Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Jane, the fox & me"

I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about the graphic novel format that allows for such an honest baring of one’s (literary) soul.  Graphic memoirs like Smile by Raina Telgemeier, The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley and I Remember Beirut  by Zeina Abirached have become more and more popular, and something like author Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the fox & me, which not strictly autobiographical, has to come from some place of truth.

Hélène, a young student with body and self-esteem issues, navigates the now treacherous landscape of school, with the help of Jane Eyre, which she is reading for the first time.  Girls who used to be friends now write hurtful things about Hélène on the bathroom walls and no one rises to her defense.  On an end-of-school camp trip, Hélène gets grouped with the “Outcasts”, a Latin girl who does not yet speak French and a girl whose only peculiarity seems to be a preoccupation with brushing her hair.  A chance encounter with a wild fox and finally reaching the end of Jane Eyre help give Hélène confidence, enough to recognize a new friend when one arrives.

Hélène’s story could easily stand in for any number of children, of all genders, ethnicities, nationalities and orientation.  Having self-doubt is not just a trait of the picked-on, but all adolescents (and adults, for that matter) of all kinds, everywhere, amen.  This is a story that transcends culture.  At the same time, however, Jane, the fox & me is littered with cultural references, like pins on a digital map.  Fashion is often up for discussion, including the passing trend of old-fashioned crinoline dresses and nautical-themed bathing suits.  The inclusion of the character of Lucia Muniz, a recent transfer who only speaks Spanish, is interesting in that she is labeled an outcast (by the narrator, no less) merely for her language barrier, which is later breached by a new friend with a little bit of Spanish in her back pocket.  The addition of this new friend, Géraldine, removes the last names from the other girls’ descriptions, changing them from outcasts to fellow friendlies.

Originally published in French, in Montreal, Canada in 2012, Jane, the fox & me was translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou and published in English in 2013.  It appeared on the United States Board on Books for Young People’s (USBBY) list of Outstanding International Books in 2014.  In 2013, it was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books.  The book received at least three starred reviews, and overwhelmingly favorable reviews across the board.  Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist called it “An elegant and accessible approach to an important topic” and stated that “Britt's well-constructed narrative is achieved sensitively through Arsenault's impressionistic artwork” (Oct. 15th, 2013).  Karen Coats from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books highlighted Arsenault’s artwork:

 “Helene's emotional tangle is given poignant expression through Arsenault's pitch-perfect mixed-media art; thin pencil-lined figures picked out against smudgy neutral grays and muted sepia tones highlight both the sharp-edged sources and limned echoes of Helene's everyday sadness, while the depictions of her imagined scenes from Jane Eyre are cleaner and more colorful, bringing in reds and greens, and even on occasion exploding into luminous watercolor landscapes. The contrast is striking and sets up the almost mystical tone of the encounter with the fox, who stands out in the red previously reserved for Helene's imaginary connection with Jane.” (Nov. 2013)

Jane, the fox & me is a wonderful book to give to fans of Jane Eyre, but also to readers who have not yet experienced the classic.  Britt’s narrative does give away details of Jane’s story, but the pleasure Hélène takes in reading it could easily inspire others to take up the tale.  Britt even mirrors Jane Eyre’s beginning with her opening line, “There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today.”

Readers inspired by Arsenault’s artwork could explore her previous works, including the picture books Migrant, written by Maxine Trotter and Spork and Virginia, Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear.

The exploratory nature of Hélène’s narrative would offer a good segue into graphic memoirs, such as those listed above (especially Smile, which tackles some of the same feelings of self-doubt), but also such graphics as Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez and The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, all of which touch on issues of identity and adolescence in a way that is tied into the characters’/memoirists’ cultural background.

