Book Reviews: October 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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The Very Busy Spider’s Favorite Words by Eric Carle. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin, 2007. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I’d forgotten when I picked this book up this October that I’d already read the book back in January 2013. But since that review has never made it to this site, here is what I wrote then for Goodreads:

I liked this book even less than The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s Favorite Words. There was no pairing of nouns such as there was in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The only real delight in this series is Eric Carle’s illustrations, but those are even more delightful when paired with a background rather than being an isolated figure. Other than that, I can praise their small size, just right for a young toddler’s hands.

Re-reading this book this October, I think maybe that first review was a tiny bit harsh. I still can’t color myself impressed, but I did enjoy the colors of Carle’s illustrations, and I was not so… offended.

Still, it does seem that this book’s purpose is to capitalize on Carle’s commercial success.

*

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Mini Myths: Be Patient, Pandora! by Joan Holub and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

Last month I read and then praised Play Nice, Hercules!, a Mini Myths book written by the same team. I expected to like Be Patient, Pandora! I won’t again go into the credentials of the team, which are excellent. Be Patient, Pandora! like Play Nice, Hercules! retells the myth in a modern setting and with a similar but more commonplace situation for a toddler audience and then includes in the back a summary of the myth for a slightly more mature audience.

Holub and Patricelli’s tale tells of a young Pandora who finds a wrapped present on the floor, which her mother forbids her to open. Like many children, Pandora bends the rules. Her anticipation of the present too great to leave the box alone, she pokes it, jumps on it, and unintentionally destroys the packaging and what the box contains: cupcakes, which is a very interesting substitution for all of the evils of the world. My Classics professor introduced us to the argument among scholars as regards the Hope (elpis) that remained in Pandora’s jar. Holub and Patricelli probably wisely don’t engage in whether the Hope is a blessing or a blight, loosed or withheld but Pandora does say that she hopes that her mother still loves her, a nod to the Hope that remained in the jar.

*****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: My New Friend Is So Fun! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

I was actually able to recommend this book as a response to a similar situation with which a young customer was struggling—and that I consider a high praise for a book. If a book is enjoyable, that is one thing. If a parent believes that a book might teach an important social lesson, that’s quite another.

Piggie has met Brian, and Elephant Gerald and Brian’s best friend, Snake, worry over whether Piggie and Brian will become such good friends that Gerald and Snake will be replaced. Told in Willems usual and wonderful style, Gerald and Snake go to check up on Piggie and Brian who are indeed having great fun together and, as if anticipating their friends’ worry, tell them that have even gone so far as to make best friend drawings. The drawings turn out to be of Gerald and Snake, and Gerald’s and Snake’s fears are assuaged. The moral here is that its possible to have more than one good friend.

****

Challenge: Legal Theft: Some Days (394 words)

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Adam had turned coming home from work into a secret race. If he was home before 5:30 he won. 5:45 was when she got home, and coming home by 5:30 gave him just enough time to have the kettle singing when she walked into the door and to be ready to shout a buoyant, “Welcome home!” over its wail. He liked the excuse to shout.

His job was lackluster and draining in its monotony, but she came home every day with an expression of bone white weariness on her face. She was mired in governmental red tape that kept her from helping the refugees that came through her door. A worthy goal he would have liked to see fulfilled if only to have the exhaustion lifted from her face with a radiant, triumphant smile. Sure he’d be glad that those people had help, but he was mostly concerned for his Chelsea.

Chelsea had taken the job with enthusiastic vigor, glad to take up her position on the front lines, to fight for the underdog, and to give those needing it their second chance, but that vigor had been slowly corroded till now he wished that she would leave the job behind. When he suggested that she do so, though, a touch of her old fire cracked the bone as she railed that she was needed, she had to do this. Who else did these people have?

And he wasn’t sure how to dissuade her.

He admired her for wanting to do the right thing, and if sometimes this didn’t feel like the right thing, then what else was there to do? It was the best thing to be done, the best of which he or she was capable.

