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The small child is a frightening beast. A truly terrifying creature that can level the most powerful adult with the mere pitch of their fury laden screams. As a children’s librarian I used to tell my husband that mine was one of the few jobs I knew where an average day was punctuated by human sobs and screams of terror, misery, and fury. What then is the reasoning behind the idea that you should read a child a book about a fellow kiddo having a meltdown? Well, kids can get a lot out of that kind of identification. They can put themselves into the role of the parent, to a certain extent. Or maybe it’s just good old schadenfreude. Better her than me, eh? Whatever the reasoning, meltdowns make for good picture book fodder. Add in a giant blue gorilla with a penchant for wristwear and you’ve got yourself a picture book as fine as fish hair. A treat to eye and ear alike, Ohora is truly coming into his own with a book that truly has universal appeal. And a gorilla. But I repeat myself.
Amelia and Nilson are inseparable. They play together, eat together, and with some exceptions (Nilson is afraid of water so no baths) they’re never out of one another’s sight. The fact that Amelia is a little girl and Nilson a gigantic blue gorilla? Not an issue. What is an issue is the fact that Nilson has a terribly short fuse. Good thing Amelia knows exactly what to do to calm him down. Don’t want to go with mom to do chores? Amelia calls them adventures instead. Nilson’s getting testy waiting in line at the post office? Amelia hands him her froggy purse. It’s the moment that Nilson gets the the last banana ice cream that Amelia’s composure finally breaks down. Now she’s the one who’s upset. Fortunately, Nilson knows the perfect way to make everything right again.
When we think of the great tantrum picture books out there, the mind immediately leaps to the be all and end all of fits, When Sophie Gets Angry Really Really Angry by Molly Bang. That book sort of set the standards for meltdown lit. It’s simple, it gets to the point, it teaches colors (though that’s more a nice bonus rather than anything else). After Sophie authors tried to come up with different unique takes on a common occurrence. Rosemary Wells came up with Miracle Melts Down, Robie Harris dared to discuss the unmentionable in The Day Leo Said “I Hate You “. And who could forget David Elliott’s truly terrifying Finn Throws a Fit? In the end, this book is almost an older version of Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems (it involves preschooler fits rather than toddler fits, which as any parent will tell you are a different beast entirely). But part of what I like most about No Fits, Nilson! is that it sort of harkens back to the early days of Sophie. Ohora makes a metaphor out of the familiar and in doing so makes it even more understandable than it would be if his gorilla was nowhere in sight.
Ohora’s previous picture book, Stop Snoring, Bernard! was a lovely book to look upon. As an artist, the man has cultivated a kind of acrylic mastery that really does a wonderful job of bringing out the personalities of his characters within a limited color palette. However, while the art in Bernard was at times beyond stunning, his storytelling wasn’t quite there yet. It was all show without the benefit of substance. So it was a great deal of relief that I discovered that No Fits, Nilson! had remedied this little problem. Story wise, Ohora is within his element. He knows that there is no better way of describing a kid’s tantrums than a 400-pound (or so) gorilla. Most important of all, the metaphor works. Nilson is a marvelous stand-in for Amelia, until that moment of spot-on role reversal.
As I mentioned before, the acrylics threaten to become the stars of the show more than once in this book. Limiting himself to blue, red, pink, yellow/beige and green, Ohora’s is a very specific color scheme. Neo-21st century hipster. Indeed the book appears to be set in Brooklyn (though a map on one of the subways manages to crop out most of the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and half of Brooklyn, so maybe I’m reading too much into the setting). As I also mentioned before, painting beautifully is one thing, but coming up with delightful, memorable characters is what separates the RISD grads from the true picture book masters. Nilson is the one that’s going to get the kids the most excited to read this book so it was important for Ohora to make him a unique blue gorilla. Not the kind of guy you’d run into on the street. To do this, Ohora chooses to accessorize. Note the three watches Nilson wears on his left arm and the three on his right. Note his snappy black beret with the yellow trim, and yellow and black sneakers. Next, the artist has to make Nilson a gorilla prone to the grumps but that is essentially lovable in spite of them. For this, Amelia is a very good counterpoint. Her sweetness counteracts Nilson’s barely contained rage. Finally, Ohora throws in some tiny details to make the reading experience enjoyable for adults as well. The typography at work when the tiny words “banana ice cream” move from Amelia’s mouth and eyes to Nilson’s mouth and eyes is a sight to behold. Ditto the funny in-jokes on the subway (New Yorkers may be the only folks who get Ohora’s “Dr. Fuzzmore” ads, and the one for the zoo is a clear cut reference to Stop Snoring, Bernard!).
