Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review - "The Inquisitor's Apprentice"

A good book and a good mystery are like a good magic trick.  It's part skill and part misdirection.  We, the readers, must think one thing in order for us to be fooled by the eventual ending.  Chris Moriarty's newest book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice is a perfect magic trick, a mixture of good storytelling and sleight of hand.

Sacha Kessler has an unusual gift.  He can see magic when it is performed.  This makes him a valuable commodity, in a society where magic has been outlawed, and a police league of Inquisitors are on the prowl for anyone with magical ties.  Sacha soon finds himself apprenticed, along with the wealthy Lily Astral, to one of the greatest Inquisitors of all time, Mr. Wolf, an enigmatic slouch, who simply has to be more than he seems.  Before long, they are embroiled in their first big case, in which someone has released a dybbuk, an evil wandering spirit of the dead, on Thomas Edison, in the hopes of killing the great inventor.  The problem?  Thanks to Edison’s new witch hunter invention, every magically inclined citizen of New York City has a motive for wanting him gone.  Along the way, Sacha learns a new trick or two, makes new friends, comes to terms with his background and his future and faces great dangers, including one that could be the end of him forever.

The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is part historical novel (albeit of the alternative kind), part fantasy, part coming of age and all excellently done.  Moriarty draws upon real figures from history, Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan and Houdini, and twists and shapes them to fit his new New York.  There is a side of history, that of the poor factory workers living in tenements on Hester Street and the Jewish community that has formed there, that you rarely find told in middle grade literature, and that alone is interesting enough.  Add to that a tightly crafted mystery and fantastical elements, and you have a wonderfully plotted book.  The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is not an easy book to read; it takes concentration.  It’s probably for the more advanced middle grade reader, someone who has the skills to tackle Moriarty’s vocabulary and complicated storytelling.  But there’s an audience for this tale, yes there is.  It’s just a matter of spotting the magic.

The Inquisitor’s Apprentice by Chris Moriarty
2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Library copy

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review - "Is Everyone Ready For Fun?"

Have I extolled the virtues of Jan Thomas lately?  Shame on me if I haven’t.  The glorious Ms. Thomas writes the most wonderful read-alouds, right up there with Mo Willems and the good Dr. Seuss himself.  Her Rhyming Dust Bunnies is a particular favorite of mine, along with Can You Make a Scary Face?.  The wonderful thing about Ms. Thomas’ wonderful books is the interactive element, and her newest, Is Everyone Ready for Fun? is another perfect example of her wonderfulness. (I know I’m stuck on the word, but she really is wonderful.)
In her latest book, Cow and his friends come across Chicken’s little red sofa.  It’s a nice little red sofa.  Comfy looking.  So what do three cows do with a little red sofa?  They jump up and down on it, of course.  Naturally, Chicken is horrified.  She quickly admonishes the cows that there is no jumping on her sofa.  But there is more fun to be had, and the cows try dancing and wiggling on the poor sofa until finally Chicken has had it.  In an outburst, she declares that “There will be no more JUMPING, DANCING or WIGGLING on my sofa!!”.  Clearly there’s only one thing left to do.  Naptime!
Just reading through this book for the first time, I couldn’t wait to share it with an audience, particularly a young, wiggly audience.  This book calls for jumping up and down, dancing around and wiggling to your heart’s content (“Let’s all wiggle to and fro” the cows command), and it makes the activity not only accepted at storytime, but encouraged.  It’s good to learn to be still for stories, but it’s good to get your groove on sometimes, too.  I particularly love the set-up of each new action, with a close up on Cow saying, “It’s time to…”.  It will be fun to draw out that ellipses and make the children wait for their next action command.  Thomas’ art is perfect for storytimes as well, with bright colors and heavy outlines and bold text.  Chicken is a new addition to Thomas’ barnyard of friends, and she’s just fantastic.  Diamond shaped beak, half a broken egg shaped body, her arms waving back and forth in distress.  I hope we see her again, along with Cow, Duck, Pig and the whole gang.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more of those Dust Bunnies either!

