Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.
When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.
I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.
My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.
For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.
By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.
At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.
The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.
This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.
I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.
I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.
Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.
This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2001. First published 1947. Intended audience: Ages 0-4.
I can’t possibly review this book properly. I am biased. This is a classic, and Margaret Wise Brown is my alma mater’s perhaps most prestigious alumna. Who didn’t grow up on Goodnight Moon? It’s only really within the last decade (good Lord, that’s painful to write) that I’ve gone back and really paid much attention to the book. After graduating out of picture books, I didn’t return to Goodnight Moon until I began college, and I really did a deeper study of it when I wrote a parody as part of Hollins’ Margaret Wise Brown Festival of 2012. The text is deceptively simple. A small bunny says goodnight to everything in his room and everything he can see. And some that he can’t see. “Goodnight air” he says and “Goodnight nobody.” As an adult, there’s less innocence to this book. When you really question those lines, it’s a touch frightening.
Good Day, Good Night by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Loren Long. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
With a bunny and a bedroom that emulates but doesn’t entirely mimic Hurd’s illustrations from Goodnight Moon, this little bunny first greets the sun’s first light then his town and his friends. He then spends the second half of the book saying goodnight to them all. Some of the text of the second half echoed Goodnight Moon too. The two halves are split by a single line imploring the reader to seize the day (which Long illustrates with a game of soccer). Loren Long’s illustrations are maybe a little more muted but her color palette much broader than Hurd’s. The illustrations are detailed, complete, rather beautiful.
The Poky Little Puppy’s Wonderful Winter Day by Jean Chandler and illustrated by Sue Dicicco. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.
The poky puppy lags behind all of his brothers and sisters as they wake up, eat up, go out to play, and come back home. The poky puppy lingers to play with children. This is a decent book about playing outside on a snowy day. I didn’t know about this sequel to The Poky Little Puppy and nor did the parents at my story time.
The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. First published 1984.
This book reminded me of “The Rattlin’ Bog” and all of the camp songs like it. There’s a flea on the mouse and the mouse on the cat and the cat on a dog and the dog on the child and the child on the granny and the granny in the bed and the bed in the napping house where everyone is sleeping. There’s more to the rhythm than that, adjectives attached to each character: a cozy bed, a snoring granny, a dreaming child. The flea wakes the cat and one by one each character wakes the other until everyone is awake, the sun is up, and now it is a napping house where no one is sleeping. The illustrations are detailed both in the drapery and then in the subtle color change as the sun comes up and more and more characters awaken.
Little Penguin and the Lollipop by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Age 4-8.
The little penguin is back! And he has eaten Kenneth’s lollipop. Kenneth is pretty upset, and the little penguin wants to make it up to Kenneth, but nothing little penguin has tried has worked. This book like its predecessor calls for audience participation. The little penguin addresses his audience, and he asks for the audience’s help in making the funniest faces possible while saying “razzle dazzle lollipop.” Even that doesn’t work to cheer up Kenneth. In the end, the little penguin replaces Kenneth’s lollipop, but he’s still not good at looking before he takes, so while he may have learned how to make it up to a friend after you take something of his… he might still have some work and some more apologizing to do.
Bruce’s Big Move by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
Bruce is back too! And he is fed up with the mice that have infested his house. He does the only logical thing there is to do to remedy the situation. Since he doesn’t seem able to kick the mice out of the house, he decides that he and his geese are moving house. He finally finds a good, rodent-free home, but his geese don’t seem themselves. They’re sad and upset. Until the mice arrive. And Bruce realizes that the house is not a home without these often-annoying members of his odd family. This is perhaps the shortest book of Higgins’ books yet. After the brilliance of Be Quiet! this story honestly fell a little flat to me, but I’m glad it’s better for my average story time attendee.
Max and Bird by Ed Vere. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.
I have grown fond of Max the Brave, the little black kitten who knows that he is supposed to hunt mice, but doesn’t actually know what a mouse looks like. I’ve read it for a few different story times. Needing another quick story for a recent story time, I grabbed this, the most recent in the series. In this, Max knows that he’s supposed to chase and eat birds. This time he’s found a bird, and he wants to be friends with the bird. He tells his new friend the bird that first he will chase and then eat them, and Bird understandably complains that that is not what friends do. I was a bit put off by this discussion of violence in a picture book, though as Max says, it is a rule of nature that kittens chase birds. I knew though from the moment that I read it that it would end with the two as friends and neither being eaten. I’m glad I was not proved wrong in that supposition. The two make a deal: First Max will help the bird learn to fly then they’ll decide about the chasing and the eating. Since neither knows how to fly, they visit the library. They study for weeks. Nothing happens for days, but finally bird takes off. True to his word, Bird offers to be Max’s tasty snack now that Max has taught him to fly, but Max decides that he doesn’t want to eat his friend after all. This book betrays its British heritage with a few phrases that are odd for Americans, but completely comprehendible. Vere illustrates his books very simply, the characters comprising mostly of their shape and of overlarge eyes. He uses only a limited palette.
Real Life Celebrities
The Little Grumpy Cat Who Wouldn’t illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.
We all know Grumpy Cat? A happy butterfly, a cheerful ladybug, and a joyful bird want her to play, but Grumpy Cat doesn’t want to play with them. She ultimately tricks them into thinking that she will race them, and the other animals race off without her. “Good.” The book uses many of the lines from Grumpy Cat memes. The book did get some twitters of laughter from my audience.
A is for Awful: A Grumpy Cat ABC Book by Christy Webster and illustrated by Steph Laberis. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.
This was the better of the two Grumpy Cat Little Golden Books that we read. This one is an alphabet book. It seems a relatively normal alphabet primer—A is for ants, B is for butterfly—but Grumpy Cat grumpily comments on the text of the alphabet book, her comments utilizing that letter as much as possible within the sentence, clearly fully aware of the book’s intention to cover the whole of the alphabet and drag her through each illustration up till Z. This too utilizes many lines from the Grumpy Cat memes. This one got giggles too.
