Tag Archives: children’s

Book Review: Japanese Fairy Tales for the Casual Western Reader

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Click to visit the WorldCat listing for the book for a summary.

This Dover edition has only five of the stories that Yei Theodora Ozaki published in 1903, selected and edited by Philip Smith in 1992.

I got a distinct sense that these were Japanese tales written up for a Western audience. The tongue-cut sparrow for example is described here as a fairy, but fairies are British; the fairy has no directly correlating Japanese equivalent. So what type of creature is the sparrow? Yōsei is the Japanese word that I can find most closely related to British fairies, but this doesn’t seem the right word for the sparrows of this tale any more than does fairy. Without the proper terminology, digging deeper into the folklore was difficult, though I tried to supplement my reading of this skinny paperback several times. The Westernization at once made this translation more accessible but also less complete, somehow lacking. I don’t know a lot of Japanese folklore. After reading this, I feel a little more informed but skeptical too about how much this textbook was altered for a Western audience and of how much I might be missing.

A few words were translated either in parentheses or via footnotes, sometimes smoothly within the text as “Momotaro, or Son of a Peach,” but the choices of which words to translate seemed odd. Sake, for example, was translated as a rice wine. Several titles and names were within the same story translated only sometimes (O Jii San as old man, daimios as lords, Suzume San as Miss Sparrow, Murasaki as Violet, Ojisan as Uncle). These were rarely names that needed translation for the story to have meaning. Particularly Murasaki only lived for the span of two pages, and violets played no part in the whole of the story (“Princess Hase”). “Princess Hase” itself is an odd phrase to have translated and oddly translated besides. Within the story, she is known primarily as Hase-Hime meaning Princess of Hase. Tamtate-Bako is translated as the Box of the Jewel Hand. The translation here lends no more to my understanding of Tamtate-Bako than would a good description. O kage sama de was not translated at all, which was an odd choice (that phrase I was able to look up). Dokoisho was translated with a footnote, and this I liked because knowing that this is an exclamation used primarily by the lower classes helped me to better grasp Urashima Taro’s character.

In these five stories there are many themes and characters that are familiar from Western/European stories. In “Momotaro” there is the child born already overly mature of a piece of fruit to a kindly old couple (Thumbelina-type but also Disney’s interpretation of Hercules). This child, like Hercules, is excessively strong and defeats monsters. There’s a nagging wife in “The Tongue-cut Sparrow.” In “Princess Hase” there’s a jealous stepmother who tries to kill her stepdaughter (that’s “Snow White”). In “Urashima Taro” there’s a creature saved from harm that turns out to be royalty and who offers itself to its rescuer in marriage (I recognize that actually most from Yep’s The Dragon Prince, which calls itself a Chinese Beauty and the Beast story). Several of these stories, “Urashima Taro” and “Tongue-cut Sparrow”, feature boxes that the characters are warned never to open like that given to Pandora. The “Ogre of Rashoman” reminds me of Tailypo, “The Headless Horseman,” and other nightmare creatures that come through campfire stories searching for their severed body parts.

Though of course it is difficult and probably inaccurate to generalize Western heroes too much—and certainly my sampling here of Japanese fairy tales is not broad enough to do so—these five bear as much similarity to the Grecian mythologies as Western fairy tales.  In Western fairy tales, most masculine heroes seem to be tricksters who outwit villains. The women—no, the girls—are gentle and kind; grown women are more often villains—or die. Here the masculine heroes seem either to be strongmen and warriors, or they are kind and compassionate. “Princess Hase” offers the only feminine heroine in this group.

Ozaki was uniquely qualified to bring these stories to a Western audience. Her parents were Baron Saburō Ozaki, one of the first Japanese men to study in the West, and an Englishwoman, the daughter of one of Ozaki’s teachers. Yei Theodora was raised in England but went to live with her father in Japan as a teenager. As an adult she split her time between the Japan and Europe, and eventually married a Japanese politician who shared her last name and who kept receiving her mail accidentally prior to their marriage.

So she was uniquely familiar with both cultures.

In all, I was glad for this introduction to Japanese fairy tales—I enjoy fairy tales—but I wish mostly that Ozaki had more sparingly translated names and phrases and particularly creatures into English.

