Friday, October 25, 2013

Review - "Zombie Baseball Beatdown"

When the master of zombie movies, Mr. George A. Romero, started telling stories of the undead, they were laced with social commentary.  So the concept of sneaking some really deep ideas amidst the blood, gore and brains of the walking undead is nothing new.  Aiming all of this, carnage and intellectual debate alike, at middle graders, however, is something new, at least as far as I can tell.  That is part of what makes Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown such a valuable book.  It’s gross (seriously, DO NOT even think about eating a hamburger during or even after), but it will make kids think.

It started as a normal day.  Rabi (short for Rabindranath), Miguel and Joe decide to sharpen their baseball skills in the park near the Milrow meat-packing plant.  Then the stink happens.  An “Ashy-barfy-rotten-meat-dead-cow-manure-sewer” stink.  Something at the plant has gone terribly wrong, and before they know it, the boys are fighting off zombie baseball coaches, running from zombie cows, fighting with bullies and trying to save the world.

Kids have a lot to deal with in their lives.  To paraphrase “2 Broke Girls” (something I never thought I’d write), “you’re stupid, you can’t reach stuff, it’s rough”.  Rabi, Miguel and Joe aren’t stupid, but they are kids, and they’re forced to deal with an avalanche of issues all at once.  Miguel’s family is being deported and he lives in fear of the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement).  Rabi deals with casual racism (as does Miguel) and his horrific batting record.  Blonde-haired Joe doesn’t have the burden of worrying about being forced out of the country or accused of terrorism, which gives him freedoms his friends can’t enjoy, but as a semi-zombie-expert, he’s often on the front lines when facing the undead horde.

What Mr. Bacigalupi has done here is create a world where flesh-eating zombie cows may not be the most horrible thing in town.  This book really has it all.  It’s gross, funny, scary, thoughtful and challenging, but never feels as if it were trying too hard.

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi
2013, by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review - "Carnivores"

Animals eat other animals.  It’s a fact of life.  And for many, many years, it’s a fact of life that children’s literature largely ignored.  Until now.  Now we have an influx of picture books about creatures eating creatures, ushered in my Jon Klassen’s wonderful, I Want My Hat Back (though I’m sure it was not the first, just the first that comes to my mind).  There was Klassen’s undersea follow up, This is Not My Hat, Mo Willems’ That is Not a Good Idea! (oops, spoiler alert!) and now we have Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat with Carnivores.  No more beating around the bush, it’s right there in the title.

Lion, great white shark and timber wolf are masters of their domains, but are getting discouraged by all the stink eyes, horror stories and fairy tales that paint them in a bad light.  They decide to ban together in a support group and try to figure out how to clean up their image.  Going vegetarian doesn’t help.  Great white shark doesn’t like the taste of seaweed, bark keeps getting stuck in lion’s teeth, and no matter how hard he tries, timber wolf keeps finding bunnies hiding in the berry bushes.  Losing hope, the trio turn to “the oldest and wisest carnivore”, the great horned owl, who dispenses some words of wisdom.  “I’m not bad.  I’m a carnivore.  Eating meat is just what I do.”  With this mantra in place, lion, great white shark and timber wolf return to their lives as predators with relish.

I love a picture book that makes me laugh.  I Want My Hat Back made me laugh hysterically for quite some time before I could contain myself.  Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Santat have echoed that feat with this fantastically twisted and laugh-out-loud hilarious book.  All the jokes, both verbal and visual, land right on their target (my favorite was the two-page spread revealing the owl’s greatest contribution).  It’s a great lesson about being true to your natural self, wrapped in a funny story that is sure to make kids grin and parents cringe (unless, like me, they find an illustrated picture of a wolf with a mouth full of bunny to be hysterical).  

This book book-talks itself.  I love it when my work is done for me!

Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, ill. by Dan Santat
2013, Chronicle Books
Library copy

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Review - "The Peculiar"

I’ve always liked the word “peculiar”. It brings to mind, not the frightening, but the strange and unreal. It’s the perfect word to describe the main characters of Stefan Bachmann’s debut novel, aptly named The Peculiar. In a world where humans and fairies live uneasily side by side, anyone willing to stick their neck out might certainly be called odd.

Young Bartholomew Kettle is a “changeling” child, though it is pointed out in the text that this is a misnomer. He was not a creature hidden in a crib while the real child has been stolen away. He, and his sister Hettie, are half-human, half-fairy. They’re Peculiars. Arthur Jelliby is a young member of Parliament, a set-in-his-ways kind of person, with his comfortable house and his pretty wife. But news that Peculiar children have been turning up dead upsets both Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby’s lives, the boy because he soon learns the danger he and his sister are in and the man because, despite his inclination not to get involved, his better nature takes over and urges him to investigate. The last straw occurs when Bartholomew is marked to be taken, but it’s Hettie who disappears in the night, and Mr. Jelliby’s search leads him straight to the Peculiar boy. Together they must combat the nefarious Mr. Lickerish if they hope to stop the cataclysmic event the fairy has planned, and if they have any chance of getting Hettie back alive.
Stefan Bachmann was sixteen years old when he began work on The Peculiar in 2010. His inexperience is nowhere to be seen in The Peculiar’s 376 pages. His youth, however, is all over it. This work is lively, imaginative and elastic. The words simply bounce off the page. The world building, while not superb, is sufficiently detailed (with an absolutely wonderful prologue), and Bachmann’s characters are so well drawn, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t yet had even twenty years’ worth of experience in the world. My favorite is the well-meaning but mildly bumbling Mr. Jelliby, a character worthy of his Dickensian name. My only quibble is the cliff-hanger of an ending Bachmann has left us. The sequel, The Whatnot, is out now, and I'm dying to get my hands on it. I can’t wait to see what Bachmann has cooked up next.

