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