Tag Archives: friendship

Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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

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

Dory

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

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

***

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

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

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

***                             ***

Big World Problems

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

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

*****

Social Dramas

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

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

**

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

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

**1/2

Liking the You in the Mirror

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

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

*

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

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

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Reviews: January 2016 Picture Book Roundup

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Next Month’s Holidays:

February 2: Groundhog’s Day

9781619632899Groundhog’s Day Off by Robb Pearlman and illustrated by Brett Helquist. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is a book that won’t come out of its hole but once a year—and that’s sort of shame. It’s a clever, funny little book, about a groundhog who feels underappreciated so he leaves on an unplanned vacation right before his big day, leaving the town in a lurch and holding auditions for someone to replace him. He just wants the media to ask him about something other than the weather—really, he wants to be asked about himself, the personal questions, like what movies he likes and how he likes his pizza. There’s an African American female mayor and the potential for a sequel as the groundhog runs away with the Easter Bunny at the end. This is though I think the sort of picture book that gets a larger laugh from adults than it does from the kids.

***

9781580896009Groundhog’s Dilemma by Kristen Remenar and illustrated by Matt Faulkner. Charlesbridge-Penguin, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

Groundhog can never please everyone with his annual weather report. His friends think that they can change his report by currying favor with groundhog. After several attempts to explain that he does not control the weather, he only reports it—all of which are ignored—Groundhog, enjoying the place on the baseball team and the homemade pies, lets his friends think that he will be able to please them all—even when their desires conflict. As the next Groundhog’s Day approaches, Groundhog realizes that he will upset people no matter what he says—he simply cannot please everyone—and he worries that he will lose the friends whom he disappoints. He decides to be honest, to tell them that he’s sorry that he let them think that he could fix the weather for them, but that he liked being liked. I liked that though this too is a book firmly affixed to a minor holiday, the lesson is universal and applicable anytime: though the attention from making false promises may feel good for a while, it’ll eventually sour; also, you should not bring gifts or do favors for a friend because you want him to do something for you, but rather should like him for who he is. The overly flirtatious female hare is an interesting character to include in a children’s book.

***

Next Month’s Holidays:

February 14: Let Me Count the Ways

y648Where Is Love, Biscuit? by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Pat Schories. HarperFestival-HarperCollins, 2009. First published 2002. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was a surprisingly everyday board book. I worried it would be too Valentine’s to be read anytime, but the story instead asks, “Where’s the love, Biscuit?” and love is found in a soft blanket, in baking cookies, in a knitted sweater. There are touch-and-feel elements on many if not all of the pages. There’s not a lot of story, really, but these were surprisingly refreshing examples on love—especially as it was on display with all of the Valentine’s Day books.

***

9780448489322Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar adapted from Eric Carle’s works. Grosset & Dunlap-Penguin Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is another book made by hijacking Eric Carle’s works and piecing them together. But unlike the Favorite Words series, this one has… sentences. Sappy text like “you are the cherry to my cake” is accompanied by the caterpillar on the cherry atop a cake and “you make my heart flutter” by the caterpillar as a butterfly and “you are the bee’s knees” by a swarm of friendly bees. It’s a sweet book to read to a beloved child or maybe to give to a sweetheart, but there’s not a lot of substance there, and I really do feel a little queasy over these Frankensteined books made from Carle’s illustrations.

***

ILYM_jacket_Final:Layout 1I Love You More by Laura Duksta and illustrated by Karen Keesler. Sourcebooks, 2009. First published 2001.

This book features a pretty cool and inventive structure. One side reads as the mother’s response to her son’s question: “How much do you love me?” Flip it over and read the son’s response to his mother when she asks the same question. The middle page bridges the two responses. The text itself is pretty… gooey. Especially on the mother’s side it sounds like that old country song: “deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher the pine trees”: “I love you higher than the highest bird ever flew. I love you taller than the tallest tree ever grew.” The son’s response is a bit more inventive and includes all the things that boys stereotypically like best: “I love you further than the furthest frog ever leaped. […] I love you louder than the loudest rocket ship ever blasted.” If you’re looking for an ooey-gooey, I-love-you-so-much-book this is a great option.

