TWO-HUNDRED FOLLOWERS!

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AKA: A thank you, an apology, and a promise.

First of all, I want to say a HUGE thank you to the 200 of you who have found my blog worth keeping up on.  Then I want to apologize because it wasn’t long after the two-hundredth of you chose to subscribe that I hit a busy patch in my life and have now had two weeks without an update.  I promise you that I have two review posts almost complete, but neither of them will be complete enough to go up on this Tuesday (which ends in 12 minutes).  I hope and endeavor to have one of them up for you next Tuesday.

Again, thank you.  I’m really gratified to think that someone–let alone 200 someones–might be benefiting from this blog that has become as much for me to organize my thoughts as to share them with anyone else.

Book Review: Many of My Favorite Things in No Such Thing as Dragons

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0-545-22224-9I don’t know how or where I found this book first. Needing something to pad an Amazon order to get the free shipping, I went down my wish list and found it there. A preview made me suspect that I would adore the writing style—descriptive, poetic, an older style, really—and adore the protagonist—Ansel, a young boy made mute by the shock of the death of his mother and apprenticed by an abusive father to a would-be dragon-slayer. The book was not unpredictable, and anyone looking for surprises should probably look elsewhere, but there’s such a thing as a niche book, and this one fit very comfortably into my niche. It had everything I could wish for: a dragon, a gentle boy who proves a powerful protagonist, children who know better than adults, vocabulary that I have to look up and from which I can learn, corrupt religious officials, strong women….

The older style—one I lean towards myself—suited the book well, I thought, as a story set in a more realistically medieval world than most medieval fantasies. The world is old Germanic, peppered with the characters and superstitions and religious reliance common to medieval times but often overlooked in more fantastical medieval settings. It was more realistic for its language and its details—despite the dragon.

That realism carried forward to a dragon that was less fantastic and more animalistic, a strange beast, maybe last of its kind, but with the same survivalist instincts and behaviors as any other creature.

This was a book about combating stereotypes and not judging a person or creature by its appearance.

The cast was predominately male but the women prove as resourceful and clever as any man.

The two child protagonists—Else and Ansel—take turns saving one another with almost equal give and take. I was pleased that there was no romantic element in this story, a trap that Reeve could easily have fallen into with two opposite sex protagonists of roughly the same age and Else already having been a sacrificial virgin in need of saving and Ansel coming to her rescue, placing them very firmly in the fairy tale roles of damsel in distress and white knight. It even seems possible that Else’s mother might avoid falling in love with the comically blusterous Brock, despite the book’s conclusion.

Reeve did something interesting here too by denying speech to one of his protagonists. The book is told from a third person limited perspective with Ansel as our primary POV character. This of course gives Reeve a chance to have Ansel express himself to the reader but he does have difficulty communicating with the other characters—and both Brock and Else in some ways take advantage of his silence to give more room to their own voices. I think Else in particular benefits from Ansel’s silence, having a rare opportunity to speak her mind without interruption or judgment. Now of course I may be predisposed to be sympathetic towards Else and to pick up on this attitude of Else’s besides, but I am impressed that Reeve was so well able to capture that feeling of relief and freedom in her unbridled expression.

I started this book for Ansel. I stayed for him and for Else.

And the prose and the vocabulary.

****

Reeve, Philip. No Such Thing as Dragons. New York: Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.

This review is not endorsed by Philip Reeve or Scholastic Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: March 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Spring Has Sprung

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Easter Exclusives 9780399252389

Easter Egg by Jan Brett. G. P. Putnam’s Sons-Penguin Random, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Hoppi the bunny is just old enough to participate in the bunnies’ annual Easter egg challenge where the best egg wins a chance to help the Easter Bunny with his deliveries. Hoppi wants to win, but he is discouraged when he sees all of the amazing eggs being made by the older bunnies: chocolate, wood, flower planters, engraved, with a painted portrait of the Easter Bunny…. Each of these adults kindly donates some of their tools to Hoppi’s egg efforts. Wandering through the woods, Hoppi witnesses a robin’s egg knocked from its nest. Unable to return the egg to its nest, the robin mother entrusts the egg to Hoppi who volunteers to protect it. He does so faithfully, a proper Horton. He is missed at the Easter celebration when the Easter Bunny pulls up in his carriage pulled by hens, but the Easter Bunny knows what he’s been up to: He goes into the woods and returns with Hoppi, the winner of his contest, and his newly hatched robin chick. Hoppi’s self-sacrifice and faithfulness are rewarded and recognized with the prize that he coveted most. This was a great opportunity for Jan Brett to show off her distinctive, lauded illustration style with its magical details and high realism matched with whimsy.