Is Everyone Ready For Fun? by Jan Thomas
2011, Beach Lane Books
Library copy

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review - "A Black Hole is Not a Hole"

Past elementary school, when you could do silly things for your science fair and still get a ribbon, I was never much into science (outside of the occasional science fiction).  My brother was the science fan in the family, and I just know that if he was eleven years old, he would love A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano.  
If a Black Hole is not a hole, then what is it, exactly?  DeCristofano attempts to explain this conundrum to kids in this very handy text, illustrated nicely by Michael Carroll.  DeCristofano does an excellent job of explaining black holes, where they come from, how they are formed, where they are, etc, in a way that neither talks above a child’s head, nor talks down to them.  Her approach is rather whimsical, never taking herself or the subject too seriously.  She clearly wants kids to have fun with the science, and she does everything in her power to make it accessible to them.  And I think she accomplished that goal.  This is a great book for my collection, and it’s a great way for kids to get up to date with what’s going on with their universe.

A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano, ill. by Michael Carroll
2012, Charlesbridge Publishing
Copy provided by publisher for review

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review - "Tall Story"

There are big miracles, and there are small ones.  Small miracles are things like getting to play in a really important game, when you shouldn’t be allowed.  Big miracles, well, big miracles are big.  They can be life or death big, for one person, or even a whole village.  Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story deals with miracles, both big and small, and the ties that bind a family together, even from across the world.
Bernardo is tall.  Andi is not.  Bernardo lives in a small village in the Philippines.  Andi lives in a small (postage stamp small) apartment in London with her parents.  They may lead very different lives, but they have something in common: their mother.  They also have something else in common: a love of basketball.  Bernardo loves the game and famous players like Michael Jordan, but can’t play very much, because though he is very, very tall (eight feet!), his long limbs and big feet hinder his coordination and prevent him from running very fast.  Andi is often told (occasionally by her mother) that she cannot play basketball because she is too short.  This hardly stops her; in fact, she is very good.  She never misses a shot.  Never.Misses. She too is a fan of Michael Jordan.  The first miracle hits their lives when Andi’s family finally gets the house they’ve been wanting for so long.  Fast on its heels comes another miracle: Bernardo is finally allowed to come to the United Kingdom to live with his mother and step-father.
But miracles come with a cost.  In return for a new house, Andi must give up her hard-earned place on her school’s basketball team, and finds that her new school doesn’t allow girls to play.  And Bernardo leaves behind family and friends who love him, and a village myth that believes his presence is all that’s keeping the devastating earthquakes away.  Even the strange miracle of Bernardo’s great height comes with an alarming medical price.  As brother and sister get to know each other and how much they have in common, they learn about wishes and real miracles, and find that family might be the biggest miracle of them all.
Gourlay’s title, Tall Story, obviously refers to Bernardo’s eight foot tall frame, but elements of the story have a fable-ish quality to them, so it functions as a tall tale as well.  And what a tale she has told.  Both the mundane and the magical work so well together, told in Andi’s and Bernardo’s alternating voices, that the book reads like a dream.  I practically finished it in one sitting.  I was just as taken with Andi’s fierce moxie as with Bernardo’s gentle humility.  Gourlay has created very memorable characters, not only in our two narrative voices, but in their parents and caregivers, and especially Bernardo’s friend Jabby.  I enjoyed spending time in their world.  I look forward to seeing what Ms. Gourlay has coming for us next.  If Tall Story is any indication, it will be a delight to read.
 Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
2011, David Fickling Books
Library copy

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Top Ten Middle Grade Novels of 2011*

*with blatant cheating and some YA thrown in for good measure.

I’ve been putting off pulling together this list until I finished just a few more titles (although, to be honest, I could continue doing that for the rest of 2012), but now I feel well-read enough to be confident in my choices.  There are some wonderful books on my list this year, and some wonderful books that just missed out.  And yes, I cheated, and I threw in some YA.  My list, my rules. J

Top Ten Novels of the Year 2011
10.  The Books of Umber: The End of Time by P.W. Catanese
09.  Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
08.  Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
07.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
06.  Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd)
05.  The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherine Valente
04.  Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
03.  The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm
02.  Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
01.  Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt

This was a close one.  The top three are really neck and neck, and if I’m honest, pretty interchangeable.  But the title I keep going back to for 2011 is Okay For Now.  It gripped me early on in the year, and kept a hold of me throughout.  And I still have a hard time believing it was overlooked by the Newbery committee.  No matter.  Mr. Schmidt’s appreciation for his characters, even those that are flawed to the core, oozes out onto the page, and you can’t help but care for them, too.  Doug Swieteck’s faults and virtues, struggles and triumphs are ultimately relatable.  This is one for the ages, folks.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mini-Review - "What Animals Really Like"

Ah, the humor that comes from subverted expectations. Comedians the world over had made millions laugh with such verbal sleight of hand. One of the latest entries to this grand tradition of humor is What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson. Here we get the story of "legendary conductor Mr. Herbert Timberteeth" (excellent name, a beaver by trade), and his latest musical masterpiece. A whole menagerie of animals has come out to perform this latest opus, but little does Mr. Timberteeth know that his performers have a mind of their own. It all starts well: we have lions who like to prowl, wolves who like to howl, pigeons who like to coo and cows, who like to...dig. Dig!? It all goes downhill from there, as the animals take over and sing their own version of the song with things they really like to do. Did you know lions like flower arranging? Neither did I. Robinson's art, done in pen and ink and marker pens is imaginative, colorful and downright gleeful. Just imagine the expressions of some shrimp declaring their love of skiing. We also get a few wonderful shots of the listening audience, mere peering eyeballs in the darkness of the theater. The cover is a little bit of genius, bursting with animals in fancy dress preparing for the coming performance. The only thing that could have made this better would have been some giraffes. Seriously, where were the giraffes? This is going to be a wonderful read-aloud, perhaps well paired with JoAnn Early Macken's Baby Says "Moo"!.
What Animals Really Like by Fiona Robinson
2011, Abrams Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review - "The Unforgotten Coat"

Is there any bigger trope in the fictional canon than 'the year/summer/semester that changed my life'?  It covers a variety of story possibilities and pops up everywhere you look.  Adults are certainly not immune, but I do think it occurs more often in children’s and young adult literature, probably because these times that change our lives tend to happen when we’re young.  It may be a cliché, but when handled correctly, it can be the perfect beginning for a lovely story.
“…doesn’t everyone remember everything about their last summer in elementary school?” our narrator Julie asks at the beginning of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat.  The summer in question is changed for Julie by the arrival of two brothers to her school, Chingis and Nergui, from Mongolia.  Chingis is in her class and quickly adopts Julie to be his “Good Guide”, a role that Julie takes seriously.  The brothers, you see, are being chased by a demon, one that wants to make Nergui disappear.  As good guide, Julie teaches the brothers about the playground and about football, learns all she can about Mongolia, and tries desperately to get herself invited over, to no avail.  The boys in turn give Julie a new kind of meaning and purpose.  This slim novel culminates in a skipping-school-off –the-road-trip where Julie learns a little more about the brothers and ends up learning the truth behind the demon and from what they were really running.  Thanks to time, technology and a little growing up, our story has a happy ending, but one that is gained through a great price.
If I were to pair this novel with another 2011 release, I’d put it with National Book Award winner, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  Together they give two different experiences of immigration, but both have a sense of longing for place and time.  For Boyce, the longing comes from Julie, who wants to know about the brothers’ home in Mongolia, and secretly dreams of becoming a Mongolian princess.  There is also a feeling of nostalgia produced as the adult Julie tells her story of the end of her primary school days.  Boyce captures that feeling perfectly, and doesn’t beat you over the head with it.  The characters are all drawn with fine strokes, giving nuance even to the teacher, Mrs. Spendlove.  Polaroid photographs are scattered throughout the text, and give poignancy to the story.  The image of the title coat is especially memorable.
 This is the first of Boyce’s novels for young people I’ve read, but I’m a big fan of screenwriting career.  Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and Millions are among my favorites (why I’ve never picked up Millions the novel is beyond me.  Chalk it up to ‘too little time’).  I know now I’ll have to pay more attention to his prose.  What he accomplishes in only 93 pages with The Unforgotten Coat is remarkable.  It’s a quick read, but one more than worth your time.
 Note: The afterword is nearly as interesting as the story itself, detailing how Boyce got the idea for The Unforgotten Coat on a school visit.  Be sure not to miss it.
 The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
2011, Walker
Library copy