Britt, Fanny.  Jane, the fox & me.  Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.  Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou.  Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2013.  ISBN: 9781554983605

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Hunwick's Egg"

Hunwick the bandicoot finds an abandoned egg one evening after a storm.  The egg’s mother cannot be found, so Hunwick takes it home with him.  Hunwick becomes the perfect egg-parent, attentive, affectionate and protective.  But the egg never hatches, and Hunwick’s neighbors start to worry about him.

Animals with adopted eggs is hardly a new story, even when Hunwick’s Egg was published in 2005.  Horton hatched an egg in 1940, after all.  But with a surprise “twist” ending, Mem Fox, doyenne of animal picture books, has created something special.  Fox and illustrator Pamela Lofts give readers an adorable hero (I dare anyone to turn the page to Hunwick’s introduction and not say, “Aww”) with an unusual problem: an egg that won’t hatch.  Fox’s repetition of the phrase, “Neither did it hatch” reinforces for young readers and listeners the passage of time and the feeling that something is not quite right.  Fox’s story is a gentle one.  Hunwick’s friends worry about him, but do not tease, as Horton’s friends did.  Hunwick cares for the egg, developing a friendship with an inanimate object in a way that young children with stuffed animals and imaginary friends can well understand.  Pamela Lofts’ illustrations of the Australian wildlife are wonderfully detailed, and the layout of the pages, with small boxes of action and highlighted images against a white background, is inviting without being overwhelming.

Hunwick’s Egg won the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award in 2007, and was named to the Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year list in 2005.  It was also shortlisted for several Australian literature awards, including the Young Australians Best Book Award in 2013.  

Critics did not always agree with my positive assessment of Hunwick’s Egg.  Gillian Engberg for Booklist found that Fox’s “abrupt conclusion is puzzling… [b]ut children will easily be drawn to Lofts' astonishingly expressive animal characters, and Fox's gentle text may resonate with young ones who feel a magical connection or companionship with their own cherished rock, shell, or shred of blanket” (Feb. 15th, 2005).  Kirkus Reviews wrote that “Several disconnects between text and pictures sink this faintly bizarre tale of a solitary elder who adopts an understandably silent confidante” (Jan. 15th, 2005).  However, bizarre is hardly the worst thing that could be said about a picture book, and if you’re Chris Van Allsburg, it’s practically a requirement.  I have found that children respond well to the rhythm and general good vibes of this story.  The detail of the illustrations might be better served in a large book format, however, as children are always wanting to see this book close up.

Mem Fox is a staple of my storytime routine, and fans of Hunwick’s Egg have many directions in which to go if they want to explore more of Fox’s work.  Where is the Green Sheep?, illustrated by Judy Horacek, is perhaps my favorite because it works with a variety of ages.  Let’s Count Goats!, illustrated by the criminally underappreciated Jan Thomas is another fun, interactive book.  If the reader or listener wishes another zoological trip to Australia, Fox has several titles to offer, including Koala Lou and Possum Magic.  There are also two other, non-Fox books about Australian animal life that are wonderful books to recommend: Over in Australia: Amazing Animals Down Under, written by Marianne Berkes and illustrated by Jill Dubin and An Australian ABC of Animals, written and illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft.

How can you not like Hunwick?  Just look at that face!

Fox, Mem.  Hunwick’s Egg.  Orlando: Harcourt, 2005.  ISBN: 9780152163181 (Illustrated by Pamela Lofts)

Class Post - Review - "The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon"

There are some stories that we know so well, it takes a truly distinctive book to do them the proper justice.  The Moon Landing might well be one of those stories.  We remember the grainy footage, the crackle of the audio link and Neil Armstrong’s immortal words.  But for children who are just learning about this monumental feat of human achievement, this is often as far as the story goes.  Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, picked up some moon rocks and came home.  The end.  Bea Uusma Schyffert’s The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins is a unique approach to the story of man’s quest for the moon that gives readers a backstage glimpse of this historical milestone.