A Night Out with Mama by Quvenzhané Wallis and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Annie, 12 Years a Slave, Trolls) writes about her night at the Academy Awards. It’s honestly a delightful, relatable story. A young girl in new shoes, tap, tap, tapping down the hall, excited for the day and waking her whole family to be excited with her. Because it’s such a big day, someone comes to help her get ready, a limousine comes for her and Mama, and though she doesn’t win, she still enjoys the night out. Vanessa Brantley-Newton does a fabulous job with these illustrations and Wallis writes with a poetry and musicality beyond some adult writers.
Loving and Respecting Others and Yourself
The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and illustrated by Thomas Docherty. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 3+
This pair wowed me before with their book The Storybook Knight. Snatchabook was their first book together, but somehow I’d missed it. I think it was before I became one of the story time readers at any Barnes & Noble. This book tells in rhyming couplets of bookworm Eliza Brown’s real-life mystery. The books are all disappearing from Burrow Down, and Eliza lays out a trap to catch the thief. She catches a creature called a Snatchabook, who steals books because he has no one to read to him. Eliza convinces him to return all of the books, and gets all of the residents of Burrow Down to agree to let the Snatchabook join them from their bedtime stories whenever he likes. In this way, the residents of Burrow Down get their books back, and the Snatchabook gets someone to read to him. The illustrations use lots of colors for shading. Details make it fun to linger on the pages or revisit them.
Skin Again by bell hooks and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Jump at the Sun-Hyperion-Disney, 2004. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
I was reminded reading this of Paige Britt’s Why Am I Me? Where Britt makes the similarity between different characters the very humanity and reasoning they have in thinking the same questions about themselves, hooks merely says look for the similarity inside. That I think was where hooks lost me. I got a call to action–great. But I missed the second step, the guidance from the wise mentor if you will, if I can put a life’s journey into the steps of a hero’s journey. And having only that call and no concrete direction left me wanting more. The text of this book and the idea of the book were abstract, and the language hooks uses didn’t help to solidify the idea. The idea is that we are not our skin but what is inside (and that’s the type of language that hooks uses, language that I think my usual toddler audience would not follow), that the skin is only a covering that cannot tell a story, for that you have to “come inside.” I like the idea. No, I love the idea. We need more books about common humanity. But I think I needed some more concrete language or more concrete illustrations maybe to help with the abstract language. (I enjoyed too the illustrations of Britt’s book done by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls better than Raschka’s.) There’s a poetry to the text, sure (in fact I thought at first that maybe this was an illustrated poem and I think maybe the text might have worked better alone as a poem than as an illustrated picture book with pages breaks and breaks in thought as one pauses to admire and dissect too the illustrations). Maybe I need to read it again aloud. Maybe the rhythm of the text means more aloud, and it becomes easier to see past the repetition and vagueness. Whatever stumbling blocks this book has, though, it is still important.
May I Please Have a Cookie? by Jennifer E. Morris. Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2005. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.
This leveled reader leapt into my hand one rough night when I passed by the free library. The title perfectly captured my mood. What I found inside was less a story about cookies and more of a story about manners. Alfie tries several ways to get a cookie, but his mother insists that he think of a better way to get one. Ultimately after crying and Mommy gently reminding him by asking politely for one of the paper cookies that he has made, Alfie figures out what she means, asks politely, and receives a cookie, and a snuggle. It’s a sweet story with expressive, brightly colored alligators (crocodiles?). (But admittedly it was not the story that I needed when I first read it.) It would be a fun book for teaching manners with plenty of humor in the outlandish schemes Alfie hatches to try to get a cookie.
Sarabella’s Thinking Cap by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.
Though from the creator of Skippyjon Jones, this is a very different book: softer illustrations, a more inspiring than hilarious message. Sarabella is always thinking about the most extraordinary things (seriously, the illustrations are amazingly detailed and beautiful with text to match), but she doesn’t speak much. Her daydreaming gets her into trouble at school and at home. Her teacher assigns them to a project that allows Sarabella to express her thoughts and daydreams. She wows the class with her thinking hat and makes a friend. My toddlers had a hard time concentrating on this story. It was long and there wasn’t a lot of humor to engage them, but the adults in the audience (myself included) were enthralled. My kids’ attention wandered away before the last few pages, but I read quickly because the parents and I wanted to know how it ended, to see the last few pages of Schachner’s beautiful artwork.
Zombies, Frights, and Pumpkins
Peanut Butter & Aliens: A Zombie Culinary Tale by Joe McGee and illustrated by Charles Santoso. Harry N. Abrams, 2017.
In this sequel to Peanut Butter & Brains, the town of Quirkville, where zombies and humans have come together over a love of peanut butter and jelly, is invaded by aliens. The aliens speak another language. No one understands. Each establishment tries to offer them a different food, and each person who does so gets covered in cosmic grape jelly. Just as the aliens are getting ready to storm town hall, Reginald the Zombie and Abigail Zink, the smartest girl in town, realize that of course, aliens that squirt jelly must be after peanut butter. They assuage the aliens with a jar of peanut butter, and the aliens settle down to start a peanut butter and cosmic grape jelly sandwich restaurant. While the message about bonding over similarities despite obvious differences and even different languages is a good one, I wanted something more from this story. Maybe more to the story than episodes of different foods being refused by the aliens.
Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
Jasper Rabbit is not a little bunny anymore. His mother may be perturbed by the ghoulish, greenish glow and toothy grin of the creepy underwear, but he’s not; he thinks they’re cool. So she agrees that they can buy one pair. And of course Jasper wears them first thing. But the ghoulish, greenish glow keeps him up at night. He tries to bury them in the hamper. He tries to bury them in the garbage. He tries to bury them deep underground. They keep showing up whatever he does. Even cutting them into confetti doesn’t stop the underwear from returning, whole. He finally succeeds in keeping them gone. But the darkness is too overwhelming, so he relents, retrieves the underwear, and buys more pairs. His creepy underwear becomes a friend, keeping the dark at bay. This book makes good use of page breaks and good use of the different text layouts. The book has a message that even big rabbits can be scared of the dark and that first impressions aren’t always right. The ghoulish, greenish glow becomes a gentle, greenish glow when Jasper’s impression of the underwear changes. I was surprised I enjoyed this one so much, and surprised that reading to kids about underwear with underwear on every page didn’t this time for this book feel awkward.
