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Book Reviews: July 2016 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: Finding Dory and Facing Problems

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I read just a ton of picture books this July—24 to be exact—21 of those new to me or not yet reviewed on this blog. I’m not going to subject you to a blog post that is 21 reviews long; I don’t want to read that in one sitting, and probably neither do you—and frankly, I just haven’t finished reviewing all 21, even though we are now into the second week of August. So, please, peruse part 1:

Dory

26245967Three Little Words by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Grace Lee. Disney, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What three word phrase is perhaps the most memorable of the whole of Finding Nemo? “Just keep swimming.” So of course, those are the three little words of the title. This book is a book of advice on how to approach life, including “just keep swimming,” “look both ways” at a crossroads, and “if you ever lose your way just call out to your friends.” “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do?” The illustrations in this are some of the best of book that I’ve seen come out in conjunction with the Finding Dory film. They are soft, gentle, seemingly watercolors (Kelly Knox reveals the pictures are actually made in Adobe Photoshop—wow!), and if I was unfamiliar with the films and the characters, I might suspect that this was an ordinary picture book—unaffiliated with any franchise. They look like they belong in a bedtime book. This is by far the book on the display of Finding Dory tie-ins to which I am most drawn. As a book of life advice, the text passes, but there’s really no story, so I’m going to mostly gloss over that—other than to say that I might try to get it back in as an alternate to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! next graduation season as I think its message is similar. This book went over far better at story time than did Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, being both shorter and less dark. Especially with the younger graduates (those moving up from preschool to elementary or elementary to middle school) I think it will find more resonance and love than does Seuss.

***

97807364351169780736435062Finding Dory Little Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Finding Dory Big Golden Book by the Walt Disney Company. Disney-Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

These two Golden Books are retellings of the plot of the film Finding Dory. The Little Golden Book as its name suggests is a shorter, smaller book, with less detail. Otherwise the two books are very similar. I was prepared to read the shorter of the books for story time, but the Big Golden Book actually held the attention too of my audience, which ranged in ages from I would guess five up. (Now, they were all there for a Dory-themed party, so they were, it must be said, prepared for the story—and in many cases, already knew the story.  I was interrupted by many comments about their favorite characters and the details that they remembered that were not covered in the book.)

***                             ***

Big World Problems

MarvelousCornelius_JKT_FnCrx-page-0Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 4-7.

Based on a story that he heard about a New Orleans street sweeper and on his later research into the man—which included correspondence with his mother—Phil Bildner attributes a folk hero quality to this recently departed man. Cornelius—the person and the character—wowed New Orleans citizens with his performances—tricks and dances accompanying his work as a garbage man. In the story, when Hurricane Katrina floods the city, it leaves behind piles of garbage as tall as church steeples, and Cornelius is at first overwhelmed but—to ironically borrow the British motto—he kept calm and carried on. He did his job, and others pitched in because he had brought them joy in the past and because they too loved their city. Even people from far away came to help Cornelius clean up New Orleans. Cornelius’ spirit lives on in New Orleans. I appreciate the glorification of this person: a working class African American man with a hoop earring and a job that is often seen as the lowest of low class. We need more books with heroes like this. Please. This month Phil Bildner was honored for this book with one of the first ever Margaret Wise Brown Prizes in Children’s Literature, a prize recognizing the best text in a children’s book published the previous year chosen from nominations by children’s book publishers.

****

worldthatjackThe World That Jack Built by Ruth Brown. Dutton-Penguin, 1991. First published 1990.