****

16033650Easter Surprise adapted from Beatrix Potter’s works. Warne-Penguin Random, 2013.

Mimicking if not outright borrowing illustrations from Beatrix Potter’s classic works, Peter Rabbit leads the reader past other classic characters of Potter’s to see—surprise!—the newly hatching ducklings of Jemima Puddle-Duck’s. I don’t generally like these books that hijack classic characters for new stories, but this was a cute concept. There is little to the story, really, but that leaves the focus on the illustrations, and because the illustrations are what of the story are most Potter’s that seems fitting.

**** 9780312510022

Easter Surprise by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

The text on each page gives instructions to pull a tab, which separates two halves of an Easter egg to reveal a baby animal. The last page reveals a mirror. The tabs are of a sturdy cardboard that seems like it will be difficult to tear. This is a novel sort of interactive page and that I think gives the book merit. I especially like the inclusion of the mirror. I think this book is actually meant for younger than Macmillan believes; I would say it’s intended audience is children younger than 2.

***1/2

Any Day Books

2215398The Vicar of Nibbleswicke by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Trumpet-Scholastic, 1996. First published 1991.  Intended audience: Ages 11-13.

I’m not entirely sure whether or not to include to this book in this list. This is more of 31 page (23 pages of text and not all of those are full pages), illustrated novelette or short story, but I don’t have enough to say on it to write a full review, I don’t think. This was written for the benefit of the Dyslexia Institute. It reads as Dahl having fun with himself and with his characters and with language. He even makes a reference to another book of his, Esio Trot. The Reverend Lee suffers and has suffered since childhood from a strange back-to-front dyslexia, where he occasionally says a word backwards without realizing it. This manifestation of dyslexia does not exist, so this really does not promote understanding or acceptance of dyslexia so much as it borrows the name and invents a nonexistent symptom. It leaves me in a very strange position because on the one hand I want to applaud Dahl funding research for a disability and on the other I want to berate him for spouting lies about an illness. The words that Reverend Lee says backwards are of course mostly those that when said backwards become other words and those words are often insulting. Miss Prewt becomes Miss Twerp. Instead of happily exclaiming that all of the ladies knit, he says that each of them stinks. God is replaced with dog, which for a vicar is problematic. In a First Communion class the reverend tells his parishioners to pis from the Communion cup. Parishioners are also told not to krap along the narrow drive to the church. The misspelled cuss words are something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to recommend this book to certain individuals. I giggled to myself as I read it silently and alone. There wasn’t a great deal of substance there, but there was word play, and I am a sucker for clever word play—though this is very mischievous word play.

***

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Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson. Picture Window-Capstone, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5, Grades PreK-1.

Rabbit’s carrot collection has outgrown his warren. He abandons his warren to his collection and goes to stay with friends, but he doesn’t want to be entirely without his carrots, and each time he moves into a new friend’s place, he brings just enough carrots to destroy his friend’s home and leave both of them without a place to stay. His friends are extraordinarily patient, continuing to take in Rabbit, his carrots, and the friends that he has made homeless with his hoarding and stubbornness. His friends as they move like refugees to each new home recognize Rabbit’s problem and politely suggest that he not bring that last carrot into their new refuge, but they don’t outright confront him. It is only when Rabbit has run out of friends and his friends have run out of homes that he recognizes the trouble that he has caused and seeks to fix it. He invites his friends back to his home: the last home that has not been destroyed and they eat their way through the carrots to make enough space for them all. Rabbit realizes that carrots are meant to be shared rather than hoarded. While there are some important lessons here about sharing and about hoarding and about selfishness, the story itself is problematic. These poor creatures have their houses destroyed—and some of them are injured—for being open and generous; they’re understanding is never addressed as a problem. This rabbit never really apologizes for what he has done. Sharing his home and his carrots become more reward than penance so where is the consequence to himself for his selfishness? The illustrations, it should be said, are adorable even as the poor turtle is bandaged and on crutches. Hudson mixes whimsy and realism and cartoonishness well and the colors are vibrant and inviting.

