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1. Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall

Red: A Crayon’s Story
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0062252074
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one’s moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from The Childe’s Guide that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every Sophie there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across Red: A Crayon’s Story. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.

“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.

A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.

Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.

This isn’t my first time at the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked My Heart Is Like a Zoo, enjoyed Perfect Square, took to Cat Tale, and noted It’s an Orange Aardvark It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to Red. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like Perfect Square he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, Red makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.

Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.

Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Other Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast st Kirkus

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2. Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman

In Alyssa Brugman's thoughtful novel Alex As Well, the teenaged title character often feels like two people - one female, one male - trapped in the same body.

There's nothing like feeling uncomfortable in your own body. For Alex, the struggle is constant. Alex was born intersex, having physical characteristics of both genders. Doctors could not identify Alex as male or female. Alex's parents selected a gender-neutral name for their baby and were made to monitor their child's behavior and report back to doctors, who decided Alex's tendency to be more aggressive than passive indicated the child was more masculine than feminine - and so Alex was raised as a boy.

Now Alex is in high school, and she has found the strength within to tell her parents that she would rather identify as a girl. Her father splits; her mother falls apart. Alex stands her ground and starts making decisions for herself. She leaves her all-boys school and enrolls in a new school as a girl. She finds new friends, including a girl she gets a crush on and a boy who gets a crush on her. Though she enjoys their friendship, she cannot bring herself to tell them - or anyone at her new school - the truth about her condition, and fears the day that someone or something will reveal it.

The novel is told from Alex's first-person point of view, which occasionally has her talking to her masculine self, her inner twin, who often taunts her and points out the physical differences between her - them - and her peers. Posts from Alex's mother's blog, placed between chapters every now and then, shed light on her struggle to raise her child, revealing facts about Alex's condition and upbringing and the mom's attempts to assist and accept her. The blog posts help make the mother seem a little less harsh, a little less hysterical, and a little more human than she would be had the blog not been included.

To date, I've read four Alyssa Brugman novels - Finding Grace, Walking Naked, Being Bindy, and Alex As Well - and I've enjoyed them all. Brugman creates protagonists driven by personal matters who have yet to realize something about themselves. Her realistic storylines draw in readers and her frank storytelling takes them straight to the heart of the matter.

Looking for more intersex representation in the media? The MTV series Faking It features an intersex character named Lauren. Learn more in Emily Quinn's letter and her video with Bailey De Young (Lauren), which shares some facts about the condition, including this: Being born intersex is almost as common as being born a natural redhead.

This review was cross-posted at GuysLitWire.

Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Tough Issues for Teens Booklist
Finding Grace by Alyssa Brugman

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3. ‘Home’ Review Roundup

What the critics are saying about the cutesy alien invasion offering from DreamWorks.

0 Comments on ‘Home’ Review Roundup as of 3/27/2015 4:44:00 PM
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4. Thursday Review: THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma

Summary: Happy book birthday—two days ago—to Nova Ren Suma's latest YA offering, The Walls Around Us! This title shares a lot with Imaginary Girls, most noticeably the atmosphere of strangeness and the slow unfolding of past and present events;... Read the rest of this post

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5. Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking (an imprint of Penguin Group USA)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-670-01652-5
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films.  A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist.  Ocean’s 11 and that sort of thing.  In the children’s book world this would be The Great Greene Heist.  A con man film is different.  There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either.  Catch Me If You Can is a con man film.  And on the children’s book side?  Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them.  Maybe Pickle by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch.  It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years.  Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him.  Here we see a character that was larger than life.  Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.

In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last.  Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist.  His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation.  Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich.  But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers.  Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope.  Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.

Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers.  In The Boy Who Loved Math it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness.  In The Noisy Paintbox it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again.  And in Tricky Vic it’s shamelessness.  Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong.  Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here.  You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun.  You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself.  Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal.  But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.  Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears.  There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.

Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book The Watermelon Seed two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route.  “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic.  That aesthetic remains intact in Tricky Vic but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven.  In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.

Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty.  The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses.  With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next.  This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation.  But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person.  Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this.  Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun.  Remove his mouth and eyes and voila!  An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline.  Let the facts speak for themselves.

And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today.  Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts.  These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue.  I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography.  However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule.  And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative.  If you read the book the actual text is all factual.  There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly.  Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space.  Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages.  The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text.  A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past.  They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.

I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy.  During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on Gingerbread for Liberty and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text.  In Tricky Vic Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art.  He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well.  The design elements are what really step things up a notch.  I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate.  As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz.  The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.

I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals.  As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin.  The beauty of Tricky Vic, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character.  There is value in showing kids the fools of the past.  I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own.  And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world.  The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy.  For one.  For all.  Un-forgettable.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes

Professional Reviews: The New York Times

Interviews: Greg Pizzoli discusses his technique at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

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6. Review: Gotham Academy #6, The Kids of the Black Hole

Gotham Academy #6

Gotham Academy 006-000Story: Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher

Art: Karl Kerschl, Mingue Helen Chen 

Color: Msassyk, Serge Lapointe

Letters: Steve Wands

Publisher: DC Comics

 

 

 

As much as we love reading about the adventures of the world’s greatest detective, you have to figure Gotham city is probably a pretty messed up place to grow up. Walking down the street could get you turned inside out by Joker gas or someone in a skintight cat outfit could shred you to pieces. Even adolescents in this world have it rough. This is mostly due to Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher. They put kids in buildings with Arkham inmates, fire hazards, and sinister looking headmasters. All these obstacles put forth for our enjoyment in Gotham Academy #6.

The issue wraps the first story arc and sheds a little more light on Olive Sliverlock’s forgotten past. What issue six finally does is make good use of a Batman appearance. It’s powerful, and not just because of the fight with Killer Croc. This chapter of Gotham Academy puts Olive on a collision course with the caped crusader. Neither character is shown to be on the right side of the argument, which makes this matter poignant to the series and a mystery we’re sure to want answers about. Cloonan and Fletcher write the usual whimsy and angst sprinkled voice that cast of characters has become known for in the series. It’s just that now the team has managed to raise the stakes for all of them.

In addition to the usual fantastic Disney animated style art of Karl Kerschl, issue six brings Mingue H. Chen on board for some key flashback sequences and an epilogue that leaves us wishing DC would just skip Convergence altogether. Her style is noticeably more painted than that of Kerschl but it never jitters the reader. The two artists blend pages smoothly and that’s the best you can ask for when sharing illustration duties on a single story.

Gotham Academy is one of the best new ideas DC has published in awhile. If you’ve been on the fence about trying this series, go do it. Issue six, as a standalone, has major hook and you’ll definitely be enticed enough to pick up the pieces you’ve missed. One usually has to read a Vertigo published book to find this much depth in a comic.

