Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review - "13 GIfts"

Life in Willow Falls has never been ordinary.  We've seen the evidence from Wendy Mass in 11 Birthdays and Finally, and in 13 Gifts, we see even more strangeness from this little out of the way burg.  After a school prank gone wrong (so much for fitting in with the popular kids), Tara Brennan is sentenced to a summer spent in her parents’ home town of Willow Falls.  While Tara plans on ducking her head and simply getting through it, her new friends insist on being, well, friendly.  They involve Tara in their activities, and sooner rather than later, Tara gets a glimpse into just how strange Willow Falls really is.  She makes a strange deal with Angelina, the oldest and most mysterious citizen, and has to find thirteen ordinary but unique objects before her thirteenth birthday, or risk endangering her very soul.  Thank goodness Tara has made friends, and friends who’ve dealt with Angelina before, because they all offer to help. 
13 Gifts is neither as magical as 11 Birthdays nor as age-sensitive as Finally, but it has its charms.  Tara is a wonderful character, full of rights and wrongs, and her willingness to simply jump in and believe in the unbelievability of Willow Falls is one of her best qualities.  Mass brings back characters from her previous works, Amanda, Leo and Rory, and has them act as guides to Tara’s extraordinary journey.  The conclusion is unexpected and a joy, something that gives everyone a little bit of what they want.  I don’t know if Mass intends to continue writing about the peculiar little town of Willow Falls, but I can see this series continuing on, up into YA territory, as the characters grow older, and Angelina and her duck (or is it a chicken?) birthmark gets new projects every year.

13 Gifts by Wendy Mass
2011, Scholastic Press
Library copy

Monday, February 20, 2012

Top Ten Picture Books of 2011

2011 was a great year for the picture book, and narrowing this list down was mighty hard.  But I did manage to come up with a list of ten (and change) books that captured my imagination last year.

10. Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw ; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
09. Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
08. Stuck by Oliver Jeffers
07. Blackout by John Rocco
06. King Hugo's Huge Ego by Chris Van Dusen
05. Square Cat by Elizabeth Schoonmaker
04. Press Here by Hervé Tullet
03. Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell
02. The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories by Dr. Seuss
01. I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

For me, nothing quite compared to the experience of reading I Want My Hat Back for the first time.  The giggles that grew out of poor Bear's search for his lost hat were nothing compared to the giant guffaw that erupted when Bear realizes just where his hat has gone.  Add that to the shocked and delighted silent shaking laughter at Rabbit's fate and you've got my favorite picture book of the year.  It's the book that started an internet meme, that entertained my children at storytime and was one of only two I purchased for myself and my permanent collection (the other was Me...Jane).  Like when I discovered Mo Willems, I will cling to Jon Klassen for all it's worth.  I know he's got Extra Yarn coming out this month, written by the excellent Mac Barnett, but I can't wait for what Klassen will come up with on his own. 
Honorable Mentions: You Will Be My Friend by Peter Brown; How to Teach a Slug to Read by Susan Pearson; Cat Secrets by Jef Czekaj; An Annoying ABC  by Barbara Bottner,  ill. by Michael Emberley; My Side of the Car by Kate Feiffer,  ill. by Jules Feiffer; Mouse and Lion by Rand Burkert,  ill. by Nancy Ekholm Burkert; Blue Chicken by Deborah Freedman; and The Little Little Girl with the Big Big Voice by Kristen Balouch.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Graphic Novel Round-Up Part Two

Anya’s Ghost – Any book that is blurbed by Neil Gaiman as being “a masterpiece!” (punctuation and everything) has got some big shoes to fill.  Such is the case for Vera Brosgol’s debut graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, and let me just say, she’s done it.  This is a small masterpiece of a first book, a textured, dryly funny and seriously spooky tale of teenagedom and all the angst that comes with being an outsider.  It’s hard to speak of the plot without delving too far into spoiler territory, so I’ll be brief.  Anya is a Russian immigrant trying desperately to fit in to her private school life.  She has one good friend, one major crush on the star of the basketball team, and one tragic fall down an abandoned well that has her face to face with the ghost of Emily Reilly, whose bones have been lying at the bottom of the well for ninety years.  Hijinks ensue wherein Emily helps Anya with her schoolwork and with her social life, but soon Anya realizes Emily is a little too invested in Anya’s life, and things start down a dangerous road.  Brosgol’s art, in shades of black, white and gray, is wonderfully evocative.  What she achieves just with eyes (or lack thereof) is pretty remarkable.  The storytelling is really the star, however, as it takes hold of you early and doesn’t let go until you’ve put the book down and had a good long think.  If this is what Brosgol gives us on her first time out, I can’t wait to see what she’s got as a follow up.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
2011, First Second
Personal copy