Conveying an activist message like that of Seuss’ The Lorax, this book follows a beautifully illustrated black cat and a blue butterfly who wander from the house that Jack built to the next valley over where a rainbow-colored stream cuts through a dead meadow and flows past the place where the trees used to grow by the factory that Jack built. Jack is the villain here, living in beauty while creating horror and environmental terror. The text reverses itself, building from the house out to the valley then from the valley to the factory. There is repetition, but enough to seem lyrical more than annoying; there’s a camp song quality to the style for me because it reminds me of the bird in the egg in the nest on the branch on the tree with the roots in the hole and the hole in the ground and the green grass that grows all around. This story does a lot in and with just a little—and the illustrations are just stunning. The message—conveyed almost completely through the illustrations—is more simplified even than it is in The Lorax though, and it’s not as simple an issue as this book would make it seem, I don’t think. From the story itself, the evidence seems clear: factories bad. But a well-managed factory can do a great deal of a good for a community—and even a poorly managed might do some good for the community even if its short-sighted policies cause more harm than good ultimately.

****

6402385The Enemy by Davide Cali and illustrated by Serge Bloch. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2009. First published 2007.

First of all, I did a little digging on Cali, and I have to insert just this tidbit: The Italian-born Swiss who now lives in France has written many books in many languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and English. Just… wow. He also writes under the names Taro Miyazawa and Daikon. With simple drawings with lots of white space, Cali and Bloch tell the story of two soldiers (we will call them the soldier and the enemy) in trench warfare. The soldier that is the POV character has never seen his enemy but believes that the enemy is inhuman and will butcher the soldier’s family and animals if the enemy is not killed. The soldier wants the war to end. He is tired and miserable and doesn’t like the rain, but he doesn’t believe that the war can end till the enemy is dead because the enemy is not a rational human, and he will not stop. One night the soldier sneaks into the enemy’s trench—which he finds abandoned (the enemy has slipped out disguised as a lion), but there are photographs of the enemy’s family and a manual that says that he—the POV soldier—is inhuman as he believes his enemy to be. The soldier believes that his enemy must have done as the soldier has done and that the enemy now occupies the soldier’s trench, so he stays in the enemy’s trench. At last he decides he must do something to end the war, and he writes a message to the enemy and lobs it in a bottle towards his trench. The story ends there. It does not show how the enemy—if the enemy actually is in the soldier’s trench—responds or how the soldier responds to his enemy’s silence if as I suspect the enemy is not there but has deserted the war already. This is subtitled “A Book About Peace,” but peace is never achieved within the story. This book well illustrates the mentality of war, the way that wars must be fought, how an enemy must be created in order to have war, how an enemy is too often created, dehumanized in order to “justify” a war and how much that dehumanized enemy is as much a false face as a lion skin concealing a human.

*****

Social Dramas

9780399176197Milk Goes to School by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Milk is confident, sure that she is special—la crème de la crème as her dad says—but her new classmates see her as spoiled. This book is full of puns—puns everywhere—in the text and in the illustrations themselves. The refrain of “spoiled” gets tired pretty quickly and for the most part it seemed to me that Milk’s behavior was wrongly classified as spoiled by a bullying Waffle—who does not waffle at all from his opinion of Milk—established because she says that her glittery backpack was given to her by her father who says that she’s “la crème de la crème.” How is that spoiled? I want to applaud Milk with her high self-esteem and detest Waffle for bullying her, but I’m not sure that my opinion is shared by Border. At the end of the book, Milk does see herself as somewhat spoilt, and she wants to change. Her classmates only change their opinion of Milk and begin to see her previous kindnesses after she has been tripped and has spilt herself and is crying. They help to put her back into her carton and treat her with more kindness, but I don’t see a genuine change from them, and tears and blood/milk shouldn’t have been necessary to curb their bullying. I liked—maybe even loved—Peanut Butter and Cupcake. I’m not sure I can like this one because I see it as portraying a negative, almost dangerous moral that I think was unintended. This is illustrated as Terry Border’s other books with photographed food with arms and legs of paperclip wire.  The kids I read this too were an observant bunch. They were the ones who pointed out that Milk wears a different hair bow in each illustration; it gave them something to look for.

