Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes Delights

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Ray Bradbury has had a huge effect on me as an writer. I’m not sure I realized how much till I took a break from editing my own WIP to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s prose is florid and fantastic in a way that few writers can claim in this century or any other. Maybe that’s a little expansive, but I enjoy it immensely. The man creates vivid metaphors and twists language with the skill and delicacy of a spider in a web.

Something Wicked is a coming-of-age tale with a thorn. Two friends—nearer than brothers—are nearing adolescence at different rates. Jim Nightshade is growing up more quickly than Will Halloway, is more fascinated with the dark and what goes on in the dark: carnal love, the promises of adulthood offered to him by a carnival in possession of a carousel that can carry riders backwards or forwards through the years. Will remains tethered to innocence and youth. He is the grounding force for Jim.

Charles Halloway, Will’s father, has lived through the years. He longs for a return to his youth, but he overcomes the temptation offered by Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show with nobility, reason, and research found in books and dark corners of the library that is more his home than his home. He is the temperance and wisdom of age, the 20/20 hindsight cast onto youth and aging that keeps Will and Jim tethered even more so to reality.

Bradbury’s work here is insightful—about humanity and the human condition, about the bildungsroman genre. It is both within the genre and without. It shares the message that aging comes with pain but also wisdom and knowledge, but it looks backwards more than hurtling forwards at the breakneck pace of teenage exuberance. Will and Jim are narrating characters and certainly they—or at least Jim—hurtle recklessly onward (Will hesitates and teeters on the cliff’s edge), but more of the weight of the narration falls on Charles. Will and Jim and Cooger and Dark create plot. Charles creates perspective.

The plot—uncovering the nefarious devices and deeds and escaping the grasping hands of a demonic carnival—is exciting enough to keep a casual reader interested, I think, but the depth is there, easily accessible for those who want to plumb it, and maybe too for those who would rather just read the adventure, coming hand-in-hand with the adventure so that it cannot be missed.

The triumph of joy and joyful abandonment over darkness add a spark of hope into the novel—and that joy is not only for youth if youth might find it more easily. This is almost a tale to laud never growing up—or maybe more accurately not forgetting the joy of youth for it does not discredit age. In fact the most heroic of the figures ultimately is the eldest of the narrators, Charles, who, with the eyes of experience and the acceptance of his own fears, is able to see the dark creatures as pathetic and frightened and so defeat them with the power of his own confidence and smile and love of son and of Jim.

This book was recently a summer reading book for a local high school. I find it ideal for that age or college students perhaps more so, straddling as it does the line between adulthood and childhood and looking backwards and forwards across it to give a piercing perspective of the two ages. There’s also merit in it for an adult audience, with an adult hero saving youth and recovering his own youth through the acceptance of his age and the through the release of his fears and dourness.

*****

Bradbury, Ray.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1998.  First published 1962.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Avon Books, or HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

May 26: Chasing Tokyo

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We decided to spend our first day in Tokyo at Ueno Park, a sprawling place with a number of museums and other attractions, plentiful street performers and people watching. We’d planned to head first to the Tokyo National Museum, a museum of Japanese historical artifacts and artwork. We left the station and walked up the park towards the end where the building sits. We passed a number of peculiar sights: a reproduction of the Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” and a sculpture of a blue whale that put me in mind of childhood days spent crawling inside a hollow sperm whale at a more local museum.

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We found the National Museum’s gates locked.

So we changed tact. We decided we’d try for the Shitamachi Museum, a museum of traditional culture and craft. First, we misread the map and left the park behind to wander the streets around it, streets filled with academic buildings and offices and small houses and shops. Our search led us to a locked annex for one of the museums.

Returning to the park, we took our time wandering in the direction that we thought we ought to go to find the Shitamachi Museum. We passed fountains and reflecting pools, playgrounds, street performers, and equestrian statues. We paused to climb a hill to view what remains of the giant statue of Buddha that once stood within the park.

