Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review - "Sadie and Ratz"

I’ve mentioned before how hard I think it must be to write a satisfying early chapter book. It’s so easy to fall into the traps of talking above children’s heads, or talking down to them, or simply equated easy with boring (hello, Dick and Jane). That’s why it’s so rewarding to have a book like Sonya Hartnett’s Sadie and Ratz. Here is a book that is right on a child’s level, and is wonderful and strange and just a little bit subversive. My kind of book.

Young Hannah has named her hands Sadie and Ratz. Sadie and Ratz are “wild beasts” according to Dad. Indeed, they enjoy “crunching”,“squishing” and “squeezing”. One thing Hannah, Sadie and Ratz do not enjoy, is Baby Boy, whom Hannah wishes were a dog instead of a baby brother. Sadie and Ratz do enjoy torturing Baby Boy, however, when he gets in the way, by jumping on his head and trying to rub his ears off. Naturally, Baby Boy is not very fond of Sadie and Ratz. When not-so-nice things begin happening around the house, and Sadie and Ratz get the blame, Hannah starts to reassess her brother. “[H]e was crafty.” This all leads to an unexpected but glorious conclusion.

Sadie and Ratz clocks in at a slim 60 pages, but there’s nothing simple about what Hartnett and illustrator Ann James have done here. Hannah and her hands, like Sendak’s Max before her, represent the wild thing in all of us, which when we’re children (and for some unfortunate adults) can truly be an uncontrollable force. Children will instantly understand the concept of Hannah’s hands, the personalities of each hand (“When Sadie grows up, she wants to be a dragon. When Ratz grows up, he wants to be a bigger Ratz.”) and will love the sneaky glee of the “twist” ending. Early chapter books are hard to do well, but Hartnett and James have pulled off a near perfect book. It’s a perfect stepping stone for Ramona, as Hannah is clearly her cultural descendant.

Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett ill. by Ann James
2012 (first published in 2010), Candlewick Press
Library copy

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review - "Fake Mustache..."

I love Tom Angleberger. The man is a complete loon, and I’d be scared to know what goes on inside his head, but I love him. He has a way of capturing the adolescent voice, with all its oddity and normality, its wonders and squeakiness. One of his latest ventures into the land of pre-teen boys is Fake Mustache, or How Jodie O’Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election From a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind. Yes, that is the full title. Like with Horton Halfpott, Angleberger seems to love playing with us.

The “nerdy kid” in question is Lenny Junior, a twelve-year old seventh-grader with one real friend and one secret crush on a preteen rerun television queen. His best friend Casper surprises him one day with his desire to procure a suit and a fake mustache. But not just any suit and fake mustache: a man-about-town suit and the Heidelberg Handlebar Number Seven. Just what Casper intends to do with these items, Lenny has no idea. That is, until, the town of Hairsprinkle (what an awesome town name that is!) makes the morning news. It appears there’s been a break-in at the First Bank of Hairsprinkle (seriously, how awesome is that name?). And the ringleader of the robbery gang? Just a “short, well-dressed man-about-town sporting a spectacular handlebar mustache.” Now, no one but Lenny, and he soon realizes, TV’s own Jodie O’Rodeo, realize that Fako Mustacho, a man rising steadily in power, is really a sneaky seventh grader bent on world domination. It’s up to Lenny and Jodie to fight the brainwashed hordes and restore order before Fako succeeds in stealing the presidential election.

Early on in Fake Mustache, Angleberger references Daniel Pinkwater’s The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. Rarely are literary in-jokes so apt. Angleberger does his best channeling Pinkwater’s patented brand of zaniness. The premise, that a fake mustache makes young Casper able to brainwash the populace into thinking he’s a legitimate businessman named Fako Mustacho, requires ultimate suspension of disbelief. Luckily, Angleberger knows how to write kids, and for kids, in a way that makes all the insanity real. After all, he had you believing in an origami Yoda puppet, didn’t he? While Fake Mustache doesn’t quite reach the heights of the adventures of Tommy, Dwight and their friends, it is certainly Angleberger’s craziest output to date. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Fake Mustache, or How Jodie O’Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election From a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind by Tom Angleberger
2012, Amulet Books
Library copy

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review - "Heidi Heckelbeck"