He turned off the water and carried the kettle to the stovetop, lit the burner.

He leaned back against the counter, preparing himself. He let his eyes close and his own worries drain away. He had to be smiling when she walked through the door because she needed his smile in the same way the refugees needed hers.

Some days it was harder than others to be the man that she needed to see.

Some days he wanted to be the one greeted with a smile. He wanted to be the one to come home to her.

Some days winning the race felt like a loss.

I am a thief!  This week’s line has come from Bek at Building A Door, who wrote “In House Race” (345 words).

We all of us were given just this first line on Monday and from it wrote our own fictions.

Kid at The Gate In The Wood wrote “Racing.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Race You For It” (544 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: He Stopped the Crowd (908 words)

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The hall was wide enough for two fat carriages with drunken drivers to dance past each other comfortably, but the crowd had still slowed to a sluggish crawl as they turned down it. A hush crept its way like a cat between their legs, from the front back towards where I stood like that cat among them, too near the ground for most to notice and too slight to be more than jostled between them. I’d followed them blindly, weaving in and out, invisible. It was how I moved and how I hunted. My pockets had already swelled with several loose coins, a woman’s lace handkerchief, and a bit of parchment worn soft from fingering. My own fingers were sticky with the bite of bun that I’d stolen from a dangling hand. He’d not even noticed the missing bite—or if he had, I’d been too far away to hear his exclamation.

Looking, I found no one at my eye level, no other urchin who might have scouted ahead, have news from the front. The faces above me were quiet, and I was too grubby to tug on their velvet coat tails or silken skirts to ask the question that all of them held within tight lips and upon stiff shoulders.

If I wanted answers, I had to find them myself.

Sideways was easier than forwards in the pressed crowd, so I moved sideways, taking an occasional step back when the crowd became too thick.

I wiggled loose of the crowd by the mouth of a dark alley. The well-to-do crowd gave the alley a wide berth.

I hesitated at its mouth.

Alleyways were always dangerous.

This one though housed only an old tramp in rags slouched against the brick and a girl smaller than me who picked through the gutter, a wary eye on the tramp. I followed her gaze back to him along the rope that bound her ankle to his wrist and gagged.

The tramp was more dangerous than I would have first thought, dangerous enough for me to give him a wide berth. I found handholds in the brick of the wall that faced the street rather than risk the same shadow that he occupied, preferring to risk being dragged down by those who thought me up to no good than by a man who might find too much use for me.

This had once been a nice part of town. The shops though they were butchers and bakeries rather than milliners or tailors still had the decorative molding that provided safer footing than grout and I was able without too much trouble to find my way to a narrow ledge above the shop but below the windows of residences.

The crowd had stopped as if they’d found a cliff’s lip. They left a wide patch of road bare between them. In its center was a man prone. From as far away as I was, I couldn’t see much, but he wore a long, green coat that even from here I could tell fit him well and would have cost him a good deal. No one had divested him of it yet. I found myself wishing that the crowd had not noticed him before I had or I’d have been warm tonight and rich in the morning if I’d wanted to be. He carried no bags, no purse. He was the sort of well-to-do person who has everything delivered to him and buys on credit, the sort that many new to the streets think will be a good mark but whom they find has empty pockets.

He was not a particularly impressive figure otherwise. He was older with white hair. He had the spindly look of a man who had never known muscles and had never quite grown into his long legs. I was oddly reminded of a yearling colt towed to market.

There was no blood that I could see.

A constable bustled out of the crowd then, and by instinct I shrank away. There was nowhere to hide on my lip, but he was not looking in my direction.

He looked around at the crowd. His cudgel hung loose from his hand, and it was clear that he felt lost without anyone at which to swing the club.

He made some kind of plea to the crowd and waited, but he didn’t seem to get the response that he’d hoped. His shoulders stiffened, and his voice was louder when he next spoke, so that I caught a few words, far back as I was, and above them all. “…murder… dead… street held… questioning….”

