Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review - "Operation Bunny"

Emily Vole was not the adopted daughter the Dashwood’s hoped for.  With her dark eyes and dark hair, she looks nothing like them!  When triplets unexpectedly enter the Dashwoods' life when Emily is five, Emily is shifted from adopted daughter, to unpaid servant.  Never taught to read or write, Emily is nonetheless clever and curious, and this leads her to a friendship with the “old bat” next door, Miss String.  Along with her overlarge, bipedal cat named Fidget, Miss String teaches Emily to read and write, do math, and to speak French, German and Old English.  With education comes a little more backbone, and when tragic circumstances suddenly leave Emily with a fortune and some freedom, she leaves her ex-adoptive parents’ house for good.  Unfortunately for Emily, a bad witch, Harpella, is on her trail, blasting innocent bystanders into rainbow colored bunnies in her wake.  Emily must dodge the malevolent Harpella, free fairies and find the hidden shop where the fairies’ wings are being kept, all the while chasing the mystery of who she really is and where she came from.

The story presented here, in Operation Bunny, is nothing new.  Abandoned orphan; horrible “parents”; unknown, magical origin and future magical responsibilities, etc.  Easy comparisons can be made to Cinderella, Matilda, and any fantasy story involving a “chosen one”.  However, the way Sally Gardner puts all the familiar pieces together is sly and very entertaining, which is its own kind of magic.  David Roberts’ illustrations go a long way towards creating this enjoyable atmosphere (Harpella, in particular, is delightfully frightening).  As a series opener, Operation Bunny is long on exposition and short on action, but is never boring.  I’m sure future installments will feature more fleshed out mysteries for our newly formed fairy detective agency.

Wings & Co.: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner
2014, Henry Holt and Co.
Personal copy

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review - "The Sasquatch Escape"

Easy is hard, and effortless is elusive and exhausting.  Writers (and artists, and athletes and academics, etc) labor for hours, days, weeks and years to make something they produce look easy and effortless.  Easy can be deceiving.  Easy should never be confused with inferior.  Like I said, it takes a lot of work to make something look easy.  And so it is with the greatest pleasure I recognize Suzanne Selfors and the first book in her new series, The Sasquatch Escape.

Ben Silverstein has been sentenced to death…or very nearly that.  His parents have sent him away for the summer so they can work out some personal issues.  Ben has been sent to spend the summer with his Grandpa Abe, who lives in what can only be described as the remains of the most boring town on the face of the planet.  Faced with a summer without television or wifi, spent hanging out at the Senior Center with his grandfather (Friday is Pudding Day!), Ben has very little hope for his prospects.  But that was before spotting a mysterious (and mysteriously large) shape in the sky, a curious girl in town, and what even Ben can’t deny is a baby dragon in his bedroom.  Suddenly plunged into the knowledge that there is the Known World and the Imaginary World, Ben and his new friend Pearl Petal try to rescue the dragon and end up on a Sasquatch hunt, all in service of the shadowy Dr. Woo.  Who is this unseen doctor?  Is she friend or foe? 

Coming in at 200 pages, The Sasquatch Escape was almost a single-sitting read for me (curses that I don’t have longer lunch breaks!).  The words and images simply drip off the page in a lively stream, and it’s up to the reader to keep up.  This story is imaginative, exciting, cagey, teasing (so many questions!) and just plain fun.  Don’t underestimate the power of just plain fun; it’s a very valuable thing.  Ms. Selfors’ characters are wonderfully drawn.  Ben comes from a privileged background: affluent L.A. family, every technological advantage and a summer beach house.  But his life is far from perfect.  His mother is restrictive, and Ben doesn’t enjoy the freedoms that Pearl does, working in the Dollar Store and going around town getting into all kinds of trouble (which is not her fault, if you ask her).  Thinking his summer is going to be the most boring on record, he is surprised, unnerved and exhilarated at the unexpected excitement he finds.  Pearl is fascinating in her own right.  She’s plucky, intelligent, boisterous and curious, which partially explains why everyone in town seems to think she’s a “troublemaker”.  Put together, Ben and Pearl make a dynamic pair, and with a seemingly unending pantheon of imaginary creatures from which to pull, I’m sure we’ll be reading about they’re adventures for at least a few more years.

