Tag Archives: children’s

Book Reviews: Dragonbreath is My Tonic for a Pandemic Reading Slump

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Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised.  This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.

Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food….  His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room.  The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend. 

The parents too are individuals.  I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership.  Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.

The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration.  The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green. 

These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic.  They are light.  They are ridiculous.  But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs.  I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.

Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.

SPOILERS.

Dragonbreath, Book 1.  2009.

Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean.  Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent.  And Wendell is coming too.  Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.

Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs.  2010.

Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom.  A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way.  They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind.  Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her.  Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.

Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai. 

Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character.  Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision.  I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl.  It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.

Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener.  2010.

The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues.  Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria.  He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly.  Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy.  The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha.  Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes.  But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.

Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster.  2011.

In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats.  While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly.  Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry.  Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel.  I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.

Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts.  2011.

Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special.  Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy.  Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house.  But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone.  Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs….  And what is that in the doorway!?  I do not handle horror books well.  I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric.  There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists. 

  —

I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible.  I currently have book 6 out from the library.  Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series.  So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6.  That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:

These are a lot of fun.  They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic.  Read them.  Try one.  You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.

Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a

****

but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to

*****

This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.

Book Review: Friendship as a Superpower in Hilo

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Spoilers!

It was the jacket blurb on the back of the most recent (6th) book in the Hilo series that got me interested in this graphic novel series:  “Being a hero isn’t easy.  But Hilo had no idea it would be this hard.  Hilo came to earth because he was running from Razorwark.  But he’s done running.”

DJ Lim feels mediocre in the shadow his four siblings.  In the absence of his best friend, Gina Cooper, who moved to New York 3 years back, he feels alone.  Being friends with Gina was the one thing that he felt he was good at. 

Alone, he goes to investigate a fallen object and finds a pale-skinned, blond boy in metallic underwear in the crater.  The boy speaks English—or he does after a static shock occurs between him and DJ—but he knows nothing of Earth—not grass, not milk, not rice—and delightfully believes that humans scream at one another in greeting—nor does he know anything about himself or where he came from or why he fell from the sky.  He gives DJ no choice but to befriend him as he asks the way to DJ’s house and then leads the way there with a cry of “outstanding!”  Hilo faces anything short of life-threatening (and even a few things that are life-threatening) with exuberance.

Over the course of the book, Hilo begins to remember more about his life before he fell.  It comes to light that he is a robot who can shoot lasers from his hands and fly and that his mission is to stop Razorwark, a robot who destroyed the capital city where Hilo lived.  In his more technologically advanced parallel universe, robots do most work for humans, but some robots have become noncompliant and are seeking to destroy instead of serve humans.  Hilo was created to stop the noncompliant, “bad” robots, the most powerful of which is Razorwark (155). (Razorwark’s methods of rebellion, destroying the whole city, are extreme, but I’ll be interested in more discussion in later books about whether the cause itself is wrong.)

There is a great deal of action in this book, whole pages of battle without dialogue.  There are too many jokes about burping for my taste.  Although with Hilo’s photographic memory and ability to breeze through a dictionary and most of an encyclopedia collection in 20 minutes, Winick squeezes in factoids about Texas and some difficult vocabulary words like “octoped” and “astronomy” and “vacate.”

Although the titular character bears the appearance of a white male, I appreciate the diversity in this cast.  DJ, who I would argue is the primary POV character, is Asian American, and his best friend, Gina—who happens to return to town the same day that Hilo crashes there—is Black. 

I really appreciated the lesson about the elasticity of friendship and about what makes a person interesting: 

(p. 125 and 132)

DJ by protecting Hilo reminds Hilo that he was made to protect others.  DJ learns the strength and importance of his skill in friendship, although it is difficult to put on a college resume. 

Hilo returns to his universe to protect the people of this, his friends DJ and Gina and their families.  But it isn’t enough.  In the final pages, Razorwark comes through the portal through which Hilo fell, making quite a hook for book 2 in the series.

***

Winick, Judd. Hilo, Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. New York: Penguin Random, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Penguin Random for links to purchase, summary, sample, reviews, and author’s bio.