**1/2

9780525428374Hoot and Peep by Lita Judge. Dial-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The illustrations in this book are vibrant and beautiful. The story takes place in one of the older cities, Hoot and Peep’s home being in a Gothic cathedral, possibly in Paris or London. That I can make a guess should give you an idea of the detail that Judge lovingly puts into each drawing. The story is a cute story of sibling relationship and of acceptance of otherness and uniqueness, where the older owl Hoot believes that his sister Peep is singing wrong because she is singing differently than Hoot has been taught to do. Ultimately, Hoot realizes that he misses his sister’s unique voice and he goes to her to learn her ways. The book uses some very fun onomatopoeias. It’s definitely a book appropriate for a younger audience, but my audience was maybe six to nine and they really seemed to enjoy it as well.

*****

9780312517816Alphaprints: Tweet! Tweet! by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 0-3, Grades PreK.

This is a touch-and-feel animal and animal sounds primer. The illustrations combine blocks of bright color, colored fingerprints, and photographs: sheep made of cauliflowers heads and hedgehogs made of bright dalias. These were creative illustrations, and I appreciated that. There weren’t really that many opportunities for touch-and-feel elements (there weren’t many pages) and what were there were pretty humdrum.

*** 18225019

Uni the Unicorn by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Uni is an extraordinarily beautiful unicorn but she is nevertheless an outcast among unicorn society because she believes that little girls are real and that one day she will get to meet one, but she doesn’t let the other unicorns derision, even that of her parents, dissuade her from her belief. “Far, far away (but not too far)” there is a little girl who believes the same about unicorns and is equally ridiculed. The two never meet but they live in their separate realities each believing in the other. This is one of those books that I enjoyed subjectively as a girl who likes to believe in the existence of this sort of benign, escapist magic and who has been dismissed as dewy-eyed. Objectively, taking a step back, I see the faults here. I recognize that Barrager needed to choose just one little girl to be the character in Uni’s fantasies and the heroine of her own reality, but did she need to choose Barbie? She—almost impossibly long of lock, blonde, and blue eyed—has for too long been the ideal, the fantasy of little girls. We didn’t need another fairy tale lifting up this unrealistic ideal. I liked the writing—the technical skill of it—as I often do with Rosenthal, and I liked the story. Most of my complaint here is with Barrager.

***

18570357What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom. Compendium, 2014.

This is one of the better metaphors for an idea and description of the growth of an idea that I have seen. The young egg appears—poof—and follows the boy around. Though the others don’t understand, and they reject the idea, and the boy tries to leave it behind, it persists till the boy becomes fond of the idea and nurtures it privately. Then one day the egg hatches, and the idea is set free into the world where it is now not just part of the boy but part of everything.

At the beginning of the book, the idea is the only thing with a spot of color. As the boy accepts the idea and begins to nurture it, he gains color too. The last page is bright.

Having had experiences with ideas very like this, though mine have never been yet set out into the wide world, I appreciate this book on a very personal level. I feel as if this might actually be a better picture book for adults and graduates and aspiring artists than for children. I read this alongside Hoot and Peep, and I don’t think my audience enjoyed it as much as Hoot and Peep, but they were engaged. They were the ones who noticed the plethora of new ideas on the final pages. They guessed that the pages would grow more and more colorful.

*****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: The Creation of the Vatrin (292 words)

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Vofa looked down on the world that he had created, a world of green trees; gray rock; rich, dark earth; and red clay, where the gentle doe moved silently between branches, soft sheep grazed in fields, the wolf paused to sniff the air, and the dove flew bright as a sunray over all.

My world, Vofa thought, is wide. It will be good if I have some on this world who can carry my flame and aid those whose flame flickers and weakens in sickness.

Once more Vofa bent to the earth. From a mountain’s peak—this mountain’s peak—he scooped up a handful of stone. This stone he molded. He gave the creature nibble hands that he did not need to use to walk, leaving them always free to direct the fire as Vofa’s hands did. He gave him a sharp mind and a conscience bent towards compassion.

Into the other creatures, Vofa had sent a spark that burnt within the creatures as if on a wick, tethered to the creature and finite. In this, he thought, I will need more. He will need fire that he can siphon off to use to help others. His fire must be more than what is needed to sustain him alone.

