Book Review: Depth and Darkness Beneath the Fluff in Once Upon A Marigold

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157055Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris is a story of family, friendship, love, magic, and fate. For months now my roommate whenever I’ve said that I need something lighthearted and fluffy has thrust this book at me, and several times now I’ve ignored her. This time, it came to mind when I was looking for such a book, and I requested it from her.

Once Upon a Marigold plays with fairy tale and fantasy character tropes but maybe not with gender as much as I would like. As trope-bent fairy tales go, it is more original than many if still fairly predictable, and that I greatly appreciated.

The protagonist is a young boy found by a bachelor troll in the woods, who tricks that troll into keeping him rather than returning him to his overbearing family and rule-dominated childhood. Chris grows up into a clever, helpful, inventive teen, who begins to realize that there is much of the world that he has not seen and is especially interested in the royal family upon which he spies through his telescope. He is especially interested in the bookish, brunette princess who lives under the curse of being able to read the thoughts of anyone who touches her—so that most people avoid doing so.

He strikes up a burgeoning friendship with the princess via carrier pigeon, but this only increases his desire for interaction with other humans. He leaves his adoptive father for the castle in search of a human experience, where he encounters both the best and worst of humanity and uncovers a dastardly plot that he feels that he—as a good friend—must foil.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this is a story of improbable happy endings—that are still fairly predictable, because this is not the type of story that I ever worried would end unhappily—and I think that would have been true even if it hadn’t been touted to me as lighthearted and fluffy.

There’s enough intrigue and enough danger here to keep me interested, enough that is difficult—marriage arrangements and broken families—that I would avoid giving reading it to a very young child, but it might be a good book for those on the cusp of middle school, just beginning to explore what is more dangerous and what is more disturbing but unwilling yet to relinquish princesses and magic and happily ever afters. Whether or not such children exist, I’m not sure.

This is the first in a series, but neither my roommate nor I yet have the second. The story stands fairly well on its own, only the prologue leaving the spiderthreads of a new story loose and grabbing.

****

Ferris, Jean. Once Upon a Marigold. New York: Harcourt, 2004. First published 2002.

This review is not endorsed by Jean Ferris or Harcourt, Inc or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Binary (381 words)

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Dread is bubblegum and hot pink. It spews from big lips and big eyes and big breasts. It cinches like an impossibly narrow waist. It smells like fake tans and cosmetic. It’s heavy on shoulders I can’t bare because it will be a distraction to the boys in school, because men will use my bare shoulders as an excuse to touch and to catcall and to chase and to capture and to smother and to crush and to tear. These are facts I’ve understood if I haven’t been able to vocalize them since I was old enough to have these blonde haired models splay their legs to sit horseback bare-butted because tight dresses wouldn’t let them ride. Their legs don’t spread wide enough and they never came with pants; they were meant to stand tall and straight and pretty on feet bent unnaturally by high heels that I’ve lost in corners and under the bed. These dolls were never meant to act. They were never meant to do.

There’s the lesson. Stand straight, wear heels, wear lipstick and eye shadow and eyeliner and mascara. We’ll tell you that you can be anything, but you can do nothing, and you need to remember it.

To do anything is unnatural.

Know your limits.

Know your place.

Know your worth.

$9.99 the package says.

That price tag is like a ball and chain around legs that must sting from the bite of a razor because a manufacturer needs more money and they say that my natural hair is ugly, is unkempt, is unsanitary. It hobbles legs that shouldn’t touch one another at the thighs but do, that chafe beneath skirts that are mandatory for formal occasions.

There are no choices in this aisle. There are only limits and boundaries.

This, it says, is girl. This is feminine. The next aisle over—the aisle of blue and trucks and heroes and weapons and tool kits—is not for you. Those are what you cannot be. And here is what you are and what you cannot do.

Stand straight, wear heels, cover up your face, eat less, bend and break your bones, pinch your body till it fits in the plastic mold and you can stand with pride beside these dolls on the shelves, an example.

This week I challenged my friends to join me in the muddy, bloodied waters of gender conformity and nonconformity because it is a topic that’s been thrust into the limelight of late and it’s been on my mind. This was not really the piece I intended to write. I intended to explain how I think gender is a man-made problem and any adherence to a binary is foolish. Instead what you got was an imagined walk down a fictional but too realistic aisle in a toy store—you all know the one—and everything it makes me feel and says to me now. I didn’t want to write this piece because it’s been said before—again and again and again—but I’m still hearing that there are only two choices, defined by blue and pink, by male protagonist and female protagonist. I know things have improved and the aisle that I describe is largely that of my childhood in the 90s, but if people are still toting this binary defined by marketing, apparently, I still need to write and publish this piece.

Good night.

Trebez from Machete Diplomacy joined me in this challenge. Her piece, “Rib to Rib,” is way more subtle. Thanks, Trebez!