Schyffert uses primary sources, including Collins’ own scribbled notes during the Apollo 11 mission, photos, lists and charts to illustrate and advance the narrative.  Readers are given context for all three men on the mission (Collins, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin), but it is Collins who is the emotional center of this book.  Never setting foot on the moon himself, Collins orbits the moon the in the Columbia spacecraft, confined to a small space and isolated for 14 revolutions, over twenty-five hours.  Schyffert gives readers a taste of Collins’ thoughts during this time, half of which is spent without radio communication, on the dark side of the moon.

The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon was a Batchelder honor book and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award honor book in 2004.  It received very good reviews from professional publications.  Booklist said, “More than a trip to the Smithsonian, even more than viewing the film Apollo 13, this excellent book--illustrated scrapbook-style with a cleverly presented mix of photographs, illustrations, and charts--communicates the excitement of space travel” (Nov. 1st, 2003). Children’s Literature also took note of the book’s visual appeal, saying, “Photos, drawings, diagrams, a reproduction of Collins' checklist, and his own handwritten observations are filled with fascinating details” (2003).

The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon is an excellent book to start readers with who are interested in exploring the literature of space travel.  It is light and readable, but jammed with information.  Readers can then go into some other fantastic titles about the Moon Landing, include Brian Floca’s Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 and other space exploration books, like Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream and Ian Graham’s You Wouldn’t Want to Be on Apollo 13!: A Mission You’d Rather Not Go On (The “You Wouldn’t Want…” series is a great series for reluctant readers, as the authors present historical facts with cartoonish accompaniment and relish dealing with things that might be icky, such as Aztec sacrifice).

Apollo 11 was an American aerospace endeavor, but the accomplishment belongs to the world.  It was a global achievement, one that was witnessed on television by one-fifth of the Earth's population.  Schyffert’s book, originally published in Sweden, illustrates this fact.  The appreciation and admiration of Armstrong, Aldrin and especially Collins is evident, but the book never stoops to glorifying them, in a way that might be present in an American-produced publication.  Schyffert seems to be saying that Collins was a hero, not because he was super-human, but because he was human, an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing.

Schyffer, Bea Uusma.  The Man Who Went to the Far Side of the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003.  ISBN: 9780811840071

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review - "Spirit's Key"

There is an episode of the British science fiction show (and now worldwide phenomenon) “Doctor Who”, in which the character of the Doctor attempts to explain his current whereabouts by describing the universe as a bubble, with a tiny bubble sticking to the outside.  While the Doctor dismisses his  metaphor before he has even finished it, I feel this appropriately encapsulates the world of Edith Cohn’s Spirit’s Key.  It’s our world, but not quite.  Our world as it could be, under certain circumstances.  If I were being technical, I would call this style magical realism, but for the moment, I’m going to stick with the Doctor’s bubble-on-bubble universe.

Spirit Holden and her father live on Bald Island, a small, close-knit and superstitious community.  Spirit’s father has a gift, and can see into the future of someone whose key he is holding, but lately his visions have been shaky.  Spirit believes this will pass, but in fact, the gift of sight is in the process of transferring from her father to herself.  One day, while clutching his discarded dog tag, Spirit sees the ghost of her beloved “baldie” (a local, wild dog), Sky.  With Sky’s help, and the help of a few new friends, Spirit realizes her gift and fights to save the island from prejudice and misconception and take her place among the “greats” of her family.

I had a hard time getting into Spirit’s Key at first, I will admit.  I wasn’t sure of the world Spirit was inhabiting, and wasn’t sure of the rules.  But I kept with it, because Spirit herself was an interesting character, and in time the workings of Spirit’s universe became clear, and then seemingly all at once, the entire book fell into place.   The story rests on Spirit’s shoulders, but she is more than up to the task.  Spirit is resourceful and brave, not afraid to admit when she needs help, and has remarkable strength in her convictions.  Spirit’s Key is a call for preservation and for the need to reach out in kindness to all living things, be they strangers, strange or simply misunderstood.

