.  We’ll see.

Oh No by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann – This one, alas, may be sunk because of perspective.  There’s a moment when the animal p.o.v. in the hole makes it clear that they would not be able to see the tiger approach and yet they still cry “Oh no!” when he gets near.  That’s a teeny tiny detail, but the kind of thing a committee latches onto (depending on the tenor of the committee).  It’s gorgeous, though.  Would be nice if it got something.

Unspoken by Henry Cole – I know it has its defenders, but I confess that this book didn’t do it for me.  I can see what it was going for but the overall effect is (forgive me) Selznick-lite.  I didn’t get the emotional punch from the material that some have felt.  The committee may feel otherwise, of course.

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen – If the predecessor did not win, I don’t think the sequel will either.  I do love the tiny hat, though.

For a larf, check out what I thought would win last year.  That’ll show you why everything up here is wrongdy wrong wrong.  I’m still mad about the Amelia Lost shut-out, but at least I had a vague notion about Inside Out and Back Again.  I called A Ball for Daisy as an Honor and Grandpa Green, but that was as close as I got to correct.  Ouch!

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2. Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Observe!  Before your very eyes I will now beat my breast and rend my clothing (simultaneously… I’m talented like that) while wailing at a fever pitch about the books that I wish I had reviewed in 2012.  You see, I give myself some pretty strict rules when it comes to reviewing.  Once the second hand strikes midnight and the new year comes in, that is IT for the previous year’s titles.  Not all is lost, of course.  There is a chance that if any of these books win a Newbery or Caldecott I will do some last minute reviewing of them right after the award announcements.  But otherwise, these are the folks who lost out and I sincerely regret it.  Technically every book that appeared on yesterday’s 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2012 list should be here, but from that I’ll select just a couple that make me particularly sad.

Without further ado, and in no particular order whatsoever . . .

HORSE 500x344 Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

H.O.R.S.E. by Christopher Myers – Gah.  The ONLY reason I didn’t do this one is that the sole copy in my possession is at NYPL because we placed it on the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List (which ain’t a bad thing) and there it stays with the other books of the year.  The book was remarkable for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was one of the very very few contemporary picture books with African-American characters.

WalkingOnEarth 500x500 Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin. Illustrated by S. D. Nelson. – The number of books written by Native Americans is small in any given year, so what was my excuse for not reviewing either Louise Erdrich’s Chickadee or this remarkable collection of poetry by the kids at the Red Cloud Indian School?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t good enough.

Crowpaperback Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Crow by Barbara Wright – If it really does win a Newbery this year I’m gonna feel pretty stupid for predicting its win and then never reviewing it.  I just adore this description of the book on the author’s website: “The only successful coup d’etat in US history, seen through the eyes of a young boy.”  Great new paperback cover too.

FairyRing Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

The Fairy Ring by Mary Losure – Funny that other folks didn’t like this one as much as I did.  I really did feel it was one of the best little recaps of a successful hoax out there (though by no means the only one written in a children’s book format in 2012).  Great production and design, lovely writing, a stellar project through and through.

Bomb Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Bomb: The Race to Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin – This one took me a long time to read since I thought it was straight YA and I don’t get a chance to look at a lot of that fare in a given year.  That said, I think this is one of the rare YA titles eligible for the Newbery, and just a stellar piece of writing through and through!  Sorry I missed the boat here.

TrainsGo Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Trains Go by Steve Light – I officially reviewed only one board book this year.  Would that it has been two.  Though you could call this a sequel of sorts (Trucks Go came out four or so years prior) this book was a magical combination of great train sounds and stellar art.

Cardboard Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel – And then I go and find out that it’s currently being turned into a film starring Tobey Maguire.  Gah!  There were so few really imaginative graphic novels this year.  The sequence where the old man explains the cardboard’s sci-fi / fantasy / religious background was worth the price of admission alone.

DuckForADay Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Duck for a Day by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Judith Rudge – Don’t count how many Candlewick books made my 100 Magnificent Children’s Books list for the year.  It’s a little silly.  Fortunately I was able to keep my reviews on par with the other publishers.  UNfortunately, that meant not getting a chance to review stellar works like this one.  A great little early chapter book it was by no means the only duck related early chapter title of 2012 (I counted at least four others) but it was, at least, the best.

TempleGrandin Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery – Sweet jeebus it was good.  Bar none the best book on autism for kids I’ve ever read.  I think I missed this one because it got SO much excellent press when it first came out.  Guess I felt I would be a single voice lost in the chorus.  Ah well.

DuckSockHop Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Duck Sock Hop by Jane Kohuth, illustrated by Jane Porter – My library’s amazing catalog (called Bibliocommons) allows us to make lists that are searchable by all the other 50+ systems that use the same system.  One list I made for this year was Top Ten Picture Book Read-Alouds of 2012.  And you can bet this book was prominently promoted on that list.  Oh yes indeedy it was.

Deadweather Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey – Another victim of timing.  I’ll stand by my statement that it’s the funniest pirate chapter book for kids I’ve ever read.  There aren’t enough humorous books in a given year anyway.  May as well seek out the few that exist (and are honestly funny).