In reading these stories, Westerners will find familiarity among that which is unfamiliar, new names for characters whom they recognize or whose situations bear resemblance to their own childhood tales.  In that familiarity, there’s a call, a reminder that we—humanity—are more alike than we are different.

***

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Ed. Philip Smith. Illus. Kakuzo Fujiyama. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992.

This review is not endorsed by Yei Theodora Ozaki, her estate, Philip Smith, Kakuzo Fujiyama, or Dover Publishing. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, samples, trailer, and a drawing tutorial with the author.

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

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

Book Review: A Less Compassionate Robin in Hood

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and sample.

I started rereading Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood mid-July 2018 for my August 2018 trip to Wales but was interrupted by the trip, and only now, almost a year later, am I finishing it.

I had read this book 11-12 years earlier; it was one of the books that was allowed to come with me when I moved into my freshman dorm.  (This was before bookstagram was a thing, but apparently, I already had the idea.)

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The Welsh countryside had already stolen parts of my heart via Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising series before this novel found its way to me, so I was predisposed to like it.

I had fond memories of it and was excited to reread it, but 11-12 years is a long time.

Now, I have not read Pyle’s version of Robin Hood or any other version that I remember besides Lawhead’s. The versions of the story that I know best are Disney’s with its foxy hero and BBC’s 2006-2009 television series.  It’s been a long while, but I’ve watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights too.  Robin and his entourage showed up once in Doctor Who.  Then I know just bits of the myth that have filtered into common cultural knowledge, that have been referenced in other stories.  And I have actually had the chance to walk the halls of Nottingham Castle and the paths of Sherwood.

I very much like Lawhead’s premise for this novel and the reasons for his conclusions about Robin Hood that he presents in the notes in the back of this book (these notes really ought to preface the book I feel instead of ending it; if you pick this book up for the first time, do yourself a favor and read those first. There is the map. There is the pronunciation guide. Page 473 in my copy begins the notes). In essence he argues that the legend of Robin Hood presumably arose from a historical fact and that the legend makes more sense as a Welshman, the Welsh being masters of the longbow, fighting from the wild, primeval forest of the March than an English noble in the shrinking Sherwood. Robin is believably a bastardization and Anglicization of Rhi Bran, and Lawhead offers several explanations of Hood (coed being a Welsh word for woodland or a reference to the hooded costume that Bran uses).  Like Robin of Nottingham, Bran is disinherited by an overreaching British monarch, not Prince John rewarding loyalists, but William II allowing his nobles to conquer Wales, killing unyielding Welsh kings in battle.

But I don’t find Bran as likeable as Disney’s or BBC’s versions. Lawhead’s Bran has to learn selflessness on a hospital bed, and his motivations are less generous than other Robins throughout, even after that revelation. He is prone to bouts of violence. He is reintroduced as a young man while coercing kisses from Mérian (and that I think more than anything else really soured this book for me; he cares about Mérian’s consent no more as he develops into a leader, though their interaction late in the book is brief, and perhaps he improves in sequels, which I have never read). When he is enjoying himself, he can be impish. When he is contemplative, he shows promise as a ruler. He can be bold, but that boldness borders on recklessness and sometimes endangers others. Some of my unfavorable impression of Robin might be what Lawhead intended. He says Robin in the earliest stories “was a coarse and vulgar oaf much given to crudeness and violence” (474).

I empathize with the ousted and hunted prince, but I too often dislike him. I root for the Welsh cause without much liking the leader of the rebellion.

Mérian just seems young. She is irresolute, one moment wholly opposed to the Ffreinc invaders and the next dreaming of parties in Ffreinc castles. She is acted upon rather than taking any actions herself and seems to hold no firm convictions.

Disney’s Robin is roguish, romantic, and compassionate. Disney’s Marian is gentle.

BBC’s Robin is roguish, romantic, compassionate, and a conscientious objector after he learns respect for Islam while fighting in the Holy Land at King Richard’s side. BBC’s Marian is passionate, a fighter for justice and the poor.  She acts against tyranny despite the risk to herself.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of Hood is historically accurate.  William Rufus, Bernard Neufmarché, his daughter Sybil, and Philip de Braose all are historically recorded. Bernard did capture Talgarth in the early 1090s.  Rhys ap Tewdwr was killed in Bernard’s Welsh conquest in 1093.