This review is not endorsed by Judd Winick, Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ghosts’ Spirit Is Good But

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Raina Telgemeier is a name any children’s bookseller knows (even if I’m not sure how many of us—myself included—are sure of the pronunciation of that surname. I just checked myself, and I have been pronouncing it correctly!  Scholastic has videos on its YouTube channel where she introduces herself, like this one for Ghosts.).  Her books are frequently bestsellers, frequently were on company-mandated displays, are frequently requested, and Drama is also frequently on the challenged books lists.  Of her many books—Drama, the Smile series, the first set of the new Babysitters’ Club graphic novels, etc.—Ghosts is the one I was most excited to try, the only one, I believe, to have any element of fantasy—which, if you’ve spent any time on this blog, you’ll know to be my genre of choice.  I was excited too to see the representation of Mexican culture.

And so one night as I struggled for sleep, I found myself reading Ghosts in its entirety on my phone using the library’s most-nifty Libby app (seriously, Libby has been a Godsend during the pandemic, and I 100% recommend getting in touch with your library to see if they use it or something similar).

Cat, Maya, and their family are moving from a southern Californian town to a northern one called Bahía de la Luna.  Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the salt air of the seaside town is supposed to be good for her.  Cat is sad to be leaving behind her home and her friends.  Bahía de la Luna is foggy and cold and has a strange reputation for hauntings.  Their neighbor, Carlos, is a ghost tour guide, who gels with Maya almost immediately.  He and his family help Cat and Maya and their mother (who is a fully assimilated Mexican American married to a white man) reconnect with their Mexican heritage.  When with Maya’s prodding, he takes the girls to the haunted mission, the ghosts’ interaction with Maya, though friendly, brings on such a violent reaction that she is home-bound for the first months of the school year.  Cat gets to experience a life at school where others don’t know her sister, where she is neither beneath the shadow of her sisters’ illness nor sharing her friends with her sister.

Maya hopes on Día de los Muertos to be visited by the ghost of their estranged Mexican grandmother. Cat, far more nervous of the ghosts than anyone else, including Maya, has to be persuaded by Maya to attend the town’s midnight Día de los Muertos celebration at the mission and face her fears. Once there, she makes peace with the ghosts, who party with the living on that night, even bringing one of them, Carlos’ eight-year-old uncle, back to the house to meet Maya. With José’s help, Cat comes a bit more to terms with the possibility of her sister’s premature death, because in Bahía de la Luna, death is not a permanent goodbye. It is implied that their grandmother comes back to the family as a cat.

I appreciate the story of a family reconnecting with their heritage, but reviews tell me to curb my enthusiasm for Telgemeier’s representation here of Mexican culture and history.  I’m not the most informed voice to listen to there, and I’ll refer you to others’ reviews (Debbie, Kimberly, Booktoss). In sum, the main critiques seem to be that the history of the missions and the Mexican people’s experiences in missions is grossly misrepresented and that the celebration of Día de los Muertos is poorly handled and disconnected from the honoring of family, becoming instead a town-wide party that includes the living and the dead, where the dead interact equally with family and strangers and friends made after their passing.

Cat goes trick-or-treating and then to the Día de los Muertos party dressed as her namesake, La Catrina, a figure of Día de los Muertos, whom she learns about from her friends earlier in October. La Catrina is a Mexican cultural icons that is too often used as a costume, appropriated by those outside of the culture and who do not celebrate Día de los Muertos. It is better that Cat, newly learning about her Mexican heritage, dress as La Catrina than that one of her white or Black friends does, and La Catrina is an appropriate costume it seems for Día de los Muertos, but I still don’t know how I feel about seeing La Catrina as a Halloween costume, even on Cat.

As a note, this book came out the year before Coco, which brought Día de los Muertos even more into the public conscious and spotlight and, from reviews that I remember reading at the time, seems to have been better received by the community.

I also can’t speak to the accuracy of the representation of cystic fibrosis and will refer you to Sharon’s review on that or this by Gunnar Esisaon.  (I was an older sibling with a childhood illness that left me home-bound, but I am almost wholly unfamiliar with CF.)  I appreciate Telgemeier shining a light on childhood illness and on a less-often represented illness.  I appreciate that Maya’s illness is represented as something both that she has to manage, that does disable her and keep her from doing “normal” things sometimes, but also something that she has largely accepted.  Maya is neither a morose, bedridden figure nor the shining success story of a miraculous recovery.  Sometimes recovery isn’t possible, and management is the goal, and that’s hard, but that’s real. Cat struggles to accept Maya’s illness and struggles with the shadow of being Maya’s sister, of having to share her friends when Maya can’t go out to make any of her own. I appreciate the representation of Cat’s struggle both with being the sister to a chronically ill sibling and with the possibility of Maya’s premature death.