Now that the kids are united it’ll be even more fun to see how they’ll be divided.

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7. Review: Past Aways Needs A Wilson

Past Aways #1

26716

 

Story: Matt Kindt

Art: Scott Kolins

Colors: Bill Crabtree

Letters: Rob Leigh

Publisher: Dark Horse

 

 

As a fan of the comics medium, it’s a privilege to go into a comic book shop or Comixology and try all the new #1’s. Comics are where ideas are born that translate into tomorrow’s film and television. There’s nothing like them, and lately a lot of science fiction books have debuted; some good, some not so good. Past Aways is Dark Horse Comics latest contribution to the genre.

Written by Matt Kindt, Past Aways is the story of a group of time travelers tasked with recording the events of history. They’re stranded in the 21st century and the strain has splintered the group. Right from the gate, Kindt puts their defects out there for us to see. Detached, distant, suicidal, and conceit are the words that only begin to scratch the surface of these characters. Instead of being united under the goal of returning to their own time, they can barley stand each other. Like any team an event needs to happen to bring them together and issue one sees the beginnings of such a moment. I won’t spoil that for you because it would give away too much.

Scott Kolins brings his energetic art style to these pages. The characters and designs of the futuristic equipment feel kinetic. Even the layouts feel unique, from the effects tying together the panels or the footnotes explaining what we’re seeing, everything has distinct purpose. Where he’s separating himself from his previous work is in how much risqué he’s adding. Naked bodies and acid sh**ting dinosaurs are just some of the weird things you’ll get in Past Aways.

Ultimately, Past Aways is interesting but it throws out so many questions with no answers. Yes, the opening chapter of a book should do that, but it should also give you a reason to want answers. The reasons to care about the characters are missing. It could be due to having everyone crammed into the issue. None of the characters feel like they have any breathing room. A new idea is always welcome but it needs to present the hook right away and it’s just missing from these pages. I’m a fan of Matt Kindt and Scott Kolins, but it feels like the introduction of this story could have used a bit more fleshing out.

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8. Review of In Mary’s Garden

kugler_in mary's gardenIn Mary’s Garden
by Tina Kügler and Carson Kügler; illus. by the authors
Primary   Houghton   32 pp.
3/15   978-0-544-27220-0   $16.99

As a girl, Mary “was happiest when her hands were busy making, building, creating things.” As she grew up and traveled around the world, those early interests developed into a love for art. She returns to the Wisconsin lake house she’d helped her father build and begins a lifelong art project there, gathering found items from the beach, assembling scraps, building frames, mixing concrete, and erecting a menagerie of larger-than-life sculptures inspired by her travels. The authors embellish their picture-book biography of artist Mary Nohl (1914–2001) with touches of whimsy — her dogs Sassafras and Basil assist beyond the bounds of ordinary canine capacity, for example — reflecting their subject’s own outsized imagination. The illustrations — digital collages of scratchy, affectionate paintings on an assortment of papers — mirror this sense of wonder; careful readers will see a variety of friendly creatures swirling amid the clouds and hiding in tree trunks. An afterword, including two photographs and source notes, offers a more detailed account of Kohl’s life and work, notes about her detractors (“Some people didn’t understand Mary’s unusual creations, and called her a witch”), and a hope for her legacy to endure.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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9. Review: HIT 1957, A Good Year For California Wine and Crime

Hit 1957 #1 (of 4)

BOOM_Hit1957_001_A_Main

 

Story : Bryce Carlson

Art: Vanesa R. Del Rey

Colors: Niko Guardia

Publisher: BOOM! Studios

 

 

 
Hit: 1957 is the second volume in the Bryce Carlson series and continues its dark and violent dive into the depths of 1950’s corruption in Los Angeles. While it certainly doesn’t blaze new territory, it does deliver on the promise of sharp noir with only the slightest of hiccups.

Writer Bryce Carlson picks up the series two years after the events of the original. Mickey Cohen is out of jail and the LAPD have seemingly regained control of the city. The underworld is however a different story. A battle for Los Angeles has been raging between infiltrating crime boss Domino and detective Harvey Slater’s morally gray area task force. That’s really the direction the story goes, as Slater must deal with the war on organized crime, pressure from internal affairs, and the kidnapping of Bonnie Blair.

BOOM_Hit1957_001_PRESS-6

Russ Manning Award winner Vanesa R. Del Rey takes on art duties for the book and in a word, it’s stellar. She has a knack for cinematic angling. When you combine her heavy lining with the moody colors of Niko Guardia it makes for a noir combination that’s just right. The opening sequence of the book illustrates that magic hour pop of the day just right. This natural auburn cast by the setting of the sun is depicted as an augment on the emotional tone of the characters. Though it isn’t all sunshine, towards the end of the book its look feels a little inconsistent with some of the face work.

Overall the book is solid, though its jumps can be a bit jarring at times. Carlson writes a story for California history buffs. You’ll see a lot of seediness, which marred an influential period in the economic and social development of Los Angeles. In a book like this you won’t always be able to tell the good guys from the bad, and that’s the mark of any good noir. Crime stories aren’t fast by nature and their fury heats to a boiling point subtlety and that’s what you’ll see here. Hit: 1957 isn’t blazing any new trails with its content or plot devices, but it does so many things right that it warrants picking up for a chance at your pull list.

 

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10. Review of You Nest Here with Me

yolen_you nest here with meYou Nest Here with Me
by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; illus. by Melissa Sweet
Preschool   Boyds Mills   32 pp.
3/15   978-1-59078-923-0   $16.95   g

Yolen and Stemple gracefully incorporate natural science into a comforting picture book comparing various nesting birds with a “nesting” child (“My little nestling, time for bed…”). Some birds, such as pigeons, which “nest on concrete ledges,” will be familiar to many children, while others may be less so: “Grackles nest in high fir trees / Terns all nest in colonies.” Almost always, the verse ends with the soothing refrain, “But you nest here with me.” Sweet’s watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media illustrations use rich colors and delicate lines. The pictures are both accurate and arresting, page after page. Many details are included for children to pick out, such as a frog mother and child sitting on a log near a coot’s nest, or a fox gazing interestedly at a killdeer performing a “broken-wing charade” to protect her babies. A closing spread includes additional facts about each bird, along with a picture of its shape, feather, and egg. Science meets wonder in this deeply satisfying collaboration between poets and artist.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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11. Short Review: Laughing At My Nightmare

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane BurcawRoaring Brook Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

Burcaw's memoir, based on his tumblr of the same name, is a humorous look at his life with spinal muscular atrophy. It's told in short, episodic chapters -- while it's roughly chronological in order, it doesn't have to be read in order or even all at once. This structure is both a weakness and a strength: those wanting an in depth, detailed examination will be disappointed. But, that's looking for this bok to be something it isn't. It is, instead, a funny, hilarious look at life. And that is it's strength: the short chapters means it's easy to read, and also easy to read over an extended period of time. A few chapters here, a few chapters there, is, a think, the best way to approach Laughing at My Nightmare.