Book Reviews: April 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Celebs from Children’s Literature and Beyond

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The Classics 9780394800271

Snow by Roy McKie and P. D. Eastman. Random, 1962.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This was a very simple story and it employed a lot of repetition—almost a Dick and Jane amount of repetition. Dr. Seuss recruited P. D. Eastman to children’s literature and the rhythm of this book bears a strong resemblance to Seuss’ works.  At times the rhyme seemed forced—by which I mean, that in order to rhyme, the sentence was made awkward or bordered on senseless. Some of this manifested in what seemed at the time an odd refusal to name certain common snow games: Making snow angels became “making pictures with your backs.” Cross-country skiing or skiing in general (this is not a sport I know well. In the absence of a ski lift, I suppose one walks to the top of a hill in skis even if it’s not cross-country skiing?) becomes “we put on long, long feet”; the word “skis” is never used but there are several mentions of skis as “feet.” “Snow man” is used once, but mostly the snowman is referred to only as a man, once as a man of snow, and the exclusion of “snow” as a modifier seems odd. Overall, it’s a book about playing in the snow told with a very young child’s vocabulary. As a book about playing in the snow, it’s cute. And the Seussian rhythm keeps the book rolling, so long as you don’t stumble too much on the forced rhyme and refusal to introduce new words or phrases.

***

9780394823379The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1971.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

This is a meaty book. It was a bit too much for story time, especially when my audience are toddlers. With an older audience, I think I would have enjoyed this reread more. With an audience of toddlers, and the kids not mine, I felt like I was filling their brains with images of the horrors of big business and greed that maybe didn’t need to be blackening their childhood bubbles yet. The story has a very clear business-bad, nature-good message that lacks the subtlety of reality but leaves little room for too in young minds. Now there are gems in this book: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Messages like that I don’t mind imparting to young ones.

****

9780399173875The Little Engine That Could by Piper Watty and illustrated by Loren Long. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2015. Full story first published 1930.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Who knows how many years it had been since I’d read this story? Many. Many, many. Enough that I didn’t really remember even the bones of the story—just the mantra that gets repeated: “I think I can. I think I can,” later replaced with the proud, “I thought I could. I thought I could.” This was an abridged board book, and there was still much more to this story than I remembered there being.

First: female trains. Yes, more female protagonists in male-marketed books. Because it is much easier right now to get a girl to read a “boys’ book” than a boy to read a “girls’ book,” so if there aren’t females in the boys’ books, boys might never encounter female characters. And I don’t think the world is in any danger yet of being oversaturated with female protagonists. (Just last night I saw another kids’ movie that failed the Bechdel test by never having two named females on screen at the same time, but it had at least seven named male characters, five protagonists and two villains.)

These are not the illustrations that I—so probably your parents and grandparents—grew up with, but I like them. They are softer but at least as colorful and maybe even more expressive for their rounded realness compared to George and Doris Hauman’s. This clown is also less creepy, maybe because it has less makeup, more hair, and a more realistic face beneath the makeup. I don’t know. He seems less frightening to me. It’s fairly clear though that Long intentionally harkened back to the Haumans’ while making the work her own.

****

And the Big Names in Children’s Literature

26030671Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2016.

This is a fun twist on the classic “Are we there yet?” plot of a child complaining in a car ride to his parents with a good moral. Drifting off possibly and entering an alternate dreamscape where all the pages are upside down, the boy in this story goes hundreds, thousands of years backwards, encountering cowboys, pirates, and dinosaurs. His parents are appalled by all of these strange encounters, but the boy doesn’t notice the wonders they are passing in the car till he sees the T-rex. But when they can’t go back any further they somehow end up too far forward in time, and Grandma’s house is gone. How will they make it to the party? I’ve been told the QR codes in the illustrations of the future world are worth checking out, but I don’t have the app for that, so someone’s going to have to get back to me with reviews and insights on those. I think this might be the first time that an illustrator has incorporated QR codes. The story ends with an emphasis on the importance of family and celebrating family.

*****

26075973Let’s Play! by Hervé Tullet. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

A yellow dot with a lot of emotion and energy in its small frame narrates a traceable adventure through the pages of Tullet’s latest book. The yellow dot doesn’t confine itself to the pages either, at one point jumping onto the reader’s head, which was fun to play with. I expected this to be a bigger hit with my story time audience, but they weren’t really into it, even when I gave them each a book to play with. Granted, one at least was probably too young and two were ESL learners, so maybe some of the word play or instructions were lost in translation. I enjoyed playing with the book. I like the clever situations that the book character asks the readers to follow him into. I liked the potential to talk about bravery with the scary pages. But there were less educational elements to this than either Press Here or Mix It Up!

***

my-first-busy-book-9781481457910_hrMy First Busy Book inspired by Eric Carle’s works. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2015.

