Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review - "Square Cat"

I know I probably write a lot about my cat, but it's hard not to do so.  She's small and adorable, and I love her.  I'm a cat person, through and through.  There just happen to be several new cat books out lately that I've had opportunity to view (Won Ton, Cat Secrets, etc).  So when Square Cat, by Elizabeth Schoonmaker, finally crossed my desk, you can only imagine the little thrill of delight that rushed through me.  I've been looking forward to this book ever since reading Betsy Bird's Simon and Schuster Spring Preview post last December.  Just look at that cover.  Look at that darn cat!  There's too much cuteness, I can barely stand it.

Square Cat is the story of a cat named Eula (what a great name!), who is square.  All of her friends are round (rotund, I would say), and Eula wishes she could be more like them.  "Life wasn't easy for a square cat", you see.  Among her problems were blending in with city architecture, wearing stripes, and worst of all, tipping over and getting stuck.  Eula was so unhappy, she lost her purr.  Eula's friends try to make her happy by giving her round things, including rouge circles on her cheeks and doughnuts, but nothing works.  And so Patsy and Maud, Eula's friends, decide to don boxes to be square, just like her.  Then they show her all the lovely things about being square, including pillbox hats, advertising and square dancing, of course.  In the end, all three cats are happy, and Eula has her purr back.

If Eula wasn't so flipping cute, this book might not have worked so well, but Schoonmaker has designed such adorable and memorable characters, not only in Eula, but her friends as well, that it is very easy to go along with the silliness.  Some of the humor might fly over children's heads (the big about red shoes making Eula look short goes a bit over my head, to be honest), but they will laugh at Eula tipping over, every time.  They will also like the design of Eula's balloon shaped friends, and the boxy disguises they take on to help Eula fit in (one is decorated as a pizza box).  Besides the humor, there is a lovely message about being different and the importance of friendship that is there, without being in your face about it.

All these things are lovely, of course, but really...just look at the cover.  That cat is too darn cute.  How can anyone resist?

Square Cat by Elizabeth Schoonmaker
2011, Aladdin
Library copy

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review - "Little White Rabbit"

A new Kevin Henkes book is always cause for celebration in my land. This year offers two new titles, one for middle grade readers, Junonia, which I have access to, but haven't gotten around to reading just yet, and a shiny new picture book, Little White Rabbit, which has just arrived in my library. Just looking at this cover makes me smile, because it has that wonderful Henkes-ness. Bold outlines, beautiful colors. I occasionally want to hug Kevin Henkes books, but I do try my best to restrain myself. In Little White Rabbit, an imaginative little bunny sets off on an adventure, and wonders many things along his way. He wonders what life would be like if he were green, like the grass, turtles and frogs. He wonders what it would be like to be tall, like the fir trees. Each of these wonderings is followed by a two page spread imagining our little white rabbit in these situations: as still as a rock and fluttering like a butterfly. This continues until the rabbit comes across a cat, and wonders no more, and instead hops for home as fast as he can. The closing, textless illustration shows our rabbit surrounded by his family, he alone awake and peering at a flying insect, wondering things, no doubt.
I would place this next to Kitten's First Full Moon as my favorite of Henkes' non-mouse picture books. The illustrations are glorious, with the alternating bunny action shot, hopping through the page, with the imaginative two page spreads (my favorite of these is the 'fluttering like a butterfly' spread, featuring a contented bunny wagging his ears and his little tail as fast as he can to soar with the surrounding butterflies). The text is simple and repetitive, good for toddler and preschool audiences and the ending is sweet without being too saccharine. I'm still holding out for another mouse book starring Lilly and her family, but Little White Rabbit will do nicely for now. :)
Little White Rabbit by Kevin Henkes
2011, Greenwillow Books
Library copy

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review - "Ruby Lu, Star of the Show"