Ghosts tries to achieve a lot, and the story is good.  Where it falls is in its connection with the ghosts of the story to Mexican culture and tradition.  As much as this wouldn’t be a story of reconnecting with heritage if the parts about Mexican heritage and culture had been left out, I wish that more research had been done, more sensitivity readers consulted before the book’s publication.  It seems that a few fairly simple changes would have made this a far less problematic book. Perhaps even just the exclusion of the mission altogether.

The less than accurate representation does present an opportunity for learning in the classroom and for all of us though.  There were details that Telgemeier got correct, and those make a jump point for curious readers.  We just have to be curious enough to correct our impressions from the book.

I can’t quite offer this book four stars because it did fall too short too often, but it was also an impressive undertaking, so a medial three stars seems too little.

***1/2

Telgemeier, Raina. Ghosts. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2016.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Scholastic for links to order, summary, preview, trailer, and discussion guide.

This review is not endorsed by Raina Telgemeier, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: The Wide World of Amulet Needs a Clear Path

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I ended up blitzing my way through the remainder of the published Amulet books in a week.  Each ends on a tantalizing hook for the next installment, making the series difficult to set aside, but reading the next book, it is difficult to judge how much time has passed between.  It seems like it’s meant several times to be months, so I don’t think that the series was ever meant to be read one after the other after the other as I read them.  The books felt rushed, and I don’t wholly attribute that to my rapidfire reading of them.  I am going to openly admit that this is a series rather than an individual book review.  I will have to look again at the books, I think, to even parse out what happened in each. 

SPOILERS!!

These books see the arrival of the Hayes to the planet of Alledia.  Alledia is Earth-like but larger and home to more races of sentient species, including elves and prophetic gadoba trees and a humanoid species.  Poorly understood science is taken as rampant magic in Alledia (and occasionally recognized as science by some): curses and Transpores, mushrooms that help people teleport, and stone amulets that give Stonekeepers telekinetic powers as well as allowing them the ability to enter and manipulate memories under some circumstances.  Alledia is being overrun by Shadows for whom Ikol, the voice that haunts and tries to manipulate Stonekeepers, is a servant.  Ikol has overtaken the corpse of the Elf King and has set the elven nation to conquering Alledia.  Ikol is working to ready Alledia and other planets for habitation by, I think, either the Shadows or the creatures traveling with the Shadows in hypersleep and en route, but I am a bit unclear on that.  

Emily Hayes becomes a Stonekeeper, one of only a few remaining on Alledia.  Her brother Navin is the prophesied commander of the resistance against the elven army and force that has overtaken their king.  Together the two are thrust into a fight to free Alledia from nefarious influences.

The prophesied arrival of a child of Earth to another world and the battles of those children for the worlds in which they find themselves is an old fantasy trope, but one that I find mildly disconcerting now and especially in this context where the Alledians have not been passive or deprived of hope yet.  There is an element of white savior-ism here.  It is worth noting I think too that the Hayes seem to be of nebulously European descent and that it isn’t until the fourth book in the series that we are introduced to a named Black character, present for only that one book, and then we meet another named Black character in the sixth, who is also only present for the one book.

The stories seem episodic, and the larger plot seems oddly to have taken a backseat to an individual adventure in many of the books, though as I’m writing this review, I can trace the larger plot points a bit better than I could do in the moment.  I still feel that I shouldn’t have to take two big steps back from the books to follow the plot’s trail.  I appreciate though that many of the characters that we meet have their own stories, are the heroes of their own stories, independent of the larger plot.  It brings an element of largeness and realness to the world, but it is also distracting, and I wonder if the inclusion of these stories would be less so in a different medium or in longer graphic novels.

The first books made it seem as though the climax would be a confrontation with the Elf King and the conclusion would be an end to the imperialistic expansion the elves’ rule, although perhaps I drew that conclusion influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender, which finds echoes here with its exiled prince from an imperialist nation, who drew me first towards these books (in addition to their popularity).

Slowly and then far too quickly the Elf King is revealed to be a pawn in a larger war.  Emily alone swoops in and single-handedly deposes the king in a page spread, which was sorely anticlimactic.  Trellis, the king’s exiled son, branded I think a traitor to the elves for outing his father as a corpse, is not even present for the unmasking of the Elf King and his fall from power.  Never once do we as readers get to see the two interact.  I am seeking out stories right now about characters facing their abusers, and I had expected such a scene at some point within this series and missed it.