But more often, Lawhead relies on common names. There was a Brychan—but not a Brychan ap Tewdwr—who was king of Brycheiniog (a term not used in Hood, but that’s the only King Brychan I can find in Welsh history).  Elfael was not part of Brycheiniog, but was adjacent to it.

And sometimes the facts just don’t line up.  Elfael in fact did not become its own cantref until 1140, and Lawhead’s map sets the story between 1080 CE and 1100 CE.  Before that, Elfael with Maelienydd was Ferlix.  And while there is a Llanelli in Wales, it is nowhere near where it is on Lawhead’s map, being a coastal town in Carmarthenshire.

All this I fact checked using resources freely available on the Internet, but admittedly, there is some fuzziness to the historical records from this period.

Despite my dislike of Bran and Mérian and my uneasiness about some of the history and geography that Lawhead uses to set his novel, I still find this an interesting fictional representation of the Norman invasion of Wales and Welsh life and resistance at the time of William II.

I enjoy the ease with which Lawhead makes his story align with the Robin Hood legend, defending his case for a Welsh genesis for the myth.  And I like Lawhead’s writing. He captures the settings well. He writes a good battle.

I just wish that this story had more central characters that I actually enjoyed being around.  I do like Iwan (Little John) and Friar Tuck.

***

Lawhead, Stephen R. King Raven, Book 1: Hood. Nashville: Thomas Nelson-HarperCollins, 2007. First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Stephen R. Lawhead, Thomas Nelson, Inc, or HaperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Individual Trials and One Light Jog in These 9 from the Nine Worlds

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

Spoilers are written in white.  Highlight the text to view the spoilers.

I’ve just reread this short story collection in one sick day. The first time I read it through I was disappointed by the fluffiness of these stories. Reading it a second time, I found them not as excessively airy, still treated with the lighthearted tone with which Rick Riordan writes most things, but on a second reading, I was more into it, less annoyed by it.

Full disclosure: Rick Riordan is currently, easily one of my favorite authors, perhaps even topping that list.

This book hasn’t the tightness, intricacy, urgency, or gravitas of any of the series or even of the Demigods and Magicians, another short story collection, but rather than a plot to instigate war, overturn the cosmic order, or become a god, these stories are connected by a jogging route. Specifically Thor jogs implacably, unswervingly through the Nine Worlds in too tight, leather, running shorts, listening to the sounds of rocks and farting “like a sputtering engine” (99).

These nine stories take place over the course of maybe 24 eventful hours, the time that it takes Thor to loop through the Nine Worlds. Thor’s run through the Worlds affects each of the stories in a unique way, sometimes the cause of the story’s trouble and sometimes the answer to a hero’s quandary.

The individual dangers that the heroes overcome are more serious than Thor’s jog. [SPOILERS] Odin needs to find a leader for the Valkyries. Amir escapes a sorcerer. Blitz saves Thor.  Hearthstone saves Inge.  Sam does some intelligence gathering in Jotunheim.  TJ helps Hel. Mallory escapes Nidhogg. Halfborn fights dragons. Alex faces off against Surt.

Starting with a food fight in the Great Hall in Hotel Valhalla (a story narrated by Odin) and ending with a foiled meeting in the palace of Surt in Muspellheim (narrated by Alex Fierro), [END SPOILERS] each story is written in first person from the POV of one of the side characters of Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. The narrative style of each story is fairly similar to every other, though Riordan does do a good job peppering each story with perspectives unique to the character’s backstory, which help to distinguish the voices, though I did often have to look back at the title halfway through the first page to remind myself who was narrating.

Most of these are solo trials. There’s not a great deal of interaction between all the characters of Magnus, and there’s no Magnus (he’s away visiting Annabeth during this jog). The characters are great individually. There’s a sort of intimacy in interacting with these characters away from their friends. But it is different, and I don’t think that I prefer it, especially when I feel like these characters all have fairly similar voices if they do have diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and especially when Magnus was so much about ultimately the power (dare I say, the magic) of friendship (I see a great bit of parallel actually between Magnus Chase and the modern incarnation of My Little Pony).  The final line of this anthology is that same “friendship is magic” chord that I so enjoyed, but it seems an odd last note almost in a book where so few of the characters sought help.

All in all, it was enjoyable to spend some time with these characters again, to learn a little more about them and about the Norse cosmos. I just kind of wish that there had been higher stakes and more that connected the stories to one another; I expect both of these from Rick Riordan, and Demigods and Magicians taught me it was possible even in a short story collection.