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We came to the far southern end of the park—and didn’t find the museum.

We found a temple complex—the Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple—and then the road.

It wasn’t till we passed the temple that we discovered a long flight of stairs that led to the lower level of the park.

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We hurried down the steps and not long afterward discovered why the Shitamachi Museum is so difficult to locate.  We also found the pond that Kari had known was somewhere within the park and which had been the most puzzling site that we had seemed unable to find.

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We followed the sign and found that museum locked as well. That’s when we realized that the museums are all closed on Mondays, and we had to reevaluate our plans. 

We were already at the park, and it had gotten fairly late in the afternoon by this time, so we decided to spend the rest of the day enjoying the outdoors. We wandered along the paths of the park and decided to enjoy the pond to its fullest extent by renting a pedal-powered swan boat.

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We pedaled ourselves around the pond for a full half hour, learning to navigate, pretending to be seamen, and serenading passing boats with Disney covers. It was a grand time. Others seemed to enjoy themselves too.

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We explored the park a bit farther, but we’d done most of what we could there with all of the buildings closed to us, so we left for Sensoji.

The approach to the temple is composed of several streets of vendors, selling mostly snacks and tourist goods, including this wonderful treasure.

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A popular and colorful temple, Sensoji is also the oldest temple in Tokyo, having been completed around 645. The temple’s Thunder Gate is one of the symbols of Tokyo.

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Stepping off the main paths brought us to several other temple buildings and many statues, various copper and stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Bell of Time (Toki-no-kane), the Asakusa Shrine built to honor the men responsible for building Sensoji Temple, and the burial site of a samurai from the Edo period named Kume no Heinai.

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Having explored Sensoji, we had time for one last adventure, and we went chasing it on foot. We walked to Tokyo Skytree, the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and were going to climb as high as we possibly could do.

We wound through side streets of high rises and finally spotted the tower across and upriver from us. We walked through a park and along the Sumida River and then across it. We hadn’t any directions and were simply using the tower itself as our guide, heading for it as directly as we could do. It felt like a quest, like Frodo and Sam approaching Mt. Doom, though our destination was significantly nicer and our quest less epic and more personal.

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The weather was not with us, and we were not able to climb very high within the tower, to the fourth maybe fifth floor, but we thoroughly explored the shopping center within the Skytree and allowed ourselves both dinner from the food court and crepes for dessert.

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The trek and the journey were worth the trip and the food made an excellent reward for its completion.

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(Those Northern-most points are our hostel and the railway station nearest to it, which we frequented.)

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

May 25: Keep Walking

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We left Hostel Kanouya the next morning. Our hostess followed us out into the street and just as we were about to turn the corner, we turned around to share a wave. “Wait. It’s tradition,” I said, before turning. After we’d turned the corner, Kari told me that it was in fact traditional to see guests off like so. 

We went to Kyoto Station, checked all of the coin lockers, and eventually settled for putting our luggage in the luggage room downstairs for a little more money and a bit less stress. There are fifteen floors in the JR station. We climbed as high as we could go through a series of staircases and escalators for the view from the top of the building. Plexiglass kept us from a dizzying fall but also obscured the view a bit. There was a small garden on the rooftop. There have been buildings I’ve regretted not climbing, however, so I’m glad this cannot be one of them.

A train then took us out to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, easily one of the most photogenic architectural pieces I’ve ever seen. I have a wealth of pictures of the complex, which ranges across the mountainside along 2.5 miles of trails (let me tell you, it felt like much more than that). Trying to cull them down to the best to put on this blog has been a challenge.

We spent very little time by the main shrine itself. It was a breezy day however, and the breeze made the streamers flutter, so those pictures are worth including.

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Then we left the main complex to strike out for the trails, and perhaps you will recognize the site from this first picture.

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There are two branching trails beneath rows of these orange torii. The crowd thins the farther you go along the trail, but even so it was difficult for me to take pictures that would not include fellow travelers.