While Burcaw's memoir is uniquely about his own experiences, it's also universal. Starting middle school, worrying about making friends, anxious about a first kiss -- Burcaw isn't the first person to worry about these things. Burcaw is funny and blunt: he knows teen readers will wonder "but how does he go to the bathroom?" and so he addresses those questions. And the humor is such that will appeal to a lot of teen readers.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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12. Monday Mishmash 3/23/15


Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. YA Scavenger Hunt  I'm so excited to announce I'll be on Team Gold for the YA Scavenger Hunt next month! Join us on April 2-5th to win books and get exclusive content from a bunch of awesome authors. (I'll be promoting The Darkness Within—sharing never before scene teasers—and giving away a copy of The Monster Within.
  2. Back to Drafting!  As much as I love editing for my amazing clients, I'm really excited to have time to get back to my WIP this week! I'm halfway through it, and my characters have been hounding me to get back to work! They're very demanding.
  3. Reviewing  I have two books I promised to review, and I need to make process on them both really soon. Like now.
  4. Beta Reading  I also agreed to beta read for a very talented writer friend, so I'll be working on that too this week.
  5. My Embarrassing Video  If you missed my embarrassing video last week, you can view it here: 

That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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13. Dennis Lehane & Anna Dewdney Debut on the Indie Bestseller List

llama llama easter eggWe’ve collected the books debuting on Indiebound’s Indie Bestseller List for the week ending March 15, 2015–a sneak peek at the books everybody will be talking about next month.

(Debuted at #4 in Young Adult) Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman: “The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways.” (March 2015)

(Debuted at #7 in Hardcover Fiction) World Gone By by Dennis Lehane: “Ten years have passed since Joe Coughlin’s enemies killed his wife and destroyed his empire, and much has changed. Prohibition is dead, the world is at war again, and Joe’s son, Tomás, is growing up. Now, the former crime kingpin works as a consigliore to the Bartolo crime family, traveling between Tampa and Cuba, his wife’s homeland.” (March 2015)

(Debuted at #12 in Children’s Illustrated) Llama Llama Easter Egg by Anna Dewdney: “In Llama Llama Easter Egg, the Easter Bunny brings lots of treats for Llama Llama: jelly beans, colorful eggs, and a fluffy surprise!” (February 2015)

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14. Review: The Walls Around Us

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Algonquin Young Readers. 2015. Reviewed from electronic galley.

The Plot: Amber is telling about the night her world went wild because the doors opened and the guards were missing. Amber is locked up in a juvenile facility for girls and the electric went out and the generator didn't kick in and all the girls are let out and free and running wild.

Violet is getting ready to go on stage. It is her final dance before she leaves for Juilliard. She is thinking about this final, home stage ballet dance and leaving this town and her family and her memories. It's like escaping a prison, she thinks, realizing it's a terrible thing to think considering what happened three years ago, when her what happened happened, when her best friend Orianna was sent to juvenile detention.

The Walls Around Us is about these three girls, Amber and Violet and Orianna, and how their stories overlap and weave together in a tangled mess of walls and doors, expectations and fears. And anger. Always, anger.

The Good: I'm a fan of Nova Ren Suma's Imaginary Girls and 17 and Gone. The Walls Around Us doesn't disappoint; it may be my favorite one yet. Like those books, The Walls Around Us does many things: there is a surface story but there is also a story underneath, there are observations about how the world views teenage girls and how the girls view themselves, and there may or may not be a ghost story. Then there is the language, creating a world and a setting and a tone that wraps around us -- like walls wrap around us.

As with Suma's other stories, I don't want to give too much away, but at the same time, I just want to talk about what happens and what does not. So the short version is, drop everything and read The Walls Around Us.

The longer version, which some spoiler-sensitive won't want to read.

Amber is a long term inmate and introduces us to her world, starting on that night when the doors opened, to her world and the other girls. Who is innocent? Who is guilty? Why did they end up there? Does it matter, now that they are locked up, what came before or what will come after? As the chapters go back and forth, it is revealed that Orianna has not yet arrived at the facility which means all Amber says happens three years before Violet's story.

And something terrible is going to happen at that place, and Amber's role as observer and watcher and eavesdropper means she is going to tell it to us, best as she can. Orianna never speaks for herself: instead it is those who knew her who describe her.

For Amber, Orianna is the new girl who has to learn the ropes. But Amber is also puzzled by something else, because Ori seems somehow familiar. And that night of almost-escape, has it happened before? Is it happening again? Why do things yet to happen seem familiar?

For Violet, Orianna was her best friend. But also her number one competitor in ballet; even now, years after what happened and Ori was arrested and tried and sent away, it is Ori's easy accomplishments that drive Violet's own path. Vee is still competing. Violet's life has gone on exactly as it should, with her place at the ballet school, and her boyfriend, and a new best friend, and best of all she'll be leaving all this behind her shortly when she leaves for Juilliard.

What did happen? What did Ori do? What did Vee do?

Violet's story seems straight forward enough, even though she's reluctant to say what happened years before. And frankly Violet seems a bit hard, a bit of a bitch, but is wanting to leave your home and start the new life that college promises such a bad thing? Is wanting to forget painful memories bad, and don't some build a hard shell to deal with the past?

Violet wants to go see where Ori was sent, even though now the place is in ruins and no one is there. Or is it it abandoned? Do all the dreams and hopes and fears and anger of those girls just -- disappear, go away, when those girls go away? When Violet walks into that broken, abandoned place, does she see ghosts or is it her own guilt haunting her?

Anger. As I write this, I realize that if there is one thing that The Walls Around Us is about, it's not about ballet and friendships; it's not about murder and punishment; it's not about escape or justice.

It's about anger. Anger that girls feel for all the right reasons, anger at abandonment and betrayal and abuse, anger that is denied because society doesn't want to see it, anger that is denied because girls aren't supposed to be angry, anger at why some girls are punished and some are not. Anger at why some girls have things so easily and others do not. And being angry is hard work, no matter how much a girl tries to deny it and keep it in control. Eventually, the walls holding the anger in, the walls holding the anger out, have to come down.

Yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2015.