I imagine that writing a successful early chapter book must be tricky.  It must be accessible to young audiences, but avoid talking over their heads.  It must push vocabulary, but not sound like a textbook.  And above all, it must be fun, or no one will bother reading it.  Barbara Park hit the nail on the head with her Junie B. Jones series (despite parents’ and teachers’ occasional objections).  I can testify that Junie B. is as popular with young readers now, both boys and girls, as she’s ever been.  And every once and while, someone new comes along to try and join the immortal ranks of Junie B. and Captain Underpants, and one such newcomer is Heidi Heckelbeck, star of Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret and Heidi Heckelbeck Casts a Spell by Wanda Coven.
Heidi Heckelbeck is going to school, the second grade, for the first time ever.  Until now, she’s been homeschooled with her little brother Henry, but her parents have decided it’s time to get out in the world, so she and Henry are starting up at Brewster Elementary, and Heidi is not at all happy about it.  She’s convinced school has nothing to offer her, and when mean girl Melanie calls her smelly and paints a jack-o-lantern mouth on Heidi’s self-portrait, she’s knows she’s right.  But then again, there’s Lucy, with her “warm, fuzzy smile”.  Maybe it’s not all bad.  But when Melanie gets Heidi cast as a scary tree in the school production of “The Wizard of Oz”, Heidi thinks she’s gone too far.  She’s ready for payback and ready to reveal her secret power:  she’s a witch.  In her second book, Heidi devises a spell for payback against Melanie, but may have second thoughts when she sees the damage the spell will cause.

Now, the problem with telling us that Heidi has a secret is, you’ve got to have some build up to the great reveal.  Coven does drop a few hints along the way: Heidi has a secret book, and she eschews “girly” colors for black clothes that her brother says looks like a Halloween costume.  But besides these few glimpses of something beneath the surface, Heidi’s experiences in school are a bit run of the mill.  There’s a mean girl, a sympathetic teacher, new friends, etc. 

In the second book, once we’re all in on Heidi’s secret, her story gets a little more interesting.  There’s a quest at work in Casts a Spell, wherein Heidi must gather ingredients for her forgetfulness spell she wants to use against Melanie during the play.  Heidi also deals with a new bully, though not in the best way.  I expected some fallout from her decision, but there was none.  Heidi acted badly, and that was that.  It’s certainly a talking point for parents.  Eventually, Heidi does make the right decision regarding Melanie, and learns her lesson, though we don’t really get to see another side of Melanie herself.  She remains a stock villain character.

I was excited about a new early chapter book set, but I’m a little disappointed by the results.  Aside from being a witch, there’s nothing really unique about Heidi, nothing that makes me smile.  Her second book was a definite step forward from the first, which felt like it was nothing more than an extended prologue.  I do think kids might gravitate towards Heidi, though.  The words are big, the margins are wide, and illustrations by Priscilla Burris lend the text a whimsical air.  I’ll give this to kids, but I’m definitely going to give them both books at once, because the first one is much ado about not a whole lot without volume two to back it up and give it some spice.

Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret and Heidi Heckelbeck Casts a Spell by Wanda Coven, ill. by Priscilla Burris
2012, Little Simon
Library copy

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review - "A Hen in the Wardrobe"

Home is where the heart is, they say, but what happens when your heart is in more than one place?  For Ramzi’s father, Mr. Ramadan, this causes quite a problem in Wendy Meddour’s debut novel, A Hen in the Wardrobe.  Poor Mr. Ramadan is acutely homesick, you see, and because of this has begun sleepwalking again, leading him to unfortunate and frankly hilarious situations such as searching for the title hen in his son’s wardrobe and climbing a tree as an endangered snow leopard (Mr. Ramadan is also deathly afraid of heights).  When a sleep specialist recommends Mr. Ramadan take a trip home, Ramzi’s father packs up the family and leaves grey, grey England for the mountains of Algeria.  Once home, Mr. Ramadan starts sleeping like a baby, and Ramzi gets to know a home away from home.  Ramzi comes face to face with the nefarious Boulelli, a spider that lives in the woods and feasts upon children, stands up to a bully, and learns that he alone may hold the key to his father’s health and well-being.