Still no one moved towards the constable and the dead man.

The constable lost some of his anger then. He motioned and a few more patrollers emerged from the crowd, and began to shepherd them away.

The crowd shuffled backwards. A few at the back turned and walked away as the patrollers’ orders came to them. Others pressed to the sides of the street and hissed questions at those who came from the front.

The street would soon be emptied, but I had no hope of getting that coat.

I crept off the building and dropped down onto the street, thanking whatever gods there might be that I’d not been caught or fallen.

Then I waited, pressed back against the brick. I let flustered people pass and soaked up their words.

“Mayor.”

“Dead.”

“Can’t believe it.”

“What now? Who’s…”

I’m a thief!  It’s been a long while.  At the beginning of this week, Gwen from Apprentice, Never Master sent this first line around to the ring of thieves and issued the challenge to write a piece off of it by midnight tonight.

Kate at More Than 1/2 Mad answered this challenge with “Salt, Citrus, and Certain Truths.”

Bek at Building A Door wrote “In the Public Eye.”

The original piece from Gwen is “Ocean and Wind” (1033 words).

Book Reviews: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Twists Tales and Truly Enchants

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I’ve already reviewed Dealing with Dragons (*****), the first book in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, for this site, and I think that review pretty thoroughly covered the wonderful feminism to be found in Cimorene’s and Kazul’s stories and more subtly in other characters’ within the Forest.

I am such a fan of these books, and after rereading that first and seeing that the love remained, I hurried out to buy for myself the entirety of the series, which I found collected into one volume by SFBC Fantasy.

I just finished rereading the rest of the series, one book after another, first Searching for Dragons, then Calling on Dragons, and last Talking to Dragons.

I did not realize till I’d nearly finished Talking to Dragons (**1/2) that though this is the last chronologically, it is actually the first of the books published by Wrede. This blows me away still because it proves what an enormous and twisted backstory Wrede had planned to get this one story finished—even if I think it would have felt somewhat poorly integrated into the text if I’d read Talking to Dragons first.

This last book is probably the least impressive to me—and so in that sense, I’m not surprised to learn that it was the first. It is the only book of the series written in the first person. Why for me first person has become such a taboo, I cannot say, but I am only just beginning to overcome my personal misgivings about the style. Sixteen-year-old Daystar narrates. One Goodreads reviewer managed to capture I think what bothers me about Daystar: Daystar lacks emotion and reaction. First person is best used to explore a character’s inmost emotions and reactions especially in characters who cannot or will not openly express themselves. It can also be used to write in a unique voice as Rick Riordan does with Percy Jackson. Daystar doesn’t have a particular interesting or amusing voice. He’s not anguished or surprised or overwhelmed by his task or by the enchanted of the Forest. The only reason for Daystar to narrate is to keep the reader as much in the dark as is Daystar. I can’t say there’s a better narrator than Daystar, just that I wish that Daystar was a better narrator.

Shiara, the fire-witch with whom Daystar partners because neither of them has a direction so they may as well wander directionlessly together, is not the flying-in-the-face-of-stereotypes heroine that wins me in the other books of the series. In fact, she is a stereotyped redhead, fiery in ever sense, easily upset—touchy I supposed you’d say—prone to yell and complain and be angry at the world and herself. So, all in all, the fourth book is a disappointment—unless you consider it the first book and marvel at how much planning Wrede has done to write this book.

Rewinding back now to the second book, Searching for Dragons (****): This book focuses on Mendenbar, the insular king of the Enchanted Forest, who would happily spend all his days alone in his kingdom. On a walk through the Forest, he discovers spots of dead earth that possess none of the Forest’s magic. There’s evidence that the damage may have been caused by dragons, but he is advised to visit Morwen for advice about dragons before acting, and then by Morwen to visit Kazul. Mendenbar finds Cimorene instead of Kazul at the cave, however, and she is just setting off on a solo quest to find the missing King of Dragons. Gallant hero that he is, Mendenbar cannot let Cimorene quest alone, especially when they are seeking the same person, and so the two set off together. They encounter a number of helper characters whom Cimorene and Mendenbar help in turn and who help to expand Wrede’s world beyond the dragons’ caves. The magician, Telemain, becomes a recurring character.