LetsSingLullaby Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Let’s Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy by Jan Thomas – As a children’s librarian I have a natural adoration for Jan Thomas.  This book really ranks up there with Rhyming Dust Bunnies, coming across as funny in all the right ways.  The sole problem I have with it is that I keep misremembering the title as “Let’s Go Sleep with the Brave Cowboy” which would be a very different book (I have a similar problem with Mo Willems and his this-is-not-the-actual-title “Let’s Go Sleep with Sheep the Sheep”).

Plunked Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Plunked by Michael Northrup – Dang de dang de dang.  I totally failed to keep up with boy sports fiction this year.  So you’d think that the one really good one I read, one of the few where the hero is an actual honest-to-god jock, would have gotten some attention from me.  Michael’s been coming to my KidLit Drink Nights here in NYC for years.  Would have loved to give him his proper due.  Ah well.

BuriedAlive Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Buried Alive!: How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott – I reviewed Marc Aronson’s Trapped on the same topic last year.  Would that I had seen this first.  Incredibly gripping and kid-friendly, I didn’t do right by Ms. Scott.  Couldn’t get enough people to read her in time.  If you get a chance, do look at this.  It’s a remarkable story and the visuals in this format just POP!

Drama Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

Drama by Raina Telgemeier – Well, at least I got Smile in, even if it was in the Times and not on this blog.  Even as I write this I come to the slow dawning horror of a realization that I’ve never reviewed Telgemeier on this blog . . . ever.  Not even once.  And it’s not like she churns one out a year or anything!  ARG!

InGlassGrimmly Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2012

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz – Oh, you should have seen the notes I wrote at the back of its galley.  They were scintillating.  Brilliant.  Man, I was drawing comparisons between this and Starry River of the Sky that would have made your head spin.  Pity it never happened.  Still, I’m heartened to hear that #3 in this series (if you can call it that) is on the horizon and that it involves The Juniper Tree (amongst other things).  I’m having nightmares in anticipation already.

And in the final reviewing tally, here is the complete list of the publishers I DID review in the year 2012:

Abrams: 3
(Amulet: 2)

Barefoot Books: 1

Bloomsbury: 1
(Walker: 1)

Blue Apple Books: 1

Candlewick: 6
(TOON Books: 1)

Charlesbridge: 1

Chronicle: 2

Cuento de Luz: 1

Eerdmans: 2

Enchanted Lion Press: 1

Groundwood Books: 1

Harper Collins: 6
(Harper: 3)
(Balzer & Bray: 1)
(Greenwillow: 1)
(Walden Pond Press: 1)

Holiday House: 1

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 4
(Clarion: 3)

Hyperion: 1

Kids Can Press: 1

Lerner: 2
(Graphics: 1)
(Millbrook Press: 1)

Little Brown & Co: 2

Macmillan: 6
(Roaring Brook: 5)
(First Second: 1)

Mims House: 1

National Geographic: 1

Penguin: 3
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons: 2)
(Dial: 1)

Phaidon: 1

Random House: 6
(Anchor Books: 1)
(Wendy Lamb: 2)
(Knopf: 1)
(David Fickling: 1)

Scholastic: 2

Simon & Schuster: 5
(Atheneum: 2)
(Beach Lane: 1)
(Margaret K. McElderry Books: 1)

Simply Read Books: 1

Tater Tot Books: 1

I like to alternate the big guys with the little.  A couple folks are missing, so I’ll have to make sure I hit them in the new year.

Woot!  2012 OUT!

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3. 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2012

Happy 2013, everybody!

*tweet!*

And that officially marks the end of all my 2012 reviews.  I’ll have an appropriate regret-filled post on the matter tomorrow, but for now let’s celebrate the year!  Everyone has their own little lists, and I am no exception.  In case you’re curious, I did similar ones for 2010 and 2011.  Now just because I don’t mention your favorite book here, that doesn’t mean I don’t adore it on some level.  I just had to limit these titles to 100, which is bloody difficult.  Similarities to the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list from NYPL are acknowledged, but there are some definitely differences, you betcha.  For one thing, I could only include the books I’d actually read on this list.

So without further ado . . . here we go!!

Picture Books

And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano. Illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Roaring Brook Press

Baby Bear Sees Blue by Ashley Wolff. Beach Lane Books

Beach Feet by Kiyomi Konagaya. Illustrated by Masamitsu Saito. Enchanted Lion Books

Boot & Shoe by Marla Frazee. Beach Lane Books

Cat Tale by Michael Hall. Greenwillow Books

Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Adam Rex. Hyperion Books

Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds. Illustrated by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster

Duck Sock Hop by Jane Kohuth. Illustrated by Jane Porter. Dial Books for Young Readers

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett. Illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzer & Bray

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Roaring Brook Press

Happy Like Soccer by Maribeth Boelts. Illustrated by Lauren Castillo. Candlewick Press

H.O.R.S.E.: A Game of Basketball and Imagination by Christopher Myers. Egmont USA

It’s a Tiger! by David LaRochelle. Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. Chronicle Books

Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago. Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng. Groundwood Books