In 2004, Ruby Lu, star of Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look, joined the ranks of Ramona, Judy Moody and Junie B. Jones as the newest precocious youngster in the chapter book set.  Since then, Ruby has appeared in two more books, 2006’s Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything and the new Ruby Lu, Star of the Show.  With this newest title, she’s also gotten a makeover, care of new illustrator Stef Choi (the previous two titles were illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf).
In Ruby Lu, Star of the Show, the family faces their biggest challenge yet when Ruby’s father loses his job and the family purse-strings are tightened.  First on the chopping block are obedience lessons for Ruby's new dog, Elvis, who knows many cool tricks, like yoga, but needs help with the basics, like sit.  Ruby’s mother gets a job, and Ruby herself learns to adjust to life with a stay-at-home-dad.  (Sound familiar?  It should – the plot is similar to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Her Father).  Ruby tries many things to help the family through this rough patch, including running her own spa where her friends (with money scanned from the computer) all get new haircuts to engaging in a bit of pet therapy when her father seems down in the dumps.  But Ruby’s biggest challenge comes at the end of the book, when she discovers the past of her beloved Elvis, and learns the value in giving to others in need. 
Even though it harkens back to Cleary’s book from 1977, the Lu family’s struggles are very representative of our current economic climate.  Ruby’s is not the only family on the block with a parent out of work, and this takes its toll on the children, too.  There’s a very moving moment in Star of the Show in which Ruby’s father divides up money that was found and never claimed between two neighborhood families, keeping none for himself.  This allows Panchito, who has had a hard time making friends, mostly because of his own attitude, to try candy from Fred’s candy store for the first time and decide that he does, in fact, like candy.  In fact, “[h]e liked it very much.”  The issue of money is handled delicately, but realistically.  Despite Ruby’s worrying, never does it feel like the Lu family is in danger of losing their home, or going hungry, but the effort of job hunting takes its toll, and it shows in arguments between the parents. 
Ruby’s trademark humor is in full force as well.  Beyond the at home spa, there’s Ruby’s haikus in class, on everything from her dog to her “mean” teacher, Mr. Yu: “Monsters are creepy/Sneaky, send notes home with grades./Monster should not teach”.  After this incident, Ruby decides she doesn’t want to be a third-grade teacher any more (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, anyone?).  Of course, Ruby makes up with her teacher, and even attends tutoring after school to help with her grades.  Ruby and her cousin, Flying Duck, even win the school’s Halloween costume contest, in their “cheap” homemade/dad-made costumes: Ruby as a washing machine, Flying Duck as the dryer.  Even little brother Oscar gets into the act as a bottle of detergent.
I always look forward to a new Lenore Look title.  She’s someone to recommend to nearly every reader.  I put her Alvin Ho books into the hands on every Wimpy Kid enthusiast that I can find, and I do the same for Ruby Lu and fans of the aforementioned Judy Moody and Junie B.  I think Ruby Lu has earned her place on the reading list next to Beverly Clearly, Barbara Park and Megan McDonald as a solidly entertaining and rewarding early chapter book.  I can’t wait to see what she gets into next. 
A note on the cover: I’m not really a fan of the new look.  The inside illustrations are just fine, but the cover image is a bit too girly to me, a bit too generic.  Ruby looks like any other big-eyed, apple-cheeked cartoon little girl.  She’s lost her Ruby-ness.  Of course, in my universe, all Look’s books would be illustrated by LeUyen Pham.  But that’s just me. 
Ruby Lu, Star of the Show by Lenore Look (ill. Stef Choi)
2011, Atheneum
Library copy

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blog Giveaway

Over at her blog, the Nostalgic Librarian is giving away two sets of advanced reader copies, along with with lovely jewelry, to two lucky winners!  It's a sparkly blog, check her out!  I'm especially drooling over Huntress by Malinda Lo.  I loved Ash, so I can't wait to see what she brings next.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review - "Louis the Tiger who Came from the Sea"

What is it about tigers at sea that captures the imagination so? Yann Martel's Life of Pi, in which a boy is trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, won a Booker prize, was a minor phenomenon and is occasionally taught in classrooms. It's also being made into a film, directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee and starring Irrfan Khan and Tabu. The idea has clearly struck a chord. I was reminded of Life of Pi when I first picked up Michal Kozlowski's Louis the Tiger Who Came from the Sea. There's just something so incongruous about a big cat in the ocean that makes for good fantastical fodder.

In Louis, brother and sister Ollie and Ali wake one morning to find a tiger in their front yard, soaking wet and fast asleep. They assume, because of the way he rocks back and forth, that he came from the sea, and decided his name must be Louis. "You can tell by the white patch on his chin and the way his whiskers tickle his nose." When the family forgets to close the door behind them, Louis makes himself at home, curling up in front of their fireplace. Eventually, the family decides they must help Louis return to the sea. After dismissing a few ideas, they decide to dress up as sea creatures and lead Louis back themselves.