Yeah, I’m a fan. Kids may be the intended audience for books like this one, but it’s parents that are shelling out the cash to buy. That means you have to appeal to grown-up sensibilities as well as children’s. What Ohora does so well is that he knows how to tap into an appreciation for his material on both a child and adult level. This is no mean feat. Clearly the man knows where to find the picture book sweet spot. A visual feast as well as a treat to the ear, this is a book that’s going to find an audience no matter where it goes. At least it better. Otherwise I might have to sick my own 400-pound gorilla on someone, and believe me . . . you do NOT want to get him angry.
I made a discovery during my committee tenure last year about books I love. There are books with chops where I delight in the use of language, setting, characterization et cetera, and then there are heartsong books. You know, those books that you wax poetic about...the ones that speak to you? And every so often, these two things collide into a book that you know will remain a favourite for all of your days.
This is what Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is to me.
"Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt." (p. 1) Tupelo landing is where Moses (Mo) LoBeau ended up after her mother strapped her to a make shift raft during a hurricane. She came to stay with Miss Lana and the Colonel and helped them run their cafe. When local oldie Mr. Jesse turns up dead, Tupelo Landing turns upside down, with Mo and bestfriend Dale smack in the middle of everything, due to a little bit of borrowing of Jesse's rowboat.
Turnage has managed to pack an awful lot of goodness into this one including a twisty turny mystery, unforgetable characters, family heart-ache, strong girl-boy friendship and memorable turns of phrase. It is a book that will have readers laughing, wondering and feeling sad in turn.
I was lucky enough to meet Sheila Turnage at ALA in Anaheim and she said that Mo just kept talking to her. She wanted her story told. I'm awfully glad Turnage listened to her!
Children’s book author and illustrator Jon Agee has landed a three picture book deal at Penguin Group (USA)’s Dial Books for Young Readers. Agee (pictured) wrote The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau and many other books for kids.
The first title is Little Santa, a fictional biography starring young Santa Claus. It will be released in fall 2013. Publisher Laura Hornik negotiated the deal with Pippin Properties founder Holly M. McGhee. Hornik secured world rights and will edit.
Hornik had this statement in the release: ”Jon Agee is one of my very favorite picture book creators, and I’m rather giddy about the chance to work with him. I’ve long admired his unique and sly sense of humor, and his spare but exhilaratingly expressive illustrations. I’m full of wonder at his ability to bring brand-new glee to a story as age-old as Santa’s.”
If I were to write up a list of my very favorite Christmas picture books, Trinka Hakes Noble's Apple Tree Christmas would appear near the top. I found her picture book quite by accident at the library last week while searching for books with a "holiday" sticker, though I'm beginning to think that it was rather not by circumstance but by providence.
As each year passes I desire more and more for my family to escape the commercialism surrounding Christmas and focus on family, traditions and meaningful gifts including the true gift of Christmas, Jesus. While Apple Tree Christmas is not a religious book, it is a work of historical fiction that harkens back to simpler times, modest gifts from the heart and family togetherness.
Apple Tree Christmas by Trinka Hakes Noble. Dial Books for Young Readers (October 1984); ISBN 0803701020; 32 pages Book Source: Copy from our public library
Noble's story is set in the late 1800's. The Ansterburgs, a close-knit family, reside in one side of an old barn and live a simple, rural life. They cherish their beloved apple tree -- the tree provides a bountiful crop of apples every fall, and the family uses the apples to make applesauce, cider, apple butter and Christmas tree decorations. The tree also serves a special play space for the two Ansterburg kids, Katrina and Josie.
"Now that all the apples were picked, Katrina and Josie could climb the tree as much as they wanted. The snowy weather didn't stop them. Every day after school they would play in its branches.
