Friday, January 25, 2013

American Girl - Saige

It’s a new year, which means a new American Girl. This year’s version is Saige, a nine-year-old student of art and horses from New Mexico. Saige loves to spend her time with her grandmother Mimi, an acclaimed artist and owner of a rare breed of horse, the Spanish Barb. When Mimi is hurt in a home accident, Saige must think of ways to help her grandmother get back on her feet (literally) and back up in spirit. At the same time, Saige launches a campaign to start afterschool art lessons, since their school system cannot afford to have both art and music. Eventually, Saige succeeds at both her goals, resolves her friendships and celebrates her tenth birthday on a high.

I’ve said before that the American Girl brand is a mixed bag with me. The qualities the books espouse, including their non-fiction range, are wonderful qualities to have: friendship, family, self-confidence, healthy habits, physical fitness, environmentalism and conservationism. Our girls (and boys) could always use a dose of that, and in general, the stories are well researched and well written. What bothers me (aside from the crass consumerism of the brand), is the racial disparity. Since 2001, there have been eleven girls of the year (no girl was issued for 2002 or 2004), there has been one Hispanic girl, one girl of mixed heritage, one Hawaiian national, and no African American girls. In fact, in the entire realm of American girl dolls/books, there are only two black faces: Addy, an escaped slave, and Cecile, a free black living in New Orleans in 1853. All together, the American Girl family is very, very white, and it’s a poor representation of our country. I say it’s high time for the company to get with the times and start offering all our girls a chance to see themselves in their books.

 Saige and Saige Paints the Sky by Jessie Haas
2013, American Girl Publishing Inc.
Library copies

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Quickie Review - "I Wish I Had..."

I am a sucker for giraffes.  Give me a book with a giraffe on the cover, and I am a happy camper.  And so it was with great joy I received a preview copy of Giovanna Zoboli’s I Wish I Had…, with it’s beautiful illustration (by Simona Mulazzani) of a towering giraffe on the cover.  Sadly, a giraffe does not feature on the inside of the book; the end of the title sentence is presented on the back cover.  But no mind.  The book is full of beautifully illustrated animals, including a tiger, a stalking cat, a wild goose and an owl.  Mulazzani’s illustrations are definitely the high point of this quick read.  The text is nice, a refrain of “I wish I had…”, such as “I wish I had the nimble legs of a hare as it runs until it is out of breath”.  Some lines scan very well, but others are a bit awkward in their pace, and the final page ends rather abruptly.  I don’t know if this is the responsibility of Zoboli, or the translator (the book was originally printing in Italian).  All in all, however, it is a beautiful book to flip through, and a pleasing refrain that would be well suited for bedtime.

I Wish I Had… by Giovanna Zoboli, ill. by Simona Mulazzani
2013, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Preview copy sent from publisher for review

Monday, January 14, 2013

Review - "Iron Hearted Violet"

I have to be picky about what I read, because my time, limited as it is, is precious. Every year there are books that I love, books that I like, and books that simply miss me (although these are not plentiful). But rarely does a book come along about which I have such complicated feelings as Kelly Barnhill’s Iron Hearted Violet.

Violet is not your typical princess (although her kind is being seen more and more). She’s got wild, unruly hair, uneven eyes (which are differently colored) and a keen intelligence. “She was the type of child a person wanted to impress.” As she grows, her uniqueness becomes even more pronounced and her strength of character is hard to ignore. In short, Violet is a badass. At times, as story dictated, a belligerent, distracted and difficult to be around badass, but a badass all the same. Violet’s life is upended when her father rides off on a search for the very last dragon, and her mother falls ill after losing yet another child at birth. Soon matters fall altogether out of hand when a rogue god manipulates the young princess and her kingdom for his own gain, and the whole world might be in jeopardy, leaving only Violet and her friend Demetrius a chance to save the day.
First things first: Barnhill’s world building is remarkable. There are two suns, a mirrored sky and a castle that lives, all inhabiting but a single world in a multiverse created by jealous, immature, squabbling gods. This is a world where stories are wonderful, dangerous things, a stable-boy can “speak” to animals and the fate of the world may lie in the buried heart of a dragon. Violet, as exceptional as she is, fits into her world, though she thinks she doesn’t.

Secondly, I applaud Barnhill’s employment of the storyteller Cassian as narrator. Cassian is at times cowardly and cautious, but seemingly omnipotent. He holds great deals of power, but is at times too fearful or stubborn to realize or utilize it. Upon a second reading, I might look for places that he was perhaps not altogether reliable, but on my initial reading, I was too engrossed in the story to think about it.
Now to the nitty gritty. This book shouldn’t work. It very nearly doesn’t. It’s far too crowded with details: the mythology of the worlds, Violet and all her glory, her father’s weaknesses, her mother’s fate, her friend’s journey, the little people, the angry god, the role of the dragon, etc. While reading, I was often compelled to think, “This is just too much.” But the thing is, it does work. It’s frustrating at times, but if you’re willing to put the work in, it’s very rewarding. The ending, well earned, is bittersweet in its beauty. And Violet alone is a remarkable thing. Course as sandpaper at times, but full of love and courage. She may not be a beauty, but she’s got it where it counts.