A Hen in the Wardrobe is a charming tale of family relations and has a sensitive heart for those who call multiple places around the globe home.  It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, beginning in the middle of the action and hardly slowing down.  I had a hard time with the characters at first, especially Ramzi’s friend Shaima who seems picked straight from the tree of plucky, young, (annoying) genius girls.  But once the story shifts to Algeria, it really spreads its wings and gets comfortable.  The book is full of Arabic words and phrases (and offers a handy-dandy glossary in the back), and colorful characters that really make you feel the place and time.  This is a wonderful book for children who are curious about other cultures and other religions.  On the whole, I am very grateful for books like this, which offer one important step on the road to a more tolerant world.

A Hen in the Wardrobe by Wendy Meddour
2012, Frances Lincoln’s Children’s Books
Final copy sent from publisher for review

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review - "Summer and Bird"

Fairy tales survive because they are a part of us.  There are coded into our DNA, and all around the world, we find ourselves telling the same stories, over and over.  A good fairy tale is also familiar to us.  We know it in our bones, even if we’ve never heard it before.  Katherine Catmull’s debut novel, Summer and Bird, if full of familiar fairy tale tropes, but when put all together, is wholly unique.

Summer and Bird are sisters, living in a house next to a stream by the woods.  One morning, they wake up to find their parents are gone.  A picture letter left by their mother leads them into the woods where they are soon separated.  Summer now feels she must find both her sister and her parents, while Bird has disappeared on a journey of her own self-discovery.  The girls confront the mysteries of the forest, the vagaries of the birds and the secret their parents have kept for so long.  Summer must learn to be a leader and a follower, and Bird finds herself in the thrall of the evil Puppeteer, who wants nothing more than to be Queen of the birds.  Can the girls find each other, help each other and save their lost father and captured mother before it’s too late?

Summer and Bird is not what I would call an easy read.  It takes concentration and commitment.  Catmull sometimes lets her language and style get away from her and it doesn’t always serve the story (too many sentence fragments for my taste).  But when you look at the skeleton of the story, it’s really quite remarkable.  Catmull has taken features we all know (changelings and enchanted queens, etc) and made from them something new and curious.  There are wonderful fantasy elements at play here: spirit birds, a World Tree, a villain who eats birds whole.  Catmull’s world building is top notch.

While I think this is easily identified as a first novel (wrangle in your flowery language!), it is a beautiful one, and one that I can readily see becoming a fairy tale classic years down the road, like Ella Enchanted, which also bent a few rules in its path to greatness.

Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull
2012, Dutton Juvenile
Advance copy sent from publisher for review

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review - "Cinder"

Fairy tales.  They’re my thing.  Give me princes and princesses in disguise, young people turned into animals, magic cloaks and lettuce that turned you into a donkey.  It’s all gravy.  I especially love when someone takes a fairy tale, something that is ingrained in our public consciousness, and makes of it something unique and unexpected.  This is why I was so excited over the prospect of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.  A futuristic Cinderella set against the backdrop of interstellar intrigue?  Count me in.
Linh Cinder is a cyborg, living in New Beijing under the iron thumb of her “stepmother” Adri.  She’s the best mechanic in town, and one day, none other than Prince Kai, son of the reigning Emperor, stops by her booth asking for her help.  This starts a chain of events that leads Cinder down a path she never imagined.  Her beloved stepsister Peony comes down with the horrible Letumosis disease, a pandemic that has ravaged the world.  Her stepmother volunteers Cinder for a governmental experiment program that drafts cyborgs and injects them with the disease in order to search for a cure.  Add to this the oncoming storm of Queen Levana, the Luna ruler, who comes to Earth in the wake of the Emperor’s death in order to form an alliance with Kai.  But Queen Levana has evil lurking beneath her beautiful visage, and the new Emperor-to-be is not fooled.  With each twist and turn, Cinder learns more about herself and her mysterious past and falls just a little bit more for Kai with every encounter.
 I’m not sure what I was really expecting when I opened Cinder.  I knew the basic plot line, but what I was really interested in was the fairy tale element.  It turns out, that element is secondary to the true nature of the book, a high-kicking science fiction fantasy.  The world that Meyer has created is fully realized and perfect for the story she wants to tell.  Cinder is an interesting character.  She has your typical teenage neuroses, but they manifest in atypical ways.  She struggles with being a cyborg, with feeling inferior and unwanted.  But she has strength in her too, and asserts herself when needed.  This is no passive fairy tale princess.  Meyer’s story does have some bumps: the “surprise” ending is perfectly evident from the beginning.  And the ending comes in a too-soon rush, certainly setting up the action for the next in the series.  But the overall effect is one of great fun and excitement.  I practically devoured this book, and I’m anxious for the sequel.  If this is what Meyer does with her first time at bat, I can only expect greater things to come with time and experience.
 Cinder by Marissa Meyer
2012, Feiwel and Friends
Library copy

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review - "Do Super Heroes Have Teddy Bears?"