On one side Papa had pulled a thick vine down low enough to make a swing for Josie.
The other side of the tree belonged to Katrina. One limb made the perfect drawing board."
Unfortunately, a blizzard comes in with a vengeance and a terrible ice storm knocks down the apple tree. The whole family feels awful about losing the tree. Katrina especially morns the loss of her favorite tree and her drawing perch. Christmas day arrives, but to Katrina "it just didn't feel like Christmas." However, her parents have a surprise in store. The apple tree, though in different form, continues to spread warmth and joy in a new way.
The lovely watercolor paintings in Noble's book provide children with a glimpse into a rural 1880s life, and this emotion-filled family story is similar to those found in Laura Ingalls Wilder's much-loved books. The story also provides a great example of how to craft thoughtful, handmade gifts with determined resourcefulness and shows how to make
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Secret Series author Pseudonymous Bosch (a.k.a. Raphael Simon) has inked a deal for a new middle grade trilogy with Penguin’s Dial Books for Young Readers.
The not-yet-titled first book is slated for release in 2013. Literary agent Sarah Burnes (from the Gernert Company) negotiated the deal with editor-at-large Jennifer Hunt. Hunt will edit the project.
Bosch (pictured, via) submitted this “secret” statement in the release: “It is a thrill to be working with Jennifer Hunt again as well as with all my new friends at Dial. As my readers know, I love to eat, especially anything chocolate. I couldn’t be more excited to embark on this important search for three new cooks. If bread is the staff of life, then a good cook is…What? Not cooks, books? I’m supposed to write three new books? Oh, no—how distressing!”
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
From the moment I saw this cover, I was mesmerized.
Two children trudge up a hill and plant some seeds. The girl plants watermelon, and the boy seemingly plants top hats.
As they sleep beside the garden, something magical happens. The top hat seeds thrust up a twisted vine that is topped with gorgeous orange flowers. Out from an orange flower climbs a polar bear wearing a top hat.
From that top hat wondrous things emerge for the children with which to play. Monkeys with fuzzy arms and legs. Lion shaped bubbles. Breezes filled with sea creatures.
After the adventure, the children are put back to bed, the wonders go back into the hat, and though the vine stays, the bear and his hat do not.
Was it a dream?
Wordless, wonderful an absolutely beautiful, Wonder Bear was apparently inspired by a gummi bear. Tao Nyeu is certainly a gifted artist with a real sense of story. Under the dust jacket are pre-printed covers featuring our monkey friends and wonder bear himself (herself?). I am not a student of design, but I do know when folks get it right. Wonder Bear begs readers to go back time and time again to discover new wonders.
Mississippi Beaumont is awaiting her 13th birthday. That's the birthday when the savvy comes for her family. Mibs can't wait to figure out her savvy. Her brother Rocket has electricity, and her brother Fish has a powerful weather savvy.
The other good thing about 13 is homeschooling. Until the kids learn to scumble their savvies, Momma thinks it's best to keep them home. No more Hebron Middle School, and no more snarky comments from Ashley Bing and Emma Flint.
Then they get word about Poppa. Mib's world comes crashing down.
While Momma and Rocket speed away to Salina, Miss Rosemary -the preacher's wife - comes on over with her kids Roberta and Will to take care of the Beaumont clan. Mibs' little sister Gypsy has gone and told Miss Rosemary that Mibs is turning 13. Miss Roberta is determined to whip up a birthday party at the church for Mibs, and she won't take no for an answer.
When Mibs awakens on her 13th birthday, a couple of strange things happen that make her think she has figured out her savvy, and she knows more than ever that she has to make it to Salina and lay her hands on her Poppa. At the church, Miss Roberta's husband is yelling at a Bible salesman, and Mibs starts to hear some other voices as well. She leaves the church and sees the Bible man's pink bus, with a Salina address on the side. She knows how she will get to Salina. What she doesn't count on are the other kids. Roberta, Will, Fish, and little brother Samson are all aboard Lester's Bible bus when it leaves the church parking lot, and makes a turn away from, instead of toward, Salina!