Iron Hearted Violet isn’t for everyone. It won’t work for everyone. This is a unusual book, a little prickly (like Violet herself) and frayed at the edges. But if you are the right person for this book, you’ll get a mighty reward. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying it is the most audacious book I read in 2012.

Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill
2012, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Library copy

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review - "Giants Beware"

I’m a bit of an evangelist for graphic novels in a library. One of my first goals when I was hired as a librarian was to build up my department’s graphic novel section. At the time, it consisted of a handful of superhero books (some Iron Man, Spider-Man and Hulk), a couple of Indiana Jones, quite a few non-fiction graphics (a pretty nice selection, I have to admit), and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (my predecessor might not have bought many graphics, but she did buy good ones, I’ll give her that). In the nearly two years I’ve been in my position, I’ve expanded that section by nearly three shelves, filling it with favorites like Babymouse, the Bone series, On the Case with Holmes and Watson and (my personal favorite), Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. This past year I added countless new titles, one of the the best of which is Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware! I got such joy from reading this title, I can’t wait to share it with others.

Claudette is not your average young lady. Quite frankly, she’s not your average anything. She’s unruly, occasionally stinky (watch out for her feet!), and dead set on killing her village’s tyrannical baby-feet-eating giant. To aid her on her quest, Claudette enlists the help of her friend Marie, who wishes to be a princess, and her little brother Gaston, who wishes to be a sword making pastry chef. Along the road to the giant’s mountain, the small gang face a cursed Apple Hag, an ornery River King, not to mention hunger and disappointed expectations, all the while half the village and Claudette’s father are on their trail. When the trio finally comes face to face (face to ankle?) with the fearsome giant, they find things are not as they’ve always been told. What will bloodthirsty Claudette do?

Real heroes are rare, because real heroism often involves more than slaying the mighty giant. What Aguirre has done here is create three unique heroes, who find their heroics in different ways. Claudette has nerve, Marie has brains and Gaston has heart. Together they are unstoppable. We also gets shades of heroism in Claudette and Gaston’s father, who has suffered dismemberment from his own adventuring past, but who wastes no time in racing after his children when he believes them to be in danger and in his friend Zubair, who gives Claudette advice and helps in the search. They are both very clever men. Aguirre’s story is full of vim and vigor, adventure and lots of humor. Rosado’s art echoes the story beautifully with excellent characterizations (Gaston in his chef’s hat is a hoot) and landscapes. The adventures on the Mad River are particularly stunning.

Full color graphic novels for kids may not be a dime a dozen, but they are not exactly rare, but ones this good are few and far between. As I said, I’m thrilled to be able to share this with kids, and I would be perfectly content if there were more adventures of Claudette, Marie and Gaston down the road. Hear that, universe?

Giants Beware! By Jorge Aguirre, art by Rafael Rosado
2012, First Second
Library copy

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review - "St. Viper's School for Super Villains"

Being bad has its own rewards, and the realm of juvenile literature has been taking advantage of this axiom a lot lately.  In The Merits of Mischief by T.R. Burns, pranks and misbehavior rules at Kilter Academy, and in the Vordak series by Scott Seegert, being bad is not just a perk, it’s a demand.  New to this trend of underhanded heroes is St. Viper’s School for Super Villains by Kim Donovan, the first installment of which is entitled The Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery.

Demon Kid has a lot to live up to; his father is Demon King after all, super villain extraordinaire.  So it is with great expectations that he arrives at St. Viper’s School for Super Villains.  Fortunately for Demon, he’s made a few friends, including Stretch and Shrink; unfortunately, he’s made a few enemies, too, on his first day, including the popular and devious Chill.  And what better way to make your name at a super villain school and deal with bullies than a few harmless pranks?  Things get out of hand (or out-of-orbit, you might say), when Demon and the gang re-steal a rocket ship and plan to return it to the International Space Centre for a handsome reward.  Suddenly everyone is on their back, good guys, bad guys, even their teachers.

The trick to making bad guys your good guy is making the audience root for them.  For poor, hapless and hopelessly deluded Vordak, it’s the hope that maybe one day he’ll get something right (though that’s not very likely).  For Demon, it’s his desire to make good on the family name, and make a name for himself in the process, which is something to which we can all relate.  Demon’s adventures are funny, and have real stakes.

This is a very short volume.  My copy clocked in at only sixty-nine pages, so it’s easily doable as a one-sitting read.  This is both good and bad.  Good, because there is nothing wasted, not a flabby scene to be had.  Bad because I was left wanting more.  I wanted to know more about Demon, about his life with his father and his “normal” mother.  I wanted to know more about Stretch and Shrink and Wolfgang.  I wanted some development of the bad guys, and I really wanted to spend more time with Demon’s hilarious professors.  The handy dandy #1 next to the title implies that there will be more to Demon’s escapades, and this makes me glad.  I only hope that future installments will have a little more meat on the bone.

St. Viper’s School for Super Villains: The Riotous Rocket Ship Robbery by Kim Donovan
2012, Squawk Books
E-copy provided by author for review