The world of children’s playtime is one that is well traveled in realm of picture books.  The depth and scope of a child’s imagination is wonderful fodder for a story.  One book that comes immediately to mind is Antoinette Portis’ Princess Super Kitty (along with her fantastic Not a Box and Not a Stick).  Children can make almost anything into a game, and it is with this spirit that Carmela LaVigna Coyle has brought us her newest title, Do Super Heroes Have Teddy Bears?.

Well, do they?  The text asks us if “super heroes take teddies along for the ride”, which is, of course, “something super heroes get to decide”.  Judging from Mike Gordon’s playful illustrations, the answer is yes.  The book takes us through an exhausting day of play with our little super hero and his long suffering (but fully committed) family as he makes use of his blanket and cardboard boxes, eats his vegetables, makes a mess and cozies up for a good book (not necessarily in that order).

Coyle, well known for her series of Do Princesses… books, turns from princesses to super heroes, both boys and girls, but the results are much the same.  There is fun and laughter and family togetherness in this title, covering a wide range from being scared of the dark (“Not after a hug and a kiss nighty-night.”), to Earth friendly awareness (a very nice two-page spread filled with ways to save the planet).  Coyle’s rhyming question and answer style suits perfectly and is very easy for reading aloud.  I particularly appreciate the relationship between our super hero boy and his little sister.  There are bumps, especially when brother breaks the fish bowl (bringing to mind Edna’s admonishment from The Incredibles: “No capes!”), but all together they have a playful bond that is nice to see.

Little boys and girls that are gobbling up my Batman and Spider-Man (yes, girls read comic books, too) will love this title, and I think their parents will find a warm, comfortable book to share with their children.  I have a feeling this title will fly off the shelf.

Do Super Heroes Have Teddy Bears? By Carmela LaVigna Coyle, ill. by Mike Gordon
2012, Taylor Trade
Final copy sent from publisher for review

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review - "The Lions of Little Rock"

No one really knows what makes a friend a friend.  Is it shared interests?  Common goals?  Or is it something intangible, something maybe a little bit magic that binds us?  Perhaps the universe chooses our friends for us, not necessarily the people we want, but the people we need.  And sometimes the people we need are the ones we least expect.  Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock gives us a portrait of such a friendship, set against the backdrop of racial unrest and upheaval. 
 Twelve-year-old Marlee’s life is about to turn upside down.  It’s 1958 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the year after the famous Little Rock Nine and the high schools are closing over the issue of integration.  This means her older sister Judy is displaced, eventually sent to live away from home so she can go to school.  This is a big problem for Marlee, because Judy was one of the few people she could talk to.  Literally.  Marlee is not what you would call chatty.  But with Judy gone, and her friends testing the boundaries of friendliness, Marlee feels more alone than ever.  Enter Liz, a new student.  In Liz, Marlee finds someone to talk to, someone who challenges her and appreciates her for who she is.  That is, until one day Liz is gone.  She doesn’t return to school, and rumor has it she’s really black, and has been passing for white.  Marlee’s life is thrown into turmoil.  She feels betrayed, lied to.  But the more she thinks about it, the more she simply wants her friend back.  This leads Marlee to the front lines of the integration battle in Little Rock, and into some very dangerous situations on the road to self-discovery and finding her own voice.
 The Lions of Little Rock is a book full of historical detail.  The characters are fictional, but groups such as the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our School (WEC) and Stop This Outrageous Purge (STOP) came from real events.  Levine made the right move setting the book where she did, because while the story of the Little Rock Nine is better known, what happened after is less so.  I was intrigued by the notion of the governor simply closing schools rather than integrate, (something I don’t remember ever being taught in school) the adult version of throwing a hissy fit, with more serious results.  Readers are given examples of people on both sides of the fence, and Levine seeks to explain their motivations, though some are motivated by nothing more than hate.  This isn’t a complete picture of the Little Rock situation, but it does give a good glimpse through the eyes of young Marlee.
Marlee herself is a well-drawn character.  Her selective mutism makes her a little passive in the beginning, but as her voice grows, so does her courage.  By the end, she is making plans and forging ahead into unknown and possibly perilous waters.  We see everything as Marlee sees it, so we experience her own prejudices and how she is able to overcome them.  Marlee’s parents are equally compelling.  It would have been easy to paint her father as progressive and her mother as backward, but Levine never falls to such cardboard cutouts.  Both parents have the good and bad about them, and it’s easy to see where Marlee comes from when given the two.  My only real complaint with the book is with the character of Liz.  Even with all her cards on the table, she is a bit of a mystery.  We don’t know what she was really feeling when she enrolled in Marlee’s school.  We don’t know how she relies on her friendship with Marlee, and how she really feels when that friendship is taken away.  Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if it had been told in alternating voices.  I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing half, maybe even the more interesting half, of the story.
 Despite my misgivings, I did enjoy The Lions of Little Rock.  I enjoyed Marlee’s voice, and her courage.  Given that issues of hate and race have never left us, we could all use a little bit of Marlee’s nerve in our heads.