What follows is a road trip adventure of the best sort. Friendships, families and savvies are at the forefront, as the children try to get Lester to speed up his trip to Salina and avoid the police who are soon looking for them at the same time.
I have to say, that this little book may be my favourite of the year thus far. Countrified charm, magical realism, a dash of romance, and a family that left me envious, all make for an utterly charming read. Ingrid Law's Savvy is a sweet book that will leave readers wanting more. Fans of Horvath and Wiles take note!
Have you ever read the first couple of pages of a sequel, smiled to yourself and felt like you had come home again? Well, when I cracked open Al Capone Shines My Shoes I was immediately transported back to Choldenko's world of Alcatraz and into the Flannagan's apartment.
We pick up right where we last let off. Natalie is getting ready to head into San Fransisco to go to the Esther P. Marinoff School. Moose knows that one of the only reasons that she is going is that he asks inmate #85 (also known as Al Capone) to help him get her in. Moose is still confused as to why #85 would help him. Moose has been thinking about this when he heads over to Annie's place. When he gets there, Annie is looking peculiar, and she tells Moose that she got his laundry...and that there was a note in the pocket of his shirt. The note simply says, Your turn. By the way, the con who does the Flannagan's laundry is #85. What can Capone mean?
As if Moose didn't have enough to worry about, Piper is acting out, Mr. Flannagan gets put on probation, Scout seems to be eyeing up Piper, Jimmy is mad at Moose, and staying out of Darby's way is getting harder and harder. Even baseball, which used to make Moose feel better, is getting all political with Annie refusing to play with Moose until he tells about the note in his laundry. Moose is so stressed he is breaking out in hives and itching to beat the band.
Gennifer Choldenko is in her element in this story. It's so masterfully told that it seems effortless and completely believable. The cast of characters from children to adults are spot on and coexist in such a way that readers will feel like they know each and every one of them. Moose's growing pains are palpable, and his need to please will have you reading through your fingers, after-school-special-style. Simply delightful, fans of Al Capone Does My Shirt will be pleased, and new readers can easily pick up the plot and will enjoy this story as well.
"Tashlich is the time we apologize for things we wish we hadn't done. Tashlich means to throw. We throw away things we don't like or don't need. Tashlich is like cleaning your heart's closet. A new year, a clean heart." - New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
This weekend, groups of people will gather together at the water's edge and throw pieces of bread into the water. While it might look as if they are feeding the ducks or seagulls, they're not. They're participating in the Rosh Hashanah ceremony of Tashlich, a symbolic practice where they "cast off" the previous year's sins. Beginning at sundown tonight, Friday, Sept. 18, and continuing through Sunday, Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Tashlich is one part of the Rosh Hashanah celebrations.
April Halprin Wayland's newest picture book New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story introduces children to the ceremony of Tashlich and teaches about forgiveness and making amends. In preparation for Tashlich, a little boy called Izzy makes an "I'm sorry" list by drawing pictures of four things that he's sorry for doing. On Rosh Hashanah, he sincerely apologizes to his sister, mother and others that he had wronged during the year. He follows members of his synagogue as they all make their way to the pier. After listening to the sound of the shofars, he reflects upon what he has done wrong and throws pieces of bread into the ocean's waters.
Stephane Jorisch successfully captures the solitude of the ceremony, the quiet reflection, and the sense of community in his beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations. Wayland's text has this wonderful, lilting quality, accurately depicting the uplifting, spiritual aspects of Tashlich. You can tell the Tashlich is her favorite tradition. In an email to me, she wrote this description of her feelings about Tashlich:
"The thing I love most about Tashlich is that I'm outside, where I feel particularly spiritual. Even though this wonderful ritual involves community and singing, it is also a very private time--just me and the end of the pier and the wind, thinking about what I've done wrong and how I can do better in the New Year before tossing a piece of bread out to sea."