John Jensen Feels Different by Henrik Hovland. Illustrated by Torill Kove. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Jonathan & Martha by Petr Horacek. Phaidon

Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters by K.G. Campbell. Kids Can Press

Let’s Sing a Lullaby with the Brave Cowboy by Jan Thomas. Beach Lane Books

Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff. Illustrated by William Low. Candlewick Press

My Dad Is Big and Strong, But . . . by Coralie Saudo. Illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books

The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart. Illustrated by David Small. Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Step Gently Out by Helen Frost. Photographs by Rick Lieder. Candlewick Press

The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson. Illustrated by Julie Morstad. Simply Read Books

Trains Go by Steve Light. Chronicle Books

Up, Tall and High by Ethan Long. G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Folk and Fairytales

The Goldilocks Variations by Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg. Candlewick Press

The Great Race: An Indonesian Trickster Tale. Retold by Nathan Kumar Scott. Illustrated by Jagdish Chitara. Tara Books

Hans My Hedgehog: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm. Adapted by Kate Coombs. Originally written by Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by John Nickle. Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Robin Hood. Retold by David Calcutt. Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith. Barefoot Books

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse: An Aesop Fable. Retold by Helen Ward. Templar Books

Poetry

Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine. Illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Harper

Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry. Adapted to music by Natalie Merchant. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Farrar Straus Giroux

National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry. Edited by J. Patrick Lewis. National Geographic

Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Mark Hearld. Candlewick Press

Shiver Me Timbers!: Pirate Poems & Paintings by Douglas Florian. Illustrated by Robert Neubecker. Beach Lane Books

Walking on Earth and Touching the Sky: Poetry and Prose by Lakota Youth at Red Cloud Indian School. Edited by Timothy P. McLaughlin. Illustrated by S. D. Nelson. Abrams Books for Young Readers

Early Chapter Books

The Adventures of Sir Balin the Ill-Fated by Gerald Morris. Illustrated by Aaron Renier. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Duck for a Day by Meg McKinlay. Illustrated by Leila Rudge. Candlewick.

The No. 1 Car Spotter and the Firebird by Atinuke. Illustrated by Warwick Caldwell Johnson. Walker & Company.

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover by Cece Bell. Candlewick Press.

Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett. Illustrated by Ann James. Candlewick Press.

Twelve Kinds of Ice by Ellen Bryan Obed. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Older Chapter Books

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton. David Fickling Books

Buddy by M. H. Herlong. Viking

The Case of the Deadly Desperadoes by Caroline Lawrence. Orion Children’s Books

Chickadee by Louise Erdrich. Harper

Crow by Barbara Wright. Random House

Deadweather and Sunrise by Geoff Rodkey. Putnam Juvenile

Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski. Scholastic

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Scholastic Press

Freaky Fast Frankie Joe by Lucile Clifton. Holiday House

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander. Margaret K. McElderry Books

The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy. Illustrated by Todd Harris. Walden Pond Press

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz. Dutton Children’s Books

The Kairos Mechanism by Kate Milford. The Clockwork Foundry

Katerina’s Wish by Jeannie Mobley. Margaret K. McElderry Books

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead. Random House

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. G. P. Putnam’s Sons

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Harper

Pickle: The Formerly Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School by Kim Baker. Illustrated by Tim Probert. Roaring Brook Press

Plunked by Michael Northrop. Scholastic Press

The Prince Who Fell From the Sky by John Claude Bemis. Random House

Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly. Illustrated by Clint Young. Henry Holt and Company

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick Press

The Star Shard by Frederick S. Durbin. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin. Little, Brown and Company

Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer & Bray

Three Times Lucky by Shelia Turnage. Dial Books for Young Readers

The Traveling Restaurant by Barbara Else. Gecko Press

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds. Viking

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey. Illustrated by Brett Helquist. Harper

Who Could That Be at This Hour? by Lemony Snicket. Illustrated by Seth. Little, Brown & Co.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf

Graphic Novels

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel. Graphix

Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Graphix

Fangbone! Third-Grade Barbarian by Michael Rex. G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Giants Beware! by Jorge Aguirre. Illustrated by Rafael Rosado. First Second

Hades: Lord of the Dead by George O’Connor. First Second

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez. Graphic Universe

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad! by Nathan Hale Amulet Books

The Secret of the Stone Frog by David Nytra. Toon Books

Nonfiction Picture Books

Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why by Lita Judge. Flash Point

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman. Illustrated by Ty Templeton. Charlesbridge Publishing

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel. Illustrated by Amanda Hall. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti. Illustrated by Yancy Labat. Chronicle Books

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Lee & Low Books Inc.

Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter. Illustrated by Marjorie Priceman. Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey by Gary Golio. Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez. Clarion Books

Nonfiction Chapter Books

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano. Illustrated by Michael Carroll. Charlesbridge

Buried Alive! How 33 Miners Survived 69 Days Deep Under the Chilean Desert by Elaine Scott. Clarion Books

Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close. Abrams Books for Young Readers

The Fairy Ring by Mary Losure. Candlewick Press

The Great Molasses Flood: Boston, 1919 by Deborah Kops. Charlesbridge

Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Hyperion

The Human Body Factory by Dan Green. Illustrated by Edmond Davis. Kingfisher

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank. Clarion Books

The Skull in the Rock: How a Scientist, a Boy and Google Earth Opened a New Window on Human Origins by Marc Aronson and Lee Berger. National Geographic Books for Children

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson. Scholastic Press

Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead by Rebecca L. Johnson. Millbrook Press

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4. 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 handy dandy book trailer, here for the viewing.