The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano and illustrated by Susan Banta. Barnes & Noble, 2009. First published 2001. Intended audience: PreK-2.
The other pumpkins make fun of square Spookley, and Spookley wishes he was round too so he could roll with the other pumpkins in the patch. But one night in a storm, his squareness, what makes him different, saves nearly everyone in the patch. He volunteers to help the others because he knows that he can because of his difference. After that night, the pumpkins and the farmer recognize Spookley’s specialness. The next year, the farmer plants mostly Spookley’s seed, and the pumpkins that sprout are all different: different colors, some polka dotted, some square, some triangular, some flat. Visitors come to the farm for these unique pumpkins. This book too is told in rhyming couplets. The message is a little heavy handed, but because it’s such an important one, I’m not upset by it. I actually rather like the call at the end to tell friends Spookley’s message in the hopes that the world will become a little kinder.
Trains Don’t Sleep by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Deirdre Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
This was the surprise winner of our story time, my favorite for that week (which included The Napping House and the two Margaret Wise Brown books reviewed here) and the favorite of one the little girls who is one of my regulars. The story is rhythmic, musical, rhyming. The illustrations are beautiful, reminiscent of an older style of travel poster, soft and pastel but with contrast and creative angles. The book mentions different types of trains and train cars without overtly drawing attention to its educational bent. In the back it has more information on each of the cars mentioned, a smaller copy of the page on which each appears with a paragraph beneath. The story ends with a goodnight for readers, for travelers on the rails, though one last page emphasizes that trains don’t sleep. Seriously, I don’t love trains, but I’d like prints of these illustrations (coincidentally, they are available on Etsy).
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.
I’m catching up to myself, but I am still writing these reviews two months after having read the books, so some of these have less detail than I wish that they did. My apologies to the authors and illustrators and readers where they are necessary.
Class is in Session
Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003. First published 1977.
Because sometimes fate likes a laugh, my only story time participant this day was a homeschooled girl who’d never had to fear substitute teachers—who’d never had a substitute. The muted colors, simple palette, and the subject matter that is not as universally relatable as I—a Northern-born girl—might’ve thought didn’t endear her to the story. Nevertheless, I remembered this story from my childhood. Her parents remembered this story from their childhoods. That level of memorability should count for something. Sweet Miss Nelson has an interesting way of dealing with the rowdy and disrespectful behavior of her class. Miss Nelson disappears and is replaced by Miss Viola Swamp, who works the kids hard during lessons, assigns lots of homework, and cancels story hour. All the children are grateful and more respectful of Miss Nelson when she finally returns.
Goodnight Lab: A Scientific Parody by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.
This is a parody of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon about a young, black, female scientist closing up her lab for the night. The illustrations mirror Goodnight Moon’s palette both on its color and its grayscale pages. I don’t think that this is a child’s book. This to me seems a niche book. This would be great for graduate and PhD students in scientific fields who will laugh at the “grumpy old professor (he’s white and male of course) shouting ‘publish.’” That joke and some of the lesser-known scientific instruments (I had to look up the use of one and have since forgotten its name since to me it was not more than a nonsense word) likely won’t stick with the average picture book’s audience.
Do Not Take Your Dragon to Dinner by Julie Gassman and illustrated by Andy Elkerton. Picture Window-Capstone, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.
Strictly rhyming text goes over the ways that dragons can exhibit particularly poor table manners and what they should do to behave appropriately at dinner. The diversity in this series of brightly colored books is amazing, but I do wish there were more story to these.
How to Get Your Teacher Ready by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
This comes from the same team that brought us How to Babysit a Grandma and a Grandpa, How to Raise a Mom, How to Surprise a Dad, and How to Catch a Santa. The strange thing about this book to me is that the students seem to know more about the school and the classroom and the classes than the students do. Is this for classes that get a new teacher mid-school year? Is this for a whole class of student redoing the year? Are there schools where the class a) stays together and b) doesn’t change rooms but rather has a new teacher come to that classroom every year? It seems strange. That being said, in this book there’s a lot of great advice for classes and classroom management and school events. For that, it would be good for nervous kids on the first day of school. I like the diversity of this class.
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Winner of the 2017 Margaret Wise Brown Award in Children’s Literature, I read this one several times this month because I absolutely loved it. A new building doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what a school is. It develops a relationship with the janitor, an African American man. The building thinks maybe it is the janitor’s home. The school is nervous about school, nervous about being filled with children. The kids get everywhere. A few kids complain about school, one doesn’t want to come in at all. The school’s self-esteem sinks. In retaliation the school squirts one of them with a water fountain. The school feels badly about that. It accidentally sets off the fire alarms and feels worse about that. The school laughs with the kids at lunch, learns about shapes, and celebrates a girl’s portrait of him. It tells the janitor all about his day when he returns in the afternoon, and it asks the janitor to arrange for the kids to come back the next day. There’s clever word play in the text. There’s a clever way of rethinking about the world. The school is filled with a diverse cast (and a great number of Aidens), and the school itself is named after Frederick Douglass. An American flag flies outside the building, bright on the final page.
Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex. Chronicle, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Nothing rhymes with orange, and Orange is feeling left out as every other fruit gets a sometimes outlandish line in this text. The illustrations look like motivational posters, mostly large text extolling the virtues of fruit, and then smaller fruits with drawn on, cartoonish expressions. Orange wanders into the book on page three or so and comments first that she’s here, she’s available, then more and more on the text itself and how outlandish its rhymes and messages are becoming. Why Nietzche is here I can’t explain either, Orange. The apple finally notices Orange’s despondence and comes to meet her with a rhyme, making up a word to fit her perfectly and rhyme perfectly with her name. Why the story turns into a still from a music video at the end I’m not sure either. In short, this was a strange book with a decent lesson about including everyone, even if you have to bend the rules to do so. But it is a very strange book. Some of the strangeness is endearing, and some of it is off-putting. I was on board with werewolf pears being saved be grapes in capes but Nietzche was just a strange choice even if it does rhyme with lychee and peachy. I had to look up pronunciations of some of the lesser-known fruits and ask a manager who to pronounce Zarathustra. The video I just finished watching mispronounced several words too. Pronunciation matters in this book because the whole point is rhyme. Beware aloud readers. On the other hand, because rhyme is so important here, this could be a good book on which to practice sounding out new words.