The trail wound and branched and deposited us at minor complexes, abandoned save for us—or maybe they belonged to men or women who lived on the mountaintop. One just off the path backed up against a house, which we discovered only by accident by taking narrow, greenery-lined trails. I can only imagine that the shrine was there first, for the stone has an ancient feel to it—but perhaps that is the my Western mindset speaking, where a standing stone is a thing of ancient wonder, no one knowing how long it’s been there, how it came to be there, or why it was set so. Still, there’s moss on the steps of this shrine complex.

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Kari had told me that this particular shrine sports feral cats among its patrons and inhabitants. I lost Kari briefly following one beautiful tom down a narrow path.

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There too I shared a moment with a pair of Japanese women over arachnophobia when I spotted a spider dangling not too far in front of me. Some things truly are universal.

A little farther on and higher up, past at least one way station where refreshment and talismans could be found, we passed a passel of kittens among the azalea bushes. I rested a long while, watching them. By that point in our hike, Kari and I were flagging, but then began the litany of “Just a little farther” and “I just want to see what’s around that bend” and “I just want to see the view from there.”

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That litany, joined by the occasional rendition of VeggieTales’ “Keep Walking,” took us the rest of the way along the mountain trails, with a few setbacks.

A man at a map of the trails told us to take the trail to the left after the way station that we would come to, claiming it would be the quickest way to our destination (I’m not sure we had a destination, but apparently, we did).  We found the next way station, which boasted a lookout area as well. We rested a bit.  We thought that we’d turn around, and with the thought that we might leave, I decided to climbed a steep set of stairs on the right. They led past a small house and to a mazy collection of shrines.

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As I wandered the narrow paths between stone torii and upright markers, all dotted in orange torii-shaped petitions and red bibs for the kistune, the man from the house came out to his porch to play his wooden flute. It was a magical moment I wouldn’t have missed it for nearly anything.

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The rest changed our minds, and we thought that we could go a bit farther.  We thought that we took the leftmost turn, but we were mistaken. We went a ways and turned around, lured back to the way station by the promise of soft serve ice cream. I’m still puzzling whether soybean flavored ice cream provides more than the usual protein found in soft serve.  (It was delicious, sort of sweet and salty at once.)

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Kari found the third trail that we’d missed, the leftmost. We followed this beneath orange torii that opened up in occasional glades of stone and orange torii and upright stones. As we were following this trail, we passed a couple who were pausing before the shrines.  I’d heard a strange trumpet earlier in the day, and had wondered, and I witnessed this man now blowing a long note on his conch shell. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you’ll recognize the importance of the conch shell. It is a magical thing. I thought then that these were perhaps genuine pilgrims, travelers here for the shrines and not for the trails or to check another feature off in sight-seeing bingo. Now I wonder if this man was a priest, having learned that conch shells are sometimes used in Shinto religious ceremonies.

This trail took us most quickly too to the peak of the trail. I think this was the destination to which the man referred.

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The trail from there, of course, went downhill—and we began to worry how long the trail might be and whether it would loop or whether we could wander too far from the gate and be stranded in the dark woods overnight.

We waited on a steep flight of stairs for a passerby, and Kari asked if the trail did in fact loop and whether we would find an exit if we continued downward; neither of us had much desire to climb the steep steps upwards.

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Having learned that we in fact were on a path towards and exit, that we weren’t likely to be lost in the wood, we continued downwards with a little more enthusiasm. We stumbled into more glades of shrines, including one that featured a small waterfall that could be found down a very narrow and by then quite dark trail, its stones dark with runoff, but was out of sight above or outside of that cleft. I wish that picture had come out more clearly.

Eventually we met up with a familiar path and familiar friends.

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We also met up with a woman who seemed to live on the mountainside, carrying her groceries up the path. The cats were following her. She wanted to practice her English and gave us gifts, including a paper crane.