He hollowed out the stone as he had with the others. This time he did not touch his finger to the wick and set alight the creature, but poured forth his fire into him, letting it fill up the empty spaces between the organs as water seeps between rocks in a jar. He left it to flow freely inside the creature like the creature’s blood. That firelight flickered in his newly opening eyes and exhaled on his breath.

The creature smiled at Vofa.

This has been a legal theft challenge issued by myself.  Legal theft has gone through a mutation.  The nature of challenge is no longer confined to a first line.  Last week’s (which one day I hope to catch up on and do) was to use two dogs.  This week I challenged my friends to write me a creation story (because I’d earlier threatened to do so, and I knew I had several in my back pocket that just had not been written).

My friends were good enough to accept that challenge.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Honey Wine and Sweet Iron” (442 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Khaalida, The Necromancer.”

C.C. at Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Reaper.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “It Started With A Wish.”

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Legends” (206 words).

Book Review: The Thing About Jellyfish: Unique Voices, Creative Structuring

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e5b0ba3de84b3a8ad46bca1e4fe49f9dThis is a review of an ARC of Ali Benjamin’s middle grade novel, The Thing About Jellyfish.

I read it right after Looking For Alaska and promptly named January the month of books about kids who die too young. I became excited about this book only a few pages in. Benjamin’s writing is beautiful—and if you’ve been with me for any amount of time, you’ll know that I love poetic writing with clever descriptions and new ways of using old words. One of the things that excited me most was the relationship between the narrator’s older brother and his boyfriend. Yes, boyfriend. And no one was uncomfortable with the relationship, no one was upset by it, it was a non-issue—just a beautiful, loving partnership between two consenting adults. I thought at first that I was even reading a book with an African American narrator where her race was a nonissue and that made me doubly if not triply excited; I later determined from little things like sunburns that I was not and tried to contain my disappoint and enjoy Suzy as a white, middle-class American.

The jellyfish is both metaphorical and a real feature of the plot and of the text. Benjamin has done some serious research for this novel, and the text is seeded with many facts and thoughts about jellyfish–fascinating and sometimes horrifying. For the narrator Suzy, jellyfish become a constant worry, a constant threat, even though she does not seem to live at the seashore. Twenty-three people are stung by jellyfish every five seconds, Suzy finds out, and she spends several pages counting the number of stings, the number quickly growing.

Told in both the present and in italicized flashback, the almost yearlong story investigates the friendship between Suzy and Franny as Suzy processes the reality of Franny’s death, investigates the possibility that jellyfish were the external cause of Franny’s premature death, grieves her friend, and moves forward in her life. As Suzy moves nearer a resolution, the flashbacks move nearer a shattering, so the text seems like Suzy constantly unsettled. The interspersion of the past and present, though at times it is difficult to determine how far back Benjamin has taken us and where in the timeline a particular scene fits, works well to build a completed picture of Suzy’s and Franny’s relationship and does not feel like heavy-handed exposition. The book is divided into sections headed as a scientific report, echoing Suzy’s assignment, echoing Suzy’s private investigation, and offering a framework and lens through which to examine the various sections of the book. This in particular I think helped the story to maintain structure even with the fractured and disjointed timeline caused by interspersed flashbacks.

Suzy is presented as a seventh grader, but reads as younger. She fixates on science and on facts to the exclusion of the other interests and the interests in one another that her peers are developing. She has difficulty understanding or accepting the change that occurs in her friend Franny as Franny grows and grows apart from Suzy. She seems to have difficulty predicting others’ reactions to her actions—particularly in one instance involving Franny, which I won’t spoil. For these reasons as well as several instances of perseveration and Suzy’s impressive organization, I wonder if Suzy might be a child on the spectrum, though Benjamin never says so directly and it is never discussed.

I was impressed by the book more than I enjoyed it. It is difficult for me to enjoy an exploration of grief for a best friend and for a friendship fractured, but this book was uniquely structured and its facts were interesting. It explored marginalized voices without making an issue of the marginalization and fostered an environment of openness and acceptance and understanding. It explored death and grief and jellyfish and relationships and change. It did all of this in a succinct 339 pages.

If you enjoyed this story, I’m tempted to recommend, Betty Hicks’ The Worm Whisperer. Even though it’s been years since I read Hicks’, I feel like there are some palpable similarities between the two books in tone and in their surprising depth.