Life by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. Beach Lane-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Grades PreK+.
I was excited to see a work by this pair, and the saturated blue of the cover definitely caught my eye. Life begins small, but it grows. Life is always changing, so even if it seems that everything is black, trust what every animal knows: that life is changing, that the blackness ends. The saturated illustrations, the stark contrasts on some pages, the animal portraits are all beautiful. I’m not sure that the toddlers in my audience quite understood the message that the story was trying to convey. This is one of those stories like Oh, the Places You’ll Go! that speaks perhaps more to adults and older children than to young ones, though thankfully this text does not take long to read (Oh, the Places You’ll Go! went on far too long for my audience), so the message itself is better packaged for young ears and shorter attention spans. The text may in fact be too short; it doesn’t give me as much time on each page as I’d maybe like to take. There is an implication that the book believes in evolution right at the very beginning, but it’s not explicit.
Trying New Things
Black Belt Bunny by Jacky Davis and illustrated by Jay Fleck. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
The text addresses the silent protagonist, Black Belt Bunny. Black Belt doesn’t want to learn how to make salad. He tries a lot to get out of it: hailing a cab, wearing a disguise…. He doesn’t want to learn new things. Finally Black Belt Bunny uses his karate skills to chop and shred and slice all kinds of vegetables. The bunny invites the reader to try his salad, but the lesson gets turned around on the reader. There’s arugula in the salad, and the reader doesn’t like arugula, but no, she’s never actually tried it. She does, and the salad is amazing. This is a clever way to present a lesson about trying new things and trying new foods, made exciting by front kicks, side kicks, karate chops, and punches.
Peterrific by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
With Pinkalicious’ help, Peter builds a tower all the way to space. He wants to do it all by himself, but he allows Pinkalicious to visit all the neighborhood houses to borrow blocks. He will get a star for Mommy and one for Pinkalicious too because she asked. One problem. He’s not planned any way to get down from his tower. Innovation strikes in the nick of time, and he rescues himself by turning his blanket into a parachute. His parents are impressed by his tower and encourage him to keep engineering better designs.
Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
Quackers is a duck, but he doesn’t like many of the same things that the other ducks do. He meets other ducks who tell him that they are cats, and Quackers finds that he has a lot in common with these cats. He enjoys his time with the cats but misses the duck pond, the duck food, and his duck friends. So he finds a way to be both a cat and a duck, to sometimes do cat things and sometimes do duck things. This to me seemed a lesser Not Quite Narwhal, not as adorably illustrated, not as funny, not as overtly a social commentary because Quackers avoids language that society has coded for coming out conversations. That last may endear some to Quackers more than Not Quite Narwhal. Being less coded does leave Quackers more open to broader interpretations: adoption maybe? I was glad to find one book like this. I’m more excited to find two. I like having options.
A New Friend for Sparkle by Amy Young. Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.
I loved A Unicorn Named Sparkle, and was excited to see a sequel. In this, Lucy makes a new friend, and Sparkle feels rejected. The situation reverses when Sparkle and Cole bond. Sparkle and Cole find a way to include Lucy in their play, teaching her a new skill. This seems a good title to have in a family of two or more children, when play with new friends will often leave out siblings. I was not as enamored of this story as I was of the first, maybe because there was less humor, maybe because the lesson in the first seems less forced.
Seeing Things in a New Way
Elephant and Piggie Like Reading: The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper and Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.
Mo Willems has started a new imprint. This book is introduced by Gerald and Piggie. Piggie is reading the book and Gerald comes up to ask what she is reading. Yellow Bird has a button. He claims it does nothing. But it surprises Blue Bird, and it makes Red Bird sad when it does not surprise him, so in both cases it doesn’t do nothing; it does something. Yellow Bird gets more and more upset with his friends’ optimism. Yellow Bird reminds me of Pigeon and Red Bird and Blue Bird have Piggie’s optimism. The whole of the story is told in short, often one-word sentences in speech bubbles in much the same way as Elephant and Piggie stories are. Gerald and Piggie close out the book too, so its almost as though the reader is reading a story about Gerald and Piggie reading a story, a story within a story.
This Beautiful Day by Richard Jackson and illustrated by Suzy Lee. Caitlyn Dlouhy-Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
This text is more musical and more poetic than most. The illustrations are beautiful, beginning almost grayscale, but adding a bit of blue, then more and more colors as the rain clears and the sun returns. This is the story of a family who doesn’t let a day of rain spoil their fun but dance inside and outside of the house. The neighborhood joins them as the sun clears, and it seems as if there may be some magically flying umbrellas involved. The text is less about what is happening in the illustrations, though, than about dancing and enjoying a gray day turned sunny and spent with friends and family.
Aqualicious by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Pinkalicious and Peter are at the beach. While there, Pinkalicious finds a small mermaid—a merminnie—inside of a shell. Peter and Pinkalicious keep delaying Aqua’s return home. They build her a sandcastle, invite her to lunch, invite her to miniature golf, and Aqua teaches Pinkalicious to surf after Pinkalicious accuses Aqua of cheating at mini golf and gets angry. Aqua is snatched away by a seagull and Peter and Pinkalicious must rescue her. Only after that do the kids even try to bring her home, but then they wrongly assume that the ocean is her home, and imperil her again.
The kids don’t listen to Aqua through the whole of the day. Finally as the day is finishing, the kids return with Aqua to their parents, and Daddy, finally awake, explains that Aqua lives in an aquarium on the beach.