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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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15. Review of the Day: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger
By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-74317-4
Ages 10-14
On shelves August 4th

After much consideration, I think I’m going to begin this review with what has to be the hoity toity-est opening I have ever come up with. Gird, thy loins, mes amies. In her 2006 book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (don’t say you weren’t warned), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following passage about the concept of personal identity: “What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?” In other words, why is the “you” that you were at five the same person as the “you” at thirteen or fourteen? Now I don’t know that a lot of 10-14 year olds spend their days contemplating the philosophical meanings behind their sense of self from one stage of life to another. But if they hadn’t before, they’re about to now. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead has taken what on the surface might look like a fluffy middle school tale of selfies and first loves and turned it into a much more layered discussion of bodies, feminism, the male (and female) gaze, female friendships, relationships, and betrayals. And fake moon landings. And fuzzy cat ear headbands. Hard to pin this one down, honestly.

By all logic, Bridge should have died when she was eight years old. She skated into the street and got hit by a car, after all. Yet Bridge lived and with seemingly no serious repercussions. Recently she’s been taking to wearing little black cat ears on her head, but her best friends Emily and Tab don’t mind. It’s their seventh grade year and there are bigger things on their minds. Emily’s been flirting with a cute older soccer player, Tab’s trying to save the world in her way, and now Bridge has become friends with Sherm, a guy she’d never even talked to until this year. When a wayward selfie throws the friends into a tizzy, it’s all the three can do to keep their promise to one another never to fight. Meanwhile, several months in the future, an unnamed teenager is skipping school. Something terrible has happened and she wants to avoid the blowback. But while thinking about her ex-best friend and the way things have changed, she may be unable to hide from herself as well as she hides from others.

Let’s get back to that idea that with every new age in your life, you’re an entirely different person than you were before. That philosopher I was quoting, Ms. Goldstein, asks, “Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself?” Actual death, she’s saying, is where you change into something other than your own “self” for good. But aren’t the changes throughout your life little deaths as well? Is that five-year-old you in that photograph really you? Do you share something essential? Stead isn’t delving deep into these questions but simply raising points to make kids think. So when her teenage character ponders that her best friend has undergone a change from which her old self will never return the book reads, “But another part of you, the part that stayed quiet, began to understand that maybe Vinny, your Vinny, was gone.” Poof! Sherm wonders something similar about his grandfather and the man’s odd actions. He writes in a letter that his grandfather now feels like a stranger and then says, “Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?”

To write one part of the book, the teenager, in the second person was a daring choice. It’s so unusual, in fact, that you cannot look at it without wondering what the reasoning was behind its direction. When Ms. Stead was deciding how to put Goodbye Stranger together, there had to come a point where she made the conscious decision that the teenager’s voice could only work in the second person. Why? Maybe to make the reader identify with her more directly. Maybe to make her tale, which is significantly less fraught than some of the other stories in this book, more immediate and in your face. Insofar as it goes, it works. The purpose of the narrative is perhaps to prove to kids that age does not necessarily begat wisdom. For them, the revelation of the identity of the runaway, who was previously seen as so wise and older, should prove a bit of a shocker. It also drives home the theme of changing personalities and who the “self” really is from one age to another really well.

Right now, I can predict the future. Don’t believe me? It’s true. I see hundreds of children’s books clubs assigned this book. I see hundreds of teachers having kids read it over the summer. And time after time I see kids handed sheets of paper (or maybe virtual paper – I’m flexible) with a bunch of questions about the book and their interpretation of the events. And right there, clear as crystal, is the following question: “What is the significance of Bridge’s cat ears?” Don’t answer that, kids. Don’t do it. Because if the adult who handed you this book is asking you that question, then they themselves didn’t really read the book. You could ask a hundred questions about “Goodbye Stranger” but if the cat ears are your focus then I think you took the wrong message away from this story.

And there’s such beautiful prose to be enjoyed as well. Sentences like “You can see the sun touching the tops of the buildings across the street, making its way through the neighborhood like someone whose attention you are careful not to attract.” Or, “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” And maybe my favorite one, “You know what my dad told me once? He said the human heart doesn’t really pump the way everyone thinks . . . He said that the heart wrings itself out. It twists in two different directions, like you’d do to squeeze the water out of a wet towel.” Trust me – if I could spend the rest of this review just quoting from this book, I’d do it. I suspect that would only amuse me in the end, though.

Bane of the cataloging librarian’s job, this book is a middle school title for middle schoolers. Not young kids. Not jaded teens. Middle. School. Kids. As such, were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and already existing fan base, it would languish away in that no man’s land between child and teen fiction. Fortunately Stead has a longstanding, strong, and dedicated group of young followers who are willing to dip a toe into the potentially murky world of middle school. There they will find exactly what we all found when we were that age. There will be kids who seem to be enjoying an extended childhood, while others have found themselves thrust into mature bodies they have no experience operating. With this book the selfie has officially entered the children’s literature lexicon and woe betide those who seek to turn back the clock. Naturally, this will lead some adults to believe that the book is better suited in the YA and teen sections of their libraries and bookstores. I condemn no one’s choice on where best to place this book, particularly since some communities are a bit more conservative in their tastes and attitudes than others. That said, I am of the firm opinion that this is a book for kids. We may like to believe that the situations that occur here (and they are very PG situations, for what it’s worth) don’t occur in the real world, but we’d be fooling ourselves. If the heroine of the book had been Bridge’s friend Emily and not Bridge herself, then a stronger case could be made for the book’s YA inclinations. Moreover the tone of the book, while certainly filled with intelligent kids, is truly intended for a child audience. Adults will enjoy it. Teens might even enjoy it. But it’s kids that will benefit the most from it in the end.

The trickiest part of the book, and the part that may raise the most eyebrows, is Stead’s handling of the notion of feminism and the perception of girls and women. Emily and Bridge’s friend Tab takes a class from a woman who seems to have stepped out of a 1974 women’s studies college course. Her name is Ms. Berman but she says the kids can call her Berperson. Tab, for her part, devours everything the Berperson (as they prefer to call her) says and then takes what she’s learned and applies it in a bad way. She’s a middle schooler. There are college girls who do very much the same thing. So I watched very closely to see how Tab’s feminist interpretation of events went down. First off, the Berperson does not approve of what Tab does later in the book. Then I wanted to see if Tab’s continual feminist statements made any good points. Sometimes they really really do. When it comes to the selfie, Tab’s the smartest of her three friends. Other times she’s incredibly annoying. So what’s a kid going to take away from this book re: feminism? For the most part, it’s complicated but the end result is that Tab is left, for all her smarts early on, a fool. That’s a strong message and one that I’m worried will cast a long shadow over the concept of feminism itself, reinforcing stereotypes that it’s humorless and self-righteous. On the flip side, there are some very intelligent things being said about how girls are perceived in society. When a girl is slut shamed (the exact phrase isn’t used but that’s what it is) for her picture, she says later, “But the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself.” Lots to unpack there.