*****

Benjamin, Ali. The Thing About Jellyfish. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, or Ali Benjamin.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: February 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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9780374346904Love Monster and the Last Chocolate by Rachel Bright. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.  Intended audience: Ages 2-4, Grades PreK-K.

A sequel to Love Monster and less problematic I think than its predecessor, in this story Love Monster finds a box of chocolates on his doorstep upon returning home. He wants to eat the chocolate but realizes that he should share the chocolate. But if he shares the chocolate there may not be enough. His friends may take the piece of chocolate that he really wants. Ultimately, Love Monster decides to share and to confess his selfish thoughts to his friends—who laugh and explain that they left the chocolate; they ate all but one piece, which they wanted to save and share with him, and if he’d opened the box, he’d have seen the chocolate and the note saying that they had missed him.  Readers are reminded that honesty and generosity reward and that friendship and chocolate are better when shared.  The gut-wrenching guilt that Love Monster experiences over his selfish desires seems maybe a bit condemning but that guilt is not thrust on Love Monster; it is rather a byproduct of his own conscience, which for me makes the book less condemnable.

****

9780670013272Llama Llama Nighty-Night by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This simple board book takes Llama Llama through the routine of getting ready for bed with the same catchy rhymes and endearing illustrations that are used in the picture books for older children. The cardboard pages, shorter length, shorter sentences, and simpler ideas all show that Dewdney understands the younger audience as well as she can captivate kids just a little older. Llama Llama is one of my favorite modern series, so this book might get some extra brownie points for including one of my favorite characters. Dewdney is a powerful illustrator and good writer.

****

please-open-this-book-9781442450714_hrPlease, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe.  Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I feel like I’ve been reading—and loving—a lot of books that break down the barriers between the characters and the reader, the fictional world and the real. In this one, the characters are relieved that someone has finally opened their book because the last person to read it closed the book with them still inside, injuring several of them. The characters complain about their lot, all the while trying to convince the current reader never to close the book, even bribing the reader. I am of two minds about this book: I can see the argument that this book will leave kids wracked with guilt about closing another book ever again, which will lead to a mess of open books on tables and on the floor. On the other hand, I giggled at its silliness and read it at a story time, and it is one of the only books that I have ever sold because of a story time to someone who was at that story time. The mother who was there thought that her child—the older one who was not present, but I suspect was a young elementary age child—would love it, and bought it out of my hand when I’d finished reading. So, really, if parents are okay with this book, I don’t see why I should worry about it.

****

407429The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith. Scholastic, 1992. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades K-3.

This book is nearly as old as I am and has been in my possession for probably nigh twenty years now. It’s still funny. These extremely fractured fairy tales are narrated by Jack of “and the Beanstalk” fame and interrupted often by a very frustrated little red hen. Many of these stories lack the magic and the change that comes at the end of most fairy tales: The ugly duckling just becomes an ugly duck; the frog prince is just a frog lying about a curse; the stinky cheese man is chased by no one. The morals of the fairy tales are lost too. But it’s in the unexpectedness and refusal to adhere to the trope or tale type that these tales succeed. There is quite a bit of fourth wall breakage too: on the back cover, the hen complains, “Who is this ISBN guy?”; the giant wants to tell his story and does so in a hodgepodge of sentences cut and pasted from other tales; Jack accidentally tells the whole of “Little Red Running Shorts” in his introduction and Red and the wolf walk out on him, refusing to tell it again. The hen is my favorite character, but my favorite stories are “Chicken Licken” and “Jack’s Story.”  The mixed media illustrations often work in close tandem with the text, making this more picture book than picture storybook.

*****

24968109What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2015.

This is the first of Dr. Seuss’ posthumous books that I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it. It started out seeming a little too ordinary for what I expect from Seuss and a bit slow for that, the siblings debating between a puppy, a kitten, a goldfish, but it did devolve into the ridiculous and imaginative animals that are wonderfully Seussian (and yes, that is a word, in the Oxford Dictionary and all). The whole plot revolves around a brother and sister needing to choose just one pet, for which their father will pay. In the end, they decide on the perfect pet—but Seuss never tells us which pet that is—which I loved. This will never be a favorite Seuss book of mine—not with the mess of wonderful books of his out there, but this was lighthearted, nostalgic, silly fun.