That I am eight books into a nine book series and unclear about the identity of the Big Bad is frustrating.  I am only just as of the eighth book beginning to understand the stakes—possibly to avoid being wiped out to make way for this invading alien race or to stop their invasion?—but even now I am uncertain.  I want to know the end goal of all of these fights.  I want to know towards what the characters are working.  That I don’t yet know any of this for certain seems poor storytelling.  Kibuishi has said that the series will end with one final book, and I struggle to see how he will satisfactorily conclude the series in one book when I feel that I don’t even yet truly understand who is the antagonist.

As the series has become more science-fiction than fantasy, there are possibly some echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse here too.  I wonder if these characters will too have to wrestle with the sentience of the Shadows and the obviously technologically advanced creatures that they accompany.

The illustrations, particularly the watercolor backgrounds against which the characters play, remain outstanding.  The spines of these books are definitely worth cracking just to enjoy Kibuishi’s artwork.

***

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Books 1-8. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008-2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7

This review is not endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: October 2020 Lines Read Out of Context

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I realized scrolling through my blog the other day that I am reading an almost entirely new set of books since I last pulled some lines out of context, and I thought it would be fun to revisit that idea as an update on what I’m reading since I’ve read a fair bit recently but haven’t managed to pull together any completed reviews.

But Doomsday for whom? (How to Train Your Dragon, Book 11: How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury by Cressida Cowell)

“Now put away your weapons before Gunther is obliged to chop off your head.” (The Trials of Apollo, Book 5: The Tower of Nero by Rick Riordan)

Hope you and Dan are having a blast. (Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen)

Harry expected them to go through it, but instead Mr. Weasley seized him by the arm and dragged him to the left, where there was an opening leading to a flight of steps. (Book 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling)

“He’s gone.” (Timekeeper, Book 2: Chainbreaker by Tara Sim)

CAN I do anything with those? The line from Harry Potter is annoyingly specific while also not specifying the “it.” There are a lot of names in this set….

Let’s give Harry, our de facto narrator by virtue of that longest sentence, an internal monologue. He worries how the day will end as he is traversing some sort of passageway with something that one could go through (“it”) at the end and an opening on the left leading to a flight of stairs. He remembers a correspondence that he… wrote maybe. Perhaps it was the last correspondence with… whomever he expects to find at the end of this journey. And at the base of the stairs, he discovers that… someone (maybe Dan?) is gone. Perhaps he was chasing someone. Perhaps he is looking for someone. Someone else is there at the bottom of the stairs with Gunther, who would like to chop off Harry’s and/or Mr. Weasley’s head.

So I definitely would have to drop you mid-story and mid-scene:

But Doomsday for whom?

Hope you and Dan are having a blast.

Harry expected them to go through it, but instead Mr. Weasley seized him by the arm and dragged him to the left, where there was an opening leading to a flight of steps.

“He’s gone.”

“Now put away your weapons before Gunther is obliged to chop off your head.”

I’m… going to take this set a bit further than I did the last. These lines need new context.

But Doomsday for whom? Harry wondered. “Hope you and Dan are having a blast,” he had written to her. Had she gotten the message before all this began or did his words ring hollow? They were most certainly not having a blast.

There was a door at the end of the hallway. Harry expected them to go through it, but instead Mr. Weasley seized him by the arm and dragged him to the left, where there was an opening leading to a flight of steps.

They reached the stairway’s foot and flung themselves to a stop as they saw not the boy that they had chased but two heavily armed mercenaries instead.

“He’s gone,” Mr. Weasley gasped.

The smaller of the mercenaries nodded. “Now put away your weapons before Gunther is obliged to chop off your head.”

It’s difficult to complete separate the original lines from their original contexts, but being unable to do so makes for some interesting crossover actually.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this fun foray into the novels that I am currently reading. If you take up this challenge for yourself, let me know. I would love to see what others do with the idea.

Book Review: The Tyrant’s Tomb and Writing an Asexual Character

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There are SPOILERS here, but about one character, and the spoilers here have to do with one really quite minor subplot of the novel.

So to follow up on my review of the previous book in this series, the prophecy did refer to Reyna and not Hylla.  And most of this review will be about Reyna.  (I don’t want to promise it, but maybe this book deserves another review about it more broadly.)