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5. 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.

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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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6. 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.

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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.

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

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7. 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.

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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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8. 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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9. Fusenews: Bets lists towards best book lists

The best books lists are abundant and here!  So very exciting, yes?  I do love this time of year, and so it makes sense to begin with the cream of the crop.  I refer, of course, to NYPL’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2012.  Split into seven different categories (Picture Books, Folk and Fairy Tales, Poetry and Song, Stories for Younger Readers, Stories for Older Readers, Graphic Books, and Nonfiction) the list has been around for precisely 101 years and is decided by the NYPL children’s librarians who go above and beyond the call of duty in reading EVERYTHING they can get their hands on.  Seriously, those folks are the best.  I tip my hat to them.

  • In other best books areas, over at Tablet we have the best kids books of 2012 containing Jewish themes and characters.  How Marjorie Ingalls finds them all I do not know, but she is meticulous!  I thought I’d seen everything but there were definitely a couple titles in there that flew under my radar (Sons of the 613, anyone?).  Horn Book also came up with their Fanfare Books of 2012, and I was very very pleased to see Jimmy the Greatest on there.  Woot!  PW separated their top children’s books into the categories of Picture Books, Children’s Fiction (YA is sorta just crammed in there), and Nonfiction (only four titles?!?).  Finally there was the Notable Children’s Books of 2012 list by the New York Times which has some truly eclectic ideas.
  • By the way, if you want to see other best children’s book lists in this vein, there’s a Pinterest page of them up and running.
  • I don’t usually do this but once in a while you meet a new or upcoming author who just catches your attention fully.  I met a 6th grade schoolteacher in town the other day by the name of Torrey Maldonado.  Torrey’s the author of the YA novel The Secret Saturdays.  Knowing he worked in a public school I asked what he knew about Common Core.  Quite a lot, it seems, since he created an entire page on his website dedicated to the Core and how to teach his book using it.  To top it off, I’ve gotta say that I haven’t met an author with the sheer levels of enthusiasm and charm of Mr. Maldonado in a long time.  Keep your eye on this fellow.  I predict big things.
  • Newsflash: Young Latinos don’t see themselves in books.  Duh.  Duh duh duh duh duh.  It’s a really weird fact, and absolutely true.  You go out there and find me an early chapter book series starring a Latino girl and I will give you a cookie.  Go on.  I’m waiting.  I’ve got all day.
  • Okay. Now I’m officially depressed.  I was sorting through some books earlier today and I discovered the most recent “Amelia Rules” by Jimmy Gownley called Her Permanent Record.  I own all of the Amelia Rules books except this one so I was pleased to down it during my lunch break.  Then I went online just now to see when the next book in the series will be out . . . only to find that that was the LAST ONE.  Hunhuna?  Now that is depressing.  I’ve deeply enjoyed this series for years and years now, and to think that it’s over fills me with a kind of strange dread.  Gownley hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of more Amelias in the future . . . . but still, man.  It’s kinda hard to take.
  • Look me in the eye.  Now tell me this amazing new invention will not now appear in hundreds of middle grade spy/mystery novels.  A pity you can’t get them in time for Christmas.
  • Friend and YA author Daphne Benedis-Grab writes an excellent article over at She Knows about raising a girl in a day and age where beauty standards have never been more impossible to attain.  It’s called Raising a girl to be more than a pretty face.  Testify!
  • PW Children’s Bookshelf linked to some pretty thought provoking articles this week.  My favorite: Leonard Marcus at Horn Book talking about book jackets . . . for picture books!
  • In other news, PW did a very strange bit of reporting.  It mentioned the recent 90-Second Newbery at Symphony Space, which was a packed house and a big success.  However, there is a VERY odd lack of any mention about the organizer, YA author James Kennedy.  Read the piece and you’ll have the distinct impression that it happened spontaneously and without his back-breaking work.  Reporting fail, PW my dear.
  • I got the following message from Jane Curley of the Eric Carle Museum and I am passing it on because it sound bloody blooming amazing: “I’m giving a talk for the Victorian Society on 19th century British picture books. It’s on Tuesday, December 11 at 6PM at the Dominican Academy, 44 East 68th St.It’s free, no reservations required, and I’ll be showing some gorgeous pictures! The link is below. Cheers, Jane http://metrovsa.org/calendar.htm“.
  • Daily Image:

I ran about the internet trying to find the perfect thing for today’s post but in the end I had to come back to the washable keyboard.  The perfect gift for your favorite hypochondriac this holiday season.

Thanks due to AL Direct for the link.

4 Comments on Fusenews: Bets lists towards best book lists, last added: 12/7/2012
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10. 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.