I admit I didn't know much about Rosh Hashanah before reading this picture book. New Year at the New Pier provides a touching introduction to the Jewish New Year and, in particular, the tradition of Tashlich. Before reading the book, I talked to my preschool daughter about different holidays, and I told her that this book describes one holiday where people take the time to apologize to each other. The important lessons of apology and empathy aren't ones that are easily learned, but Izzy provides an excellent role model for all children, no matter their religion. My daughter's favorite part of the book is where Izzy's mother apologizes to him for always being on the phone. Hmmm...wonder if that is a subtle hint? Izzy has the hardest time apologizing to his best friend, and the actions he takes show children how they can reconcile with their own friends. While my daughter and I appreciate and understand Izzy's story, I imagine that children that have experienced the actual ceremony would especially enjoy reading the book. Teachers and librarians may find the book useful in their discussions about New Year celebrations or religious holidays.
After reading the book, my daughter and I were curious how people observe Tashlich if they don't live near a body of water. Wayland provided an interesting response,
"When my friend Diane lived in Kansas, she put out an old clawfoot bathtub in the yard for the kids in her synagogue class. They wrote what they regretted doing on slips of paper and then walked around the tub singing songs and tossing the pieces of paper into the tub. (She said that they liked this so much, they ran back to write out more "sins" to throw in!)"
Special terms or phrases related to the Jewish New Year discussed in this book: Rosh Hashanah Tashlich L'shanah tovah Avinu Malkenu Shofar
Author April Halprin Wayland regularly contributes to Teaching Authors, a blog where six children's book authors share writing tips, exercises, author interviews and other useful information with aspiring and experienced children's book writers.
New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story by April Halprin Wayland, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch. Dial Books for Young Readers; (June 2009); 32 pages; ISBN 9780803732797; Ages 5-8 Book Source: Review copy provided for free by Dial Books for Young Readers (View my full disclosure statement for more information about my reviews.)
We are participating in 5 Minutes For Books Kids' Picks this month, so it is time to share a couple of the Brimful kids' favorite July library finds. Interestingly enough, both books are written by authors from England.
"Paddiwak yawned and slid off his chair. He sniffed at the box with the noisy feet. The lid flipped up and out came a whisker and two and three and four and more of another cat."
Paddiwak and Cozy by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Teresa O'Brien. Dial Books for Young Readers (March 1989); ISBN 0803704836; 32 pages; Book Source: Copy from local library
Paddiwak the cat thinks he rules the roost until his owner, Sally, brings home a special present and out jumps another cat named Cozy. The "getting acquainted" period doesn't go as Sally plans. Paddiwak isn't fond of the idea of a new friend and runs out the door, repeatedly proclaiming, "I'm never, never, never going home again." Cozy, like most cats trying to adjust to new surroundings, appears frightened and distressed and immediately goes into hiding. Change isn't easy for either cat, but each finally finds a cozy place to rest.
More often than not, my daughter picks out books about animals. Cats is an especially favorite subject of hers. She usually chooses her books based on the cover illustrations and this one, with the two distinguished and realistic looking cats, instantaneously caught her eye. We were very happy to learn from Doherty's website that the book is a true story about two of her cats. The exquisite and highly detailed watercolor-and-ink drawings really do capture both cats' personalities and there is much to pour over in each illustration, from tiny bugs and little mice to interesting cat paintings hanging on the wall. The rhyming, poetic text is fun to read aloud and we just adore the names of the two cats - Paddiwak and Cozy sound like opposites but the names fit together so nicely. With underlying themes of jealousy and trust, this is a good book about developing friendships. For some reason, this book was later republished in 1999 with different illustrations by Alison Bartlett. I think we prefer the original, more realistic and delicate illustrations...they just seem fitting for a book about two grown cats.
When I was in high school I started reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved on my own. At the time, my mother said something about the book that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. She noted that the novel was remarkable because it showed that even the best possible slave situation was still an intolerable one. There is no “good” slaveholder, no matter how nice they might be, and no matter how well they treat their slaves. I understood a bit of this but I’ve never really encountered a book for kids that approaches this idea. I’d say that a good 95% of middle grade novels written for kids about slavery tend to show the same idea. The slaveholders are all evil except for one or two wives/daughters/granddaughters who teach our hero/heroine to read. Kids know that people who own slaves are bad so what’s the point in throwing in questionable morality? Yet Jefferson’s Sons couldn’t exist under those restrictions even if it wanted to. If a good chunk of the American population has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea that the Founding Fathers owned slaves then how much harder would it be for an author of children’s literature to bring the point up? Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t just tackle the issue of someone like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, though. She tackles the notion that he owned his own children as well. To pull this storyline off and to make it child appropriate, Bradley has a couple tricks up her sleeve. And danged if it doesn’t pay off in the end. To her I doff my cap.