Having found the exit, we had to catch a train to Tokyo, where we had hostel reservations for the night.

Inari was a great way to end our stay in Kyoto, and for only having been there three days, we saw a great deal.

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We arrived in the new city late at night and in a heavy rain. We decided to call a cab rather than risk being lost and confused in such a situation. The drive was short, but our cabman was amiable.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Book Reviews: August 2014 Picture Book Roundup: Franchised

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High Voltage! by Frank Berrios and illustrated by Andrea Cagol and Francesco Legramandi. Golden-Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Now I know that part of Spidey’s appeal is his propensity for awful puns (and I’m no huge fan of his, though I enjoyed—at least mildly—the first two Tobey Maguire movies; I’ve not seen any of the others put out by Marvel), but this story feels like a string of awful puns loosely tied by a plot, where of course, the hero had to triumph over a villain with a ridiculous name and ridiculous outfit. It seemed like poor writing, though I know it to be catering to a particular gimmick. I also had to explain how Spidey had defeated the villain, giving a quick (and I’m sure poor) lesson in the conductive properties of water. Now I suppose one could use that to her advantage if she knew about the story time in advance and set up a pretty nifty though probably pretty dangerous science experiment, but I was anything but prepared for this story hour.

**

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High-Stakes Heist! by Courtney Carbone and illustrated by Michael Atiyeh and Michael Borkowski. Golden-Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

After reading High Voltage! this book seemed much better written—though I am more invested in the Avengers’ plot since Joss Whedon got his hands on it, so it might be only fair to take this with a grain of salt. At least the puns were fewer. Perhaps because the puns were not there to throw me from the storyline or perhaps because I know more about the character of Captain America than I do Spidey’s, Captain America’s personality and character seemed to come through the story more clearly than did Spider-man’s in the Berrios book reviewed above. The plots could have been identical though. I suppose in a book intended for young readers and of the same genre—and this genre in particular—that’s to be expected—and for this audience perhaps even good—a story of right always winning—though what I’ve grown to love of the Marvel movies are the comments on society, on power and powerlessness, the doggedness to protect despite odds, and the depth of the characters portrayed, their reactions to war and to one another—and, really, all of that was lacking from this Golden Book. For those following the storyline strictly from the POV of Marvel’s movies, this book will include a few spoilers as it happens farther along the storyline than has yet been released in theaters. I think I did too here have to take a moment to explain a bit about the idea of mind-control.

***

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Sophie La Girafe: Sophie’s Busy Day by Dawn Sirett. DK, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Sophie La Girafe merchandise before. This one let me down a bit. I didn’t find it up to the standards I’d set with Peekaboo Sophie! Like Peekaboo Sophie! this is a toddler’s touch-and-feel book. The story takes Sophie through a day of chores and fun with friends, a common storyline for toddler books. Peekaboo Sophie! was rife with questions and instructions to teach children verbs, as well as lift-the-flap and touch-and-feel interactive illustrations. Sophie’s Busy Day lacked the question and response element as well as the lift-the-flap element, and I think that’s why it fell flat in comparison. For its genre, however, and when the pedestal of Peekaboo Sophie! is out of sight, this is not a bad book.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: The Assignment (515 words)

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The door thudded with heavy security, but the boy on the other side of the bars still shivered as he faced me. I stood, a guard behind me, in a small antechamber of sorts, before a room divider with a door that locked from the inside, the boy on the other side.

I was surprised by the room divider’s inelegant design. The vertical boards hardly matched the refinement of the rest of the mansion that I’d seen, a strong tell that they’d been quickly—and probably poorly—constructed. The boards were spaced too far apart. They might deflect an arrow shot hastily or from a distance, and I allowed that the boy would have time to run or hide if the assassin came with only a sword or knife or blunt instrument, but an assassin with time could easily push an arrow’s tip between the bars before releasing.