 The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
2012, Putnam Juvenile
Library copy

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mini Review - "Bill the Boy Wonder"

Every comic book fan should know the name Bill Finger.  That many don’t is a sad state of affairs, but one author Marc Tyler Nobleman is trying to improve.  With Bill the Boy Wonder, Nobleman reveals the true origins of Batman, and exposes Bill Finger’s hand in creating one of the most famous fictional characters of all time.  Along with Ty Templeton’s expert comic illustrations, Nobleman goes a long way towards righting a long standing wrong and giving Finger credit where credit is due.  The story and facts are presented in an easily digestible fashion (though some children may have a hard time understanding why Bob Kane would claim sole credit when it simply wasn’t true).  All in all, Bill the Boy Wonder is a very enjoyable book, smart and visually appealing.  After this and Boys of Steel, I’m looking forward to seeing if Nobleman has any other real life comic stories to tell.

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman, ill. By Ty Templeton
2012, Charlesbridge Publishing
Final copy sent from publisher for review

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Review - "Crow"

Sometimes (more often than not, it seems), history can be a little dicey.  The course of human events is rarely neat and perfectly packaged.  We’re messy people, and our history reflects that.  Historical fiction thrives on our messiness and our mistakes.  We love to read about people who rise above their situations and survive the tides of history.  One such story is that of young Moses, in Barbara Wright’s Crow.  His journey through a rather unfortunate chapter in American history makes for a thrilling tale.

 One generation removed from slavery, Moses lives a good life in Wilmington, North Carolina.  His Howard University educated father is an Alderman, publisher of the only daily black newspaper in the South and a respected member of the African American community.  His mother has a steady job and his grandmother, Boo Nanny, is a fount of wisdom and stories.  But the innocence of Moses’ childhood bubble is about to break, with racial tensions soaring in town and a rising dread of what might happen if things get out of hand.  An editorial in the paper sparks a fire, and suddenly the streets are filed with mobs of Red Shirts, white men unhappy with the way things have changed and ready to take action with violence to change them back.  Moses finds himself in the middle of a firestorm, and must find hidden depths of courage he never knew he had.
It’s a sad thing to admit, but until I read this book, I wasn’t really aware of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.  The name was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t have told you any details if I tried.  That’s why I love books like Crow so much.  They open my eyes.  Moses’ story begins very episodically, with stories of school and strained friendships and new friendships, and a particularly memorable scene involving a stolen bike.  But as you read on, Wright pulls you farther and farther into Moses’ world until you’re completely immersed in the history and the violence and terror Moses faces leaves your heart beating in your throat.  This is not an easy book to read.  It presents a very ugly part of our past, and does so unflinchingly.  It’s for mature middle grade readers, that’s for sure.  But for those made of stern enough stuff to dive right in, it’s a sterling story, filled with wonderful characters and an ending that might have you reaching for the tissues, but feeling proud at the same time.

Crow by Barbara Wright
2012, Random House Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review - "The Mighty Miss Malone"

Returning to a previously lauded work, like returning to the scene of a crime, is not necessarily a good idea.  Just because something worked once, doesn’t mean it will work again.  See: nearly every Hollywood sequel.  But sometimes, if the right person gets in line with the right idea at the right time, it works.  The planets align, the stars twinkle, and you hold in your hands something that is almost as powerful and worthy as the original.  Such is the case with Christopher Paul Curtis and The Mighty Miss Malone.