**

9780375840685Duck, Duck, Goose by Tad Hills. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2007.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Duck has a new friend. Thistle is fast.  She’s athletic.  She’s good at math. Duck is very impressed. Goose tries to keep up, but Thistle keeps beating him in every contest that she starts. Goose doesn’t like to be made to feel like a loser. He’s tired, and he misses Duck, but Duck doesn’t seem to need him, so he slips away. Eventually, Duck misses Goose, and he goes looking for him despite Thistle’s disparagement of his friend. He finds Goose in one of their favorite spots. Goose admits to Duck that he’s tired and that Thistle makes him feel badly about himself. Duck admits that he’s getting annoyed by Thistle too. Thistle follows. The two friends trick Thistle into showing off as the world’s best napper and go off to play by themselves. That ending didn’t sit all that well with me; what the two friends do to Thistle is not very friendly nor is it at all likely to solve their problem long-term or help Thistle at all. I wanted the story to say that it is all right to have more than one friend; instead, it was sort of a lesson on how to ditch annoying show-offs. What? The beginning did some nice character set up with Goose sanding very still in order not to scare off a butterfly had landed on him and which he wanted to show Duck, but that set-up went on just a bit too long with the introduction of the bluebird and the discussion of which way was west. Reading the first pages, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, how long exactly this book was going to be and how long I could expect my audience to tolerate it.

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

22318389I Don’t Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt. Doubleday-Random, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

A frog decides he’d rather be anything but, and his father calmly explains that he can’t be anything but a frog because that’s the way the world works. It takes a wolf coming along saying that he will eat anything but frogs because they are slimy and gross to convince the frog that being a frog is not so bad. What is this picture book? This is not what I was expecting. This teaches that you should be glad that you’re slimy and gross and that you can’t be anything but what you are born and it has the darkness of a villain that comes along to threaten to kill the protagonist. The awful thing is that I pulled it off the shelf, lured by its funny title and cute cover and echoes of Mo Willems’ much better and more wholesome I’m A Frog! and didn’t remember till halfway through the book that I’d already rejected this once as a story time read. Well, I’ve read it through all the way now. I can set it aside and not pick it up again, right? Goodreads reviewers are lauding this as a book about self-acceptance, and yes, self-acceptance can be good in certain circumstances, but I don’t like the presentation here nor that self-acceptance comes about because others are more likely to be killed by a predator; that to me is just not a good message and echoes too closely on too many hot-button, personal issues.

*

9781484712399Ellie by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Ellie’s zoo is closing, and the animals are helping the zookeeper “spruce [the zoo] up a bit” in an attempt to save their home.  Everyone seems to have something that they can do–everyone except the tiny elephant, Ellie.  But the zookeeper leaves Ellie alone for a moment with a paintbrush, and she discovers a new talent—one that the zookeeper quickly encourages, and one that saves the zoo—albeit the zoo is now a gallery for Ellie’s artworks as well as the animals’ home.  I warned the child that I had at story time that this story started sad but ended happily.  He didn’t much like it, but I did.  I know at times that I feel useless, and it’s good to be reminded that everyone has something they can do, that maybe I just haven’t yet found my talent or passion.  I had fun with the illustrations, particularly the talented Ellie recreating the “Mona Lisa.”  I like the brightness of Ellie’s artworks after the muted colors of the opening pages when the characters are sad.

***

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.

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Book Reviews: Picture Book Roundup June 2016: Father’s Day, Animal Friends, and Books About Being a Protagonist

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Father’s Day Specials

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Grandpa Loves You by Helen Foster James and illustrated by Petra Brown. Sleeping Bear, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 0-6, Grade 1.

This is one of those saccharine picture books meant to read as a love letter from the adult reading to the child. The characters are adorable, fluffy bunnies. I liked the grandpa bunny’s big, bushy eyebrows. They add a touch of character and help to make the grandpa more expressive. The rhyming text relies maybe a little too heavily on pet names. This hardcover version includes a place for Grandpa to write a letter to his little honey-bunny.