This book better explains the nature of magic—specifically the magic of the Enchanted Forest, wizards’ magic, and to a lesser extent magician’s magic—which is all types of learned magic.   Telemain explains magic and spellwork scientifically. Most of the other characters—notably Cimorene—can’t understand his heavily jargoned explanations, which have to be simplified by other characters. Kazul glares at him and threatens to eat him if he can’t talk sense. Kazul and Cimorene here sympathize with the child readers, but Telemain allows Wrede to speak to her adult audience as well. I appreciate these explanations as an adult, and as someone struggling to explain my own magic, I am doubly wowed by Wrede’s scientific understanding of her magic.

Importantly, though the book is told primarily from Mendenbar’s point of view, Cimorene is not discounted nor reduced to the subservient role. There are skills that Cimorene possesses that Mendenbar does not that make her invaluable—not her prowess in the kitchen or for housework but sensitivity to magic, knowledge about wizards, and a method of attack.

The escalating animosity between the wizards and the dragons climaxes to open battle in Calling on Dragons (****). The wizards capture the sword that helps Mendenbar control the magic of the Enchanted Forest and helps him keep the wizards out of it. Cimorene must go with Morwen, Telemain, Kazul, an enchanted rabbit named Killer, and several of Morwen’s cats to recapture it. This follows the same adventure story pattern as Searching for Dragons: Helper characters, small battles and small victories, and ultimately victory over the wizards—well, sort of. This book necessitates the fourth, Talking to Dragons, because it ends with the battle a bit unresolved.

Within this group, the women shine particularly. Killer is more often a nuisance than he is helpful—or is helpful only by stumbling across enchantments before the others do—and Telemain becomes incapacitated by overextending his help so that Morwen must save him, reversing the typical hero’s tale where the hero rescues a maiden.

This story comes to us primarily from the voice of Morwen, so the obstacles and solutions are particularly suited to her. Wrede proves herself an astute student of cats when she gives voice to Morwen’s.

I wonder about the climate in which this book was written (I am too young to have been at all aware and too lazy at the moment to do the research) because there is a great deal of blatant retort to those who might call for traditional works of fantasy here in the character of Arona Michelear Grinogian Vamist. It almost feels as if this book has been written in direct response to detractors of Wrede’s gender stereotype defining characters in other books. Wrede continues to play with the traditional, not only the hero tale and gender roles but several characters of other tales: Farmer MacDonald, Rapunzel, and a male fire-witch, proving that in Wrede’s world “witch” is not gendered anymore than is King or Queen in the dragons’.

Overall, I am a huge fan of this series. I find them well-written books and important counter-examples to the still all too prevalent damsel-in-distress princess tales told to children. Wrede’s women are for the most part very strong feminist characters, but none of them completely renounces their femininity in that I find them stronger, better role models for young girls. Wrede is conscious of the genre and conscious of the culture and aware of what is valuable and what could be improved or pruned from both.

I openly admire this series.

*****

Wrede, Patricia C. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. New York: SFBC, 2005.

Talking to Dragons first published 1985.

Dealing with Dragons first published 1990.

Searching for Dragons first published 1991.

Calling on Dragons first published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Patricia C. Wrede; the original publishers: Jane Yolen, Jane Yolen Books, Harcourt Brace & Company; or The Science Fiction Book Club, SFBC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Female Power in The Wise Man’s Fear

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Spoilers!

It didn’t take me long to go looking again for Kvothe, the red-headed lutist of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. I had been somewhat blinded to my fondness for this protagonist by my love of Rothfuss’ artistry, but I found myself missing them both after some time away, and Kvothe much more than I would have expected.

