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