I don’t like how little Aqua is listened to, how even when the kids finally ask her where she lives, it’s their dad who speaks over Aqua and answers for her. The kids’ behavior is almost pardonable for being really fairly realistic. The dad’s behavior is also realistic (men are always talking over women) but inexcusable because he should know better, and his behavior hurts because of its realism, because there was a teachable moment there that was missed. It would have been so easy for one parent or the other to express surprise that neither kid had asked Aqua where she lived, where she had come from. Aqua makes it at the end seem as though she was trying to keep herself away from the aquarium all day, saying that she snuck out to discover, that curiosity is good, that humans are fun, but all day she has been asking to go home, and no one has been heeding her request.
There’s a lot of plot crammed into this story. The story itself is good, with excitement and lots of beach activities to excite a child preparing for a visit. The illustrations are wonderfully detailed, from the music notes on Aqua’s shell to the sea critters in the shallow water where Peter drops her.
I just can’t get behind the the plot. I can’t support it.
Cloudette by Tom Lichtenheld. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-7.
This is a really sweet story of a smaller than average cloud who enjoys the advantages of being small, but who still wants to do the important things that clouds do. She can’t find a way to be useful until she gets blown far away by a storm. At first it’s strange in this new neighborhood, but then she begins to make friends. There she finally finds someone that she can help, impressing everyone. Occasionally there are dialogue asides. There are several creative page layouts. The illustrations are beautiful. The story is uplifting with a good message for little readers.
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.
I have to issue another apology to the authors whose books I read in July. July is when I broke my arm. July is when my head was fuzziest from pain and painkillers. I may not be able to provide the detailed reviews that these books deserve, but I am reviewing them all nonetheless, and I hope my reviews will pique others’ interest in these books.
Barnaby Never Forgets by Pierre Collet-Derby. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grades PreK-3.
Barnaby thinks he remembers the important things—and he does, though his follow-through needs a little work. While in his monologue Barnaby tells the reader all of the things that he remembers, the illustrations betray all the things that he forgets. He always feeds his grasshoppers, but he forgets to close the cage so there are now grasshoppers everywhere. He always remembers ice cream night, but he forgets to close the freezer door. Barnaby admits that he’s not perfect. He has overdue library books, and once he forgot to put the trash into the can, but overall, this bunny thinks that he’s responsible. The action of the book primarily takes place while Barnaby readies himself for school. When he arrives, no one is there. Why? (Highlight to reveal spoilers.)It’s Saturday! And Barnaby forgot his trousers. I really enjoyed the illustrations. I really enjoyed Barnaby as a character, his buoyant personality and his voice. Barnaby’s plight is relatable, though the ending is a little trite, even though it’s sure to get a laugh from the book’s intended audience.
Dog on a Frog? by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field. Scholastic, 2017.
This British trio originally named the book Oi, Dog! but here in the U.S., “Oi!” isn’t vernacular you expect children to know—not yet. Usually cats sit on mats, and frogs sit on logs, and dogs sit on frogs. That’s the rule. But Frog doesn’t like that rule at all, so he’s changing all the rules. His rhymes get more and more ridiculous. The humor of the book comes from that and the corresponding illustrations. The laughs come easily.
Up and Down by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2010. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.
Paired with Jeffers’ ever-delightful illustrations, in this book, the penguin wants to learn to fly. The boy tries to help, but nothing is working. As they are seeking expert advice, the penguin believes he has found his answer, and rushes off without his friend, without a word to him. The two become separated and worry about each other. As the penguin begins to worry about flying—and more importantly about landing—the two reunite, just in time for the boy to catch the penguin. This book is gentler than most. There’s no dialogue. I think that takes away some of the immediacy of friendship books like Mo Willems’. This one probably makes a better bedtime story for that though.
Cheer Up, Ben Franklin! by Misti Kenison. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017.
While certainly marketed for toddlers, this book could be appealing and helpful to readers of all ages. In one sentence each, Kenison highlights some of the major players in the American Revolution, the ones that kids will hear more about later in school textbooks. Much if not all of the context is removed, but context is not the point, and for those who want to delve deeper, there’s a paragraph for each character in the back as well as a timeline showing the characters’ parts in the American Revolution. Instead of making this a story about a war, this is a story about Ben looking for a playmate. He wants to fly his kite, but everyone is busy. Betsy Ross is sewing a flag. Alexander Hamilton is counting money. Paul Revere is riding his horse. In the final pages, everyone meets back up, John Hancock signs his name, and they all celebrate with fireworks. I’ve fallen in love with these simple, bright illustrations and these simple illustrations of important figures. I like that women and people of color are included too. Where’s Your Hat, Abe Lincoln? is the next in this series. Watch for a review of that here.
An Elephant and Piggie Book: Watch Me Throw the Ball! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I’m sure I’ve read this one before, but I somehow never reviewed it. Gerald believes that throwing a ball takes skill and practice. But Piggie believes that the key to throwing a ball is having fun. Who’s right? Told with a lot of repetition and no contractions, the books in this series make great early readers, and they have plenty of humor in the illustrations and story to make the short story a good and fun one.
An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Broke My Trunk! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I broke my arm. And this seemed like the perfect book to read when I did my first story time after coming back to work. Because I love Elephant and Piggie books, and I could relate to Gerald’s story. Gerald’s story gets crazier and sillier as each page goes on. This book sort of downplays the seriousness and the pain and the fear of breaking a bone. It makes it seem almost a silly thing. For some kids that might be helpful, but this may not be the book you need when trying to reassure a child who has broken a bone of her own.
(I’ve honestly gotten to the point where I can’t rate Elephant and Piggie books subjectively).
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.
Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.
While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.
I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.
Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.
In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.
Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.
After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.
I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.
I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.
Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.
I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.
Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.
This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
I have to issue an apology to several authors and illustrators that I read in June. Having broken my arm and having been knocked off my game for several months afterward, some of these books, particularly some of these toddler books I just don’t remember well enough to do much justice to the reviews and I’m afraid I’ll have to skip reviewing one in this batch, Eric Hill’s Spot Loves Bedtime. For any that I can reconstruct my impressions from even reading others’ reviews and available previews I will do that. It’s possible that all of these reviews may not be as detailed as they have been for some other months.
Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.