A conversation between Reyna and Apollo at the end of The Tyrant’s Tomb makes it sound like Riordan is suggesting that Reyna is asexual (405-406 for those following along).  I thought so when I read it in January.  A friend of mine in the community thought it too and mentioned it to me when she read the book later.  I see it again re-reading the novel in September.  But at no point in the text is the word used.

Finding confirmation took some digging.  Searching for “Reyna Avila Ramírez-Arellano” brings up only one Wiki site on Google’s first page that mentions her asexuality being confirmed as a footnote.  To find more sources of confirmation and the Tweet, I had to do a fairly specific Google search for “Reyna asexual.”  Thankfully one Tumblr user, Hazel the Writer (and if you find this, your cosplays are fantastic, but I haven’t got a Tumblr to show my appreciation on the proper platform), had taken a screenshot of the Tweet from Riordan on July 3, 2020 confirming that he sees Reyna as romantic asexual.  (I don’t know why… but as I write this Riordan’s Twitter feed has been cleared of anything prior to August 29, 2020).

When I first began this review I thought that a Twitter confirmation by the author would be enough to sate me, but I realized, writing this, that it is not.  Most Wiki fansites (except thankfully the first one to appear when you search her name) and official sites are not reporting Reyna’s orientation.  The tweet has been erased.

No one unfamiliar with the term “asexual” would do the search that I did to find the confirmation nor know that there was anything to confirm.  I was in my late 20s before a friend mentioned asexuality on Facebook.  (I’ve talked about this on the blog before.)  If I had found the term earlier, I think it would have spared me and others pain.  Asexuality just doesn’t have the visibility of other orientations and identities—and that invisibility hurts those aware and unaware of the term.

That said, I recognize that writing an openly asexual character presents a challenge with which too few writers have wrestled for me to have a clear idea of how it’s best done.  Characters of most other sexual orientations can be identified by the relationships that they engage in, by the physical interactions that they have with other characters.  (It occurred to me writing this that I’m actually uncertain whether the words “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual” were ever actually used in the text of Riordan’s books, and it would be an extensive and difficult search to see whether they are.)  An asexual relationship may not include those same physical interactions (or they might; it is not the absence of physical affection that defines asexuality, as I understand it, but a lack of desire for such affection; some may be more willing than others to engage in those acts for various reasons).  

“Hey, I’m asexual,” isn’t always the kind of comment that comes naturally in a conversation, and Reyna, a woman caught for a while out of time while on Circe’s island for however long and so a child of I’m not sure which decade, might be less comfortable than some with the term, which frequently spawns confusion in those of other orientations confronted with it and does not always win a person’s respect. 

But conversations about sexual and romantic desire may be the only way to absolutely identify asexual characters that aren’t the POV characters.  Reyna talks with Apollo after he offers to be her romantic partner.  Nancy too becomes explicit about her expectations and disinterest when other characters begin to express interest in her in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway (the only book I’ve yet read to use the word “asexual”).  In The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue Mackenzi Lee has Felicity talk to her brother about to whom they are or are not attracted, and then Felicity, her asexual character, becomes her narrator in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy.  Lee confirmed Felicity’s orientation on Goodreads, but does not name her asexuality as such in the text.

The trouble is, without these conversations openly naming the orientation, they speak to those in the community and aware of the orientation, but not to those who don’t know or don’t understand.  They might represent a shared feeling and give a reader a brief sigh of relief and that feeling of being seen, but they give the reader no term to go to further research, no recognition of that there’s a community for those who have this feeling, that there’s a name for this feeling; it remains an unnamed and un-nameable experience, though an acceptable feeling. 

And maybe not every asexual character will be in a scene where such a conversation might realistically happen—or feel comfortable expressing themselves in such a conversation.

I appreciate Riordan’s desire to leave the interpretation up to the reader, but with an identity so poorly understood and so sorely underrepresented, I just don’t think it’s the most responsible option—especially for a writer of his popularity.  Alex in his Magnus Chase series gets to name herself (himself, whichever is appropriate in the moment) as gender fluid and transgender.  Why not Reyna too?

I’ve praised—and will continue to praise until corrected—Riordan for the representation in these books before (Riordan’s books include openly gay, bisexual, lesbian, gender fluid, and arguably pansexual characters), and I hope that other communities feel more seen than this almost representation has made me feel.

This book, this author could do so much for the asexual community by giving us this badass, already beloved heroine in a widely read series—but because of the orientation’s invisibility, I want him to do so explicitly in the text.  Because there’s only more book in the series (released today actually!) and Reyna is not likely to play a large role in it and I think Riordan has said he will be finished with this Greco-Roman story arc after this last book, I have little hope of this.