****

576a1851142468e1c25a977f2dfa976fRaven’s Light: A Myth from the People of the Northwest Coast by Susan Hand Shetterly and illustrated by Robert Shetterly. Atheneum-Macmillan, 1991.

This is an old book of my roommate’s from which the dust jacket is missing and the binding on the pages has come undone, so I don’t actually know what the cover looks like. The cover that I found is someone’s Pinterest pin off of an image that has now been removed from Amazon, though it looks like the right style certainly, and I wanted to give you some idea of the illustrations. I am not familiar with this myth outside of the book. In this story, the raven flies over a dark, landless, unpopulated sea with a heavy sack and a pebble. The pebble when he drops it into the sea becomes land and from the sack he pulls out all of the creatures including people. A tear in the sky attracts his attention. Through that tear is the bright land of the sun. Raven turns himself into a leaf and is ingested by the beautiful daughter of a chieftain there. He is born again as her winged humanoid child. He grows up among the people there, protected by his mother. Eventually he steals the sun from the chieftain, his grandfather, and brings it to his own dark kingdom. A young girl accepts his gift and releases the moon and sun.

I am always interested to learn new myths so I enjoyed this story, and I enjoy knowing about these books to share with others who are interested. This story is different from most that I’ve heard too, most of which seem to involve humanoid gods/creators, usually either pitted against one another or in amorous relations with one another (sometimes both), who consciously or accidentally create land and create life but never because they are tired and overcome.  I’m familiar with the raven as a trickster in some American folklore and as a symbol of death and ruin in Anglo-Celtic folklore and mythology, but this I think is the first I’ve seen of a raven god/creator.

Susan Shetterly doesn’t explain so much as she reports. The text is colorful and descriptive with powerful words. Susan Shetterly relies on that and on the characters themselves more than she does on an authoritative narrator. Myths for adults can often be too bogged down by scholarly articles and footnotes. Myths for kids can be too pedagogic or too anxious about not undermining the storytellers’ own beliefs. This telling nicely avoids both types of heavy-handedness, and really comes together as a story.

****

9781627794046Hedgehugs by Steve Wilson and illustrated by Lucy Tapper. Henry, Holt-Macmillan, 2015. First published 2014.

This is a precious friendship story about two hedgehogs who just want to express their love for one another in the fashion of humans—with a hug. But hedgehogs are spiky, and hugs between them are uncomfortable. They try several types of seasonable armor to protect each other from their spikes (providing a teaching opportunity about the weather changes and seasons), but none is successful until they find a few socks fallen from the laundry, which when donned protect them from each other’s quills and look absolutely adorable besides. This book also claims an explanation for all those socks that seem to go missing in the wash.  Really, it’s just adorable.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: A Quest!

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I’m going on an adventure! (And there’s going to be magic, and royalty, and an epic quest, and a dark lord at the end.)

I’ve borrowed this book tag from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master.

Step 1: Choose eight non-fantasy books from your bookshelves. (I’m bending the rules already. I haven’t got a lot of non-fantasy novels in my collection. Though I could probably dig up eight, I may not remember their plots all that well; it’s probably a lot of classics. I’m choosing the last eight novels that I read, two of which do happen to be realistic fiction.) If you choose fantasy books, no one will come after you with pitchforks, but you’ll probably laugh less.

Step 2: Draw the names of those eight books out of a hat in random order then answer the following questions:

0-545-22224-9What word does the title of your first book begin with? If it’s “the,” your quest will be made with the sole aim of destroying a magical object which becomes addictive to anyone who holds it too long. If it’s anything other than “the,” you’ll simply be looking to find a magical object which is rumored to be able to save the world or maybe grant one wish to the discoverer.

Book 1: No Such Thing As Dragons by Philip Reeve.

Looks like I’ve stumbled into a fairy tale with a wish-fulfilling object.

While you’re holding your first book, open it to a random page. The first object you see on the page has just become magical. This is what you’ll be destroying or seeking out, depending on the previous question. Are you in trouble?

The first object I saw was a path. I kind of like the idea of the path. This magical path through the mountains will lead you to your heart’s desire maybe.

25851271Where is your second book set? This is where you must go either to destroy your magical object, or to find it.

Book 2: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin.

I’m searching for this magical path in eastern, small town USA, probably nearer the coast.