The Imaginary Veterinary: Book 1: The Sasquatch Escape by Suzanne Selfors
2013, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review - "Flora & Ulysses"

When patrons ask me about my favorite books, my mind usually reaches back for the classics that I read when I was young; Little Women, The Wizard of Oz (and its sequels, especially Ozma of Oz and The Patchwork Girl of Oz) and The Secret Garden.  But if anyone asks about my favorite authors, the first name that always floats to the forefront of my mind is Kate DiCamillo.  The Tale of Despereaux is one of my everything books (“it’s got everything!”), and I can’t think of a single book she’s touched that I didn’t enjoy.  Whether it’s Louise, the Adventures of a Chicken for picture book audiences, Bink and Gollie (with the equally talented Alison McGhee) for the early reader set, or her middle grade novels, Ms. DiCamillo has been capturing my imagination since I first turned my attention towards juvenile literature.  For all these reasons, when her latest work, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures won the Newbery Medal this year, I was over the moon.  Not only was it another win for a comic novel (kids love funny stories!), it was a book that featured comic/graphic panels throughout to help tell the story.  I think this is a significant recognition of the value of graphic storytelling.  And of course the best thing might be that this is a book that simply sells itself…(“It’s about a squirrel that gets sucked into a vacuum cleaner and gets superpowers” – that’s as far as my book talk gets before I see the spark in their eyes).

Young Flora is a self-described, “natural-born” cynic.  Her mother, divorced, is a romance writer, a profession Flora disdains for its, well, romantic nature.  Flora loves comic books, which her mother disdains as “idiotic high-jinks”.  Needless to say, there is tension in the house.  Flora’s life turns upside down when, as the result of a well-intention but poorly thought out birthday gift, a regular squirrel gets sucked up into a super-powered vacuum cleaner.  Flora rescues the poor animal, and is surprised and delighted when she discovers that Ulysses (for that must be the squirrel’s name) has gained superpowers.  Ulysses can fly!  He can understand human speech!  He can type!  He can type poetry!  As Ms. DiCamillo’s masterful human/squirrel comedy unfolds, the reader is treated to a story of arch-villains and heroes, poetry, donuts, wise words, great escapes, a vicious cat and meaningful journeys for our cast of characters, both human and squirrel alike.

There’s just something about Kate.  Ms. DiCamillo has a soft touch, a poetic voice and just a big enough dash of magical realism to make her stories fantastic, but not completely out of reach of the human experience.  She’s written about a brave mouse, a journeyman toy, best friends, and the ties that bind, and every story seems to glow from within, even when they are making you laugh, as Flora & Ulysses most certainly does.  Ms. DiCamillo, along with her vital illustrator K.G. Campbell, meld words and pictures to create memorable characters.  Ulysses the squirrel is a stand out, of course, but I found myself in love with Flora’s soft-spoken father, whose exposure to the extraordinary Ulysses opens up a part of him that seems to have been closed off for quite some time.  This is often the case with characters in Ms. DiCamillo’s books; they are healed, like Flora’s Wililam Spivey, by the magic they find in their very own world.  

Books have healing magic, too.  I believe that with all my heart.

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo; ill. by K.G. Campbell
2013, Candlewick Press
Personal copy

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review - "Zebra Forest"

I’ve been having several conversations lately about how grisly and parent-deprived children’s stories are, and have been for centuries.  Partly this is because of the book Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature by Michelle Ann Abate that I received for Christmas this year, and partly because every other parent always wants to know why so-and-so’s mother or father or both are dead.  Many blame Disney, and while Disney movies are a prime and very prominent example of this tradition, the Mouse is hardly to blame.  Bad things happen in children’s stories.  Sometimes, it is didactic in nature: don’t stray from the path or talk to strangers, Little Red Riding Hood!  Sometimes, it is so the hero’s journey can start from the depths of despair before reaching its pinnacle (everyone from Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress to Harry Potter).  But it is a truth universally acknowledged, that happy people with happy lives don’t make very lively literature.  It is with this in mind that I think about Zebra Forest, the debut novel of Adina Rishe Gerwirtz.

Annie and Rew live with their grandmother in the zebra forest.  Their father died when they were both very young, and their mother left them, saying “They were always his idea, anyway”.  Annie and Rew’s grandmother has her good days and her bad ones, and the kids have learned to adapt and survive, dodging school, grocery stores and social workers.  During the summer of 1980, with the backdrop of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Annie and Rew get an unexpected visitor after a nearby prison break:  Andrew Snow, their father.  What follows is a tense numeration of days in which the children become hostages in their home, learn secrets of their family history and discover hidden secrets within themselves.