**

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Monster & Son by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Joey Chou. Chronicle, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

Each page features of a different monster and its offspring doing the things that monsters do but twisting the action to make it seem benign and akin to a daily activity that a father might do with his son: like tucking the little one into bed, playing ball, or piggybacking him while approaching a city. Upset humans pout as they are caught in the tempest of the monsters’ fun, but seem unhurt. I would actually have preferred following a single monster family rather than visiting a new one each page—but because I personally like following a character, not because its a structural flaw or in picture books, and because the text indicates no switch between characters as its written in a first person narration (the father) to a second person (you, the son). This story is saccharine too (and I think that’s going to be the word of the post), but it relies less on pet names to make it so; the rhymes and story seem less forced than in Grandpa Loves You.

***

9780803737174 When Dads Don’t Grow Up by Marjorie Blain Parker and illustrated by R. W. Alley. Dial-Penguin Random, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Perhaps because I read this one right after reading the wonderfully rhymed and rhythmic Giraffes Can’t Dance I stumbled all over the rhyme-less, unmetered text that was broken too in odd places sometimes I thought. This one pokes fun at dads and at adults, even going so far as to point out the possibility of a bald father. It claims we’ll know a dad who never grew up by the things that he does or does not do. A dad who has never grown up knows has to have fun, can’t sit still, watches cartoons, remembers how scary basements can be and that shopping carts are for racing. I would suggest it only for dads who can live up to the standard demonstrated here, but the story could backfire on a bland, grown-up dad. The illustrations of dads having fun with their kids are pretty heartwarming and goofy but the soft pastels keep the story gentle rather than raucous.

**

9780385388955Dad School by Rebecca Van Slyke and illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

There’s a lot of similarities between this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up in that they both poke fun lovingly at Dad (and I capitalize it here because in both stories it is the stereotyped idea of Dad rather than a character particularly). In this one, the child (presumably the white, brunet son from the cover and common in the first few illustrations, though his classmates and his dad’s classmates are of various races) hypothesizes that his dad must have gone to Dad School to learn how to be a dad—to make huge snacks, to throw you up high but never drop you, to fix and mend things, and multitask—but suggests that he must have skipped school on the days when they learnt to clean bathrooms and match clothes and brush hair. Comparing the two books—this and When Dads Don’t Grow Up­—actually gives you a fairly interesting study of the conceptual Dad. But I think I digress; I’m supposed to be reviewing a kids book not critique societal constructs. This book reads more easily than did When Dads Grow Up, but it also came before rather than after Giraffes Can’t Dance. It too could backfire on a dad who does not do these things or conversely who does do the things that it is suggested by the text that a dad should not do.

***

Animal Friends

9780439287197_default_pdpGiraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Orchard-Hachette, 2001. First published 1999. Intended audience: Ages 5-7, Grades PreK-2.

I first read this book in March 2013 and according to Goodreads I haven’t read it again since, though I’m not sure if I believe that and I know I’ve handed it to many customers since. I read this among a wealth of Father’s Day themed books. Perhaps it stood out because of that, but I think it was more than that. This is a good story, carefully metered and well-rhymed with a bit of poetry to the prose. There’s a lot of raw emotion from the giraffe, ridiculed and told that he can’t, and an important moral about being able and being different and being okay. I’d grabbed it that day when I was otherwise reading books about dads because the kids were getting antsy, and I thought that this might be a dance-along book, and I maybe could have made it so, but I got wrapped up in the story myself and we never danced. Parker-Rees’ illustrations are jewel-bright and just a delight, awash with detail and vibrancy.

*****

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When Your Elephant Comes to Play by Ale Barba. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This story was a bit more lackluster than I’d hoped it might be. There’s a lot that you can’t do with an elephant and still have fun yourself—like going swimming in the pool or eating cake—but elephants are excellent huggers. There’s a lot of color and line in the illustrations—almost like a more concrete Kandinsky, and while that feels fresh, it’s also almost distracting; the illustrations take work to grasp and dissect and made it at times difficult to find the text.