7736182Open your third book to a random page. The character whose name you see first ages up to around 700 years old and becomes the wizard who starts you on your quest. On a scale of Gandalf to Dumbledore, how grumpy is s/he?

Book 3: The Heroes of Olympus, Book One: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan.

The first character I see on this page is Drew. Really? All the awesome people who could show up, and it’s Drew? She is actually likely to be a fairly unpleasant 700-year-old wizard. She’s a fairly unpleasant teenager. Why does she send us on this quest for the wish-fulfilling path? Probably she doesn’t mean to. Probably she tried to find it herself, and never succeeded, and mentioned it in passing while grumbling over her unfulfilling 700 years.

21060Open your fourth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first is the soldier who has joined your party for mysterious reasons. S/he may possibly be rugged, taciturn, scarred, carry a named weapon, or any combination there of. What’s his/her secret?

Book 4: Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith.

Well, the first name on the page is Merinder’s, which is a family name, but at this point in the story refers to the tyrannical king, Galdran. There’s someone speaking, though I don’t remember whom, to the “I” that is Mel, but I’m probably stuck with Merinder, huh? If I had to guess, Galdran’s secret is that he is a terrible fighter, really, and on the run from a coup that toppled his rule and would have his head if it found him.

8755776Open your fifth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first is now royalty. Possibly an heir to the throne, possibly just a second or third child allowed to go on adventures with Mommy and Daddy’s money. Every quest needs one. How useful is s/he?

Book 5: The Mortal Instruments, Book 5: City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare.

The first name on the page is Hodge’s. Poor, dead Hodge’s. Jocelyn is speaking. If I took Merinder, I probably should take Hodge, but it’s been so long since Hodge was among the living that I don’t remember a whole lot about his character other than what roles he played in the plot. So I’m taking Jocelyn. And she’s an awesome princess. She’s probably running away from a marriage that she doesn’t want and has been adventuring since escaping. Whether or not there’s a child left with some wizard may be a question for a campfire confessional.

1513207Open your sixth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first joins the party and immediately starts a not-so-friendly rivalry with the royal member of your party. It is never relevant to the plot. Why don’t they like each other, and what nicknames do they give each other?

Book 6: The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book Two: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

Will Stanton doesn’t like Jocelyn Fairchild. Her wild red hair and wild laugh remind him of Maggie, and she carries too many secrets, which only add to his distrust of her. Jocelyn doesn’t like Will. Will claims to defend humanity but he seems too gentle and carries no weapons. Jocelyn thinks that Will is all talk. Jocelyn’s insults are probably more acerbic versions of “boy” and “child” (because I’m not very good at inventing biting insults).  Will is usually above name-calling. But he will snip at her. He calls her wild and irresponsible and reckless, and generally treats her like a child.

9780142402511Open your seventh book to a random page. The character whose name you see first has exactly two useful skills: cooking and extreme loyalty. Of course, this makes him/her the most important member of the party.

Book 7: Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Colonel is extremely loyal and a good cook. Ehn. Yeah. I can see that. But he’s secretly extremely intelligent and good at making plans. He’ll be a good one to have forgotten about in a fight.

26143217Open your eighth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first now has all the dark powers you can imagine. S/he is the ultimate Dark Lady/Lord. Are you in trouble?

Book 8: The World That Forgot How to Dance by Olivia Berrier.

Ellsie is our Dark Lady. She performs magic by dancing. A few quick steps and she encases us all in a ring of fire or a tangle of chain. Her dancing has gotten even better since the end of this book. And with Lester beside her, she’s revived some of the old, darker magic—all in the attempt to revive magic and bring magic and magic-practitioners out of hiding. Somewhere her ideals must have gotten a bit skewed. There’s some very interesting backstory I’m sure as to how she became a villain and why she wants to keep us all from reaching the magical, wish-fulfilling path. Maybe it’s magic only works once and she wants it to work for her? She’d be a fairly formidable foe, really, but I have some fairly powerful friends in this fight—Will and Jocelyn specifically. Galdran and the Colonel will be less help—though I think the Colonel can engineer a rescue plan pretty well. He just might get tripped up not quite knowing how to combat magic.

Book Reviews: January 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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Next Month’s Holidays:

February 2: Groundhog’s Day

9781619632899Groundhog’s Day Off by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.