If Stead has a known style then perhaps it’s in writing mysteries that aren’t mysteries. Every question raised by the text along with every loose end is tied up by the story’s close. Characters are smart and their interactions with one another carry the thrill of authenticity. Stead is sort of a twenty-first century E.L. Konigsburg. Her kids are intelligent but (unlike Konigsberg, I would argue) they still feel like kids. And there are connections between the characters and events that you didn’t even think to hope for until, at last, they are revealed to you. I heard one adult who had read this book say that it was “layered”. I suppose that’s a pretty good way of describing it. It has this surface simplicity to it but even the slightest scratch to that surface yields gold. I’ve focused on just a couple of the aspects of the title that I personally find interesting, but there are so many other directions that a person could go with it. If Stead has a known style, maybe it isn’t mysteries or kids smart beyond their years or multiple connections. Maybe her style is just writing great books. The evidence in this case speaks for itself.

On shelves August 4th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Those of a certain generation may be unable to read the title of this book without the Supertramp song of the same name coming to mind. So, with them in mind . . .

Note the waitress.  I wonder if she’s taking a vanilla shake and cinnamon toast to a table.

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16. Review: Giant Days “Boy Drama Will Be On The Test”

Giant Days #1

BOOMBOX_GiantDays_01_A_Main

 

Story: John Allison

Art: Lissa Treiman

Colors: Whitney Cogar

Letters: Jim Campbell

Publisher: Boom! Box

 

 

 

1. Unless you religiously follow web comics, you’ve probably never heard of John Allison.
a. True, but you should be reading Bad Machinery. 
b. False

2. Giant Days is a book about____
a. Three girls beginning their first year of university in England.
b. The angst that comes along with wanting to reinvent yourself in a new place.
c. A bet settled by a cafeteria blunder.
d. All of the above.



3. Susan Ptolemy’s problems begin____
a. At the beginning of page one.
b. When a mysterious boy from her past named McGraw transfers to her school.
c. She catches her friend in a compromising moment.
d. She doesn’t have any problems (No that would be an awful story).



4. Esther De Groot is_____
a. The trio’s drama magnet.
b. A raven haired goth with horrible luck when it comes to boys.
c. A former member of a Black Metal Society with a weird mystical tattoo.
d. All of the above.



5. Daisy Wooton is______
a. Home schooled and naive.
b. Not a pervert, just enjoys watching napkin folding videos.
c. Both A&C
d. None of the above.



6. Lissa Treiman’s art in the book is______
a. Quirky, a mix of newspaper comic strip with the emotional grandiose of Scott Pilgrim.
b. Dark
c. Stick figures
d. Gory



 

 

BOOMBOX_GiantDays_01_PRESS-9

7. What’s happening in the page above
a. An example of Whitney Cogar’s subtle yet distinct color work with the characters.
b. A funny visual gag you’ll see throughout the story.
c. Susan asserting herself as the group’s leader.
d. All of the above.



8. Does Giant Days have any flaws?
a. Yes, it’s too perfect.
b. No.
c. Yes, for a book set against the background of higher education they never entered a classroom.
d. Yes, a slice of life story needs a little more emotional stakes.



9. Should you buy Giant Days?
a. No, you should only read books with capes and tights where nothing relevant happens.
b. Yes, because you’re a well rounded person who can appreciate comical stories with down to earth characters.

10. Extra credit essay:
Giant Days is a book with the feminine voice of HBO’s GIRLS and the charm of the Sunday comics in the newspaper. John Allison crafts characters with genuine yearnings who blend together nicely. Lissa Treiman’s art is the best compliment a cleaver and whimsical story like this could get. Though first issue felt like it needed a bit more build in the tension, the series is worth getting on board for. I can’t wait to see these chicks get into more problems.


 

Score: 98% 

You’ll need to repeat the course – @bouncingsoul217

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17. Review of I, Fly

heos_i flyI, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
by Bridget Heos; illus. by Jennifer Plecas
Primary   Holt   40 pp.
3/15   978-0-8050-9469-5   $17.99   g

An adorable fly — googly-eyed, fuzzy-bodied, and with a winning smile, as portrayed in Plecas’s funny but informative cartoon illustrations — makes a compelling argument for why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed, annoyingly perfect butterfly. He pleads his case in front of a skeptical classroom audience, who grill the fly about his more unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!” the students capture the fly for scientific study, and he quickly changes his tune, pleading for his release. Heos cleverly skewers the classic elements of the typical animal book — the insect life cycle is told through a sappy reminiscence, and the point-by-point comparisons to butterflies and mosquitoes highlight just what makes an insect an insect. Those educators also weary of the primary-science butterfly bias will find this take on insects refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Appended with a glossary, select bibliography, and list of experts (presumably consulted).

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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18. Review of Listen, Slowly

lai_listen slowlyListen, Slowly
by Thanhhà Lại
Intermediate, Middle School   Harper/HarperCollins   260 pp.
2/15   978-0-06-222918-2   $16.99

This second novel from National Book Award winner Lại (Inside Out and Back Again, rev. 3/11) grabs readers from the start. California girl Mai is on a plane, accompanying Ba, her grandmother, on a trip to Vietnam. Mai, who planned to spend her summer at the beach flirting with “HIM,” the boy she has a crush on, is furious. Her dad says Ba needs her support — a detective has claimed he has news about Ong, Ba’s husband, who went missing during the Vietnam War — but the self-absorbed tween is still outraged. Lại convincingly shows Mai’s slow transformation from spoiled child to someone who can look beyond herself with compassion. Mai’s change of heart is believable, moving in fits and starts and taking its own sweet time; she retains her sarcastic sense of humor, but her snark gradually loses its bite, and she begins laughing at herself more than others. The heartbreaking sorrow of Ba’s, and Vietnam’s, past is eased some by the novel’s comical elements (a Vietnamese teen who learned English in the U.S. — and drawls like a Texan; a cousin who carries her enormous pet bullfrog with her everywhere). The detailed descriptions of Mai’s culture shock and acclimation bring the hot and humid Vietnamese setting, rural and urban, to life. Her strong-willed personality makes her an entertaining narrator; readers will happily travel anywhere with Mai.

From the March/April issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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19. Review: LOLA XoXo #6, A Violent Femme

LOLA XoXo #6

Lola_XOXO-v1-06_prev

 

Story: Siya Oum

Art: Siya Oum

Letters: Josh Reed

Publisher: Aspen

 

 

As far as dystopian futures, where blood is spilled in the name of ruling what little civilization the world has left; LOLA XoXo is definitely one of the prettier versions of them. The series has been hit by some unavoidable delays, which Aspen Comics should be commended for sticking to their guns and letting creator Siya Oum finish this volume on her terms, as opposed to convincing her to bring in fill in help. LOLA XoXo #6 closes the series in a trepidatious way, but one that leaves much of the potential for great tales the series started out with.