***

extremely-cute-animals-operating-heavy-machinery-9781416924418_hrExtremely Cute Animals Operating Heavy Machinery by David Gordon. Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

I had heard some so-so reviews of this book before I actually got around to reading it and so was rather pleased with the story. Karen—an extremely cute but unidentifiable animal (maybe a kangaroo?)—wants to build a sand castle, but the playground bullies won’t allow it. They destroy her castle, but she and a few friends build a new castle, bigger and better. That too is destroyed, and the friends rebuild, bigger and better. After a third time, the extremely cute animals get extremely mad, and they haul away the whole playground with a helicopter and come in with steel beams and welding guns and create a walled and gated theme park where no bullies are allowed. And I would have been upset if that had been the end, but Karen cracks open the door to invite the momentarily exiled bullies into the park, where they seem very contrite as they are led around the park and shown kindness by the extremely cute animals, who have not forgotten to build something for even those who like to destroy—a replica of Karen’s original castle this time meant to be destroyed (and presumably rebuilt and destroyed again). The cotton-candy quality of the illustrations and the title’s description of the protagonists as cute did not particularly bleed into the text itself, which was more realistic and hard-hitting than a lot of picture books that I’ve read recently. The bullies’ speeches seemed particularly realistic—not cleaned up, not made cute or trite, just down in the dirt mean. And I appreciated that kind of unmade-up depiction of bullies. I’ve not read a lot of picture books talking about how to deal with bullies. There’re Peanut Butter & Cupcake and I suppose Giraffes Can’t Dance too, where the characters who exclude Peanut Butter and Giraffe could be classified as bullies but never are, and there’s Llama Llama and the Bully Goat, where the rhyming text sort of diminishes the roughness and the ending makes it seem like Bully Goat is reformed by one time-out. I do dislike that extremely cute and good and kind seem to be equated and—while I understand it as part of the repetition of a picture book text—the part of me that writes novels and has been trained in school to write essays disliked that repetition of the weak word “extremely.” That these cute, good protagonists are allowed to get mad, and that their anger is siphoned constructively I do like.

****

9780312498603 Bright Baby Touch and Feel: Perfect Pets by Roger Priddy. Priddy-Macmillan, 2006. Intended audience: Ages 1-3, Grade PreK.

I was pleasantly surprised by this board book. Each spread takes a moment to name an animal—no, actually give the pet a name—and describe an action associated with that animal. The pages are touch-and-feel but the text does not always prompt the reader to describe the texture. A solid background color behind the photographed illustration could let this book be used as a color primer too. But there is more story here and certainly more characters than I’ve grown to expect from primers because of the names, because of the actions; I welcome that.

****

eleph_pig_party_cover_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: I Am Invited to a Party! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2007. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me. Even though it is one of the older stories (the third written in the series), it had never been in my hands. I love it. Piggie is invited to a party, but doesn’t want to go alone. Gerald agrees to go with her, because he knows parties. Gerald prepares for every eventuality and their outfits become more and more ridiculous as they prepare for a fancy pool costume party. In the end, Gerald has worried just enough to make them prepared. Everyone looks ridiculous in their outfits for the fancy-pool-costume party. I had fun trying to pick out the costumes from the final illustration. Also, what a great time to break out paper dolls!

*****

elephants_cannot_dance_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Elephants Cannot Dance! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Piggie is excited about dance class and wants to teach Gerald to dance, but Elephants cannot dance; it’s in the handbook. Trust Piggie to find the loophole. So Gerald tries to dance, but Willems takes a bit of time to play with opposites. When Piggie says up, Gerald goes down. When Piggie tells him to do the robot walk, he wiggles and waggles. Just when Gerald is ready to give up, along come two squirrels who want to learn the Elephant dance, teaching that just because you feel like you’re failing does not mean that you are failing and different is not wrong or bad.

****

e_and_p_should_i_share_lgAn Elephant and Piggie Book: Should I Share My Ice Cream? by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2011. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This Elephant and Piggie story I’d read before, but apparently never reviewed. Gerald buys an ice cream cone and in his excitement only realizes later that maybe he should have bought Piggie one too. Gerald talks himself into and out of sharing his ice cream with his best friend and while he waffles on what is right, the ice cream melts away, leaving neither of them with a tasty treat. Luckily, Piggie has his back, and appears with an ice cream cone of her own to share with Gerald and to cheer him up after Gerald has upset himself by wasting the ice cream cone that neither he nor Piggie enjoyed.