***

9781580896009Groundhog’s Dilemma by Kristen Remenar and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Charlesbridge-Penguin, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.

***

Next Month’s Holidays:

February 14: Let Me Count the Ways

y648Where Is Love, Biscuit? by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2009. First published 2002. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.

***

9780448489322Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar adapted from Eric Carle’s works. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.

***

ILYM_jacket_Final:Layout 1I Love You More by Laura Duksta and illustrated by Karen Keesler. Sourcebooks, 2009. First published 2001.

This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.

*****

9781619639225I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Alison Brown. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces.  The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.

***

Making New Friends

9780399167737 Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.

****

9780805098259Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Cuarto. Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In October I was besotted with Mike Cuarto’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Cuarto’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids.  In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).

****

24819508Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.

****

You Can Be the Hero Too

the-night-gardener-9781481439787_lgThe Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (the Fan Brothers). Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.

****

9780803737891Skippyjon Jones: Snow What by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes.  This story also highlights the great power of imagination.

****

Clever Primers

y648-19780062110589Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2010.

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.

Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.

****            ****

good-night-ct-cover-535x535Good Night Connecticut by Christina Vrba and illustrated by Anne Rosen. Good Night Books, 2009.

This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Challenge: The Murder Plot

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I took this challenge from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master.

By the rules of this tag, I’ve just been murdered.

Seeing as I’m the one breaking the news to you, I can only assume that I’m a ghost.

Time to figure out what happened to me.

Step 1: Choose six red, black, or white books from your shelves. Just to set the mood.

I wasn’t able to choose six. I pulled all of the red and black books together and put them ALL in a hat/Tupperware container and let fate decide the books that I would use.

Oops. My cat snuck into the shot.

My cat refused to leave the shot, but she’s nicely color coordinated with these covers.

Step 2: Draw the names of those six books out of a hat in random order then answer the following questions:

Open your first book to a random page. Wherever this scene takes place is where you were murdered.

how-to-train-your-dragon-cover

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Apparently, I am murdered while climbing up the slippery, snowy Wild Dragon Cliff on the Isle of Berk, where the dragons hibernate for the winter in four caves up the cliff-side positioned so that they look roughly in the shape of a skull. Props to my murderer for choosing a place with character and the proper atmosphere—and also somewhere where my murder will look like an accident.

From your second book, choose an object that is important to the plot. There, you have the murder weapon.

13497A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4: A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin.

Well, there is no shortage of weapons in this book—though of all of the books in this series, this one has the least legendary weapons—no Jon and no Stannis in a POV role, so neither of their swords is here. Maybe Brienne’s Oathkeeper is the most important of the weapons in this book. Which, you know, is a nice sword. Valyrian steel.  And made from Ice, which had a good history of its own.

Open your third book to a random page. The character whose name you see first is the lead investigator on your murder. How is s/he doing?

BronteJane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Mr. Rochester is investigating my murder. It’s early in the book yet. He’s a crafty character. He’s good at keeping secrets. He’s got a fair bit of money that could be used to further the investigation. But he’s also moody and distracted by troubles of his own. All in all, I think he’s probably doing an all right job—at least as long as he can keep his mind away from his own attic.

Open your fourth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first is the prime suspect. Feel free to invent a motive based on the plot, or what you think you might have done to tick this particular character off.

4556058Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

Hades. Hades is the prime suspect. Typical. Everyone blame Hades. The Lord of the Underworld wants more dead people cluttering up his kingdom. He wants more work.

Open your fifth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first is also a suspect. There’s never just one.

15881Year 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling.

Professor McGonagall is a suspect. Really? Because… what? Because she’s a witch? Oh wait. Mr. Rochester is investigating. Maybe she reminds him of his crazy wife.

Open your sixth book to a random page. The character whose name you see first… well, take a good look at that one. It’s the real killer. Is s/he going to get away with it?

344623Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

Dignified Londaver killed me. Yes, he’ll get away with it. He’s a Dignified, rich. And he’s a dragon.

So this came back around full circle. I was murdered by a dragon on Wild Dragon Cliffs. And NO ONE saw this? Maybe this was end-of-story Mr. Rochester, blind and unable to see the great beast swooping on me, only able to hear his scream. I don’t know why Londaver needed Oathkeeper to kill me. I think he’s better armed without it. But maybe it’s only honorable to kill a Yarge with a weapon that a Yarge can match.