Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review - "Virginia Wolf"

There are lots of children’s books about having a bad day. Poor Alexander and his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day comes immediately to mind. So does Kevin Henkes’ Lilly in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, in which her kind teacher tells her, “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” This life lesson has served me well over the years, and is the subject of Kyo Maclear’s wonderful new picture book, Virginia Wolf. And no, that is not a typo.

Virginia woke up feeling “wolfish”. She didn’t want to play with her friends, or with her sister, Vanessa. She was even irritable with the birds outside. “The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.” Vanessa tries her best to cheer up her sister, but nothing works, until her sister mentions a place full of flowers and frosted cakes and “absolutely no doldrums” (what a wonderful word!). “Where is that?” Vanessa asks. “Bloomsberry, of course,” came the reply. And so Vanessa decides to paint and create her sister’s happy place. “I made it look just the way it sounded…I brought the outside inside.” Vanessa’s act of sisterly affection turns Virginia’s gloomy day glad and saves the day.
According to the author info on the cover flap, Maclear based her story on the real life sisters of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, but really, the emotions she’s dealing with are universal. Like Alexander, like Lilly, Virginia simply has a bad, bad day. And who can’t relate to that? Maclear perfectly captures that feeling of being down, especially when it’s for no apparent reason. Isabelle Arsenault’s sumptuous illustrations are equally impressive in representing Virginia’s wolfish mood (she is first seen only in silouette) and Vanessa’s artistic effort is bright, imaginative and full of both childish scribbles and more mature undertakings.
I loved Virginia Wolf when I first read it, and in sharing it with young ones, I’ve come to appreciate it even more. The universality of the story, mixed with a very personal connection to Virginia’s “doldrums” make this one of the stand out picture books of 2012.

Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, ill. by Isabelle Arsenault
2012, Kids Can Press
Library copy

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Backlist Files - "Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything"

Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything, but Steve Cotler just might be. I picked up the aforementioned Cheesie Mack based on a glowing review for its sequel Cheesie Mack is Cool in a Duel. I thought,“Hey, that sounds kind of nifty. And I do need to read more ‘boy’ books anyway.” So I tracked down the book (it had been mistakenly shelved in adult fiction), took it home and read it, nearly in one sitting. I don’t do that for many books. Even short books get put down occasionally so I can pet the cat, make dinner or watch a movie. But Cheesie Mack is so darn endearing, I had a hard time putting him away.

Fifth grade is almost over for Ronald “Cheesie” Mack and his best friend Georgie. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but this summer the boys will not be spending their typically idyllic vacation at camp in Maine. Georgie’s father has been let go, and they can no longer afford the tuition, and in an act of sympathy, Cheesie declares he won’t go without his friend. So the two are facing a summer of possible boredom and probable teasing/fighting with Cheesie’s big sister, June (“Goon”) when Georgie makes a surprising discovery. Now the boys have a mystery to solve, a graduation to prank, a sister to survive and a dream of a summer saved.

Cheesie Mack is your average dude. He’s short (second shortest in his class), but he makes up for it in sheer pluck. He’s also a nice guy. He detests cheating, loves his dog, and is steadfastly loyal to his best friend, even to the point of giving up a summer of fun. This is part of what makes this book tick so well. Cheesie is an every-dude, not someone possessed of superior powers or wisdom. He and Georgie are ultimately relatable (who hasn’t had an obnoxious sibling, or had to give up something they loved because of financial struggles?).

Another facet of Cotler’s narrative that works is the book’s online interactivity. Unlike other web-connected books such as Patrick Carmen’s Skeleton Creek series (which, for the record, scare me to death), you don’t have to have internet access to continue or enjoy the story. Instead, Cheesie often mentions his website ( as a place to send in suggestions or questions for Cheesie, or indeed, just a place to chat with him. One such use of this feature occurs when Cheesie answers his grandfather’s coin riddle (the answer is not revealed to the reader), and Cheesie invites readers to go online and guess how he figured it out. This nifty device gives readers a chance to stretch their brain power and share their success with an outside source.

Now that I’ve read Cheesie’s first installment, I’m looking forward to further adventures. I hope they live up to my expectations, but I have faith in Cotler that it will. I’m hoping the series continues, as well, because this is a great book to put in the hands of Wimpy Kid fans, and reluctant readers. I think Cheesie’s humor and humility will pull them in.

Cheesie Mack is Not a Genius or Anything by Steve Cotler
2011, Random House Children’s Books
Library copy