Lying amidst brocade and velvet cushions as the boy was, and wrapped in a heavy velvet robe himself, the neckline fur-lined without his—I was sure—having hunted and skinned the fox, it was hard to pity him, though I’d heard what had rattled him—and it was enough to rattle any but the toughest-skinned.

“Do you know why you’re here?” He tired to inject his voice with steel but it was brittle as a dry twig.

“Aye, boy,” I said. “I suspect. Rumor travels fast.”

“Can you do it? Can you find it? And kill it?”

I wasn’t sure how much of me he could see, but I still fingered the wooden beads around my wrist for show as I said, “I suspect so. But not easily.” If the boy suspected devilry and magic then it was best to make a show of being pious.

“You’ll have whatever you need.”

Nobles are always saying that. It’s what makes the job profitable. The fun is in coming up with outlandish and expensive necessities and plausible uses for them when all I really need are my wits, a knife, two good ears, and stealth. With those accoutrements alone, I can usually find and end any threat. But I thought for a moment. “I’ll need a ruby, one about the size of your palm, a stylus strong enough to etch the gem, six sheets of clean vellum, ink and a pen, and a few of your hairs—to track the beast down, young master.”

“I’ll tell Styles. You’ll have them. All of them. The ruby might take time, and the stylus….”

“The sooner the better. I might be able to track the beast without but I’ll have no container for it.”

“Will only a ruby do? There’s a sapphire in my mother’s—in my collection that’s about that size.”

I ignored the stumble. “Hmmm,” I said, while trying to suppress a smile, “a ruby and a sapphire are about as hard as one another. I think it’ll do.”

“I’ll—I’ll give it to you then. For this.”

“And the other things? When can I expect them?”

“Give Styles your address as you leave. He’ll see that you have them.”

I’m abysmally late.  Apologies have been made to all the appropriate parties but you, dear readers.  This week’s theft was from Kid at The Gate in the Wood.  She wrote “Tonic and Poison” but we saw only her first line before we wrote our own stories.  I wasn’t the only thief.  Here are our other thieves’ works:

Kate at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Breaking Containment.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Through Walls” (563 words).

Bek at Building A Door wrote “Behind Bars.”

I suspect I may have to continue this story at a later date….

Book Review: The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is a Poorly Formatted, Solid Story

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I found a copy of Tom Angleberger’s The Strange Case of Origami Yoda used some time ago, and recognizing that it sold well and was therefore probably something that I should read, I took it home. It sat unread on my shelves until I thought that I’d be able unexpectedly to see Angleberger. I hurried through it, reading nearly half of it in two hours before leaving for the supposed signing. By the time that I left for the signing, I was so far into the book that I couldn’t very well stop. I finished it in two days. So take my review with those things in mind.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda is written as if by a number of different characters reporting on encounters with one character, Dwight, and his finger puppet, Yoda. Several different fonts are used to distinguish the characters, though some characters share fonts, and all of the fonts are similar enough in style for the font changes themselves to not interfere with the flow of the novel as a whole.

The text and format of the book as collected narratives, however, do make it disjointed, and that I think is what keeps it from shining for me. If there had been less acknowledgement of its form within the texts, if the characters hadn’t kept referring to the book and complaining about being asked to write in it, I would have been less thrown from the novel with each new chapter.

Each report is headed by a drawing of the POV character. Illustrations pepper the report as well. In their loose, sketchy style, the illustrations remind me of those that I’ve seen on Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, though Kinney’s are somehow both better at conveying emotion and more cartoonish. Kinney’s books also sell enormously well, and I have to wonder if the similarities between the two illustration styles contribute to Angleberger’s success.

