Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review - "Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets"

When I was a kid, there was a Rodney Dangerfield movie called Ladybugs, in which a teen boy (played by the late Jonathan Brandis) pretends to be a girl to play on an all girls' soccer team. There were cross-dressing jokes a plenty and some gender confusion when Matthew (posing as Martha) gets a crush on one of his/her teammates. For some reason, I loved this movie as a kid. I only mention this, because all the warm feelings I had for it came rushing back when I read Eric Luper's fantastically funny book, Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets. I laughed at the same kind of jokes and enjoyed a similar gender bending adventure.
Jeremy Bender is your average guy. A little bit geeked out boating, a little bit picked on in school, and a little bit picked on by his older sister, Ruthie. Then one day, disaster strikes when, while working on his father's prize boat, he accidentally does some damage to the engine. Rather than admit his mistake, Jeremy formulates a plan to enter the Windjammer Whirl, win the $500 prize and repair the boat before anyone's the wiser. The catch? The Windjammer Whirl is for Cupcake Cadets only, and if there's one rule in the Cupcake Cadets handbook, it's No Boys Allowed. This isn't about to stop Jeremy, however, and he convinces his best friend Slater to go along with his scheme to pose as Cupcake Cadets to win the money. A couple of skirted uniforms later, "Jenna" and "Samantha" have entered a local troupe and start causing trouble wherever they go. They can't earn badges, can't pitch a tent, and can't seem to unload the eponymous cupcakes on the local populace. What are two guys-dressed-as-girls supposed to do, especially when one Cupcake Cadet gets too close to discovering their secret?
I chuckled a lot while reading Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets, and not all the humor is derived from having boys in wigs and skirts parading around town. Jeremy is a naturally humorous character, and his humor is drawn from a very believable boy place. There's a lot here about the difference between boys and girls (the scenes between Jeremy and sister Ruthie are a perfect example of these, and all very, very funny), and Luper knows how to play the line, making the book relatable to both boys and girls, which is a tricky thing to do. This book is an easy recommendation for fans of Wimpy Kid (something of which I'm always in need) and funny gals like Judy Moody and Ramona. I know Luper typically writes for a young adult audience, but I'm very interested in seeing what else he's got for the middle grade crowd, because he sure knows how to play to it.
Jeremy Bender vs. the Cupcake Cadets by Eric Luper
2011, Balzer + Bray
Library copy

Monday, December 19, 2011

Favorite Holiday Books

It's that time of year again.  Time to start thinking of tinsel and trees, of carols and Christmas.  And for me, it's time to start thinking about my favorite holiday stories, to read for myself and to share with others.  Because in some ways, Christmas has always been about stories for me, from the reading of the tradition Christmas Story while lighting Advent candles to countless Christmas movies watched over the years.  These are just some of my favorites.
Picture Books/Early Readers
 Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry – Who doesn’t love this sweet, continuous tale of the tree that keeps on giving.  Barry’s gentle rhymes are wonderful for read-alouds and the story is sure to leave a smile on your face.

 Merry Christmas, Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish, ill. by Lynn Sweat – This is a childhood favorite of mine.  I remember vividly Amelia Bedelia’s overflowing pots of popcorn and the “date” cake.  Amelia’s misunderstandings always seemed funnier at Christmastime. 
 Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo, ill by Bagram Ibatoulline – One of my favorite new Christmas books to come in the last five years or so.  The story is sweet but not maudlin, and Ibatoulline’s illustrations full of light are simply gorgeous.  I always get a little teary and puffed up when I get to the end and the repeating “great joy”.

 How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss – Well, of course.  I practically know it by heart, and can sing the dear little Who’s song from the animated special on demand.  Like many things Dr. Seuss gave us, the Grinch is an institution unto himself and a never ending symbol of the power of the Christmas spirit.
 Chapter Books
 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Not entirely a Christmas novel, but it begins famously with “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” and the March’s wonderful gift of Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummels.  I don’t always make it through the whole novel every year, though I’d like to, but I try to make it a point to read the first few chapters to remind me of all the things I should be thankful for come the holidays.
 When Santa Fell to Earth by Cornelia Funke – Another modern favorite, this tells the tale of the last real Santa Claus, Niklas Goodfellow, and his crusade to save Christmas from the greedy hands of Gerald Geronimus Goblynch who wants Christmas to be all about how much money your parents are willing to spend on you.  Niklas is aided in his quest by two angels, potty mouthed elves, two human children and one disappearing reindeer.  It’s a story full of wit and whimsy from one of my favorite modern storytellers, and slim as it is, it’s an easy book to commit to reading or listening to (as I did this year) every year.

 The Bird’s Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin – This one I didn’t discover until recently, but it made a quick dent on my impressionable heart.  A quaint Victorian tale of an angelic, but sickly child, born on Christmas day, and her gift of a lavish Christmas dinner on her poor neighbors’ children, whose rambunctious play had always been a source of joy to the weak girl.  Carol Bird is a “Beth” variation (and anyone who has ever read Little Women knows exactly what I mean), but the neighbor Ruggle children are beautifully varied characters, full of vim and vigor.  The ending produces a tear or two, but they are tears well earned by the joy of the Christmas spirit.
 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – There is nothing that I know that more says “Christmas” than Dickens' immortal classic.  I can quote it at length, love to read it aloud (even if no one is listening but the cat) and will never tire of its lesson or its humor.  To paraphrase Scrooge’s nephew Fred, I believe A Christmas Carol has done me good, and will do me good for many years to come and I say, God bless it.

And finally, the best Christmas movie ever made…The Muppet Christmas Carol!  Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  Despite being the first Muppet movie made after the untimely death of Muppet creator Jim Henson, it is imbued with his generous and jolly spirit in every frame.  The Muppet performers are in top form, especially Dave Goelz as Gonzo the Great, aka Charles Dickens, and Steve Whitmire, stepping into the role of Kermit the Frog, aka Bob Cratchit, and continuing his role of Rizzo the Rat.  For the humans, Michael Caine makes an excellent Scrooge, scowling, cowering and smiling in turn.  This plays in my house every year without fail, and with the Muppets making a return trip to pop culture relevance, I hope to share it with as many children as I can for as long as I can.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Weekend Movie Mini-Review

Hugo – Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a personal favorite of mine.  Selznick’s story of wonder and movies really gets to me, an ardant fan of early cinema.  Lucky for me, another film fan took the reigns of the film version and turned the “unfilmable” Hugo Cabret (Selzanick once said so himself) into a masterpiece of a film.  Martin Scorsese has done himself well as a movie lover, historian and preservationalist with Hugo, the story of a orphan boy living in a Paris train station in 1931.  The acting is across the board wonderful, with the best coming from Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory.  The film is gorgeous from all angles and moves like a dream.  Best of all, it remains true to the spirit of Selznick’s vision.  This film couldn’t have possibly turned out any better.  It’s a great way to spend an afternoon this holiday season.