Deza (that’s Deh-zah, not Dee-zah) Malone first appeared in Curtis’ Newbery Medal winning book, Bud Not Buddy.  She sauntered in, delivered a killer scene, and sauntered back out again.  This time, Deza is front and center of her own story.  Her family is living through the Great Depression just as well as they can manage.  Until one day, that is, when her alliterative father goes out for a fishing trip, and everyone’s life changes.  Deza faces the prospect of leaving her home town of Gary, Indiana, and all it offers her, for the unknown of Flint, Michigan and her missing father.  Her older brother Jimmie leaves the family to strike out on his own, leaving Deza and her mighty mother to struggle on without him.  Circumstances align themselves against her, but Deza Malone never gives up hope that her family will be together again.

I’ll say right off the bat, that this book isn’t perfect.  The praise heaped on Deza by her teacher is almost sickening it’s laid on so thick.  This is hard to take, as I have grown tired of precocious little girls who love words.  There is also a realization at the end that is too long in coming for such a smart girl.  But despite these road bumps, at the end of the day, I didn’t care.  I cared that I had just zoomed through a book I couldn’t put down, for fear that Deza would be busy living her life without me.  Her fire and spirit were contagious.  I found myself smiling for no good reason (for often, Deza has no good reason to smile, but does).  Curtis has a gift for characters, every one of them real and well-drawn, despite my misgivings about Deza in the beginning.  He made her so much more than a little girl who loved words.  And I will give Curtis credit for pulling off that elusive, unhappy happy ending.  A tricky thing to do, indeed.

So, is it as good as its forebear, Bud, Not Buddy?  I would say “close, but not quite.”  Time may temper my love of Deza and her family, but has done nothing to lessen my regard for Bud.  But honestly, if The Mighty Miss Malone is what happens when Curtis isn’t firing on all cylinders, then watch out folks for when he really is!

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
2012, Random House Children's Books
Library copy

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review - How Many Jelly Beans?

How much is a thousand?  One hundred thousand?  A million?  Such big numbers can seem abstract to kids (and adults for that matter), because they never face them in their real life.  How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti attempts to fix this gap in knowledge by showing the depth of numbers with the best of counting tools: jelly beans.
“How many jelly beans would you like, Emma?” asks the faceless parent.  “Ten!” is the response.  Brother Aiden asks for twenty.  This begins an escalation from ten to five hundred, each time with a handy visual illustration of just how many that is.  From here, the pair go one to think how many jelly beans they could eat in a year, from five thousand to ten thousand.  This culinary cavalcade of numbers concludes with one million jelly beans, a number so big it requires a fold out section.
This is a big book.  A really big book.  Kids should have an idea of what they’re getting into just from the size alone.  Kids who are very visual learners will get a kick out of this graphic representation of numbers.  I especially enjoyed spreads that had one thousand jelly beans separated out to two or three a day and one hundred thousand separated by color (Aiden is a big fan of grape, not so of lemon.)  Obviously, illustration is the key to this book and illustrator Yancey Labat has this one in the bag with his sharp digital drawings, which reminded me a little bit of LeUyen Pham, and of course, the colorful jelly beans.  I worry about this book, just a little bit, because of the enormous fold out in the end.  I don’t know what the shelf life of this book is going to be, but I couldn’t resist it.  I think kids are going to be just as drawn to the tasty treat of jelly beans, and the outright coolness of these numbers.
 Note: While reading this, I couldn’t help thinking of A Black Hole is Not a Hole, and its list of enormous numbers representing space.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “A million jelly beans?  That’s just peanuts to space.”
 How Many Jelly Beans? by Andrea Menotti, ill. by Yancey Labat
2012, Chronicle Books
Library copy

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review - "The One and Only Ivan"