Spirit’s Key by Edith Cohn
2014, Farrar Straus Giroux
Preview copy provided by publisher for review
On bookshelves September 9th

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review Double Feature - "Celie Valentine" and "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

Dealing with the decline in health and acuity in a loved one is a difficult thing to process, no matter what your age.  In an unforeseen coincidence, two books I recently read both dealt with this issue, one from the point of view of a young grandchild, The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, and one from the memories of an adult daughter, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.  One is lower middle grade diary fiction and the other is a graphic memoir intended for adults.  But these books are so similar, I couldn’t help but conflate them, especially given that the fates aligned to have me read them back to back.

In Friendship Over, young Celie Valentine pores her heart out into a journal given to her by her father so that she may “work through your feelings”.  Celie’s other gift was a punching bag, for the same reason.  And Celie has feelings to get out, boy howdy.  Her best friend in the whole world, Lula, has suddenly and inexplicably stopped talking to her, and has iced her out completely.   Celie is nestled in the anger portion of her grief over the loss of her friendship, and lets loose on her diary all her frustrations, in words and pictures.  To add to her tumult, things are tense in her home because her beloved Granny has been unreachable, and her health has become suspect.  Celie doesn’t understand why her parents are worried that Granny’s “mind is slipping”.  What does that even mean?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, on the other hand, is Roz Chast’s chronicle of the last several years of her elderly parents lives.  In their nineties, though seemingly healthy and, especially in her mother’s case, sturdy, Chast's parents bristle when she broaches the topic of their plans.  Enter the titular comment.  As her parents’ health and mental awareness  declines, Chast goes from bi-weekly visits to deliver groceries to overnight trips to the ramshackle Brooklyn apartment her family had always called home.  When it becomes clear that her parents can no longer live on their own, Chast moves them closer to her home in Connecticut to an assisted living facility, therein referred to as “The Place”, and continues to make arrangements for them and care for them until the end.

Having read the two books back to back, the contrast between the two point of views, that of a young person, and an adult, on the concepts and realities of aging, were striking.  Sternberg’s Celie, first so adamant that her Granny is absolutely fine (why wouldn’t she be?), transitions into a fierce protectiveness and take charge attitude.   She suggests that her Granny come live with her family (even if it means giving up her bed and sleeping on a saggy air mattress) before the topic had even been broached by her parents.  Friendship Over is the first in a new series, so time will tell how much this storyline will play into the series as a whole, but I can only assume Granny will continue to be a big part of Celie’s life.

Roz Chast, however, is the adult in her situation, and as an only child, the sole person responsible for her parents care and welfare.  The issue?  Chast’s relationship with her parents is hardly one you would call warm and fuzzy, especially with her domineering, obstinate and belligerent mother.  So Chast has a different mindset than Celie, one that is concerned for her parents, but also concerned with the financial cost of their care, the ethical cost of prolonging their lives, and even the mammoth task of evacuating a 70+ year partnership out of an apartment.  The tale of Roz and her parents' apartment, from processing the years and years and years of stuff, separating the wheat from the chaff, giving up on finding wheat, finally leaving the whole mess for the landlord to sort/steal/throw out the window and the subsequent reevaluation of her own collection and accumulation of stuff is one of the most hilarious moments in her memoir.  Oh, right.  Did I mention Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is supposed to be funny?  It is, and dreadfully so.  I can’t count the number of times I laughed out loud, at something that is both utterly tragic and authentic, but dead funny at the same time. I would think that Roz Chast is sharing one of the most difficult passages of her life, in the hopes that readers can laugh where she could not, in accordance to the ultimate absurdity of human life in general.

Unless one dies young, dealing with the passing of a loved one is an inevitable part of life.  Thanks to Julie Sternberg and Roz Chast, we now have two wonderful new books to help us through.

The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, illustratred by Johanna Wright
2014, Boyds Mills Press
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
2014, Bloomsbury USA
Library copy