****

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An Elephant and Piggie Book: Let’s Go for a Drive! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2012.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a new Elephant and Piggie story for me! Gerald wants to go for a drive with Piggie, but in typical Gerald style, Gerald worries, and wants to be prepared for any type of weather and for everything that could go wrong on their drive. Piggie is a prepared pig. She has everything Gerald requests: a map, sunglasses, umbrellas, bags to pack it all in—everything except a car. That is when the pattern of the text breaks too. Piggie saves the day again though by coming up with an alternative idea. The two make a pirate ship out of all the things that they’ve collected for their drive, and have fun anyway. Willems uses a road map for his illustrations of the map, making this an example of mixed media illustration, if most of the illustrations adhere to his usual drawing style. This would be a story better told while standing, so that the reader can act out the celebratory dancing. While sitting, the celebratory singing just didn’t have the same effect. Now I know.

****

Hero of Your Own Story 9781454916086_jkt.inddWhose Story Is This, Anyway? by Mike Flaherty and illustrated by Oriol Vidal. Sterling, 2016.

I read this alongside of Monster & Son, When Your Elephant Comes to Play, and Hoot and Peep, and this was declared the favorite by the little boy at story time whom I polled. This is the story of a boy who wants to tell a story about himself—with a cameo by his cat, Emperor Falafel—but the story keeps getting interrupted by pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens. He shouts them all away, but realizes that the audience for his story actually prefers a story with pirates and knights and dinosaurs and aliens and rewrites his story to include them all. The competing voices in the story are what I think make this so much fun: a deep growling voice of “arr” and “yar” and “ye” for the pirate, Salty Pete; a proper, clipped voice for Sir Knightly; a sort of dopey voice with lots of rounded tones that I gave the dinosaur; and a sort of shrill, nasal voice for the boy. Now, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that a story about an ordinary boy and his cat is dull and yawn-inducing, but the idea that a story is better with friends and with characters I can get behind. I think it would be a fun story to use when talking about story writing.

****

9780679805274Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 1990.

I read this to a group that consisted primarily of kids under 7 and one that was maybe 10 at my best guess. It is Dr. Seuss. Everyone loves Seuss. I expected it to be fine. I expected them to like it. It was too long for all of them, and the 10 year old thought it was a bit too dark and depressing. This is of course a classic. I know it. You probably know it too. And we can probably both quote it. It’s a tale about life, that assures the reader that she is ready and able to take on the world, that she knows what she needs to know and has the gumption to get things done and to go to great places, but also warns that life doesn’t always go the way that it should, that there will be bad paths to avoid, dark places she’ll end up even if she’s done everything right, slumps and waiting. The message is inspiring, but apparently, it really is better for those high school and college graduates if they’re willing at that age to give it a read.

***

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.

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Book Review: So You Want To Be a Wizard May Be Nine People’s Favorite Thing

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Diane Duane and I were introduced by a friend in my junior year of high school.  I fell in love with her Young Wizards quickly.

I’ve since then read and reread each book in the series up through the seventh (Wizard’s Holiday), and have only failed to continue on because the books (beyond the first few) are difficult to find in bookstores and must be ordered online.

Rereading most recently the first of the series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, I was again blown away by both the power and beauty of Duane’s prose, the intricacy of her world(s), and the beautiful blending of magic and fantasy with (Christian) mythology and science.

There’s a lot that Duane does well and a lot that I love.