Bad IslandDoug TenNapel’s follow up to the wonderful Ghostopolis, Bad Island, lives up to its name.  That is one bad island.  Think the “Lost” island mixed with The Island of Dr. Moreau.  The island has an ancient mythology and a family cast away on its dangerous shores.  Teenage Reece can’t get out of a family trip on the boat, but when a storm shipwrecked the family on strange shores, he’s glad to be with family, even his annoying little sister Janie and her dead snake Pickles (Pickles didn’t survive the crash).  Things seem normal at first, but soon the island starts showing its ugly side with strange monsters and carnivorous trees.  Reece and his family must solve an ancient mystery to unlock the island’s secrets and get safely home.  Like with Ghostopolis, TenNapel’s art is key.  From action packed battle scenes to intimate talks around a fire, every panel is imbued with life and color.  Some markings seem to glow right off the page.  I didn’t like the story as much as Ghostopolis (but then again, I’m a sucker for a good ghost story), and things do get a little muddled when moving back and forth between times, but for the most part, it moves smoothly and at a great pace.  As with Ghostopolis, I’m sure Bad Island will simply fly off my shelves, and I’ll rarely see it checked in for too long a stretch, which is a great thing.
Bad Island by Doug TenNapel
Library copy

Sidekicks – Finally, I get to a “traditional” graphic novel, i.e., a superhero story.  It may be traditional, but there’s nothing conventional about Dan Santat’s Sidekicks, the story of a superhero and his super sidekicks, even the ones he doesn’t know about.  Sidekicks tells the tale of Captain Amazing, who’s getting a little long in the tooth.  He decides it’s time for a new sidekick, and his pets Roscoe (a dog), Fluffy (a hamster) and Shifty (a chameleon) are up for the challenge.  They practice in secret, with the begrudging help of Manny, aka Static Cat, who was Captain Amazing’s old partner and pet before he ran away.  Sidekicks has all the tellings of a great superhero legend.  It’s the classic origin story of how the gang got together and learned how to use their superpowers.  There’s lots of first rate action and witty dialogue and characters you can really get behind.  Who doesn’t want to root for little Fluffy in his red, white and blue bedecked costume when he hits the streets to fight crime?  I certainly hope this is only the first in a long line of Sidekicks stories.  There’s a whole wide world of superhero mythos to plumb, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for our heroes.
Sidekicks by Dan Santat
2011, Arthur A. Levine Books
Library copy

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Graphic Novel Round Up

I was in a graphic novel mood there for a while, and I read through a handful that were pretty wonderful, and each as unique as one could hope.

Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer - Written by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh, Lily Renee is the true story of an Austrian Jewish girl saved from the Holocaust by the Kindertransport, sent to England, and reunited with her parents in America where she eventually becomes a comic book illustrator.  All throughout her story, Lily faces danger, oppression and disappointment with an almost stoic grace and good will.  She works hard through many jobs, from mother's helper to baby nurse during the Blitz to catalog illustrator and clothing model before finding her calling drawing such comics as "Werewolf Hunter" and "Senorita Rio", about a secret agent nightclub singer who fights Nazis in South America.  Robbins handles the historical elements of Lily's story very well, inserting facts along with narration in a seamless flow.  The art of Timmons and Oh seems perfectly suited to tell this tale, the style seeming both classic and modern, with intricate historical detail.   Back matter includes lots of great information, including info on concentration camps vs. British internment camps, facts about British money and Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill and a look at American wartime comic books written or illustrated by women.  It also includes photos of the real Lily Renee and her family. 
Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer by Trina Robbins, ill. by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh.
2011, Lerner Publishing Group
Library copy

 Bake Sale - Sara Varon, author of the charming Robot Dreams, is back with another tale of friendship.  Cupcake owns a bakery.  He is best friends with Eggplant, and together they play in a band (Cupcake plays the drums, Eggplant the trombone).  One day Eggplant announces he's planning a trip to visit his Aunt Aubergine in Turkey and Cupcake discovers a reason to want to tag along.  Turkish Delight, the best pastry chef in the world, and Cupcake's personal heroine, is business partners with Aunt Aubergine.  Suddenly, Cupcake must think of a way to make more money to afford the ticket to go to Istanbul with his friend and meet his idol.  This rejuvenates Cupcake's baking skills and business acumen and sends the little guy all over New York City having tiny bake sales.  When it comes time to buy his ticket, however, Cupcake finds that some things are more important than meeting your idols.  Varon’s story is sweet but never sugary, and her clean, simple lines and bright, inviting colors make a perfect match.  Persnickety adults like myself might find themselves wondering what is the difference between Cupcake and the cupcakes he bakes, but kids will not likely find themselves pondering such bizarre ideas. (Another one: Cupcake and Eggplant visit and Turkish bath, and in between the steam room and the sauna, they don bathrobes, but when they leave the establishment, are once again wearing nothing.  What’s to hide?  And for that matter, why didn’t Cupcake’s icing melt?).  There’s something a little grown up about the tale of grown-up matters of these various food items, but kids will enjoy the easy reading, the light humor and the universal theme of friendship.  Even between food groups.
 Bake Sale by Sara Varon
2011, First Second
Library copy