Issue six brings the end of the standoff between the –salt of the earth—Carnies and the evil corporate Wasteland Trading Company, all with Lola caught in the middle after her friend’s betrayal in the previous chapter. Our protagonist has to gunsling her way out of this and find a way to get back on her mission of finding her family lost among the wasteland. This series is emotionally toned by the losses this character has had to face, and what she’s willing to do in order to ensure her survival despite them. Sia Oym draws on influences from stories like Tank Girl and Josey Wales in order to craft Lola, now we need to see more of what makes her tick.

LOLA XoXo’s strength is the art. From the movie poster like covers, through the interior pages, Siya Oum’s style is a visual treat. Her panels are illustrated like polished storyboards for a film. They go beyond simply setting up a camera angle and conveying everything necessary to understand what’s going on. This is particularly due to her eye-catching colors; they augment her line work and bring in an uncanny level of emotion to the characters. Subtle rose in the cheeks, blemishes on the skin are just some examples of the minor pallet touches she puts in that make all the difference. I want to see Lola smile, cry, frown, and mourn just so I can see more of Oum’s coloring.

If you’ve been following the series you’ll undoubtedly pick up the finale. These thoughts are for those whom fall on the fence about grabbing the trade once it’s released. Overall, Lola started out as a character with potential to be feminine and while out gunning the boys. The last few issues focus a bit too much on the plot at the cost of not letting the character open up to her potential. Though the glimpses of what she could be and the sheer beauty of the pages warrant a look. LOLA XoXo is a worthy introduction to this post apocalyptic world, but I’d definitely like to see both creator and character take more chances in future series.


 

If words like Batman are on your frequently used list or you enjoy the taste of coconut but not the consistency; follow Dave on twitter @bouncingsoul217

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20. Review of the Day: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

Sidewalk Flowers
By JonArno Lawson
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-55498-431-2
Ages 3-6
On shelves March 17th

When you live in a city, nature’s successes can feel like impositions. We have too many pigeons. Too many squirrels. Too many sparrows, and roaches, and ants. Too many . . . flowers? Flowers we don’t seem to mind as much but we certainly don’t pay any attention to them. Not if we’re adults, anyway. Kids, on the other hand, pay an exquisite amount of attention to anything on their eye level. Particularly if it’s a spot of tangible beauty available to them for the picking. Picture books have so many functions, but one of them is tapping into the mindset of people below the ages of 9 or 10. A good picture book gets down to a child’s eye level, seeing what they’re seeing, reveling in what they’re reveling in. Perspective and subject matter, art and heart, all combine with JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s Sidewalk Flowers. Bright spots of joy and comfort, sometimes it takes a kid to see what anyone else might claim isn’t even there.A girl and her father leave the grocery to walk the city streets home. As he leads, he is blind to the things she sees. A tattooed stranger. A woman in a cab. And on one corner, small dandelions poking out of the sidewalk. As the two walk she finds more and more of the beauties, and gathers them into a bouquet. Once that’s done she finds ways of giving them out. Four to the dead bird on the sidewalk. One to the homeless man asleep on the bench. Five tucked into the collar of a dog. Home once more she plants flowers in her mother’s hair and behind her brothers’ ears. Then, with the last blossom, she tucks it behind her own ear. That done, she’s ready to keep walking, watching and noticing.

Now JonArno Lawson, I know. If I had my way his name would grace the tongue of every children’s librarian in America. However, he is both Canadian and a poet and the dual combination dooms his recognition in the United States. Canadians, after all, cannot win most of the American Library Association awards and poets are becoming increasingly rare beasts in the realm of children’s literature. Time was you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting one or two children’s poets (albeit the slow moving ones). Now it sometimes feels like there are only 10-15 in any given year. Treat your children and read them The Man in the Moon Fixer’s Mask if ever you get a chance. Seen in this light, the idea of a poet turned wordless picture book author is unusual. It’s amazing that a man of words, one that finds such satisfaction in how they are strung together, could step back and realize from the get-go that this story could be best served only when the words themselves were removed.

A picture book as an object is capable of bringing to the attention of the reader those small moments of common grace that make the world ever so slightly better. In an interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton, author JonArno Lawson cited the inspiration for this book: “Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way . . . What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn’t doing it for praise, she was just doing it.” I love this point. The description on the back of this book says that “Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.” I think I like Lawson’s interpretation better. What we have here is a girl who is bringing beauty with her, and disposing of it at just the right times. It becomes a kind of act of grace. Small beauties. Small person.

Now we know from Roger’s interview that Lawson created a rough dummy of the book and the way he envisioned it, but how artist Sydney Smith chose to interpret that storyline seems to have been left entirely up to him. Wordless books give an artist such remarkable leeway. I’ve seen some books take that freedom and waste it on the maudlin, and I’ve seen others make a grab for the reader’s heart only to miss it by a mile. The overall feeling I get from Sidewalk Flowers, though, is a quiet certitude. This is not a book that is pandering for your attention and love. Oh, I’m sure that some folks out there will find the sequence with the homeless man on the bench a bit too pat, but to those people I point out the dead bird. How on earth does an artist show a girl leaving flowers by a dead bird without tripping headlong into the trite or pat? I’ve no idea. All I know is that Smith manages it.

Much of this has to do with the quality of the art. Smith’s tone is simultaneously serious and chock full of a kind of everyday wonder. His city is not too clean, not too dirty, and just the right bit of busy. For all that it’s a realistic urban setting, there’s something of the city child to its buzz and bother. A kid who grows up in a busy city finds a comfort in its everyday bustle. There are strangers here, sure, but there’s also a father who may be distracted but is never any more than four or five feet away from his daughter. Her expressions remain muted. Not expressionless, mind you, but you pay far more attention to her actions than her emotions. What she is feeling she’s keeping to herself. As for the panels, Smith knows how to break up each page in a different way. Sometimes images will fill an entire page. Other times there will be panels and white borders. Look at how the shelves in a secondhand shop turn the girl and her dad into four different inadvertent panels. Or how the dead bird sequence can be read top down or side-to-side with equal emotional gut punches.