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
2012, Greenwillow Books
Library copy

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review - "The Templeton Twins Make a Scene"

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say.  If this is the case, than Lemony Snicket and Pseudonymous Bosch have a great fan in Ellis Weiner.  The formers’ style of narration had to be an influence on Weiner’s obnoxious, self-aggrandizing Narrator in his series about the Templeton Twins, the second volume of which, entitled The Templeton Twins Make a Scene is soon to be released.  Thankfully for Mr. Weiner, he does not rely totally on readers’ familiarity with peculiar narrators to keep his story afloat, and instead stuffs his book to the gills with jokes, action, twins, inventions and one ridiculous dog.

When we last saw the Templeton twins, Abigail and John, they had just thwarted nefarious twins Dean D. Dean and Dan D. Dean and their plan to steal credit for Professor Templeton’s One Man Helicoptor.  After a brief respite, during which the Templeton family moves to a new university, Professor Templeton begins work on a new invention, and the twins get a new nanny (named Manny – Manny the Nanny), the diabolical duo of Deans returns to wreak havoc on them all.

I would go into more detail, but really, you can work it out, especially if you’ve read the first installment.  Book two is more of the same.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Yes, it is predictable, but so is every Nancy Drew mystery, and millions of kids still read and love those.  Mr. Weiner is aided greatly by his illustrator, Jeremy Holmes, whose clever and amusing graphics pepper the prose*.  

These books aren’t going to be for everyone.  Some of you will find the Narrator so maddening, you’ll want to tear your hair out.  Some of you are going to find him hilarious.  Different strokes.  But if you enjoy stories about crafty kids (and their dog, and their Manny) ruining the plans of ridiculous adults, you just might love The Templeton Twins.

*Final art was not seen, but based on the sketches, and Mr. Holmes’ work in the previous volume, I feel confident making this statement.

The Templeton Twins Make a Scene by Ellis Weiner, ill. by Jeremy Holmes
2013, Chronicle Books
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Friday, October 4, 2013

Review - "The Secrets at the Chocolate Mansion"

Broadcast News is one of my favorite films of all time, and in it, Albert Brooks' character Aaron says something along the lines of 'the devil will convince us that we're all just salesmen'.  I've always loved this speech (not the least because Brooks so beautifully delivers it), but because I could relate.  I was a Girl Scout for many years.  I sold cookies.  Luckily for me, there wasn't an enormous amount of pressure to sell the most, and I got by.  Now, as a librarian, I have kids and teenagers coming in waves selling fruit, candy, wrapping paper and coupons.  And all of them have this desperate gleam in their eyes, as if their life depended on every sale.  Given the state of school budgets, that's probably not half wrong.  The pressure on these kids is enormous.

Now why am I bringing this up in a review about a middle grade mystery novel about a haunted mansion?  Read it (yes, please do) and you'll see.  Because amidst all the clues and chills and chocolate, Ms. Margolis is saying something important.  The pressure to succeed can be crippling, and not just for children.  When Maggie Brooklyn's friend Sonya's family opens a new soda shop, and the Grand Opening is marred by a sugar/salt swap, a clumsy (or is she?) soda jerk and a smashed window with a threatening note, Maggie takes up the case.  Things continue to go wrong, and Sonya's mother, the proprietor is ready to cut her losses almost immediately, rather than risk being a complete failure.  Add to this a new babysitting gig in a supposedly haunted mansion for a lively three-year-old who has a "see-through" friend who sings haunting songs.  Pile on top of that a D+ on a history test and a boyfriend who won't talk to her, and it's no wonder that Maggie is starting to crack.  But with the help of her twin, Finn and some good old fashion gumption, Maggie manages to save the day, from soda shop saboteurs, ghosts, extra credit and stubborn seventh grade boys.

Ms. Margolis has at least one thing going for her in a very impressive way: she knows middle-schoolers.  She knows how they talk, she knows how they think.  Between the Maggie Brooklyn mysteries and her Annabelle Unleashed series (Boys Are Dogs, etc.), she almost has the market cornered on smart, funny, realistic girls.  Her books are mightily enjoyable, and subtly broadening.  You won't even notice you're becoming a more well-rounded person, until you just are.

The Secrets at the Chocolate Mansion by Leslie Margolis
2013, Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Preview copy provided by publisher for review