Reading reviews on Goodreads, there is one that I think really hits the nail on the head: With the wealth of board books tackling impossibly complicated concepts, like quantum physics and government, how is it that this is one of the first I’ve seen to openly tackle the misunderstood concept of feminism? Mostly this is a book about liking what you like and not being forced to present oneself in any particular way because of one’s gender. Feminist baby likes pink and blue. She’s messy and sometimes gross. She’s a person more than she is a gender. I hadn’t realized that this board book is born of a comic series by the artist, though I’d seen the comics before shared on social media sites. That helps a little, but I still wish there had been more of a call for intersectionality in this board book, though that may well be because I’m used to hearing that critique leveled at modern, white feminism; I maybe shouldn’t expect from a board book what modern feminist movements are themselves struggling to incorporate, though I want to push our definitions and the actions of feminism towards its ideal manifestation. The feminist label is going to turn some off; it already has done, but there again is that same misunderstanding of feminism, which is by definition a call for equality for all regardless of gender (or race, class, or any other categorization ideally). I’m thinking now about the board books that I’ve read. There are many that feature animals or anthropomorphized objects as protagonists. There are many that have no protagonist, that feature many children or babies of different genders and races. The few that I’m recalling with female protagonists are pinker and more princess-oriented than naught, books like Katz’ Princess Baby or Grandma Kisses. Both Caroline Jayne Church’s and Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Sister (the two books have the same title) feature a child with pink bows in her hair, and both children wear pink plaid; how weird is that? I like this book, and I really like that this book exists, but we can do better.
Hello, Lamb by Jane Cabrera. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.
This is an animal and animal sounds primer. It begins with the sun, but quickly moves into baby farm animals, their forms only their round faces, and their greeting paired with their sound. “Hello, piglet. Oink Oink.” It ends on the image of a baby. The round-faced illustrations are bright and eye-catching without being overwhelmingly bright.
A Letter to Daddy by Igloo Books-Bonnier-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.
I wanted to give a quick shout-out to this Barnes & Noble bargain book, because it’s difficult to find reference to it. This is a sweet story about a little bear who misses his dad when he has to go away, so he writes letters to his dad about all the things that he and his mother are doing while Daddy is away. The story is really sweet, and I like the illustration style.
Buzzy Bee: A Slide-and-Seek Book by Emma Parrish. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.
This book was a hit at story time. The bright illustrations are accompanied by sliding panels that extend up and sideways from the book and the backsides of the panels extend the illustrations on the following page. The book is a look and find where the bee is only on one of the last pages. The panels highlight characters in larger scenes, acting like a magnifying glass. The plot uses alliteration in describing those characters, making this a good book to work on sounds associated with letters.
Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.
I’m glad more books from the Rainbow Fish series are making their way to America. This is another book about a parent reassuring their little one of their eternal love, much like Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You because in this the Rainbow Fish does not doubt his mother’s love because of things that he will do, but doubts that she will be there for him when bad things happen. These are all very watery things: being carried away by the tide, being caught in the tentacles of a jellyfish, but all of these are translatable enough to the world above. The story is framed as a bedtime story, with Rainbow Fish being unable to sleep for his fears. The story features the same shining scales that I loved as a child, and this being a story of Rainbow Fish as a child, he still has all his shining scales so there’s a lot of shimmer on each page. Being a toddler book, this book is much shorter than its parent story, The Rainbow Fish.
Daddy Honk Honk! by Rosalinde Bonnet. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.
This was introduced to me as a good book for adoptive families. A male Arctic fox, Aput, becomes parent to a goose when the egg hatches. He brings the newborn around to other families in the Arctic but none of them have room for another, though they bestow gifts and wisdom on the traveling pair. Ultimately, Aput accepts his role as “Daddy” and the Arctic shows up to throw the new family a party in celebration. It is refreshing to see a book in an infrequently used environment with names appropriate to the area. There are some similarities to be made to Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce franchise, but this book has more in the way of useful parenting advice and focuses more on the love that the fox develops for its adopted goose than on humorous situations that arise from the adoption.
The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.
The repetition of “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Blub, Blub” gets to be a little much pretty quickly, though it’s fun to see how glum you can make the refrain sound—and oh my! does it stick in your head! The whole of the book is told in rhyming lines. Fish of the sea approach the Pout-Pout Fish and tell him that he should smile, but it takes one fish from another part coming to him and kissing his face to cheer him up and to turn him into a “kiss-kiss fish” too. The two end up kissing one another on the lips at the end, though every other kiss, including the one that first cheers him up first, seem more platonic. There is some danger in normalizing kissing as a greeting in our society. Though I hate that it is so, it seems remiss not to point out the potential danger, the ways this book and that concept could be used nefariously. All of the kissing is likely only meant create an excuse for a parent reading to kiss their child. Maybe because I read to children not my own, I see the danger in extending these lessons beyond family.
But I’m not sure that I can approve either of using the Pout-Pout Fish’s melancholy as a point of humor or a point of contention, a negative trait in the story, because the Pout-Pout Fish’s permanent frown and glum demeanor seem like symptoms of depression to me. The whole book seem examples of people reacting poorly to a character with depression–until the Kiss-Kiss Fish arrives. Her response to his depression while more understanding and compassionate, sets a precedent for believing that depression can be cured by a kiss, which is again dangerous in its inaccuracy.
Basically, I wish this book had far less kissing and far better reactions to a melancholic and likely depressed fish, that it didn’t use his depression as both the story’s problem and its humor.
The Pout-Pout Fish Far, Far from Home by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-6.
Now cheered up, the Pout-Pout Fish is going on his first vacation. There’s a new mantra in this one: “I’m a fish who loves to travel. I’m a fish who loves to roam. And I’m having an adventure on my trip away from home!” The Pout-Pout Fish encounters several bumps on his trip but is always helped by locals who know the area. Despite its hiccups because of the help that he receives, that part of the adventure is fun. But he arrives at his destination to find that he forgot the creature (part-nightlight, part-stuffy, maybe a pet? Don’t look into that too carefully, I guess) that he sleeps with, and it seems that the vacation is ruined, but he decides to hold it “in his heart” though they’re apart and ends up having a fantastic vacation. And his creature is at home, waiting for him, when he gets back. This book covers several problems that a child could encounter while traveling—though some of the problems are more likely to be problems for adults than for children (detours, specifically)—and that makes it relevant. It fills a niche—two niches with the problem too of a missing sleep-buddy, which can happen while traveling but also at home.
Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.
Mom’s upset because of the mess that her little boy leaves in the house, particularly food mess. She complains that they will get pests. But they don’t get ants or flies or mice. They get Vlad, a hulking, Viking-like man who demands an entire cupcake. Mom quickly puts him out, but then comes Torr, “seeking glory and cheese curls.” More and more barbarians invade the house. There is a page that shames men who wear make-up, which isn’t cool, Eaton. Otherwise, this is a funny story with funny illustrations and a good message about cleaning up after oneself. I wonder if this story was born of someone mentioning a pest invasion, and Eaton thinking about what else is known for invasion. Faced with having to move to escape the infestation (perhaps calling an exterminator was a little un-cool too, Eaton; the metaphor can only extend so far, and that might’ve been a step over the line; barbarians are human, and humans shouldn’t be exterminated), the little boy cleans the house, and the barbarians sulk away.
Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I was really excited when I saw the beautiful cover of this book, harkening to Indian art and featuring Neil Gaiman’s name, guaranteeing it more press and a wider audience. This text was previously released in 2004 as an audio of a short story as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. That the text was not originally intended for a picture book unfortunately shows; it’s longer than your average picture book and seems to have been written for an older audience, both from the syntax and the content, which is at times grim (Grimm). Its phrases do some of the work of conjuring the image which is less necessary in text intended for a picture book. The text is beautiful though with many excellent lines. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story in the end, with the young girl, who had nothing to say so never spoke, learning to speak and to love the speaking tiger that moves like a god, and going with him to the jungle to further her education. This is a beautiful story, the illustrations are beautiful, but it is a picture book for an older audience.
Curious George Cleans Up / Jorge el curioso limpia el reguero by Stephen Krensky and adapted from the world of H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Intended audience: Grade PreK-3.
This is another bilingual book from which I read only the English to my story time audience. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat get a new rug. George spills a glass of grape juice on the rug, and he tries to clean it up with paper towels, then many types of soap and a garden hose. He does manage to clean up the spill then most of the water too. This is mostly a silly story. You could laud George for acting responsibly and trying to clean up his mess, but there’s a lesson here too to be made about knowing when to go to grown-up for help; I know few grown-ups who would be glad to walk into a waterlogged house, even if it did take care of a juice stain on a new rug.
Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Jonah proclaims himself king of the playground. His tendency to make demands and keep an unfair portion for himself makes Lennox angry, and she declares herself queen and claims the swings. She makes demands too and is impatient for her turn on the swings. The two monarchs compete against one another for more and more land. Their friends abandon the two rulers because of their competition. Realizing that they’ve chased everyone away, they give away their power and share the playground with everyone. With a diverse cast of characters, this story provides a good lesson about sharing and about making demands on others’ time and on public places, though it seems that Augustine and Sir Humphrey Hamilton Hildebrand III don’t learn the lesson well.
Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
With little text, this is a visual stunner (as much of Kadir Nelson’s work is). The illustrations and text compare aspects of the American flag to moments in American history and places in the American imagination. The blue background and white stars become the night sky above the Statue of Liberty. The red and white stripes becomes maples in fall and lines of covered wagons heading West. Timely, needed, this book pays tribute to those who tried to make America great and the diversity and persistent striving towards equality that make America great now.
If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.
Magnolia’s back and this time she wants to hold a circus in the library, to the chagrin of the librarians. There’s a tongue and cheek reference to writing clear advertisements. A sign that says “You can do anything at the library!” doesn’t mean you can hold a circus there or cheer or clap or boo or hand out concessions; it means you can sit and read a book. This is a fun way to go over library rules.
You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
This book is set after the original Rainbow Fish; every fish but Red Fin, a newcomer, has one of the shiny scales that were originally Rainbow Fish’s. Rainbow Fish and his sparkling friends are playing hide-and-seek, but Rainbow Fish isn’t winning, and he decides to quit and sulk away. Red Fin comes to him, and with her help, Rainbow Fish realizes that his sore losing has spoiled the game for his friends. He apologizes and continues the game. This is an important lesson for young ones.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 2012. First published 1963. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Believe it or not, this was my first time reading this story, at least that I remember. I was surprised that it went over so well with my young audience (newly three years old). It’s a short story, perfect for shorter attention spans. This is a dream (nightmare?) story. Sent to bed with no supper after causing mischief in the house and telling his mother that he’d eat her up, Max is having fun as the king of the Wild Things until he misses his mother and her love, and he goes home to find his supper waiting for him in his room. There’s some beautiful language in the prose, and while there’s some internal rhyme, it doesn’t rely on that rhyme to keep the story moving.
Shorty & Clem by Michael Slack. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
Like Elephant and Piggie, this is a story of two friends who know one another very well. A package arrives for Clem while Clem is away, and Shorty has to know what’s inside of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t open Clem’s mail, Shorty shakes and jumps and beats on the box until it opens. He thinks Clem will be upset, but when Clem gets back, he explains that it was a gift for Shorty and that he knew that Shorty would be unable to resist opening it. Reviewers on Goodreads are calling Clem’s behavior manipulative–and maybe I can see that view–but I know that I too try to guess what’s in a friend’s package when I see one arrive at the door. Mostly I was pleased that Clem wasn’t upset with Shorty, that he accepted and expected his friend’s shortcoming.
This review is based off of an ARC of The Hate U Give.
I’ve officially lost count of the books that have made me cry but remain fairly sure that those books could still be counted without my needing any toes—possibly without my needing two hands. This book has earned itself a finger in the count. By page 66, there was a large tear stain on my pillow. I flew through this book in six days (admittedly, the last three days that I was reading it, I could do little but lie still, having a recently acquired broken arm).