For children who have always had a family, explaining why some children don’t can sometimes be tricky.  The death of a parent, while sad, is at least straightforward.  Explaining why a parent simply walks away is something else entirely.  In the course of Zebra Forest, Annie and Rew must come to terms with 1). a (falsely) dead parent, 2). a parent that chose to leave them and never return and 3). a parent that was taken away from them, albeit through the fault of his own actions.  Ms. Gerwirtz handles all these balls in the air with surprising ease and sensitivity.  The story is told from Annie’s point of view, but her brother’s feelings are just as keenly felt and understood.

Zebra Forest is not a story with much levity.  It’s a bad situation that only gets worse before it gets better.  But it’s a story worth reading, because everyone can understand the themes of loss, anger, fear and forgiveness.  Even if most of your experience comes from Disney movies.

Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz
2013, Candlewick Press
Library copy

Friday, October 25, 2013

Review - "Zombie Baseball Beatdown"

When the master of zombie movies, Mr. George A. Romero, started telling stories of the undead, they were laced with social commentary.  So the concept of sneaking some really deep ideas amidst the blood, gore and brains of the walking undead is nothing new.  Aiming all of this, carnage and intellectual debate alike, at middle graders, however, is something new, at least as far as I can tell.  That is part of what makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown such a valuable book.  It’s gross (seriously, DO NOT even think about eating a hamburger during or even after), but it will make kids think.

It started as a normal day.  Rabi (short for Rabindranath), Miguel and Joe decide to sharpen their baseball skills in the park near the Milrow meat-packing plant.  Then the stink happens.  An “Ashy-barfy-rotten-meat-dead-cow-manure-sewer” stink.  Something at the plant has gone terribly wrong, and before they know it, the boys are fighting off zombie baseball coaches, running from zombie cows, fighting with bullies and trying to save the world.

Kids have a lot to deal with in their lives.  To paraphrase “2 Broke Girls” (something I never thought I’d write), “you’re stupid, you can’t reach stuff, it’s rough”.  Rabi, Miguel and Joe aren’t stupid, but they are kids, and they’re forced to deal with an avalanche of issues all at once.  Miguel’s family is being deported and he lives in fear of the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement).  Rabi deals with casual racism (as does Miguel) and his horrific batting record.  Blonde-haired Joe doesn’t have the burden of worrying about being forced out of the country or accused of terrorism, which gives him freedoms his friends can’t enjoy, but as a semi-zombie-expert, he’s often on the front lines when facing the undead horde.

What Mr. Bacigalupi has done here is create a world where flesh-eating zombie cows may not be the most horrible thing in town.  This book really has it all.  It’s gross, funny, scary, thoughtful and challenging, but never feels as if it were trying too hard.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi
2013, by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review - "Carnivores"

Animals eat other animals.  It’s a fact of life.  And for many, many years, it’s a fact of life that children’s literature largely ignored.  Until now.  Now we have an influx of picture books about creatures eating creatures, ushered in my Jon Klassen’s wonderful, I Want My Hat Back (though I’m sure it was not the first, just the first that comes to my mind).  There was Klassen’s undersea follow up, This is Not My Hat, Mo Willems’ That is Not a Good Idea! (oops, spoiler alert!) and now we have Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat with Carnivores.  No more beating around the bush, it’s right there in the title.

Lion, great white shark and timber wolf are masters of their domains, but are getting discouraged by all the stink eyes, horror stories and fairy tales that paint them in a bad light.  They decide to ban together in a support group and try to figure out how to clean up their image.  Going vegetarian doesn’t help.  Great white shark doesn’t like the taste of seaweed, bark keeps getting stuck in lion’s teeth, and no matter how hard he tries, timber wolf keeps finding bunnies hiding in the berry bushes.  Losing hope, the trio turn to “the oldest and wisest carnivore”, the great horned owl, who dispenses some words of wisdom.  “I’m not bad.  I’m a carnivore.  Eating meat is just what I do.”  With this mantra in place, lion, great white shark and timber wolf return to their lives as predators with relish.

I love a picture book that makes me laugh.  I Want My Hat Back made me laugh hysterically for quite some time before I could contain myself.  Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Santat have echoed that feat with this fantastically twisted and laugh-out-loud hilarious book.  All the jokes, both verbal and visual, land right on their target (my favorite was the two-page spread revealing the owl’s greatest contribution).  It’s a great lesson about being true to your natural self, wrapped in a funny story that is sure to make kids grin and parents cringe (unless, like me, they find an illustrated picture of a wolf with a mouth full of bunny to be hysterical).  

This book book-talks itself.  I love it when my work is done for me!

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Dan Santat
2013, Chronicle Books
Library copy