Like This? Then Try:

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:

Professional Reviews:

Misc:

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

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11. Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary Golio

SpiritSeeker1 Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioSpirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey
By Gary Golio
Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-547-23994-1
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now

Is there any complicated hero with a past so full of darkness that their life cannot be recounted to children? This is the conundrum of any author who takes it upon his or herself to tell the stories of people who didn’t grow up happy, live lightly, and die laughing in their beds. The most interesting stories are sometimes the ones about folks who look into the eye of the devil and walk away the wiser. Trouble is, it can be hard to figure out whether or not theirs is a story kids need to know. They might love the life of Charlie Chaplin, but do you bring up his penchant for the very young ladies? Bob Marley did great things in his life . . . and consumed great amounts of drugs. Do you talk to kids about him? In the end, it all comes down to the skill of the biographer. The person who sits down and turns a great man or woman into a 32-48 page subject, appropriate for kids too young to watch PG-13 films on their own. To do it adequately is admirable. To do it brilliantly, as it’s done in Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey is worthy of higher praise.

He led as perfect a childhood as any African-American kid in the late 1930s could hope for. A loving family, two grandfather preachers, a great musician for a dad, the works. But all that came before the deaths. First his grandfather, then his father, then his grandmother too. Things grew dark for John, but an opportunity to learn the saxophone for free arose. It became John’s new religion, and the void inside him was easily filled by drugs and alcohol. He was brilliant at the instrument but was his own worst enemy when his addictions held sway. Golio tells the tale of how one young man bucked his fate and went on to become a leader in more ways than one. An Afterward, Author’s Note, Artist’s Note, and Sources and Resources appear at the end.

SpiritSeeker6 300x183 Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioIn any picture book biography (and this applies to bio pics on the silver screen too) the author needs to determine whether or not they’re going to try to cover the wide swath of their subject’s life, or if they’re going to select a single incident or turning point in that life and use that as the basis of their interpretation. Golio almost has it both ways. He’s certainly more in the wide swath camp, his book extending from John the child to John the successful and happy (relatively) adult. But within that storyline Golio takes care to build on certain images and themes. Reading through it you come to understand that he is showing how a happy child can become a brilliant but cursed young man, and then can escape his own personal demons, inspiring others even as he inspires himself. Under Golio’s hand Coltrane’s early exposure to religion reverberates every time he seeks out more spiritual knowledge, regardless of the sect. He loses so many people he loves (to say nothing of financial stability) then grows up to become the perfect melding of both his grandfather and his father.

Just as Golio builds on repeating images and themes in his text, so too does artist Rudy Gutierrez make a go of it in his art. The author/artist pairing on picture book is so often a case of an author writing a story, handing it over to their editor, that editor assigning it to an illustrator, and the illustrator working on the piece without any interaction with its original creator. It seems like a kind of crazy way to make great picture books, and many times the art and the text won’t meld as beautifully as they could. Then you’ll see a book like Spirit Seeker and though I know that “Gary Golio” is not a pseudonym for “Rudy Gutierrez” (or vice-versa) it sure feels like the two slaved together over each double-paged spread. I suppose the bulk of that credit lies with Gutierrez, all fairness to Golio’s text admitted. Gutierrez explains in his Artist’s Note at the end of the book that Coltrane was such an “artistic angel” to him that he fasted for two weeks so as to best focus, meditate, pray and paint this book. The result is a product that looks as though someone cared and cared deeply about the subject matter.

SpiritSeeker3 300x183 Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioMind you, the book will do kids and adults little good unless they like Gutierrez’s style. I happen to find it remarkable. He strikes the perfect balance between the literal and allegorical representation of certain aspects of Coltrane’s life. Some artists fall too far on one side or the other of that equation. Gutierrez isn’t afraid to attempt both at once. You’ve the energy of his lines trying to replicate the energy of the music, John’s grandfather’s preaching, his spiritual journey, etc. There are moments when you can actually sit a kid down and ask them something like, “What do you think it means when that single curving line moves from John’s father’s violin to his son’s heart?” At the same time, you know that Gutierrez is doing a stand up and cheer job of replicating the faces of the real people in this book time and time again. The melding of the two, sad to say, does turn a certain type of reader off. Fortunately I think that a close rereading can allay most fears.

In my own case, it took several rereadings before I began to pick up on Gutierrez’s repeated tropes. Golio begins the book with a description of John sitting in his grandfather’s church, his mother at the organ, the words of the sermon making a deep and lasting impression. That passage is recalled near the end of the book when John does his own form of “preaching” with his horn. As the text says, he was, “a holy man, shouting out his love of man to the whole human race.” You could be forgiven for not at first noticing that the image of John’s grandfather at the start of the book, hunched over a pulpit, the curve of his body lending itself to the curve of his words, is recalled in the very similar image of John’s and his saxophone, the curve of HIS body lending itself to the curve of his saxaphone’s music near the book’s end. Notice that and you start jumping back to see what else might have passed you by. The image of the dove (my favorite of these being when John meets Naima and two doves’ tails swirl to almost become a white rose). There’s so much to see in each page that you could reread this book twenty different times and make twenty different discoveries in the art alone.