I had been warned that I wouldn’t enjoy the second book in the series as much as I had the first. Kvothe remains in many ways naïve throughout The Name of the Wind, an underdog fighting to play in the same field as older, richer men, ready to believe the best of others on the fringes of society and the worst of those who move at the highest tiers.

The Wise Man’s Fear sees Kvothe ousted from that field and sent to try his tongue on foreign soil. The majority of the book is spent exploring other and Other cultures within the world created by Rothfuss.

Kvothe’s first journey by sea, a journey involving “a storm, piracy, treachery, and shipwreck, although not in that order” is given one full page of text (403-404), and then we land in Vintas, where a once more penniless Kvothe is to meet with a man richer than his king. Unwilling to long support himself by the means of street living with which he is all too familiar, Kvothe bluffs his way to the Maer’s door.

Kvothe then undertakes misadventures of courtly intrigue and faux pas, learning and enlightening us to the intricacies of Vintish culture.

When Kvothe has all but outlived his usefulness to the Maer, he is sent on a fool’s errand, which though more difficult and dangerous than anyone had expected, Kvothe manages spectacularly to complete despite poor circumstances.

On this errand with him is an Adem mercenary, who begins Kvothe’s instruction in Ademic culture—which is interrupted by an encounter with a Fae known to lure men away for intercourse, during which they succumb to either death or insanity.

The second half of this book, alongside its exploration of the Other, specifically explores the ideas of female power in its many and varied forms. The Fae Felurian represents and embodies the female sexual power. She possesses a strange magic that Kvothe hopes to learn and which he temporarily bests through Naming. In besting Felurian, Kvothe earns the right to learn about her powers, both Faen and sexual. Felurian does not learn from him, and so Kvothe’s power is increased while Felurian’s remains static.

Upon returning from this tryst, Kvothe finds himself compelled to follow Tempi to Ademre, where the two are immediately parted and Kvothe made to defend himself by learning the ways of the Adem and particularly of the Adem mercenaries. Rothfuss here shows readers another form of female power. The best Adem warriors are women because women are less often led by anger or impatience and are better at “knowing when to fight” (849). Again Kvothe learns while his female instructors do not.

The power of procreation for the Adem is further purely female. The Adem do not believe that men are involved in procreation. In our culture, historically, much of a woman’s power and value have been derived from her ability to birth children but that power has been limited because of a woman’s dependence upon a man to do so. That power in Ademre is unlimited, and what’s more men depend on women not only for their own birth but also for the continuation of the culture. The Ademic culture then is similar to the early matriarchal, mother-goddess cultures that I have heard postulated, where women are believed to be the sole progenitors and derive their power from this, sort of taking the patriarchal demotion of women as sex objects and turning it into a promotion.

Much of Kvothe’s increased power during the course of The Wise Man’s Fear has, then, come from female instructors and in his acceptance of the female powers offered to him, which might be another paper in itself.

Within The Kingkiller Chronicles so far, Rothfuss has mainly presented a world in which the greatest female power is sexual. However, while almost all of his female characters have presented sexual interest in one male figure or another, few have possessed merely sexual power. There are strong and wise fighters like the Adem and clever survivors like Auri and Devi, and intelligent scholars and craftsmen like Fela and other female university students.

Denna of course embodies for Kvothe the ideal woman. She is one of only a few women who do not advance on Kvothe sexually, and Kvothe is clever enough not to ask or demand her sexual favor. She is in many ways unattainable to Kvothe because he has seen her flee from the sexual advances of other men, but Denna certainly knows how to use her sexuality, so she is powerful in that right. Perhaps she is desirable for being powerful but unattainable. In a story arc that comprises almost wholly of Kvothe’s struggles to attain knowledge and through knowledge power, that interpretation makes a lot of sense.

On the whole, I’m not sure that I can call Rothfuss’ presentation of the female “feminist” in the same way that I can some of George R. R. Martin’s characters or Patricia C. Wrede’s Cimorene, and I wish that I could, because Rothfuss treads near a feminist perspective in this book especially.