Hera, the Goddess and Her Glory – Man has this graphic novel series from George O’Connor got legs.  The first two volumes, Zeus and Athena were fabulous adaptations of the Greek myths, and this installment is no different.  It is part the story of Hera, goddess of the air, the sky, marriage and childbirth, and that of Heracles (Hercules to you Roman fans), whose name literally means “The Glory of Hera”.  O’Connor opens his story by calling Hera the only thing great Zeus has ever feared, then proceeds to show us why.  But what’s great about this book is that it doesn’t present Hera as a vindictive harpy; she has her reasons for being upset with Zeus after all.  She is wise to Zeus’ transgressions, and yet agrees to be his wife and queen regardless.  O’Connor’s Hera is no fool, but a flawed goddess often caught up in revenge against her husband, taken through the lives of his illegitimate children.  In matching the stories of Hera and Heracles, O’Connor is able to show both sides of the goddess: the jealous, cruel side that sends Heracles on his path of his infamous twelve labors and the side of the goddess often ignored by male storytellers.  O’Connor tells the story of how Hera would leave Olympus and her husband once a year and take down her hair, wash herself in the river and restore her maidenhood.  In the author’s note, O’Connor makes mention of the myths of Greek women that were so seldom told, and jokingly calls his book “the Hera Reclamation Project”.  I think he found in Hera a story that ached to be told without judgment, and at this he has succeeded.  Hera reads well as part of the “Olympians” series, but stands on its own strong feet as well.
 Hera, the Goddess and Her Glory by George O’Connor
2011, First Second
Library copy

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review - "Close to Famous"

Illiteracy was a hot topic last year.  That is, if you can consider two books a hot topic (which in the small world of really, really good books for children, I do).  Early last year Gary Schmidt published Okay for Now which dealt with its main character's lack of reading skills, and here I discover that even earlier in the year, Joan Bauer came out with her own stunning middle grade novel about a protagonist who could not read called Close to Famous.  The two books are related in others ways as well.  Both narrators come from less than ideal home situations, both encounter abuse in some form, and both find relief in an artistic outlet.  For Doug Swieteck it was drawing.  For Foster McFee, it's baking.
Foster has always wanted to be a kid chef on the Food Network, alongside her idol, chef Sonny Kroll.  No matter where her life with her mother takes her, she bakes.  She bakes cookies, she bakes cakes.  She makes muffins, and best of all, she makes cupcakes.  Nothing heals a broken heart like a cupcake.  At least, nothing else can go so far as to try.  When Foster and her mother end up living in a trailer in Culpepper, West Virginia, she needs all the help she can get.  Slowly Foster makes a home of her trailer and Culpepper, and starts to make friends, odd though they may be.  And she continues to bake, making herself a small business out of supplying a local eatery.  And when she meets the eccentric, retired movie star Miss Charleena, her life really begins to change, because here is one person ready and willing to help Foster learn to read, and not taking no for an answer.
Close to Famous is a novel that shouldn't really work, but it does.  It should be too crowded with themes and characters.  It's a book about illiteracy, it's a book about the death of a parent, it's a book about abuse, it's a book where everyone's got a dream, etc.  You get my drift.  There's a lot going on in its fast-moving 250 pages, and for any writer less skilled than Bauer, it would be a mess.  But with this book, you've got an expert on your side, navigating you through the murky waters of "issues" and delivering you on the other side with what is really a book about a girl, living the best way she knows how.  Foster is a tower of strength, even, and especially when, she doesn't know it.  She has strength for her mother, when they have to leave their home in Memphis at the blink of an eye.  She has strength for Miss Charleena when an agent calls with offers the actress doesn't want to hear.  She has strength for Macon Dillard, who wants more than anything to be a documentary filmmaker, despite not owning so much as a camera phone.  Foster’s strength helps her through some tough and scary times, but never fails her.  She is definitely a character to be admired.
Bauer’s supporting cast is just as well defined as Foster.  Miss Charleena is tough, slightly nuts and just a little bit ailing of the heart, enough to make her human behind her movie star fa├žade.  Macon is determined and passionate and about the “little people” he wants to help with his documentaries.  Even Angry Wayne, who buys and sells Foster’s baked goods, has his soft side, though it needs prodding to be seen.  My one quibble is with the villain of the piece, Huck, who is rather one-dimensionally nasty, but then again, some people are just lemons and that’s that.  But I would have liked to see his character fleshed out a bit more.
 A side note: The issue of illiteracy also makes an appearance in Steven Arntson’s The Wikkeling, which is not quite as successful as Okay for Now and Close to Famous.
a funny note: when writing this review I found myself constantly typing "famouse".  I've been reading too much Geronimo Stilton!
Close to Famous by Joan Bauer
2011, Penguin Group
Library copy