A few quick notes: I will be the first to admit that trying to capture the essence of my characters in drawings is one of the hardest things, but I recognize that I am not a professional artist and plan on accepting help—or foregoing illustrations more likely. Angleberger accepts help from Jason Rosenstock with whom he has co-illustrated the book. I don’t know which illustrations are Angleberger’s and which are Rosenstock’s, but I suspect that the more professional illustrations are Rosenstock’s, so I applaud Angleberger accepting some help, but maybe he didn’t accept enough or was overenthusiastic about having illustrations at all. On the whole, the illustrations may make the books seem less frightening to a young reader, but they don’t for me add anything to the plot or to my understanding of the story. Applause for the text there. (Though I would argue that an overreliance on illustrations might signal too little confidence in children’s imagination and in the strength of the text. “How can you read this? There’s no pictures.” “Well some people use their imagination.” It’s not as though Angleberger is describing unique experiences—apart from perhaps the origami Yoda itself, and that is illustrated on the cover by Melissa Arnst.)

So overall, I don’t feel as if the format of the book as collected narratives or the inclusion of illustrations were particularly good choices and feel that these choices may have limited my enjoyment more than enhanced it. However, the content is solid.

This is a school story, and its focus is on the everyday challenges of interacting with classmates.

Dwight is unpopular. He does odd things like wear the same t-shirt for a month. This book was not part of the curriculum for Giving Voice to the Voiceless, but I think that it easily could have been. There’s no explicit mention of any neurodevelopmental disorder that might explain the quirks in Dwight’s behavior, but I suspect that Dwight might fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, explaining his difficulty relating to his peers, the difficulty that he has in speaking to them, and the ritualistic behaviors in which he engages.

While Dwight is unpopular, the finger puppet that accompanies Dwight gives wise advice to Dwight’s classmates, some of whom believe that the puppet may even be able to predict the future.

The premise of the book is to determine whether or not this is the case—though that mystery is never solved—and the end makes it seem less about Yoda and more about Dwight—particularly Tommy’s relationship and reaction to Dwight. The book takes the form of an apology. Tommy decides after examining Dwight and Yoda that he’d “rather be on Dwight’s side than Harvey’s. Dwight is weird, but I guess I’ve started to like him, and I hated to let him down. Somehow I didn’t mind letting Harvey down” (138).

Tommy’s relationship to many of his classmates changes over the course of his study. Harvey begins as one of his better friends, and Dwight as just the odd kid of the class. Dwight is able by standing out more than usual by the adoption of his puppet to influence the whole of the school for the better, bringing partners together, exposing bullies, healing peer relationships, and making traditionally disappointing school events more fun.

It’s a story of the power of the outcast and of acceptance, and I really like the conclusions that Angleberger and his characters come to.

This book has a great title, and it’s a good middle-grade read for its morals, but I really wanted to be blown away by this book. I wanted it to deserve its bestseller status. Especially as Angleberger is now among those local authors that I might one day have a chance to meet in a relaxed setting.  I wish that I could be more pleased with the book’s format.

***1/2

Angleberger, Tom. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Illus. Tom Angleberger and Jason Rosenstock.  Cover art by Melissa Arnst.  New York: Amulet-ABRAMS, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Tom Angleberger, Jason Rosenstock, Melissa Arnst, Amulet Books, or ABRAMS.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Worth Her Salt (234 words)

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Connal ignored the resentment simmering in the silence and enjoyed his drink.

Ally might have exhausted her tongue, but she hadn’t exhausted her bitterness. Her arguments would start to flow again as soon as the drink hit her, maybe with more vehemence than before if she was that kind of drunk.

But he pitied her too. It did seem a raw deal.

Connal sipped the beer again, looking at Ally thoughtfully. She was tough. She was wiry and long, the muscles visible below the tanned skin. The expression that she wore was as fierce as his own could be, enough to make others skirt her in this dingy taproom despite the swell of her chest and the flare of her hips just hanging over either edge of the stool. With her hair braided back she looked as ready for action as any man in the tavern.

Connal let his eyes slide around the barroom. Ally really did look as capable as many here, and she was trustworthy besides, which he could say for very few of the burly men lit by the candlelight.