And hey! in case you want to read up on asexuality, check out asexuality.org, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), to start.

And if you know of any awesomely written asexual characters that I should check out, let me know! I’m always looking for more.

****

I want it noted too… I have read this book twice now… but I have never read this book while feeling healthy. One day I will, and I wonder if then this book will earn another star.

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 4: The Tyrant’s Tomb.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Way Back to Wayside School

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The Wayside School series, now a quartet instead of a trilogy, was published between 1978 and 2020.  The first three books were released between 1978 and 1995.  I must have found them sometime after the duology became a trilogy, possibly even at a Scholastic Book Fair (that would have been about the right time); I don’t now remember.  I’ve kept my paperback copies, yellowed though they are.  I was excited when the announcement came in 2019 that Sachar was adding to the series, as this has been a series that I come back to frequently for a mental and emotional break.   

The best classification I have for this series is absurdist humor.

Wayside School is an absurd place.  Built vertically instead of horizontally (“the builder said he was very sorry”) and with thirty classrooms, one for each story, except that there is no nineteenth (“sorry”), this is a place where the impossible and the absurd are considered to be ordinary, where a teacher can wiggle her pointed ears to turn children into apples and where another teacher ordering a computer only to push it out the window to demonstrate gravity isn’t questioned (SSWS 1, 74).

The stories focus on the children of the class at the school’s peak, the thirtieth story.

The first novel introduces us to the school and the class, most chapters being an independent story focusing on a specific character (or group of children; the three Erics are never separated).  The following novels develop more and more cohesion between the chapters and between the other novels of the series.  Whether that is intentional or a mark of a writer growing in skill, I don’t know.  I would read at least the second through the fourth books in the series in order, although these are more a book series in the lines of The Boxcar Children than books in a series, where the characters grow and the stories build on one another, like Harry Potter.  The first book is more disconnected from the continuity that passes for plot of the others, although Mrs. Gorf, the villainous teacher that introduces us to Wayside in the first chapter of the first book, appears in all of the books in name at least, a specter of fear for the pupils on the thirtieth story.

Despite the 25-year gap between the third and the fourth novels, the class on the thirtieth story, the staff with whom they interact, have changed little.  Sachar returns the reader to Wayside where the impossible is still the ordinary, where absurdity makes classes fun.  Of the four, I think this book has the most cohesion between its chapters (I still stop short of wanting to call this cohesion a plot). With the gloom and hopelessness brought on by the Cloud of Doom, a phenomenon over which the class has no power, and the class’ attempts to hold up beneath its shadow, Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom reads more like something reflective or prognosticative of 2020 than something released in January of this year.

I hope that is does prognosticate 2021.

I have just read the whole series over the course of 4 weeks.  The third book, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, remains my favorite.  That seems to be the peak balance (for me) between the absurd and a semblance of plot.  The first I think is my least favorite, mostly for the lack of connectedness between the chapters, but also because there are moments where the text shows its age: fat-shaming and body-shaming, the normalizing of pigtail pulling (although Paul does get in trouble and it’s never suggested that Paul pulls on Leslie’s pigtails to show affection).  That being said, words that could be markers of race are conspicuously absent, which I appreciate especially for books written as early as the 1970s as it allows the reader (and subsequent illustrators; the set that I have read includes chapter headers from three separate illustrators who illustrate the class in some variety) to populate the class to reflect their own.  Children are described as having “long lashes,” “big ears,” and “curly hair and little feet” (SSWS 16, 31, 78). Occasionally a character’s hair might be given a color.

Back to front: Tim Heitz, Julie Brinkloe, Joel Schick.

Sachar, Louis.  Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Illus. Julie Brinkloe.  New York: Avon, 1998. Text copyright 1978.

Sachar, Louis.  Wayside School Is Falling Down. Illus. Joel Schick.  New York: Avon, 1998. Text copyright 1989.

Sachar, Louis. Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger. Illus. Joel Schick.  New York: Avon Camelot-Avon, 1996. Text copyright 1995.