SpiritSeeker4 300x183 Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioI’ve mentioned earlier that there are some folks that don’t care for Gutierrez’s style. Nothing to be done about that. It’s the folks that object to doing an honest bio of Coltrane in the first place that give me the willies. I have honestly heard folks object to this story because it discusses John’s drug use. And it does. No question. You see the days when his deep sadness caused him to start drinking early on. You see his experiments with drugs and the idea some musicians harbored that it would make them better. But by the same token it would be a pretty lackadaisical reader to fail to notice that drugs and alcohol are the clear villains of the piece. Gutierrez does amazing things with these light and dark aspects of John’s personality. On the one hand he might be looking at the symbols of countless world religions. Then on the facing page is an opposite silhouette of John, the borders little more than the frightening red crayon scratchings of a lost soul. Read the book and you discover what he did to free himself from his trap. Golio even goes so far as to include a lengthy and in-depth “Author’s Note: Musicians and Drug Use” to clarify any points that might confuse a young reader. Let’s just say, all the bases are covered here. These two guys know what they are doing.

If there is any aspect of the design of the book that makes me grind my teeth to a fine powder it’s the typeface of the text. I’m not a typeface nerd. Comic Sans does not strike a chord of loathing in my heart as it does with others. That said, I do harbor a very strong dislike of this horrendous LA Headlights BTN they chose to set this story in. It fails utterly to complement the writing or the tone or the art in any way, shape, or form and makes the reading process distinctly unpleasant. They say that in some cultures artists will include a single flaw in a work because otherwise that piece would be perfect and only God is true perfection. With that in mind, I’ll consider this the single flaw that keeps Spirit Seeker from attaining a higher calling.

SpiritSeeker5 300x183 Review of the Day: Spirit Seeker by Gary GolioThe reason Coltrane works as well as he does as a subject is that his is a story of redemption. Not just the redemption of a life freed from the power of drugs and alcohol, but a spiritual redemption and reawakening as well. It would pair beautifully with books like Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly by Walter Dean Myers which perfectly complement this idea. It is the only real picture book bio of Coltrane worth considering, and a kind of living work of art as well. Melding great text with imagery that goes above and beyond the call of duty, this is one biography that truly does its subject justice. Complex in all the right ways.

On shelves now.

Source: Copy sent from publisher for review.

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12. OUP staff pick the best adult books of 2012

Oxford University Press staff love to read so we’ve gathered together a few recommendations from what our staff read this year (although maybe not published this year).

Reticence by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“Jean-Philippe Toussaint is likely still best known for his 1985 debut novel, The Bathroom, but he’s been churning out short, idiosyncratic and generally brilliant books every few years since then (most of them published in translation by Dalkey Archive). The novels tend to be snappy, existential, claustrophobic and yet hilariouss; it adds up to a flavor that’s unique to Toussaint. This year’s Reticence is one of his best: it follows an unnamed narrator as he searches for — and avoids — his friend Biaggi, encountering ominous portents and growing more and more suspicious. The book manages to both skewer the detective genre and meditate on the nature of paranoia, all the while serving up a generous helping of slapstick.
Owen Keiter, Publicity Assistant

Robinson Alone by Kathleen Rooney
“This is a moving and evocative novel in verse about a young writer making his way through the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Inspired by four poems written by the nearly forgotten Weldon Kees, whose work is published by the University of Nebraska Press, Rooney fleshes out Kees’s character, Robinson, offering us his letters, humor, and heartbreak, with an eerie facility with period detail, from his days working for Time Magazine in NYC in the 1950’s to ads for shaving cream. Think Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meets Mad Men. Read it!”
Jeremy Wang-Iverson, Senior Publicist

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
“By the “Best Book of 2012,” you mean the best of 1860, right? The Mill on the Floss is my page-turner of the year. George Eliot’s wit and biting observations offer insight into 19th century British society and gender relations that will leave you half-smirking, half-disgruntled.”
Alana Podolsky, Publicity Assistant

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
“I didn’t get a chance to read Wolf Hall before starting Bring Up the Bodies, and as Hilary Mantel has made a clean sweep of every literary award I wasn’t sure what to expect. (Awards aren’t often good indicators for my own enjoyment.) I’m also slightly apprehensive about historical novels after a run of authors who like to show off their knowledge in what they mistakenly think is an unobtrusive way. (Oh really, three pages on threshing methods of the 1860s with no impact on the story. I won’t be reading this anymore.) Tudor history is an area of endless study, but Hilary Mantel’s exhaustive research is integrated seamlessly into the narrative. Jane Seymour — that mute queen — has machinations all her own, and Thomas More, a man who was the British government for many years, is seen desperately trying to keep his place secure. A riveting read. ”
Alice Northover, Social Media Manager

Oxford University Press staff like to spend their holidays reading.