Minor complaints that these are, they bear mentioning: I don’t like ragged pages, and the glossy pages of illustrations are oddly placed, intersecting two stories, the first time even interrupting a sentence. That was distracting and a) interrupted the flow of the stories and b) had me hurrying past the illustrations to find the end of the stories, but then because of the ragged pages, struggling to find the illustrations easily again to peruse them at my leisure.

****

Riordan, Rick.  9 From the Nine Worlds.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

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

Book Review: Flat Characters and Assumed Context in a Hole New World

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

I read A Hole New World to be better equipped to run a corporate-organized book discussion that used this and three other young reader titles as its jump points. I read the book in a day (after finishing Odd Gods). I am not its intended audience. I have neither played Minecraft (or really any other video games past a few rounds with friends) nor watched the PopularMMOs YouTube channel. I think I missed a lot of this book’s context. There was not a great deal of explanation of… anything. I know enough about Minecraft to have recognized Bomby as a Creeper when he appeared in the illustrations at last, but I haven’t any knowledge of what a Creeper is and what characteristics of Bomby’s persona are typical or atypical of its species.

I feel like I was being told what these fairly flat characters are like rather than being shown how they are. Jen is bubbly but clutzy; Pat says early that she often falls into the craters that Bomby makes. I did like that Jen is portrayed as a great swordswoman and bubbly and pink.  She and Pat are a steady (maybe married) couple.

Pat is the Hero™. He uses his sword to get out of most situations, but is somehow also the more cautious of the couple, looking down instead of forward and so avoiding falling into holes.

Carter, the one dark-skinned character, is a rival for Jen’s affection that Jen likes as a friend despite Pat’s protestations. Maybe he and Jen were previously in a relationship; maybe they were not. Pat is almost unsettlingly antagonistic towards Carter in his “defense” of Jen. Writing about this gets weird because I don’t know how close the characters in this self-insertion fiction are to their real counterparts, so I’m not going to write about it anymore, but just remind everyone not to let your partner try to distance you from your genuine friends.

The villain Evil Jen excuses her desire for world domination and causing a zombpocalypse with a tragic backstory about being thought unattractive for having overlarge lips. (Otherwise she looks “just like” Jen. What?? Making a trait deemed typically attractive unattractive does not a feminist or a body positive message make, just as the “real women have curves” slogan excludes another group of women from womanhood instead of creating a more inclusive view of femininity.)

Every other character passes in a few pages, which is almost a shame because how can you only wave at characters like a grumpy boat captain named Captain Cookie who we are told previously rescued the protagonists or a rebellion leader named Mr. Rainbow who is a rainbow-wooled sheep with access to magic loot boxes and a palatial hideout?

With Carter’s help and Mr. Rainbow’s help, Pat and Jen fight Evil Jen’s zombie minions to venture deeper into this hole new world, seeking to rescue their friend Bomby from Evil Jen.

All in all, I felt like an outsider reading this. The whole thing felt jagged and unfinished as a book detached from its webseries. But I think—I hope—that fans of the webseries won’t find it so without context, seeing the whole book as more of a tribute than as a separate entity. It’s a rare film that stands up to its original book. Maybe that goes backwards too.  But I definitely wish there had been more character-building and more “show don’t tell.”

**

PopularMMOs, Pat and Jen. A Hole New World. Illus. Dani Jones. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by PopularMMOs’ Pat or Jen, Dani Jones, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

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

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: May 2019 Picture Book Roundup: A Few Brand New Books

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Fun aside:  I was looking over my stats for this blog.  This past month in particular, I seem to have been getting a lot of views from readers all the way across the globe in Hong Kong.  Hi, Hong Kong readers!  Welcome to the blog!

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, author's and illustrator's bios, and activity sheets.

If I Was Sunshine by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Loren Long. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

The store received a review copy of this poetic picture book. There’s a definite pattern to the text, stanzas that begin with analogies “if i was A, and you were B” or “if you were C, and i was D” “i’d call you E and you’d called me F” (Fogliano writes all in lowercase). There’s little to the text itself.  The book’s meaning emerges through the reader’s reckoning of the relationships between the four varying objects of the stanzas. The text is accompanied by Long’s soothing and brightly colored illustrations, mainly of creatures interacting with nature.