“How,” Connal asked her carefully, “attached are you to your hair?”

Ally’s eyes narrowed sharply. “What?”

“Your hair. Would you cut it?”

“Why?”

“And your chest. If you wore baggy clothes and maybe bound those things back more firmly….”

“What’re you getting at, Connal?”

“I’m saying you’d make a good crewman.”

This week we all stole from Kate Kearney from More Than 1/2 Mad.  She wrote “The Living and the Dead.”  We pinched the first line and used it but saw nothing of the rest of her story before we wrote our own stories.

Kid at The Gate In The Wood wrote “The Silent Bar.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “No Need” (524 words).

Bek at Building A Door wrote “Small Town Stigma.”

Book Review: Island of the Aunts Uses Fantasy to Discuss the Ailments of Mankind and the Sea

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I had read a few of Eva Ibbotson’s books previously to great delight; The Secret of Platform 13 has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed The Star of Kazan too, though less so. So when I found Island of the Aunts at a local Goodwill, I brought it home.

Ibbotson writes for a younger audience (elementary bordering on middle-grade), making her books pretty quick reads, but despite that, this book in particular touches on some very difficult thought- and conversation-provoking ideas.

Ibbotson uses the fantasy genre well in Island of the Aunts to talk about difficult topics, the ailments of a fallen world, with a veil of unreality that invites readers to examine these ideas at a safer distance. All of the creatures that come to the uncharted island where the aunts live are hurting in some way, and in this way Ibbotson is able to introduce a number of physical, mental, and emotional hurts. There is an old mermaid who feels the aches of age. That is a simple problem compared with the others but Ibbotson takes the opportunity to gently remind readers to be conscious of the difficulties of age and considerate towards those who cannot move with the swiftness of youth. A mermaid mother too comes to the island with her three children: The youngest is spoilt and overweight though his mother won’t admit it. One of her daughters foolishly pursues men, exposing herself and her family to danger. The other has been held hostage by a man who fondled her inappropriately, traumatizing her so that she loses her voice. There Ibbotson deals not only with the dangers of lust but also with the symptoms of PTSD. Herbert the selkie struggles with indecision. The kraken struggles with balancing work and family. Minette comes from divorced parents, splitting her time and herself to suit her parents and listening to their complaints about the other. Fabio is forced to deal with prejudice even from his own grandparents who see him as a wild boy from the jungles of Brazil and want him to be a “proper English gentleman.”

There’s a lot about prejudice—and about acceptance and the beauty of the Other—in this book, between Fabio’s grandparents and schoolmates and then the Sprott’s, Lambert and his father. Lambert is cast as an unlikeable child who cannot comprehend the magical creatures on the island as anything other than monsters and hallucinations. Lambert’s father is cast in an even worse light, and in fact is qualified as “evil,” seeing the magical creatures as nothing more than objects for his profit and being willing to hurt them and their protectors to satisfy his own schemes (251). Ibbotson brings Mr. Sprott’s prejudice too to a more human level by sending him briefly to an island of nudists who could not be kinder to Mr. Sprott but whom make Mr. Sprott supremely uncomfortable despite and whom he treats poorly.

There’s also a lot in the story too about environmental consciousness. The kraken is a beast of healing for the seas. His hum ends violence and stalls greed by influencing the mind or heart (probably both) of the hearer. The aunts’ island is a place of healing too for sea creatures. Creatures come to them having been caught in oil spills.

All in all, I feel like I read an adventure book more than I read any didactic tome. I’ve always thought that the best tools for teaching involve enjoyment of the lessons, so I feel like Ibbotson has here created a pretty effective vehicle for her morals.

****

Ibbotson, Eva. Island of the Aunts. Illus. Kevin Henkes. 1999. New York: Scholastic, 2001. Printed with permission from Dutton-Penguin.

This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, Scholastic Inc., Dutton Children’s Books, or Penguin Putnam Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.