Sachar, Louis.  Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom. Illus. Tim Heitz. New York: HarperCollins, 2020.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by Louis Sachar, Julie Brinkloe, Joel Schick, Tim Heitz, Avon Camelot, Avon Books, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Flora & Ulysses: An Unlikely Superhero Tale

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I have been struggling to read recently—struggling with all aspects of reading: the concentration required, the imagination required, having enough to pay the emotional and mental toll that a book can demand.  About the only books that I had been able to handle had been short, children’s, absurdist humor novels: Wayside School and Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment.  I reached out to experts (children’s leads working at Barnes & Nobles across the country) asking for recommendations like these, having exhausted my own library.

I was given many good suggestions, but the easiest for me to acquire (the one that was both available digitally from my local library and not currently checked out to anyone else) was Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery winner, Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures.

As a Newbery winner it seemed like a book that I ought to read besides.  And despite this being DiCamillo’s third Newbery winner, it’s the first of her novels that I’ve read.

It was the absurd premise that drew me into Flora & Ulysses.  Flora is reading comic books—a genre banned by her mother, who is a romance writer—when she is alerted by a shout to the plight of her neighbor and the squirrel that her neighbor has accidentally sucked partway into her vacuum.  Flora, using the information that she has gathered from informational comics, rescues the squirrel, performing CPR.  The squirrel, once he has come to, has gained superior squirrel intellect and understanding and super-squirrel strength.

This book is more than that though.

Flora is caught between her parents’ strained divorce.  She feels ignored by her mother, awarded less attention than her mother’s career.  Her cowed and shy (and yes, slightly odd) father does not stand up for himself or for Flora.

The story is told in a combination of prose and comic.  Flora and the squirrel that she names Ulysses after the vacuum that nearly claims his life share primary narration. 

Flora’s mother, who dismisses comics as “idiotic high jinks” in opposition to “the bright light of true literature,” does not believe in the powers of the squirrel—or that squirrels ought to be allowed in the house (9).  She foists the job of killing the squirrel onto her estranged husband.  

He finds the courage to defy her, to help Flora, when the squirrel, impossibly, flies.  He recognizes in Ulysses as does Flora the possibility of the impossible.  He is, after all, the one who introduced her to superhero comics.

The squirrel Ulysses, the possibility of the impossible that he represents, opens the hearts of all of the Buckhams and their neighbor Tootie Tickham and her great-nephew William Spiver, temporarily blinded, he says, by the trauma of having been sent away from his home after he drove his emotionally neglectful stepfather’s truck into a pond.

This is a story of broken hearts repaired and shuttered emotions uncaged.  It’s the story of the characters learning to open themselves to each other and to the wonders of the universe through belief in an improbably magical squirrel.

Flora & Ulysses is the superhero Ulysses’ origin story—but not the superhero origin story that I had expected from the novel’s sample in Libby.  Ulysses is not using his might to battle super-powered villains.  He uses his heart, his vulnerability to battle the monsters of ordinary, human unkindness, and he defeats these villains by changing their hearts, not by besting them in combat.

I’m interested in the different traditions on which this story draws: contemporary fiction, family drama, superhero comic, literary fiction, but also the horse story, where a wild creature is tamed by a patient child whose parent tries to take away that creature, the creature standing in for the freedom longed for by the child.

From its cover I expected more of the horse story than anything else.

And as often happens, writing this review has helped me to suss out some of what makes this novel Newbery-worthy, but it has taken this review to make me see it as more than a novel to pass the time.  I expect there are more layers of this onion that I could with more time and more analysis peel back; I’m not sure that I’ve yet reached this story’s kernel.  If I’m absolutely honest, this book was more meat than the cotton candy that I was seeking, but was somehow also not the meat and potatoes either that I would have wanted at another time, lacking I think the action-packed plot that I would have liked:  It was too much at the time of my reading and too little for a hearty meal.  But I’ll be drowned out by its fans.    

***

Note: Page numbers come from the publisher’s default on my phone’s Libby app.  I think but do not know that they correspond to the print pages.

DiCamillo, Kate.  Flora & Ulysses.  Illus. K. G. Campbell.  Candlewick, 2013.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Kate DiCamillo, K. G. Campbell, or Candlewick Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: August 2020 Picture Book Roundup: Equality, Death, and Birth

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order.