There is a lot to enjoy in Louis. The art, by illustrator Sholto Walker, is at turns cute, playful and beautiful. The final image of the family, all dressed in their sea creature costumes gazing out at the ocean at sunset is manages to be all three. The tiger is drawn with great detail, and a wonderfully expressive face. Any cat owner would recognize the looks of hunger, contentment and suspicion in Louis' eyes. The colors throughout are very inviting, bright greens and purples that fill the space and make a nice contrast to the large, orange tiger.

The fantasy of it all is endearing as well. The idea that a tiger who came from the sea would of course want to luxuriate in a bathtub is very childlike, and perfectly understandable. It also strikes a chord of wish fulfillment. Can you blame Ollie for skipping his bath because there's a tiger in it? I appreciated the fact that the tiger was still tiger-like. He roars and stretches like a real big cat, and though Louis shows signs of being unusual (like the bath), he still feels like a wild animal. It's a good book to read aloud, one I'm sure I'll use for my story time in the future. Kids will enjoy the silliness that comes with having a tiger in the house and find amusement in the final solution. After all, those sea creature costumes are mighty funny.

Louis the Tiger Who Came From the Sea by Michal Kozlowski
2011, Annick Press
Copy sent from publisher

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Harry Potter Wands

In the course of planning my summer reading program this year (I’m sure there will be much more talk of it down the road), my Youth Services co-worker and I decided to throw a Harry Potter party.  A lot we’re making up as we go, but some ideas we’re borrowing from another library that held a very successful party last year.  One of the main ideas we’ve borrowed has been wands.  As part of the volunteer teen group’s activities, they are making wands for every patron who comes to the party.   After combining a few different sets of instructions, I think we’ve come up with a pretty good wand.  All it takes is paper, double sided tape, hot glue and paint.  Not bad, eh?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Quickie Review - "Madeline at the White House"

In Madeline at the White House, John Bemelmans Marciano works off an idea his grandfather, the great Lugwig Bemelmans, had about sending the titular heroine to the white house to visit with the First Daughter.  In this case, Madeline and all of Miss Clavel's girl come to visit Miss Penelope Randall, nicknamed Candle because of a shock of hair that sticks up, who was "as lonely a girl as there can be".  She never gets to see her father, is the only girl at her White House school and has a Secret Service agent that "made sure she never left the grounds".  If ever a girl needed Madeline, it's Candle.  The girls hunt eggs and play games at the White House Easter celebration, and Madeline and Candle stay up all night together and have "a lark".  Finally the girls must part, and Madeline and all Miss Clavel's girls return home. 

Marciano doesn't have quite the touch his grandfather had.  The rhymes don't always land, and the cadence wavers.  But the art is still charming and warm, and Madeline's joy is infectious.  The magical fantasy element introduced towards the end is beautifully illustrated, but feels mildly out of place.  All in all, the text could have been neatened up, but this is a nice entry into the Madeline family of stories.

Madeline at the White House by John Bemelmans Marciano
2011, Viking
Library copy

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review - "Crunch"

Dystopian tales of our doomed future have been making the rounds in young adult literature for several years now, but I've seen very little of it for middle grade readers.  There's Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember series, Dark Life by Kat Falls (which verges on YA) and then...what?  The Lorax?  I struggled to come up with any other titles and came up empty.  This is partially why Leslie Connor's Crunch interested me, though I'll admit the bulk of why I picked up this book was due to Leslie's previous novel, Waiting for Normal, which I loved.  I wanted to see what this author would do with a frightening future and kids left to fend for themselves.

In Crunch, fourteen year old Dewey and his siblings (older Lil, and slightly younger Vince and five-year-old twins Angus and Eva) are left on their own when their parents are stranded up north by a fuel outage.  The country's pumps have gone dry, and Mom and Dad are stuck until their ration cards can buy them enough diesel to get the big rig home.  In the meantime, Dewey takes over the running of the family business, the Bike Barn, a bicycle repair shop.  And with cars off the road, everyone who can is taking out their bikes to transport, and the Bike Barn is suddenly buzzing.  Dewey, feeling the weight of responsibility, attempts to help everyone he can, but he's hampered by lack of parts, help and lack of time.  And then the thefts start.  Just a few things go missing at a time, but before he knows it, Dewey realizes the danger.