The placement of each blossom deserves some credit as well. Notice how Smith (or was it Lawson?) chooses to show when the flowers are bestowed. You almost never see the girl place the flowers. Often you only see them after the fact, as the bird or dog or mother remains the focus of the panel and the girl hurries away. The father is never bedecked, actually. He seems to be the only person in the story who isn’t blessed by the gifts, but that’s probably because he’s a stand-in more than a parent. For adults reading this book, he’s a colorless reason not to worry about the girl’s capers. His purpose is to help her travel across the course of the book. Then, at the end, she takes the last remaining daisy, tucks it behind her ear, and walks onto the back endpapers where the pattern changes from merely a lovely conglomeration of flower and bird images to a field. A field waiting to be explored.

The use of color is probably the detail the most people will notice, even on a first reading of the story. In interviews Lawson has said that folks have told him that the girl’s hoodie reminds them of Peter in The Snowy Day or Little Red Riding Hood. She’s a spot of read traveling through broken gray. Her flowers are always colorful, and then there are those odd little blasts of color along her path. The dress of a woman at a bus stop is filled with flowers of its own. The oranges of a fruit stand beckon. The closer the girl approaches her home, the brighter the colors become. That grey wash that filled the lawns in the park turn a sweet pure green. As the girl climbs the steps to her mother (whose eyes are never seen), even her dad has taken a rosy hue to his cheeks.

After you pick up your 400th new baby book OR story about an animal that wants to dance ballet OR tale of a furry woodland creature that thinks that everyone has forgotten its birthday, you begin thinking that all the stories that could possibly be told to children have been written already. Do not fall into this trap. If Sidewalk Flowers teaches us nothing else it is that a single child could inspire a dozen picture books in the course of a single hour, let alone a day. There’s a reason folks are singing this book’s praises from Kalamazoo to Calgary. It’s a book that reminds you why we came up with the notion of wordless picture books in the first place. Affecting, efficient, moving, kind. Lawson’s done the impossible. He wrote poetry into a book without a single word, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

On shelves March 17th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan – For another picture book about grace.
  • Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems – For a tale of a girl and her father out for a walk in the city.
  • The Silver Button by Bob Graham – For a tale that matches this one in terms of small city moments and tone.

Blog Reviews: Nine Kinds of Pie

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Interviews: Roger Sutton talks with JonArno Lawson about the book.

Misc: I can’t be the only person out there who thought of this comic after reading this book.

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2 Comments on Review of the Day: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, last added: 3/13/2015
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21. Advance Review- Rebels #1 gives new meaning to “Live Free or Die”

by Alexander Lu

26245

Story: Brian Wood

Art: Andrea Mutti

Colors: Jordie Bellaire

Letters: Jared K. Fletcher

New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live Free or Die,” has always captivated me.  It’s raw and aggressive.  It’s frenetic and energetic in a way that captures the revolutionary feel of a newborn nation struggling to find its footing.  While Breaking Bad may recently brought the slogan back into the modern cultural discourse, Brian Wood’s (The Massive) and Andrea Mutti’s (Star Wars) historical narrative, Rebels, sets out to explore the history behind those four powerful words.

In its first issue, Wood and Mutti successfully lay the groundwork for a gripping historically-based narrative that explores the origin of The Green Mountain Boys, an American militia that captured Fort Ticonderoga during the American Revolutionary War.  The story is told through the eyes of Seth Abbott, who is introduced to us in a beautifully scripted and drawn opening sequence where Seth, under the guidance of his generally distant father, finds the courage to open fire on a group of British soldiers attempting to take over farmers’ land in the Albany territory and thus blossoms into adulthood just as America begins to emerge an independent nation.  The story then cuts to show us Seth as an adult, quelling a conflict between British militiamen and disgruntled American farmers at a Pennsylvania courthouse.

Rebels is not an unbiased comic.  At one point, the team shows British soldiers opening fire on unarmed American protesters, clearly aiming to cast the Americans as martyrs and the redcoats as ruthless villains.  As the lead protagonist and a native resident of the colonies, Seth is definitely portrayed as an American patriot through and through.  At the same time, however, Wood’s script does a good job of making sure Seth doesn’t turn into a gun toting all-American “hero” who is out for British blood.  In the opening scene, Seth takes a long time to find his courage, and as an adult, even ends up becoming best friends with a former British army runner named Ezekiel.  Even after the British soldiers at the American protesters, Seth encourages peace.  He says: “Have patience.  They’ve lost the day.  Soon enough they’ll realize it.  Wouldn’t you rather they dig their own graves, rather than have your loved ones dig yours?”

Great, chilling stuff.

Mutti’s art in Rebels contributes a lot to the story.  His panels are filled to the brim with details.  The trees of the New Hampshire forests are rendered with great care, and when the action moves to the courthouse in Pennsylvania, Mutti fills every panel with countless Americans and British in meticulously illustrated period garb.  His linework particularly shines when it comes to faces, which express emotion with energy and zeal.

While Mutti’s work is fantastic in Rebels, Jordie Bellaire’s (Moon Knight) colors take this comic to the next level.  Most of the book uses muted earth tone pastels, creating a color scheme that unifies the American people with the American landscape.  The British Redcoats, staying true to their name, are what stand out from the rest of the color scheme.  Their bright red uniforms clash with the browns, blues, and greens of the American people, and really make them feel like invaders in the landscape of America and the comic page.

Ultimately, Rebels #1 lays out a solid foundation for what is sure to be a thrilling dive into a part of American Revolutionary history that isn’t often told.  Choosing to focus on a more localized topic that doesn’t span the entire nation or the entire war allows the team to focus on building characters, which is what makes Rebels more than just an illustrated history textbook— it’s a comic with heart.

0 Comments on Advance Review- Rebels #1 gives new meaning to “Live Free or Die” as of 3/12/2015 6:24:00 PM
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22. Short Review: The Port Chicago 50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve SheinkinRoaring Brook Press. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Port Chicago 50 tells a story that I was not familiar with -- actually, many stories I was not familiar with. The Port Chicago 50 are fifty African American sailors accused of mutiny in the aftermath of the Port Chicago disaster. I don't want to go into the details of the disaster or the mutiny accusations or the aftermath -- read the book!

The story of these fifty men is not just about allegations of mutiny and these fifty individuals; it is also bout the segregation of the Navy and other armed forces before and during World War II and the efforts to end it. It's about just what it meant, to have segregated troops, and institutionalized racism both within and without the armed forces. Segregation and racism, and the actions at Port Chicago and by the sailors, cannot be viewed in isolation of each other.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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23. Review: strange things are afoot in Bill and Ted’s Triumphant Return

BillandtedWritten by: Brian Lynch

Pencils by: Jerry Gaylord

Inks by: Jerry & Penelope Gaylord

Colors by: Whitney Cogar

Publisher: Boom Studios

As a fan of both of the goofy, strange and wonderful Bill and Ted movies, I wanted to like Bill and Ted’s Most Triumphant Return #1. And for the most part, I did. It’s got View Askew Productions veteran Brian Lynch on writing duties, who has done solid work for IDW’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series spin-off Spike: Asylum. It’s got the art of Jerry Gaylord, who has lovingly personified other franchises like TMNT and Adventure Time. Yet while Bill and Ted were very much themselves, they also seemed to lose a little something in the translation.