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13. Review of the Day – Chuck Close: Face Book by Chuck Close

Chuck Close: Face Book
By Chuck Close & Glue and Paper Workshop
Abrams Books for Young Readers
$18.95
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0163-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

The autobiography assignment. Oh, it exists. It exists and children’s librarians know to fear it. At a certain time of year a child will approach the reference desk and utter the dreaded words, “I have to read an autobiography of somebody famous”. Never mind that while biographies are plentiful, good autobiographies come out once in a blue moon and, when they are written for kids, tend to be about children’s authors anyway (See: Jack Gantos, Beverly Cleary, Jerry Spinelli, Walter Dean Myers, Jean Fritz, etc.). If a kid wants somebody famous in a field other than writing, the pickings are slim. You might find a good Ruby Bridges book or To Dance by Siena Siegel or that children’s autobiography Rosa Parks wrote. Beyond that, you’re on your own. It is therefore with great relief that we come across Chuck Close: Face Book. Sure, I’m relieved that at long last there’s an autobiography for kids by someone outside the children’s literary sphere, but what really thrills me is the sheer splendor of the thing. Chock full of gorgeous full-color reproductions of Close’s work and biographical info, the real treat is at the center of the book. It’s a game, it’s informative, it’s what we all needed but didn’t know it yet.

Culled from interview questions lobbed at the artist Chuck Close by P.S. 8’s 5th grade students, the book is is part Q&A, part explanation of artistic techniques, and part flip book. From his earliest days Chuck had the makings of an artist. Which is to say, he was a bedridden kid whose poor health enabled him to draw. His parents encouraged Chuck’s desire and though he was not a particularly good student in other areas, in art he thrived. Eventually he was able to cultivate a style entirely of his own, until “The Event” when he was paralyzed. Yet even after that trauma he was able to continue his art. The children’s questions go through Close’s life and even allow him to explain his artistic techniques. Backmatter includes a Timeline, Resources, a Glossary, a List of Illustrations and an Index. Curiously the only other children’s book about Chuck Close (Chuck Close, Up Close by Jan Greenberg) is not one of the eight books listed in the Resources section at the back of the book.

We talk all the time about role models and how to find them. Chuck Close is probably as close as you can get to a perfect role model in terms of difficulties he has faced. First and foremost there was the nephritis that rendered him bedridden at the age of 11 and gave him plenty of drawing time (he and Andy Warhol have this much in common). Then there was his prosopagnosia or “face blindness” which kept h

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14. Review of the Day: Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago

Jimmy the Greatest!
By Jairo Buitrago
Illustrated by Rafael Yockteng
Translated by Elisa Amado
Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press)
$18.95
ISBN: 978-1-55498-178-6
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

Once in a while I’ll be impressed by a book for kids, pick it up to review it, and in the course of writing the review become more and more impressed as I return to the book for double, triple, quadruple looks. It hasn’t happened all that much lately. Usually it requires a special kind of title. So when I saw Jimmy the Greatest! a month or so ago I thought it might make for a good review thanks to its subject matter. It’s not like fun stories set in poor Latin America villages appear on my desk every day. I read it and enjoyed it but it wasn’t until I reread it, and reread it, and reread it, and reread it some more that the sheer brilliance of this little number got to me. With a careful hand author/illustrator pair Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng have created a book that is an ode to the people who stay in small communities, helping and improving the daily lives of their friends and neighbors. This is a story that folks can relate to, no matter where they live. It’s a paean to the heroes of small town life. Unsung heroes, I have located your book.

Jimmy’s fishing village is not particularly big or impressive since “there is usually only one small church and, if you’re lucky, a little gym where you can hit a punching bag, skip rope or box.” Boxing is precisely what Jimmy and all the other kids in the village spend a lot of their time doing, until one day Don Apolinar (who runs the gym) gives Jimmy a box containing books, magazines, and information about a guy named Muhammad Ali. Suddenly Jimmy starts using those glasses he never paid much attention to before and he’s reading everything he can get his hands on. In time, Don Apolinar leaves the village for the big city, but that’s okay. Jimmy stays behind, opening a little library and improving the boxing ring, and making the village a better place.

I was discussing this book with a friend the other day and asked her, “Can you think of any other picture book where a character from a small town stays in that town to improve the lives of others?” She pointed out to me that while that may not happen in a lot of fictional picture books, it happens all the time in nonfiction ones. Of course usually in books like Planting the Trees of Kenya by Claire A. Nivola or She Sang Promise by Jan Godown Annino the hero goes away, gets some kind of training, then comes back to their village or tribe to improve life for others. The interesting thing about Jimmy the Greatest! is that our hero stays to make things better without ever having left himself. Yet what I liked about this was that the book doesn’t box Jimmy in. When he&rsq

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15. Review of the Day: Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Three Times Lucky
By Sheila Turnage
Dial (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-8037-3670-2
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 10th

The Southern Girl Novel. It’s pretty much a genre in and of itself in the children’s literary world. Some years produce more of them than others but they all tend to follow the same format. Sleepy town plus spunky girl equals mild hijinks, kooky townspeople, self-awakening, etc. After a while they all start to blend together, their details merging and meshing and utterly impossible to separate. I’m just mentioning all this as a kind of preface to Three Times Lucky. Sure, you can slap a Gilbert Ford cover on anything these days and it’ll look good. It’s how the insides taste that counts. And brother, the one thing I can say with certainty about Three Times Lucky is that you will never, but ever, mistake it for another book. We’ve got murder. We’ve got careening racecars. We’ve got drunken louts and amnesia and wigs and karate and all sorts of good stuff rolled up in one neat little package. I’ve read a lot of mysteries for kids this year and truth be told? This one’s my favorite, hands down.