1) Duane blends different mythologies (one Power claiming to have gone by the names Athena, Prometheus, Thor, Lugh, and the Archangel Michael) and scientific theories into a single, cohesive myth.  I did not for some time recognize so starkly that what Duane was doing was creating a magic system to work against the background of Christian mythology.  The fifth book, The Wizard’s Dilemma, (if I remember rightly) is the first to name the Starsnuffer or Lone One as the fallen Lucifer and the first to name the One as God.  Many ideas have been shared throughout time by Christians and Christian theologians about the power (or lack thereof) behind other gods: that all gods are God, that those other gods as demons, that they are men’s inventions and powerless.  In Duane’s myths, the other gods are angels (or both angels and the other gods are Powers), servants of God but not God Himself.  I could argue and have argued with myself about this issue, but Duane’s interpretation, though I know she writes it primarily as a work of fantasy, sits well with me—which perhaps is good and perhaps is dangerous.  I choose not to overthink it.  I don’t think that her interpretation has any real effect upon my interpretation other than to exist as another opinion.

2) Duane’s magic is affected primarily by the Speech, a language spoken by all things (or which all things can speak, but some forget).  The Speech is used both to ease negotiations because of its universality and, because one cannot lie in the Speech and promises made in the Speech must be kept, to help to persuade an object or person to change or to remind it what it should be, a wizard’s purpose being to help and to aid Life.  It falls into a category with other fantasies that laud the power of words, language, or secret names.  Especially, Duane’s Speech reminds me of the Old One’s speech from Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence and the way that knowing the true names of things gives one power in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books and the very similar idea that Rick Riordan borrows from Egyptian mythology for The Kane Chronicles.  Of those, I feel like Duane best uses language (you all can disagree with me; LeGuin’s prose I admit comes very close to having the same power as Duane’s, but LeGuin is writing for a different audience, and I prefer Duane’s speed and immediacy to LeGuin’s epic style).  I feel Duane embodies with her prose what she preaches by giving her words the power that words possess in the Speech.  Her imagery is vivid and poetic so that what should not or cannot be I can see clearly in my mind almost without fail.

3) There is little diversity in fantasy.  Most human heroes and heroines resemble an Anglo race (probably because we are all secretly emulating Tolkien, who was British in a time when Britain was less diverse than it now is).  Kit Rodriguez is a rare example of a Hispanic American in a fantasy where his race is not made into an issue or highlighted in any way.  He simply is Hispanic and his family speaks Spanish mixed with English not as an act of defiance, I feel, against the fantasy-world norm, but as a matter of fact.  Yes, Kit’s ethnicity is more obvious than Ged being copper-skinned but because Duane can include snippets of a recognizable language that is not the language in which the book is primarily written, her fantasy being low rather than high.  (Snippets of a high fantasy language build a fantasy world but can only infrequently be a ready identifier for readers of a race different from other characters of the same world.  For example, without them being labeled as such, would a casual reader recognize any difference between Dothraki, Braavosi, or High Valyrian?  Or Elvish, Dwarvish, and Orcish for that matter?  High fantasies have in some ways to work harder to create ethnicity because the reader knows none of the ethnic identifiers before entering the fantasy world.)

4) This first novel in particular is almost an anti-bullying book, with Nita Callahan deciding to try to befriend her bully at the end of the novel, [SPOILER] having just realized that even the most wicked can be exchange their ways for good if given the chance to do so. [END SPOILER]

This first novel, So You Want To Be a Wizard, reads more than some of the others as a simple, late middle-grade fantasy adventure.  There is a clear villain against which the young heroes must compete for the fate of the world.  The conflict is a simple, primarily external one.  Later novels delve deeper into difficult issues (parent’s death, cancer, autism), but even in this first, Duane creates or borrows a terrifying villain and doesn’t shy from killing protagonists—or rather allowing them to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

*****

Duane, Diane.  Young Wizards, Book 1: So You Want To Be a Wizard.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1996.  First published by Delacorte 1983.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, Inc., or Delacorte Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

As a note: this is a review of the original text.  Diane Duane is currently working on updated versions of the stories subtitled as The New Millennium editions, which, I hear, include updated technology and corrected facts and figures.

Title borrowed from the song from [Title of Show], “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.”