Bill and Ted picks up right where Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey left off, with the titular boys from Wyld Stallyns high off their winning performance at the San Dimas High School battle of the bands. All your Bill and Ted favorites are there, Death, the Princesses and the Stations! Future nemesis De Nomolos is carted off in handcuffs, swearing revenge on the Stallyns and It’s not long before the media is clamoring to know when the pair will write their next epic single. Stopping home to check in with their newborns, left in the care of the now reformed “good” robot Bill and Ted, the boys find themselves wading through a field trip from the future San Dimas High that has phone-booth time traveled into their bedroom. And we’ve only just gotten halfway through the comic.

This is what left me a tad disappointed by this first issue. It felt a little more like a tour through a Bill & Ted theme park than a story in it’s own right. But this is a problem not unique to this comic, so some leeway must be given in this first issue of this comic adaption of the wildly successful, if critically mixed, Bill & Ted franchise. Still, the tour through all of the Bill and Ted characters we know and love should have moved along a bit quicker. Also missing was the somewhat dark, more adult sense of humor from the films. This book read more like a Saturday morning cartoon. Not the officially licensed Saturday Morning Bill & Ted cartoon, but a cartoon nevertheless.

Still, Lynch has the voice of Bill and Ted down pat: their dialogue seems very natural and unforced, and Jerry Gaylord’s art is a marvel: the characters look so good I almost wish this book would some how be the jumping off point for another animated series. I would’ve liked more Rufus interaction right up front, and not just for sentimental, George Carlin-related reasons. More Rufus interjections could have provided some framework that could have made the Bill and Ted interactions with fans, friends and followers seem a little less aimless. This may have been avoided due similarities with Evan Dorkin’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book series.

Still, for fans of the San Dimas metalhead duo this comic will go down smooth and leave you with a smile on your face. It’s also bound to drum up buzz for that new Bill and Ted sequel that Alex Winters has been chumming the waters for since 2010.

 

0 Comments on Review: strange things are afoot in Bill and Ted’s Triumphant Return as of 3/15/2015 7:52:00 PM
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24. Cybils Finalist Review: THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll

Summary: Horror fans take note: if you're a fan of, say, Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Allan Poe--you will not want to miss this graphic novel compilation of spooky tales by webcomic artist Emily Carroll. It's beautiful, and frightening, and... Read the rest of this post

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25. Advance Review: The Fox Takes Something Borrowed and Makes It Something New

Cover by Dean Haspiel

Cover by Dean Haspiel

 

The Fox #1

Story, Line Art: Dean Haspiel

Script: Mark Waid

Color Art: Allen Passalaqua

Letters: John Workman

Cover Art: Dean Haspiel, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, David Mack, Ulises Farinas, Ryan Hill, Thomas Pitilli

Publisher: Archie/Dark Circle Comics

 

 

By Matthew Jent

“You don’t have to be a hero anymore.”

 

The Fox, with story & line art by Dean Haspiel, script by Mark Waid, and colors by Allen Passalaqua, opens in media res with our titular hero tied up, lamenting his bad luck, and wishing for an ibuprofin. It’s a Spider-Man-like How did I get into this mess? inner monologue that introduces a delightfully self-deprecating superhero who’s already in over his head. Right away the art by Haspiel and Passalaqua looks expansive, bright, and weird. The Fox has a black eye, he’s already unmasked and beaten on page one, his legs are kicked out away from the beam, like he’s falling even though he’s tied up.

Which, it turns out, he is. This is the story of the Fox falling into a mystery, into an adventure, and into trouble, in spite of his intentions to just do right by his family.

With a story by Dean Haspiel (indie comics mainstay, a collaborator of Harvey Pekar, and an Emmy winner for title design on HBO’s Bored to Death) and a script by Mark Waid (superhero guru, author of the most-fun Daredevil run in years, and co-founder of digital comics site Thrillbent), The Fox is a first issue that presents a lived-in, authentic world. A superhero universe we’re peering into for the first time even though it’s existed for a long time. Which is kind of true — The Fox is part of Archie’s new Dark Circle imprint, a shared-universe reboot of heroes who used to be Impact characters, who also used to be Red Circle characters, some of whom used to be Blue Ribbon, Archie Adventure, and Mighty Comics characters.

These heroes have been around. The Fox dates back to 1940, two years after Superman’s first appearance. But Haspiel & Waid allow the Fox to grow up a little. This Fox — the one tied up on page one — is Paul Patton, Jr., a photojournalist who became a superhero to attract danger and further his career. A brief, two-panel memory implies that the previous Fox may have been Paul’s own father, something he didn’t realize as a kid. Now Paul has his own grown-up son, and he wants to put his superhero days behind him — but he hasn’t quite stopped wearing his costume under his street clothes, yet.

Haspiel’s interpretation of the Fox’s costume is a cross between Batman and Spidey. He’s dressed all in black, but his fox ears can go a little floppy and the mask’s white eyes go wide with surprise. When we get a glimpse of the supervillains the Fox — or a Fox — might run against in later issues, the cast starts to look a little like something from the Venture Bros. But while Venture is a parody of super-science-action-heroics, The Fox manages a nostalgic throwback art style without feeling dated or ironic. The emotional reactions are real (though I hope — and I trust Haspiel & Waid will provide — more from Paul’s wife Mae than the blandly supportive wife/mother role she plays in this issue) even in the face of unreal, high stakes, super-villainy.

John Workman, a solid, solid pro whose work you can read more about in this CBR piece from 2007, glues this issue together with lettering that guides the eye and reinforces the rhythm of Waid’s language. Shrinking dialogue as Paul zones out of his son’s monologue about changing technology, bolded words that emphasize cadence without being distracting, and slightly out-of-sync letters when Paul’s son Shinji is taken by surprise — small but artful touches that showcase the subtle craftsman Workman has been for decades.

The Fox makes you wonder what a Spider-Man book would have looked like if Peter Parker had been allowed to grow up, stay married, and have kids. The Fox is a chance to prove wrong the folks who say the superhero status quo has to stay frozen for decades, that it’s better to poison the well than to move forward. The Fox is aware of the past 75+ years of superhero comics, superhero gimmicks, and superhero clichés. But it’s not trying recreate them or preserve them in amber.  The Fox puts the mask on one more time and and strives to make some new memories.

2 Comments on Advance Review: The Fox Takes Something Borrowed and Makes It Something New, last added: 3/17/2015
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