What I enjoyed most about Connor's story is that it is not far removed from our own.  In fact, it's a distinct possibility of a future.  There are no fantastical elements, and everything is grounded in reality.  This makes the crisis, or "crunch" as the kids call it, all the more upsetting.  It's a very understandble and relatable conflict.  Dewey's family is lucky.  Lil is old enough to hold down the fort, Dewey can handle the pressure of the bike shop (to a point), and they have adult friends to help them, but it's easy to imagine all the ways things could go wrong.  The best parts of Waiting for Normal were Connor's characters, and here again the characters are key.  Dewey is funny, clever and realistically bull-headed sometimes.  His next door neighbor, the sticky-handed Mr. Spivey is a wonderful creation; a character you can laugh at, suspect and somehow be endeared towards all at the same time.  I found the drama of Crunch to be a little crowded.  There's the crunch itself, the theiving, the missing parents, and the overflowing Bike Barn.  It's a little much for a little book to handle, and I perfectly related to Lil when, in a rare outburst, she yells, "They are on their way home.  Finally!  Can we just hang on until then?  Can we?" 

Crunch doesn't have the emotional heft that Waiting for Normal had, but then again, it doesn't have the same kind of stakes.  I knew Dewey and his family would be all right in the end, though the fuel crisis might not come to a neat and clean conclusion (which it doesn't).  But Crunch does deliver a good story, with powerful punches and memorable characters.  It's an interesting addition to the genre, and another impressive turn from Connor.

Crunch by Leslie Connor
2010, HarperCollins
Library copy

Monday, March 7, 2011

Review - "The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable"

If a recent trend in youth literature is to be believed, our only hope for the safety of this planet and all who inhabit it rests in the still growing hands of an ever increasing group of tweenagers.  At least, it seems recent to me.  I've tried, and can't recall any globe-trotting, world-saving pre-teens in my youth, and outside of Tolkien's brave young hobbits, no one who really held of fate of all kinds in their small hands. The Harry Potters and Dan and Amy Cahills of today's world have such a large burden to bear on their young shoulders, it hardly seems fair.  The latest in this line of adventurous do-gooders are Coke and Pepsi McDonald, the twin heroes of Dan Gutman's new series The Genius Files, the first book of which, Mission Unstoppable, unfolds over the course of one eventful cross-country RV trip.
After discovering that a pair of bowler-hatted baddies want them dead and fleeing for their life off the face of a cliff, Coke and Pepsi learn that they are a part of a secret organization dedicated to saving the world as only super smart children can (their acceptance letter was overlooked by their distracted parents).  They are given an assignment by a couple of cagey adults they're not quite sure they can trust, and packed up by their parents for a trip across the country in the family RV.  Though they're heading east to attend a wedding, Coke and Pepsi's parents have planned many stops along the way, including the world's biggest ball of twine, the Pez museum and a location famous for that all American of canned meats, Spam (Mom just happens to run a website devoted to all things odd and unusual).  Along the way, the twins face ciphers and threats, cheat death a few more times and get closer to the truth about this mysterious organization and the man who founded it.
The Genius Files doesn’t have quite the same edge-of-danger thrill that comes with a volume of The 39 Clues, but there are some good jumps and chills here.  Gutman certainly knows his kids, and writes them very well.  The humor is spot on, and the actions are believable.  Spotted throughout the book are Google Map directions, ostensibly to let you follow along with Coke and Pepsi on their cross country tour, which I could have done without.  I don’t read with a computer handy all the time, and the instructions to follow the route were left alone.  I can see how kids accustomed to using their computers with their reading (thanks to books like Patrick Carmen’s Skeleton Creek series) would enjoy this aspect, however.  Also peppering the text are illustrations, real life pictures and “Welcome To…” signs, which makes the reading space a little crowded.  The book clocks in at 286 pages, but is quite a quick read.  I don’t think this series will fly off the shelf like some others have, but those who love the quirky humor of Gutman’s My Weird School and books like it will find a lot to enjoy in The Genius Files.

The Genius Files: Mission Unstoppable by Dan Gutman
2011, HarperCollins
Galley provided by publisher

Friday, March 4, 2011

Review - "The Adventures of Nanny Piggins"

Nanny Piggins is not your ordinary nanny.  Nor is she, for that matter, your ordinary pig.  She is the star of The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, by R.A. Spratt, and is extraordinary in nearly every way.  She paints wonderful portraits (of herself, of course), she is a master of being shot out of a cannon, and she bakes the world’s best pies, pies so wonderful that she can’t bear to leave them uneaten.  And Nanny Piggins eats a lot.  Not just pies, but cakes, toast, cotton candy and chocolate.  Lots and lots of chocolate.  Basically, Nanny Piggins is the best nanny in the world, if you’re Derrick, Samantha and Michael Green.