It was just bad timing when you get right down to it. Dale just wanted to borrow Mr. Jesse’s boat for a little fishing and his best friend Mo LoBeau would have accompanied him if she hadn’t been working the town’s only café while her two guardians (the elegant Miss Lana and the amnesia-stricken Colonel) were unavailable. Then Mr. Jesse offered a reward for the boat, and that seemed worth taking advantage of. That was before he ended up dead. Caught inadvertently in the middle of a murder mystery, Mo decides to help solve the crime, hopefully without making Detective Joe Starr too angry in the process.

A good first page is worth its weight in gold in a children’s novel. I always tell the kids in my bookgroup to closely examine the first pages of any book they pick up. That’s where the author is going to clue you in and give you a hint of how splendid their writing skills are. Heck, it’s the whole reason I picked up this book to read in the first place. I had finished my other book and I needed something to read on the way home from work. Deciding amongst a bunch o’ books, I skimmed the first page and was pretty much hooked by the time I got to the bottom. It was this sentence that clinched it: “Dale sleeps with his window up in summer partly because he likes to hear the tree frogs and crickets, but mostly because his daddy’s too sorry to bring home any air-conditioning.” Aside from the character development, I’m just in awe of the use of that term “too sorry” which sets this book so squarely in North Caroline that nothing could dig it out.

Turnage’s writing just sings on the page. Naturally I had to see what else she’d created and the answer was a stunner. Mostly she’s done standard travel guides to places like North Carolina (no surprise) and some haunted inns. The kicker was her picture book Trout the Magnificent. It was her only other book for kids so I checked to see if my library had a copy. We most certainly do . . . from 1984. To my amazement, Ms. Turnage has waited a whopping twenty-eight years to write her next book. The crazy thing? It was worth the wait. I mean, I just started dog-earring all the pa

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16. Review of the Day: Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker

Summer of the Gypsy Moths
By Sara Pennypacker
Balzer & Bray (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-196420-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Spoiler Alert – I am giving away every little detail about this book in this review. You have been warned.

As a librarian I’m always on the lookout for good middle grade books I can booktalk to kids. Often you don’t need an exciting cover or title to sell a book to kids. Heck, sometimes you don’t even need to show the book at all. Yet in the case of Sara Pennypacker’s debut middle grade novel Summer of the Gypsy Moths I fully intend to show the cover off. There you see two happy girls on a seashore on a beautiful summer’s day. What could be more idyllic? I’ll show the kids the cover then start right off with, “Doesn’t it look sweet? Yeah. So this is a book about two girls who bury a corpse in their backyard by themselves and don’t tell anyone about it.” BLAMMO! Instant interest. Never mind that the book really is a heartfelt and meaningful story or that the writing is some of the finest you will encounter this year. Dead bodies = interested readers, and if I have to sell it with a tawdry pitch then I am bloody selling it with a tawdry pitch and the devil take the details. Shh! Don’t tell them it’s of outstanding literary quality as well!

Convinced that her free floating mother will return to her someday soon, Stella lives with her Great-aunt Louise and Louise’s foster kid Angel. The situation is tenable if not entirely comfortable. If Stella is neat to the point of fault then Angel’s her 180-degree opposite. They’re like oil and water, those two. That’s why when Louise ups and dies on the girls they’re surprised to find themselves reluctant allies in a kind of crazy scheme. Neither one of them wants to get caught up in the foster care system so maybe that’s why they end up burying Louise in the backyard, running her summer cottages like nothing’s wrong. They can’t keep it up forever, but in the process of working together the two find themselves growing closer, coming to understand where they’re both coming from.

I always knew Pennypacker could write, of course. She cut her teeth on the early chapter book market (Clementine, etc.), which, besides easy books, can often be the most difficult books to write for children. The woman really mastered the form, managing with as few words as possible to drive home some concrete emotions and feelings. In Summer of the Gypsy Moths she ups the proverbial ante, so to speak. Now that she has far more space to play with, Pennypacker takes her time. She draws Stella and Angel into a realistically caring relationship with one another that overcomes their earlier animosity. By the end of the story you understand that they really do like one another, differences of opinion and personality aside.

Then there’s the writing itself. First and foremost, Pennypacker knows how to write some stellar lines. Things like, “Angel stared at me, looking like she was caught between snarling and fainting.” She’s also ample with the humor, as when Stella goes to school after the incident and reports, “Nobody seemed to notice the big sign I felt sure I wore, the one th

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17. 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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18. 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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19. 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

11 Comments on Review of the Day: The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson, last added: 8/14/2012
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20. 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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21. 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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22. 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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23. 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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  • I just wasted a good chunk of my evening having fun reading Mr. Horacek’s blog.  Have yourself a bit of fun and waste your day doing the same.

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

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24. 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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Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

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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25. 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.

Like This? Then Try:

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:

4 Comments on Review of the Day: Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds, last added: 9/28/2012
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