****1/2

Rothfuss, Patrick. The Kingkiller Chronicles, Day Two: The Wise Man’s Fear. New York: DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, or Penguin Group, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2014 Picture Book Roundup: I’m Feeling Generous–Or These Are Good Books

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I Spy With My Little Eye by Edward Gibbs. Templar-Random, 2014. First published 2011.

The illustrations in this board book are wonderful: brightly colored, realistic, and whimsical at once. The story that this primer tells is loose and little, but to be a primer that has any plot is to be of a higher quality than the majority of the genre. The text mimics the game’s pattern—“I spy with my little eye something [of a particular color]”—and a circular hole in the page allows readers to glimpse the color on the next page. The text also includes a hint about what is on the following page. “It has a long trunk” hints that an elephant is the gray something to be found. The page is turned to reveal an animal associated with that particular color: a yellow lion, a red fox, a green frog, making this an animal as well as a color primer. The frog is the one to turn the book around, break the fourth wall, and end with “I spy you!” As a read-aloud it would be easily interactive.

****1/2

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Mini Myths: Play Nice, Hercules! by Joan Holub and illustrated by Leslie Patricelli. Appleseed-Abrams, 2014.

This board book tells the Hercules myth with pictures and text that feature a toddler Hercules stomping about the house smashing “monsters” and then his sister’s block tower instead of killing his family. Upon her tears, he stoops to help rebuild it, rebuilding his relationship with his sister as well, instead of completing his twelve labors. Then the end summarizes in a paragraph with much exclusion and downplaying for the toddler audience the myth of Hercules. This is a book that children could grow with, reading the myth paragraph as a separate story when they’re older, though whether a beginning reader would want to read a paragraph at the end of a board book is another question.

In the paragraph “he accidentally hurt his family.” That understates the damage done by Hercules in the myth just a bit, but I suppose without going into an explanation of the horrible marriage of Hera and Zeus and the birth of Hercules, that’s not an unfair statement, and honestly, I think Holub did a pretty stellar job of translating the myth for a modern, toddler audience. Hopefully no toddler is spurred by a jealous goddess into a rage and kills his family, but sure, a toddler could for no reason other than for sport, destroy his younger sister’s block tower. That’s entirely relatable and still gets at the wanton, accidental destruction in the Hercules myth. I would waffle on whether Hercules was forgiven by everyone when he completed the twelve labors, but the young Hercules character within this board book, who destroys a block tower, might plausibly be forgiven entirely by everyone, and the concept of the omnipotence of the Greek gods and the promise of immortality are ones probably beyond the curriculum of the average toddler.

Holub already has a reputation as a reteller of myths with her middle grade series, Goddess Girls, which places the young goddesses and gods of Greek myths within a middle school setting; Grimmtastic Girls, in which heroines from Grimms’ fairy tales attend prep school and fight against the E.V.I.L. Society; Heroes in Training, which features young heroes of Greek myth on adventures; and picture books like Little Red Writing, which is a parody of “Little Red Riding Hood.” There are others, but this list gives you some idea of the time and energy that she has put into retelling stories for a young, modern audience.

Leslie Patricelli is an equally prolific and prominent board book illustrator, with such titles as Potty, Huggy Kissy, and Tickle.

I suspect this team to sell well. I hope that they do, but so far at my store the title isn’t flying off the shelves like it should.

*****

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Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? Sound Book by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Priddy-St. Martin’s, 2011. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-5, Grades PreK-K.

Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle have been a bestselling team for quite some time now with Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and all of its sequels and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and all of its. This is a spinoff of a spinoff of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, a sound book version of Polar Bear, Polar Bear. Because this is a sound as well as an animal primer, the sound book is a logical and I think good choice. There’s something satisfying—there always is—about pushing buttons to make noise—even at my age, but as a toddler certainly.  The soundbites used for this book are of the actual animals too, as far as I can figure; certainly the peacock’s “yelp” is the wail of a peacock; that’s a very distinctive sound.  Carle was less creative with colors here—animals are more their natural color than say a blue horse (though the walrus is purple)—and in a way I appreciate that; it helps with the animal primer aspect of the book. There’s pleasantly and unobtrusively more diversity within the human characters here. There’s a suggestion at the end, as the zookeeper repeats the noises imitated by the children that he hears, for children being read the book to imitate the noises, making it a possibly interactive read.

****

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The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. Annick Press Ltd, 1993. First published 1980.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7, Grades PreK-2.

This book. If you haven’t read, find it. A princess’ castle and wardrobe are destroyed and her prince carried off by a dragon. Instead of crying, she clothes herself in the one thing untouched by the dragon’s fire—a paper bag—and sets off to rescue her prince, outsmarting the dragon by using its own hubris against it. Her prince is upset about being rescued by a princess who doesn’t look like a princess with her singed and mussed hair and cleverly crafted paper bag dress and tells Elizabeth to come back when she looks like a real princess. Elizabeth recognizes that Rupert is in fact a “bum” and she leaves him, skipping happily into the sunset in her paper bag. Elizabeth is a princess who shows her emotions, most importantly anger. Few Disney princes get angry: Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana, Merida, Nala…. Well, the list is longer than I thought it would be, but noticeably absent are the original, the classic princesses: Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White—the Disney princesses pre-1980 when this book was first released. Little girls are often taught that anger is not a feminine emotion, and so it is repressed rather than felt or expressed—not a healthy thing. Boys and girls should be taught how to deal with anger rather than not to feel it or that to feel it is somehow wrong—I think. Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon by paying him compliments, not a weapon I particularly think of as masculine—though recent experiences make me question whether this is perhaps a weapon wielded too often by men. I was going to label the weapon of manipulation via compliment as feminine, but now I’m thinking that this weapon is not particularly feminine so much as it does not require the physical strength, the dragon-slaying that is stereotypically associated almost wholly with men and masculinity.

The feminist message remains, however. Elizabeth is a clever girl, who learns to see past appearances, who runs in contrast to the clothes make the princess lesson of Cinderella—and that is a lesson that bears learning.

***** 

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Kitten and Friends by Priddy Books. Sterling, 2009.  First published by St. Martin’s, 2001.

I reviewed this book’s sister book, Puppies and Friends in April, so I suspected when I picked it up that I would enjoy it, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like Puppies and Friends, this is a touch-and-feel book. It has rather unique feel elements, like strings of yarn, fibers meant to imitate a kitten’s stiff whiskers. Kitten and Friends poses questions to readers, like “can you feel my soft fur?”—not a very exciting question— and “Is the wool softer than my fur?”—a much better question that encourages comparative reasoning, which is what particularly loved about Puppies and Friends. This book I feel has more exciting feel elements than did Puppies and Friends, and I was distracted from the cleverness of the text by them—not a point of detraction, merely a score for the feel elements; it is still important that these are smart questions.

**** 

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You Are My Little Pumpkin Pie by Amy E. Sklansky and illustrated by Talitha Shipman. LB Kids-Hachette, 2013.

I did much like this book. Unless you already call your child “pumpkin pie” then the reasoning behind the pet name seems an odd choice for a story. As a book to encourage parent-child interaction it might have some merit, with lines like “Each time I kiss your yummy cheek, I have to kiss it twice”—but “yummy cheek”? Are you going to eat your baby? The text honestly makes the parents seem rather self-centered. The child is warm and cozy next to them, she is yummy, she lights up a room—what benefit does the child get from any of this? It’s as if the child is there to improve the life of the parent. Certainly children might improve parents’ lives, but a child’s no tool, and that should be a two-way street with agape love on both sides.

**

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

Book Review: The Lives of Christopher Chant Stars a Child’s Perspective

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Spoilers.