Three residents of Monticello. Three boys with a connection to its owner, Thomas Jefferson. The first boy, Beverly, is the eldest son of Sally Hemings. He is also, as it happens, a son of Jefferson himself. Born with light-colored skin, Beverly comes to learn from his mother that when he turns twenty-one he is expected to leave Monticello, never see his family again, and go into the world as a white man. On this point he is conflicted (to say the least). After him comes Madison, or Maddy for short. Born with darker skin, Maddy will never be able to live as a white person like his siblings, and he fights with his anger at his father and at the system of slavery itself. Finally there is Peter, a young slave boy, who ends up suffering the most at the hands of Jefferson’s negligence. Through it all, these three boys help one another and attempt to come to terms with how a man can be considered great and yet participate in an institution of evil.
Before we get any further I’m going to cut short an objection to this book that a segment of adult gatekeepers are going to lob straight off. The idea that Thomas Jefferson sired children with Sally Hemings is widely but not universally accepted. Some people believe that her kids were fathered by a cousin of Jefferson’s. Bradley even incorporates this theory into her story, mentioning that Jefferson’s daughter Martha spread the rumor of the cousin to distract the curious from making connections she deemed inappropriate. Bradley also tackles the fact that the Hemings/Jefferson connection is something she and “almost everyone else who’s investigated the subject” believes. She offers up a plethora of research for this, including a “Report of the
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain though no one has ever been able to prove it much one way or another. The sentiment, however, is universal. There comes a certain time in a young teen’s life when their parents lose a bit of their luster. Suddenly the kid feels that they themselves are the arbitrators of the universe and their parents old has-beens without a brain to share. Not every teenager feels this way, obviously, but a whole mess of them do and it’s rare that I see this feeling portrayed in a work of fiction as brilliantly as it is in Joseph Bruchac’s latest novel Dragon Castle. Best known for his books that have, in some ways, called upon his Abenaki Indian heritage, Bruchac switches gears and presents a book that finds its roots in another part of his family: His Slovakian ancestry. The result is a wry, funny, thoroughly enjoyable book from start to finish. The kind of fantasy novel a person can sink into with glee.
Prince Rashko has a problem. On the horizon marches a large army of foes, clearly bent on conquering his castle. His parents, not the brightest sorts to begin with, have been lured away to fairyland in the interim and don’t look like they’ll be home for a while. His older brother Paulek, meanwhile, keen to invite the invaders in for some good old fashioned sparring exercises, let’s them in without a second thought. Their castle, the impressive Hladka Hvorka, was raised by the legendry hero Pavol and it houses a secret. A secret the army’s evil Baron wants. A secret Rashko will have to use all his ingenuity to protect. That said, if he just pays a little bit of attention, Rashko will find that he has friends of all sorts willing to help him out. He need simply trust them. An extensive Author’s Note, Cast of Characters, Places, and Slovak Vocabulary and Numbers appear at the end of the book.
Right from the start Rashko informs us in no uncertain terms that his parents are less than entirely intelligent. That they’re a sandwich short of a picnic. A Brady short of a bunch. The wheel is running but the hamster’s dead. “Why, I sometimes wonder, am I the only one in our family who ever seems to entertain a thought as anything other than a transient visitor?” Bruchac starts us off with a hero who is sympathetic not necessarily because he has a sterling personality, but rather because kids who see their own families in much the same light will sympathize. Never mind that as the story continues Bruchac manages to show instances of Rashko’s parents and older brother showing great savvy while looking like they are dumb as a trio of stumps. You believe that Rashko is truly ignorant of these moments. To my surprise, he does change his tune a little by the story’s close but not as much as you might think. Though he ends his story by saying that he has been too quick to judge his family, he still doesn’t quite understand his brother’s role in everything that has occurred. Telegraphing information to your readership without overdoing it is no easy task. Mr. Bruchac, however, is clearly an old pro at the height of his game.