This clever primer has it all, each on its own page! There’re colors, numbers, shapes, first words, animal sounds, and a mirror. Each page asks a question of the readers. One page for example asks readers to trace the raised numbers, giving the book a touch-and-feel element too. Another page has flaps to lift. Because primer books are rarely meant to be read anyway, the idea of including a just a bit of everything seems smart of the publisher and cost-effective to parents too. This is a perfect go-to for the indecisive, thrifty, or low on funds. And besides that, it has elements of Carle’s famous illustrations, so it’s bright, inviting, familiar, and creative without sacrificing realism.

*****

The Celebrities from Outside

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Derek Jeter Presents: Night at the Stadium by Phil Bildner and illustrated by Tom Booth. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

As a Red Sox supporter, it was difficult to be enthusiastic while reading the first line of this story: “The Yankees win!” I actually thought this a fairly successful celebrity sponsored picture book—if the self-insertion of Derek Jeter seems—though it makes some sense within the text—a bit… forced. I wasn’t too fond of the repetitive “Talking [noun]?” “Of course we talk.” “We all talk,” though I recognize that repetition is often a hallmark of texts for young audiences—maybe not for the audiences of this book, with its nine-year-old protagonist. Talking food is always a bit of a sticking point for me too. Why have to eat, so do we want to imagine our food as characters? I’m more okay with it in a world free of humans—as with Peanut Butter and Cupcake. This team—Jeter and Blinder and Booth—gets points for an interracial protagonist. Some of the illustrations are pretty stunning, just wonderfully vibrant. The book for its emphasis on baseball, and the Yankees in particular, and its jargon of the sport, has a limited appeal, but there are surprisingly not all that many picture books about baseball—and many of those are bios or histories, so such a book may be a welcome gift to many young fans of the game.

***

y648Charlie the Ranch Dog by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Diane deGroat. HarperCollins, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Charlie is magnanimous towards his silent friend Suzie. Suzie doesn’t have droopy eyes or dangly ears like Charlie, but he doesn’t hold that against her. She’s better at running and jumping. Charlie’s never been very good at jumping. Charlie has a lot of work to do with Suzie. He’s a morning dog, but she isn’t—except she’s up. She’s out the door. Charlie sometimes likes to let Suzie do things to feel important, but he knows his mama couldn’t get along without him. While he’s talking to the reader about all the things that he needs to do, Suzie has done or is doing them. Charlie keeps drifting off to sleep and waking with a “Huh? What’d I miss? Oh I must have accidentally closed my eyes for a few seconds.” Suzie and the humans go off without him during one of these naps, but because of that, he is home to scare the cows out of his mama’s beloved garden.

Charlie’s unique voice was what made this book stand out, though I’m not sure I like that Charlie’s is the only voice in the story.

***

naughty-mabel-9781481430227_hrNaughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott and illustrated by Dan Krall. Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was kept from enjoying this book as much as I otherwise would have by the French-bashing and stereotyping, the worst being an oblique suggestion that the French don’t like to bathe. Who says things like that? Who thinks it’s okay to publish books that say that?

Mabel’s a pampered French bulldog who thinks she is and acts as if she is a spoilt human child to her rich human “parents.” Mabel doesn’t believe her parents’ description of her as naughty is fair. She believes she is and revels in being VERY naughty. Most of the story is backstory, really, for the main event, when Mabel is forced into a bath that she—with her cat friends—decides is a sure sign that her parents intend to throw a party. But Mabel’s not invited to the party. So she dons a pink tutu and pearls and claims that she will try to blend into the crowd—but the allure of a pile of pigs-in-blankets proves too alluring, and she becomes again a dog with a mouthful of stolen food, spoiling the party by running across the table and startling guests into spilling their drinks on their fancy clothes. Mabel stands out still more when those pigs-in-blankets come back in a big, noxious cloud of fart—and she clears out the party. She expects though that her parents are secretly glad that she ruined their party because it means more time for just the three of them.

That’s a dubious message for children. Misbehave and your parents will still love you? Sure. Absolutely. Please. But misbehave and your parents will be secretly glad? Mmm….

There are some funny moments in this—the fart is not one of them to me. The book had some potential. I like Mabel’s unique, posh voice, directly addressing the readers as “darlings.”

But Mabel knows nothing of being French.

**

9780736429702Rapunzel’s Wedding Day by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I never saw the Disney short about Rapunzel’s wedding, Tangled Ever After, but I expect that this story replicates that one almost exactly. The illustrations seem to me like screen captures. It was a cute story focusing on the animal “sidekicks” from Tangled trying not to ruin Rapunzel’s wedding when they accidentally drop the rings. Generally I’m not sure about the emphasis placed on weddings, particularly in media aimed at children. Weddings—heck—marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life, as many Disney movies seem to suggest. That being said, this is more about hijinks that ensue in two friends’ efforts to rectify their mistakes without their mistake going noticed. And Tangled already promised us a marriage.

***

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.

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.

***

26619447

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.