****

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

A Friend Like Him by Suzanne Francis and illustrated by Dominic Carola and Ryan Feltman. Disney, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The trailers have me excited for this new live-action remake, which I haven’t actually seen as of writing this review. I was excited to have the chance to theme a story time around the story.  This book was a decent length for my young audience and told the story in a different way than did the 90s cartoon. This story centers the story of Aladdin on Genie, on Genie’s experience of being trapped in the lamp for millennia, occasionally emerging to grant wishes for wealth or power or fame to greedy masters, on his meeting Aladdin, a new master without that creepy look in his eyes, whom Genie instantly likes and grows to like more and more until they actually call one another friends. The message of friendship being the ultimate prize, the greatest thing to be wished for, and the best wish to grant is heartwarming. The perspective is fresh. The text is sweet without being saccharine, funny without being corny.

****

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

High Five by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I… kind of expected better from the creators of Dragons Love Tacos and Dragons Love Tacos 2. As a note, I read this first to myself and then to a crowd of children, but always with the idea of reading it to a crowd and dreading reading it to a crowd. My fears proved unfounded. I feared that every kid would want to high five the page as required by the story. I had only one little friend who was willing to high five the pages, and I had to do so first the first few times that the book required before he wanted to join in the interactive fun. I think this book would be better one-on-one and one-on-one between a reader and a listening child with whom the reader already has a playful relationship.

This story enters the reader into a high five competition. We are first introduced to our trainer, a yeti-ish creature called Sensei with a bunch of trophies on his shelves. Sensei walks the reader through the best techniques for high fiving. To win the competition, he warns, the reader will need flare. The competition begins, and the reader is pitted against a flurry of creatures (a kangaroo joey and its mother, a snake, an octopus), until we are paired with an elephant against whom we had trained. The award for winning the competition (which the reader does) is a trophy at the end of the book that takes up a two-page spread and requires the book to be turned 90 degrees to view properly.

The text mostly rhymes with the instruction to “HIGH FIVE” breaking the rhythm and highlighting the command even more.  The illustrations are done in a bold neon palette colored pencil with a lot of white.

***

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.

Book Reviews: April 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Empowered Children and Specialized Vocabulary

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This young black baby is ready to raise a fist like a little panther. Using activist phrases and historical references, this little one wakes ready to take on a world without a glass ceiling to shatter, with no one to tell this baby no. The text is poetic, beautiful even, and clever, empowering, loving, describing the child’s fists, toes, eyes, voice, dance all as acts of self-expression and tools to change the world for the better.  The text addresses the child in second person:  “Here are your hands.”   The illustrations are of the child waking, wailing for a parent, being heard, and being lifted from the crib, playing, and resting. The intended audience is certainly young children, toddlers, but I would love to wake up to this myself.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach. Scholastic, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I didn’t love this story as much as I had hoped to do, and I’m struggling a little to determine why. The premise is simple enough: an impatient caterpillar who doesn’t realize at the beginning of the book that becoming a butterfly is even possible for it is impatient to be a butterfly now. It doesn’t like having to wait in its chrysalis to become a butterfly. I know the caterpillar’s impatience and its ignorance, its constant questioning are supposed to mimic a child’s behavior, and certainly it gives Burach the time to include some facts about the caterpillar’s/butterfly’s transformation process (terminology and the length of time that the transformation takes), but I found it irritating, and more so I found the other caterpillars’ (or whatever one calls a caterpillar halfway through a transformation) responses to it irritating too. They are irritated, sometimes yelling, so I felt irritated reading their responses aloud, reading in tone. Told in dialogue and soliloquy, I feel like this is the type of book better acted out and probably better with two actors. The impatient caterpillar finally overcomes its impatience through meditation and deep breathing exercises and emerges as a “changed” butterfly, ready to be patient, though the final page hints that its transformation may not have been so complete as that.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

100 First Words for Little Artists by Kyle Kershner. Familius, 2019.

Familius has been publishing this series in which each book in the series offers 100 words of a particular specialized vocabulary. I read 100 First Words for Little Geeks in 2018, which took its words from various sci-fi and fantasy fandoms of literature and film. This 100 First Words is all about the world of art, the tools (including coffee) that an artist uses to create in a wealth of mediums. Some of these are words that I, a 30-year-old woman who took art classes through high school, never learned. As a series, this is a neat concept. There are words and phrases in these primers that you will never find elsewhere. But I think that the market for these may be narrow. It’s definitely a fun book for young artists that are becoming parents.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and letters from from the author and Julia Bascom.