I’ve read the first volume of Diana Wynne Jones’ The Chronicles of Chrestomanci several times since I was first introduced to it, near when I was introduced to Harry Potter. Somehow, Jones’ books rarely make much impression upon me. I always enjoy them as I’m reading them, and remember enjoying them, but the plots seem to fall from my head with some speed. I picked up The Lives of Christopher Chant again because I was searching my shelves for instances of magical instruction, asked my mother what she recalled of Chris’, and the details that she mentioned were not ones that I remembered—that and I was having fun making a list of fictional cats, dreaming up names for future cats of my own, and Jones’ books have several, none of whom I could remember.

The Lives of Christopher Chant is relatively quick-paced, and the language relatively simple, easily settling into the reading level of middle and late elementary students. In this tale Jones does a particularly good job capturing the child’s perspective. Chris would rather play cricket, go to school with his mates, and have adventures in the alternate worlds that he can only reach in his sleep than be thrust into society, be pawn in his parents’ war, or study at Chrestomanci Castle with promises that he will one day have to assume the responsibilities of Chrestomanci, a sort of law enforcement and high-ranking government official for the interconnected worlds within Chris’ universe.

Chris fails to see the adult perspective. He doesn’t realize—or refuses to realize any nefariousness within his uncle’s “experiments.” He does not connect his experiments with the crimes that the staff at Chrestomanci Castle are ignoring Chris to focus on stopping. Somehow that’s not irritating though. It’s refreshing. Chris is innocent where Harry Potter—the Chosen One of another more famous magical school story—is suspicious and wary. (I also use Harry as a foil because the cover of the books boasts “Mad about Harry? Try Diana.” I assume that U.S. News & World Report meant Potter given the book’s release date (2001 would have been months after the book release of The Goblet of Fire and during the lead-up to the release of the first Harry Potter film).)

Though the plot here is an interesting one—Chris’ education; assumption of the responsibilities of Chrestomani; rescue of the current Chrestomanci, Gabriel de Witt; and Chris’ takedown of his uncle’s criminal organization—it seems to intend to share its stardom with the universe.

Jones has built the interconnected worlds of Chrestomanci for me over six novels and many years, so I can’t honestly judge how well this singular book constructs the universe, but this more than any of the others perhaps really explains the ways in which the Related Worlds are connected, if the impression that it gives is vague. The physics here are difficult. There are twelve series of worlds and Series Twelve at least has an A and B, but there are hints that any series could include infinite worlds, a new world created when one world reaches a junction—perhaps something like the opposite of the Doctor’s fixed point in time—where a great event might have more than one possible outcome.

This is the only book to visit Series Eleven, and there Jones has created an eerie world of persons kept in submission to a dictatorial leader—the Dright—worthy of L’Engle’s IT, a dark, densely forest world where the Dright keeps even the laws of physics in submission to himself.

Chris as a nine-lived enchanter is able to travel to each of the Related Worlds. He does so, uniquely, through a form of spirit travel that allows him to be physically present in two worlds at once by leaving one life behind while the rest travel. Chris doesn’t really understand this spirit travel, and for a long time thinks only that he dreams himself to the Place Between whence he can enter the other worlds. Having no conversation with anyone other than nurses and governesses for most his childhood, he has had no one to tell him that these dreams of his are unusual until a governess chosen by his uncle discovers Christopher in possession of otherworldly artifacts and demands an explanation and then a confession to his Uncle Ralph.

Chris’ scattered instruction in magic was not particularly helpful for my own WIP. Chris has several instructors, and the only one that makes any real impression upon me is Dr. Pawson, who believes in practical lessons, the mechanics of which Jones doesn’t describe in detail—though that did give me some idea of how little it might be important for a reader to understand magic.

****

Jones, Diana Wynne.  The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: The Lives of Christopher Chant.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTrophy-HarperCollins, 2001.  Story first published 1988.

This review is not endorsed by Diana Wynne Jones, her estate, Greenwillow Book, HarperTrophy, or HarperCollins Publishers Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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.