You see, the Derrick, Samantha and Michael Green are the children of Mr. Green, and Mr. Green is just about the cheapest, stingiest man in the world.  He works very hard helping rich people avoid paying their taxes, and finds no reason why he should spend any time with his children, let alone any money on them.  So when the children’s mother dies in an unfortunate boating accident and subsequent require the services of a nanny, Mr. Green plants a sign in his front garden and waits for applicants to present themselves.  In walks Sarah Piggins, having recently left the circus, where she enjoyed the life of a star flying pig.  She knows nothing about being a nanny, and Mr. Green isn’t sure he wants to hire a pig, but she offers one thing he can’t refuse: she’s cheap, agreeing to work for only ten cents an hour.  Nanny acquired, Mr. Green can go back to ignoring his children, and Sarah, now Nanny Piggins has a new career.  What follows is a series of adventures featuring Nanny Piggins and the children, including school uniform shopping that turns into a trip to the amusement park, a trip to the beach nearly ruined by a terrible storm, and the arrival of Nanny’s adopted brother, Boris, the world’s best ballet dancing bear.

One might be tempted to compare Nanny Piggins to other nannies in children’s literature, but is certainly no Mary Poppins, or even Nurse Matilda (the inspiration for the film Nanny McPhee – which is delightful, by the way).  Nanny Piggins is a bit unlike any character I’ve come across before.  She’s incredible quick witted, though quite ignorant about certain details, like homework and the ocean.  She eats much and messily, but I always got the impression she was always well-dressed (this impression is no doubt due in part to Dan Santat’s charming, but somewhat unnecessary illustrations).  She’s a hoot.  The children are somewhat one dimensional characters, and I never really got a hold of them, but Nanny Piggins is such a powerhouse that I hardly noticed.

There’s a side to the book that is a little subversive, and some might call dangerous.  Spratt is certainly playing it close with the wild and unhealthy lifestyle that the Green children live while under Nanny Piggins’ care.  They seem to eat nothing but junk food, are encouraged to skip school and engage in such reckless behavior as throwing heavy objects off the roof.  It brings up the question of how responsible should fictional characters be, or rather, how much weight do we give to their irresponsibility when it comes to young readers?  Spratt gets away with what she does, I think, largely due to the books fantastic nature.  The main character is a pie-baking, talking, flying pig.  There’s no attempt at realism here.  The Adventures of Nanny Piggins is flat out comic fantasy, and a wonderful dose of laughs.  This is a perfect rainy day book (she writes as it storms outside), certain to charm you.  It’s almost as good as chocolate.

The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt
2010, Little, Brown Books
Library copy

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Review - "Shooting Kabul"

There are some books that carry so much weight, it’s miraculous they get off the ground at all.  It can be story weight or character weight, or outside weight from press or advertising.  Mockingbird was a very weighty book.  Katherine Erskine had to juggle Asperger’s Syndrome, a dead sibling and a community recovering from a school shooting, and I think that the weight of it all put together caused the book to drag its feet on the ground, unable to hold it all in.  Shooting Kabul, by N.H. Senzai is another heavy book, but what a difference the right touch can make.

In Shooting Kabul, young Fadi and his family make a daring escape from Afganistan and the Taliban to seek asylum in the United States.  But before they can make it out of the city, Fadi is separated from his little sister Mariam, and she is left behind.  The family finally lands in Fremont, California, and they try to make themselves a new home while back in Afganistan, the seach is on for the missing Mariam.  Fadi blames himself, you see, for letting go of his little sister’s hand in the confusion, and knows he must help bring her back, no matter what it will take.  That’s an extraordinary weight to lay on a child, but it does not stop there.  Fadi also has to deal with post-9/11 prejudice, especially from a pair of bullies at his new school.  He finds hope and a creative outlet in the school’s photography club, which just might offer him a chance of returning to look for his sister.

This book is a small miracle.  Senzai is cooking with every burner, and the heat is on high.  Considering the unfamiliar (to me) Arabic vocabulary and the extremely heavy subject matter, this book reads like a dream.  I ran through it in less than a day, and I don’t feel like I missed anything or shorted myself in any way.  I felt thoroughly rewarded by the book, and that is a rare experience.  The moment when the truck rolls away, leaving Mariam behind is truly heartbreaking.  It made me gasp.  Everything that followed was graceful and believable, and handled with a deft touch.  If this is how Senzai juggles, I can’t wait to see what else she might have up her sleeve.

Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai
2010, Paula Wiseman Books / Simon and Schuster
Library copy