This book is important. It’s important now. It’s going to be important later. The rise of cell phones with video capability has increased public awareness of police violence. Despite civilian videos and despite body cameras and dashboard cameras for police, police are rarely convicted of murder or even manslaughter, and most often those killed are African Americans. This disparity between known and seen violence and convictions has led to many protests in city streets across America. Several have been large enough to have captured media attention and live as bywords. Ferguson. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed and fleeing an altercation with Officer Wilson when he was fatally shot, protests took place, each over the course of several days, from August 2014 to August 2016. In September 2016, North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency as violence escalated between police and those protesting the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott near his parked car.
The events following the shooting of the fictional Khalil Harris follow a too familiar pattern, one I recognize from having witnessed—albeit via mass and social media coverage and never directly—the aftermath of shootings like Michael Brown’s and Keith Scott’s.
I hope one day that these events become history, that each new generation, each year, every few months won’t have another name to remember, and that this book can become a reminder of a time passed. This book will be important then.
For now, though, events like those in the book are too common. This book now serves not as a reminder of how black people were treated, but a reminder of how they are treated. It stands as a document, more easily accessible than strings of news reports, more tangible perhaps because it can be kept on display on a shelf. And it’s a deeply personal story, told from the perspective of a witness to police brutality, someone in the car at the time of a shooting, a witness to the suffering and resiliency and community of a poor, primarily black neighborhood, a member of that community. The book delves more personally into the feelings behind the protests, behind the frustrations and the anger, than any news article could do, and more personally into the everyday life of someone living within an affected community than most news articles bother to try to do.
Starr Carter is both insider and outside observer of this community. She lives in a neighborhood where rival gangs rage war but travels to a private prep school, where she is one of only a very few African American students. She sees and hears the concerns of the community where she lives, and she sees firsthand the reactions of her primarily white schoolmates. Because she is privy to both reactions, the novel can confront more issues than it could do if only one side was given space. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurtful, blasé reaction of white classmates who walk out of classes as protest—but as much to get out of class than out of rage. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurt of a community that feels like the system is designed against them and the hurt caused by the effects of that system.
Importantly too, this is a story about a movement, about a system, but it shows the humanity, the everyday experiences of its characters: boyfriends, fights, friendships, Twitter, Tumblr, watching TV together with family, playing video games. There are a wealth of–not a token (or several token)–characters who are people of color. There are strong, three-dimensional characters with individual and interwoven histories, strengths and flaws, doubts and convictions. That in its way is just as important as its content.
The novel is told in a very casual, modern voice. It was at first a little jarring to me. The story opens on a crowded party in Starr’s neighborhood. Some of the slang and syntax was unfamiliar to me, but within a few pages, I was inside of Starr’s head and inside of the action of the story, and once I was inside I no longer was bothered by the casual tone of the novel. I urge anyone who picks up this book to stick with the novel for at least two chapters before deciding to put it down, and preferably to give it three chapters (which brings the reader to a round 50 pages).
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.
This review is not endorsed by Angie Thomas, Balzer + Bray, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
V. E. (Victoria) Schwab is an author recommended to me by several friends in several groups, someone who has come across my radar independently as well with her intriguing blurbs, and someone whom Rick Riordan has reviewed well. Entering her worlds was nearly inevitable, but this was my first foray into her stories. In the Shades of Magic series, four parallel worlds meet in London, and Kell, one of the last Antari, can travel across the parallel worlds via blood magic. Magic in these worlds is an entity of itself, one Kell sees as a friend and partner and one that Holland, another of the last Antari and a citizen of hungry White London, sees as an entity to be subjugated.
Some spoilers. Proceed with caution.
Having unwittingly smuggled a dangerous artifact out of White London, Kell plunges out of an attack in Red London to Grey London, where he crashes into Lila, who does what she does best. I was annoyed that our two protagonists, Kell and Lila Bard, a wanted, masked thief from Grey London—our London—don’t meet until the 130th page. Each is enjoyable company individually, and I happily would have spent a full novel with either one, but I was sure (and correct) that the plot would pick up pace when the thief and the smuggler met.
There’s much to love in A Darker Shade of Magic: a unique and intriguing and well-explained magic and worlds, political strife, and several enjoyable characters—not only Kell, powerfully magical but caught between being an adopted prince and a slave to the royal family; but also Lila, who wants to be a pirate captain, who plays at being selfish but who hides a good heart that sometimes gets the better of her and gets her in trouble; Rhy, the trusting, charming, and flirtatious prince; and Holland, whose story is tragic but who is callous enough to almost erase the pity that I want to feel for him—really, in White London almost everyone is tragic and callous both.
What drags off of the five-star pedestal for me is the pacing. I’ve already said that I thought the plot was off to a slow start. While I enjoyed the world-building, and I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists individually, on the whole it reads as if Schwab was more interested in the world-building than the plot, that the plot was more of an afterthought. And when the plot came, it seemed hurried. I thought we might spend a book in each London, a trilogy transporting the artifact from Grey to Red to White to Black London. We did not. The whole of the plot that I thought was coming happened in this one book; the artifact was taken safely out of play and those who had sought to use it and sought to sew chaos with it were defeated. Because I didn’t have the buildup that I expected for it, the whole of the final battle and arguably the whole last third or so of the book where the protagonists were discovering why they had come into contact with this artifact at all seemed more anticlimactic than I expect it was meant to be; it seemed rushed and I wasn’t allowed to savor its twists and turns as I might have wanted to do.
For all that, the plot seems to have been wrapped up well. I see a few ghosts that might come back to haunt the protagonists, but I wouldn’t have given them much thought, save that I know that there are three books. I have very little idea what might be in store for the next two books, no real idea of what other big bads there might be to fight.
I am willing to give Schwab I think at least a second book. There’s enough to like, and enough I’d still like to learn about the worlds and their magic and their histories. And I want to see Lila become the pirate queen that she deserves to be—and I think that she will be.
Schwab, V. E. Shades of Magic, Book 1: A Darker Shade of Magic. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-MacMillan, 2015.
This review is not endorsed by V. E. Schwab, Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, or MacMillan. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.
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Reviews, fiction, and a grab bag of thoughts
Reviews, fiction, and a grab bag of thoughts
Reviews, fiction, and a grab bag of thoughts
Short fiction, poetry, and weird musings by BHS