Family Forever: A Julia Storybook by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by MaryBeth Nelson. Sesame Workshop, 2019.

This book, exclusively printed for Barnes & Noble but otherwise available digitally, is a gem of an education tool! Julia, one of the newer Muppets to join the Sesame Street cast, has autism. Never is autism or Julia seen by any of the characters in this book as an inconvenience. She and her family (mother, father, and brother) go for a picnic. While at the park, she and her brother leave the picnic blanket to play with Elmo and Abby. Julia’s big brother Samuel is excellent at making sure that Julia is included and her strengths acknowledged. He suggests a game. He asks Julia to be the leader first. Julia is upset when she realizes that sometime during the play, she has lost her stuffed friend, Fluffster. Her family and friends help to locate the toy. Sometimes Julia expresses herself in different ways, but her ways are not seen as lesser. She uses a talker sometimes to help her communicate when she can’t find the right words.  Elmo at one point even uses Julia’s talker when Julia doesn’t need it to express herself.  She flaps her hands when she is excited sometimes, and she rocks when she is upset.  The story itself—of a missing toy lost and recovered—has a good, full arc and is relatable I think to most children (and adults), but it means all the more when it offers a too rare example of a child with autism in a picture book, handled with compassion and love and empathy.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, reviews, sample page, and author's bio.

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Candlewick, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Julián and his abuela see a few women on the subway dressed for (research tells me) the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Julián loves mermaids, the idea of swimming in sea with the fish. On the subway, Julián is reading a book, probably about mermaids. Julián tells his grandmother that he is a mermaid too. His abuela goes to take a bath, and while she does, Julián dresses himself as a mermaid with fern fronds and flowers in his hair and curtains as a tail. When upon seeing what he has done, his abuela walks away without a word, Julián becomes momentarily uncertain of himself and of his outfit, until she gives him beads to complete his outfit, and takes him to the parade. Julián is awed by the mermaids, which his abuela comments are “like you.”  Together they join the parade. This won the Stonewall Award in 2018, an award given to books that best represent the GLBT experience. I use the he/him pronouns for Julián because even in her loving acceptance of Julián, his abuela continues to use “mijo” when referring to Julián, which I have most often heard translated to son, but Love carefully uses no pronouns in the book, so I am not 100% which pronouns Julián prefers. Julián uses the term “mermaid” for himself, but I take mermaid as more gender neutral than necessarily feminine, though at no time does anyone “correct” Julián and tell him that he is a merman. Men are not discouraged from participating in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade as far as I can tell. Without the Stonewall Award sticker though, I’m not sure that I would have read this as a representation of the GLBT experience; its messaging to me was that subtle. I love the casual usage of Spanish in this book. The Spanish words are not italicized or marked any differently than the English. I love the body diversity and positivity in this book. There are curvy, older women in bathing suits. There are young girls in bathing suits. There are older men wearing shorts with thin legs and knobby knees. Most of the women are bare-armed, wearing spaghetti straps or strapless tops or dresses or towels. Almost all of the characters are people of color. I just love Julián’s abuela. She is so wonderfully accepting and supportive. If the A stood for Ally, I would give her an A+. She gets an A+ anyway, just not that A. The text does not describe many of the actions of the book, allowing the illustrations to speak for themselves. The text is primarily dialogue. Only reading this through a third time am I noticing the echoed pattern of the scales of the fish and his abuela’s dress as each offers Julián a necklace.

*****

Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, activity guide, and author's and illustrator's bio.

Harrison Dwight, Ballerina and Knight by Rachael MacFarlane and illustrated by Spencer Laudiero. Imprint-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this picture book about feeling and expressing what you feel without thought to convention or societal expectation. Even the adults do not conform to expectations, Harrison’s mother taking him to football games while he and his father pick wildflowers together. Harrison dances when he wants to because it makes him feel strong. He cries when he is sad or when he is moved or hurt. He implores others to explore and express themselves with confidence as he does. The text is admittedly maybe a little heavy-handed in its message, but until we start living these truths, maybe we need a little heavy-handedness.

***

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.