Animal books.  I can take them or leave them, frankly.  I’m not sure there’s a single one that I absolutely love, even beautiful, wonderful books like Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty or The Underneath.  I went through a brief phase in my youth when I read anything Marguerite Henry wrote about horses (my mother is a horsewoman, and it felt like it must be in my blood).  I found that I preferred books written from the animal’s point of view, like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, rather than books that were simply about animals.  But all the same, I liked them, certainly, but love eluded me.    Imagine my surprise then, when Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan crossed my desk and I found myself inexplicably falling in love.
 Ivan is a silverback gorilla.  He lives in a “domain” at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, along with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog (a stray), and a few other small animals.  They are all kept by a man named Mack, who runs the pseudo-circus several times a day to an ever dwindling number of attendees.  Ivan is settled into this life.  He’s not particularly happy, but nor is he particularly unhappy.  Until one day, a new baby elephant named Ruby joins the group, and Ivan’s world view begins to expand.  He begins to understand what it means to want to be free, to need to be free, and he hatches a plan to get Ruby to safety and change all of their lives.
 I waited a long time to read The One and Only Ivan.  It was released in January of this year, and only came to me in mid-April.  All the while, I kept hearing wonderful things.  Beautiful!  Poetic!  Newbery worthy!  It’s a lot of pressure to put on a book.  Compound that pressure by several months of waiting for a book to arrive, and you’ll get an idea of my mindset when I sat down to read Ivan.  But after one page, I knew I was in for something special.  “I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  These words are all you find on the first page, under the title “hello” and above a beautiful black and white (with shades of grey) illustration by Patricia Castelao.  The gorilla’s face drew me in, and his words, stark and powerful, gave me a glimpse on the inside.  I wanted to know more about Ivan, and about why his life was not so easy.
 Lucky for me, Ivan’s narration fills the book to the brim with wisdom, humor and strength.  He’s a fully-fledged character, with understandable motivations and desires.  Secondary characters like Bob the stray dog are drawn with such precision, it would be easy to see them as the star of their very own book (though perhaps not one as good as Ivan’s).  And the story.  How do I write about the story without giving anything away?  Suffice to say, Applegate could very easily have fallen into a maudlin trap of sentimentality, but I’m happy to report that nothing of the kind occurs.  There are definitely moments that pull at your heartstrings, but they happen in such plain spoken, honest ways, related to us by Ivan, that it never feels forced or overdrawn.
 I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Castelao’s illustrations.  They are used sparingly, and to great effect, usually to underscore a particularly expressive moment.  The cover illustration had me worried at first, because the image comes across just a little too cute.  Ruby the elephant feels anthropomorphized, and yeah, just a little too cute.  But Castelao’s inside illustrations are gorgeous and evocative, everything an author could want from an illustrator.
 Is this book a Newbery contender?  It certainly should be.  Will it win?  I don’t know.  The last animal related book to win was The Tale of Despereaux in 2004 (a book which breaks my ‘I don’t love animal books’ rule, but that’s because it’s not just about Despereaux, which is cheating perhaps, but my game, my rules).  And before that, you have to go back to 1992 and Shiloh.  So I would say the odds are stacked against it somewhat.  But it’s a beautiful book that’s bound to be remembered at the end of the year, and remembered fondly.
 The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
2012, Harper Collins
Final copy sent from publisher for review

Monday, April 16, 2012

Review - "The Apothecary"

There are different kinds of magic.  There’s the kind of magic that does outlandish things, like disappearing the Tower of London or turning a pumpkin into a carriage, and there’s the kind of magic that, if you squint your eyes and turn your head, just might be possible, like becoming invisible.  Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary deals with both, and handles both with keenness and care.
 Janie Scott was uprooted from her life in Hollywood when her parents decided to move to London to escape the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Once in the UK, Janie becomes mixed up with a boy from her new school, Benjamin, and the secrets his father holds as an Apothecary.  These magical secrets lead Janie and Benjamin and their friend Pip into the center of a worldwide intrigue that may direct them to the most dangerous place of all. 
 The Apothecary is a weird hybrid of historical novel and fantasy, each genre getting a bit of the spotlight.  It’s a little like a John LeCarre spy novel getting mixed up with J.K. Rowling.  The details of a 1952 world, a world still smarting from the wounds of World War II and plunging headlong into the Cold War, are wonderfully drawn.  There’s the bombed out streets of London, duck and cover drills and food rationing.  But then there’s also the alchemical magic, pills that forbid you to speak, elixirs that turn you into a pile of salt and other wondrous things.  It’s a weird marriage, but Meloy makes it work. 
 Story is really the star here, but the characters are intriguing as well.  Janie is sharp and relatable, and hardly ever veers into annoying teenage habits (there’s quite of a bit of running around without her parents knowing about it, which I would classify as an annoying teenage habit, though one necessitated by the plot – I suppose I just felt bad for her parents).  Pip, a mid-20th century Artful Dodger, is slick and fast on his feet, and yes, a little contrived, but I enjoyed him.  I could have done with a little more oomph from the villain of the piece, but that is a minor quibble.  On the whole, I quite enjoyed Meloy’s genre twisting experiment, and I look forward to seeing what else she can come up with for a young audience.
 The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
2011, G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Library copy