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Book Reviews: August Picture Book Roundup

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As I settle into a loving friend’s apartment in a new city, I hope you will all forgive me that this month’s picture book roundup is being posted late.

Noodle Loves the Zoo illustrated by Marion Billet.  Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013.

I was really enjoying this touch-and-feel book until I got to the last page where I was thrown out of the illusion by Noodle liking to roar.  Pandas do not to my knowledge roar; humans (represented that the anthropomorphized panda here) roar in imitation of other animals only, and so what had been a message of loving animals was degraded, Noodle’s love suddenly seeming a mockery—though in retrospect I recognize that this reaction of mine seems a little irrational.

***

 Birthday Monsters! by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 1993.

This book is probably primarily meant to be a once-a-year read or an “I don’t know what to get” birthday present for a young child, but Boynton writes amusing, rhyming prose, and there is a message about selflessness if you care to look for it.  The birthday monsters show up (too) early on the young hippo’s birthday, and they seem to be bent on making his birthday a great celebration, but the birthday monsters ruin the celebration with their greed and selfishness.  They leave, but return to tidy their mess so that the young hippo’s birthday ends on a high note with his house clean and his birthday things returned to him.

***

 Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney.  Viking Juvenile-Penguin, 2013.

I very much enjoyed the original Llama Llama Red Pajamas (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads), but as important as this newest book in the series is for classrooms and indeed for all children who may encounter bullies (which is all children), I felt Dewdney’s style did not lend itself well to the subject matter, being simplistic and rhyming and fun, while the subject matter was one that is not fun at all.  Gilroy Goat disrupts the classroom and the playground by laughing at and ridiculing Llama and his friends.  His bullying escalates to playground violence.  Llama first stands up to Gilroy but when this fails to curb his behavior, Llama quickly tells his teacher, who puts Gilroy in time-out.  Gilroy returns, the teacher asks if he can be a friend, and Llama extends Gilroy one of the dolls that Gilroy had earlier ridiculed, which Gilroy accepts, playing nicely and participating in classroom activities thenceforth.  Gilroy and Llama part at the end of the day as unlikely friends.  Gilroy Goat perhaps learns his lesson a little too easily, but it is I suppose good to give young children hope that bullies can change (I believe that they can if I believe it is a harder thing for them to learn to curb such instincts than it is for Gilroy), and good to give children an example of how to go about dealing with bullies.  On a side note, Nelly Gnu is a returning character, I do believe, but I am glad to see Dewdney advocating friendship with the opposite gender.

***1/2

Good Morning, Good Night!: A Touch & Feel Bedtime Book by Teresa Imperato.  Piggy Toes, 2004.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  Each set of touch-and-feel pages shows the day of a particular baby animal, first upon rising, then, opening the flap, upon sleeping, with each animal sleeping beside a parent.  The story is told in rhyme and ends with the day of a toddler.

****

The Way I Act by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Janan Cain.  Parenting, 2010.

Barnes & Noble classifies this as a “growing-up” book.  It’s a message book rather than being plot-driven, meant to both teach and reinforce laudable qualities in a child and also to build that elusive self-esteem.  I was not overly thrilled with this book, first because I don’t necessarily like the implied opposite idea that a child is somehow worth less when they do not exhibit these listed traits, some of which are less attainable or teachable than others—or so it seems to me, though I’m no parent—and also because the language and style did not seem to quite suit the illustrations, which while colorful were not particularly memorable.

*1/2

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2010.

Elephant Gerald and Piggie decide to play catch.  A young snake asks if he too can play.  They try to include the snake, but the snake is unable to join them because he does not have arms.  The snake is ready to give up, but Piggie will not.  The friends find a new way to play catch so that they can include the armless snake.  This is a book that encourages the inclusion of new friends, different friends, and shows readers that there are sometimes unconventional ways to solve a problem and be sure that everyone has fun.  All these beautiful messages are of course delivered with Willems humorous dialogue and illustration style, which I love, and his keen insight into the world of children.

****

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.