Saturdays Are For Stella by Candy Welling and illustrated by Charlie Eve Rose. Page Street Kids-Page Street, 2020. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I have been excited for this book for a long while, since seeing the announcement of its coming publication because it promised both Black characters and to be about two subjects infrequently covered but frequently requested by customers in picture books: death in the family and the birth of a sibling. Biracial George loves to spend Saturdays with his loving grandmother, Stella. He is all set to go to see her, but this Saturday he walks in on his Black father and white mother crying at the table. (I am looking at the parents again and realizing that both are illustrated rather androgynously and that, though the text calls them Dad and Mom, there’s no use of pronouns for the parents.) They explain that he won’t be going to see Stella this Saturday or ever again. George is sad. Saturdays are no longer his favorite day of the week. George experiences sadness in activities that once gave him joy and anger at Saturdays for the absence of Stella. While George grieves, though, his mother’s belly swells until the family welcomes a new child, a little girl that they name Stella after her grandmother. George finds joy again in loving his sister Stella, doing with her the things that his grandmother had done with him on Saturdays.

The story… actually did not live up to the hype for it that I had built up myself. It is worth noting that I have been grieving the passing of my own last biological grandparent since March. I listened to the author’s reading of this story (available for only 48 hours on Page Street Kids’ Instagram page, now removed) hoping to feel some cathartic release for the grief that I felt. As much as it would not have told the full story of death and rebirth, grief and joy that Wellins sets out to tell, I wanted to spend more time with both life events and to delve more deeply into the feelings that George has around them. This book had an excellent plot; I just feel that it was too short, too few words for too much plot. Both large concepts never got the time that I wanted either to have. I think part of that was that Stella the Younger grew up so quickly. There is no period during which she isn’t able to play with George or any point at which George wrestles with the frustrations of a new sibling. The grief in the few pages it is given (really only 2 page spreads) was real and concrete. Young children may find some recognition of their feelings especially around grief in the pages of this book but will find little explanation of those feelings or why they are feeling them or suggestions on how to healthily handle the feelings that they are having.

Still, I am glad to add this to the small list of books for children about the death of a grandparent. I think especially if the parent or reader is willing to use this book only as a jump point and to continue the conversation with the child outside of the text, it could be a good tool.

***

Click to visit the Google Books page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

Father Gander Nursery Rhymes: The Equal Rhymes Amendment by Douglas Larche and illustrated by Carolyn M. Blattel. Advocacy, 1986.

This book—these illustrations especially—is fairly saccharine, but that is rather the nature of nursery rhymes. The illustrations are busy with many characters—some the characters in the rhymes, some crowd members—and include rounded stones with bland smiles that hover on the edge of unnerving. The crowd displays a narrowly varied palette of a few skin tones and a few characters use wheelchairs.

The nursery rhymes in this collection are added to or altered or created (a few did seem to be wholly without precedent) to erase what is problematic about the nursery rhymes. Reading this collection, I realized that I do not remember Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes well. I looked up several to see what had been altered. Some characters’ stories I of course remember, but some I remembered only by name, and a few I had forgotten entirely.

Equal gender representation seems the primary goal of the collection. A few nursery rhymes are left mostly in tact except that the gendered pronouns or nouns are shifted to gender-neutral ones. More often the rhymes are balanced by adding second characters whose actions echo those of the original character so that Little Bo Peep and Little Joe Peep have both lost their pets, Jack and Jill both nimbly jump over the candlestick, and the little old woman who lives in a shoe is now part of a little old couple who may not have planned well for their family but who care for them nonetheless rather than beating them.

A few rhymes get more drastic revisions to erase problematic behavior described in the older rhymes. Georgie Porgie is no longer making the girls cry. Peter Pumpkin-Eater now wishes to keep his wife, so he treats her with respect instead of imprisoning her in a seed. Men and women (the king is now unmentioned) do manage to put Humpty together again after his fall.

For the most part, these changes are done if not subtly then with enough mimicry of the older rhymes that the additions or alterations work well, accomplishing their goal of better and more equal representation and fewer instances of violence without seeming glaring in the collections’ agenda. Had I children, I think I would more likely purchase this collection to read to them than a collection from Mother Goose—especially when they are very young and before conversations about the problems with the actions of some of Mother Goose’s characters are possible.

I enjoyed the reworked rhymes that comprised most of the collection more than I did the newer rhymes that seemed at times shoehorned into the collection. The newer ones (a page or two towards the end of the book) and even some of those like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that have been reworked to be about protecting the earth through sustainable living seem a bit glaring amid those that more closely mimic the older style. Still these modern nursery rhymes fit well with the intentions of many of the older rhymes: the demonstration of proper behavior or of bad behavior and its repercussions. I think only that some of these with their modern concerns lacked the “Old World” charm of those based more firmly in the older rhymes.

****

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.