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review - "Secrets at Sea"

2011 was a big year for mice.  The eponymous Babymouse had two new adventures, including the delightfully wacky A Babymouse Christmas, Geronimo Stilton introduced a new friend, Creepella Von Cacklefur, in some spooky new adventures, Lois Lowery gave us a band of church mice in Bless This Mouse and Pip and friends helped Skilley the cat in The Cheshire Cheese Cat.  And then there was Helena, Louise, Beatrice and Lamont, stars of Richard Peck’s Secrets at Sea, and their great adventure across the Atlantic Ocean.
Helena is the oldest Cranston, and as such it is her responsibility to look after her two sisters and her brother.  Helena wasn’t always the oldest, but we don’t talk of such things.  When their human family, the Upstairs Cranstons, decide to go away to Europe in order to fetch oldest daughter Olive a husband, Helena decides they will be going too, despite the fact that mice and water do not mix.  Once on board the ship to England, their adventures truly begin.  There is romance, intrigue, a one-eyed cat, a naughty nanny and lots and lots of mice on Helena’s road to finding her place in the world. 
Confession time: I’ve never read Richard Peck before.  I know!  I hang my head in shame.  Secrets at Sea was my first Peck, and I can promise it won’t be my last.  His command of character is so strong; I could hear each one of the sisters’ voices in my head clear as day.  Secondary characters like the Upstairs Cranstons, the elderly Duchess of Cheddar Gorge and ship steward Nigel (he of the wonderful whiskers) are drawn with equal vigor.  Illustrations by Kelly Murphy perfectly punctuated important moments with delicate detail and shading.  I was quite enchanted with this little tale of adventure on the high seas.  I couldn’t have asked for a better lead in to the Peck’s work than to be put in Helena’s capable narrative hands.    
Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck
2011, Dial
Library copy
Note:  I have since read A Long Way From Chicago.  Whew, what a book!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review - "May B."

Verse novels are tricky things.  When done correctly, they invoke powerful emotions and rich settings.  When done incorrectly, they play fast and loose with emotions and risk coming off as blather.  I never really know what prompts a writer to choose verse for their storytelling mode.  Does it come to them in poetry, or is it a conscious decision of form?  I wondered such wonderings when I picked up Caroline Starr Rose’s May B.  But nary a few pages in, and questions were gone from my head.  I was absorbed.
May Betterly won’t go.  At least, that’s what she thinks to herself.  Her mother and father have decided to send her away to let her work for another homesteader and his new wife.  And May won’t go.  Won’t leave her family, her brother, her school.  But will and won’ts don’t mean very much, when you’re a girl living on the prairie, and your family needs the money.  So away May goes, to live with the Oblingers until Christmas.  But one day Mrs. Oblinger leaves her husband, and Mr. Oblinger runs after her, and neither returns, leaving May alone in a soddy in the middle of the prairie, with no help, and no way home.   And thus begins May’s tale of survival into a harsh winter, and her struggle with demons inside and out, hunger and wolves at the door.
The book that I was most reminded of while reading May B. was Karen Hesse’s Newbery medal winning Out of the Dust.  There must be something about the sparseness of the historical Midwest landscape that encourages the free verse poetry.  And May is just as compelling a character and a voice as Out of the Dust’s Billie Jo, which is a good thing, because we spend the majority of the work with May and May alone.  Everything rests on the authenticity of her voice, and thankfully Ms. Rose has confidence in May’s voice, in spades.  “I whistle,/I spit,/think up as many unladylike things as I can,/and do them./Out in the open./For the whole empty world to see.”  I was with May every painful, hard-earned step of the way.  Verse novels either get me, or they don’t, and May B. got me right from the start.  2012 is starting out as a very fine year indeed.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
2012, Schwartz & Wade
Library copy