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mini Review - "Vanishing Acts"

Vanishing Acts: A Maggie Brooklyn Mystery - Maggie Brooklyn Sinclair is back with two more mysteries to solve (three if you include the ongoing mystery that is boys).  First of all, someone is egging dogs in the park, and Maggie is put on the trail by an older classmate.  Secondly, super famous movie star Seth Ryan has gone missing from the set of his latest movie, filming in Brooklyn, and Maggie is on the hunt to track him down.  Could the two cases possibly be related?  All this and more is packed into the slim volume of the second Maggie Brooklyn mystery, which is just as enjoyable as the first.  Though I figured out both mysteries fairly early on, I was entranced enough by Maggie's moxie to finish the book in one sitting.  The mysteries could have been a bit more mysterious, but Margolis' handle on her characters is spot on, getting the downright oddness of adolescent behavior, girls and boys, in an entertaining way.  This is a great book to recommend to animal lovers who like digging in to a mystery.

Vanishing Acts: A Maggie Brooklyn Mystery by Leslie Margolis
2012, Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Library copy

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Picture Book Mini-Reviews

Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Seaside Shenanigans - Lovable monkey Chico Bon Bon (and really, isn't that just the best name for a monkey ever?) is back for a vacation adventure in this third installment of Chris Monroe's series of picture books.  Everything about this book screams Summer!, though it wasn't released until October (what's up with that, Lerner?).  From the seaside location to the bright orange cover, the whole thing will have you hearing luau music in your head.  Chico Bon Bon is called away from his normal routine of fixing things when his friend Clark the elephant sends him a postcard (I love the address: Chico Bon Bon, Big Tree House, Next to Elsa's) asking for his help.  Clark's uncle's resort is falling apart and they need Chico and his trusty tool belt to help it from being destroyed completely.  First we get an amazing two page spread of Chico's road trip, then a wonderfully colorful and detailed spread of the resort itself.  If there's one thing Monroe is really good at, it's the little details.  Chico gets right to work fixing things and trying to solve the mystery of why they're breaking in the first place.  First it's a hole in a cabana roof, and then it's chewed up ropes on all the hammocks.  Eventually, Chico does catch the saboteur in the act, and it both is and isn't anything you'd expect.  All's well that ends well, and Chico and Clark finally get to go surfing.  With each new installment, I'm growing more and more fond of little Chico.  He's resourceful, helpful, and not above taking a banana break in the middle of a mission.  Monroe's sense of humor and again, her eye for detail are in top form here.  I only wish I'd had this book during the dog days.  Oh well, there's always next summer!
Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Seaside Shenanigans by Chris Monroe
2011, Lerner Publishing Group
Library copy

I Want My Hat Back - Ha!  That's my initial impression of this book.  One great big guffaw.  In text, it is essentially one long, comic joke and a killer (haha) punch line.  But when Jon Klassen's elegantly crafted joke is married to his spare, droll drawings you get a hilarious, gorgeous, brilliant little book.  The story is simple.  Bear’s hat is gone.  He wants it back.  He walks through the forest, asking animals if they have seen his hat, but none have.  That is, at least, until he comes upon Rabbit, who is wearing something that looks suspiciously like a hat, despite his protestations otherwise.  Bear soon despairs of ever seeing his hat again when suddenly he sits bolt upright, on a bright red page and thinks “I have seen my hat”.  Bear returns to Rabbit and the two face off in perhaps the best two page spread in years.  I won’t ruin the ending for you, but believe me, it will make you chuckle, if not laugh right out loud.  Klassen’s first solo effort is a perfectly crafted piece of humor and art, though it is one that might be enjoyed more by adults than by children.  The humor requires a bit of participation on our part, as most good jokes do, and some children might be more confused by the book’s ending than entertained.  When tested with my storytime audience, the older children “got” the joke and laughed, and the younger kids laughed because the other kids were laughing.  No one was traumatized, not even the parents.
 I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
2011, Candlewick Press
Library copy