*****

9781619639225I’ll Never Let You Go by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and illustrated by Alison Brown. Bloomsbury USA, 2015.

This is another mushy, gushy, read-to-your-child story. The illustrations are of different animals with their parents, and the style is whimsical, the creatures reminiscent of plushies with their soft lines and simple faces.  The parent promises to be with the child through all of its highs and lows: “When you are excited, the world joins with you, You bounce all about—and look! I’m bouncing, too!” (We won’t talk about those commas.) “When you are sad and troubled with fears, I hold you close and dry all your tears.” Reminiscent at once of Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Go, My Love Will Find You and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, I think that this book personally lives up to neither, but is simpler than either, and might be a better book than either to read with a child rather than to one—that being said, the text is very much meant to be a parent speaking. There are really just so many books about a parent promising to always love a child that it’s difficult to be outstanding in that category.

***

Making New Friends

9780399167737 Peanut Butter & Cupcake by Terry Border. Philomel-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

What bothered me most about this book was the title, so this should be a pretty positive review. I understand that a title like Peanut Butter and Jelly would be more likely to get lost in the noise, but Peanut Butter and Cupcake is misleading. Cupcake’s is only a two page spread and a mention, and she’s not very welcoming to Peanut Butter, inviting him to watch her play, but warning him not to play with her (what’s more, the cupcake on the cover is by far the tastiest-looking cupcake in the book). The premise is this: Peanut Butter, new to town, wants to play but knows no one and his mom is too busy to play with him, so she sends him out to wander the town and try to make a friend. Peanut Butter approaches various other foods and gives a speech about how he has a ball and wants to play “maybe now, maybe later—or even all day” (that I can remember three days later that repeated phrase says quite a bit for the memorability of the writing—and the number of times that I read this phrase aloud). The illustrations are at least as impressive as the text—and probably more so. Done as posed photographs with food and props (paper clips for feet and hands, for example), I can only imagine how long each illustration took to get right. Clever puns pepper the text and pictures alike: Hamburger walks a pair of wiener hot dogs. Soup spells out his responses to Peanut Butter’s pleas. Cupcake plays in a sandbox of sprinkles. French Fries has to catch up with Hamburger and his hot dogs (read the sentence aloud if you don’t see the pun). Jelly eventually finds Peanut Butter and the two of them play together. The other neighborhood foods see the two of them having fun and Peanut Butter and Jelly let them all join in, taking the high road, so that everyone is enjoying themselves and each others’ company.

****

9780805098259Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

In October I was besotted with Mike Curato’s sequel to this book, Little Elliot, Big Family. Then I’d done some digging and peeked at some of the illustrations from this book found on Curato’s website. I predicted that I would love Little Elliot, Big Family more than the original—and I think that that has proved true, though maybe it’s because Big Family was the first that I found. The problem in Big City is probably more relatable to most kids.  In Little Elliot, Big City, Elliot is small and can be lost in the crowds of New York and stand unseen at the counter at the cupcake shop. He is feeling dejected when he spots Mouse, smaller even than Elliot. Mouse is hungry—hungrier than Elliot—and cannot reach the pizza slice in the park garbage bin. Elliot helps Mouse, and the two of them become friends. Together they are tall enough, and Elliot is able to buy and share his cupcake. It seems trite in a way, that Elliot’s trouble revolves around and is ultimately resolved by the acquisition of a cupcake—even if I sort of understand that that cupcake is more the culmination and physical manifestation of a heap of other troubles resulting from being too little. The illustrations are still gorgeous: vibrant and smooth, though showing less of the diversity of the city that is so wonderfully captured in Little Elliot, Big Family (though the diversity is there).

****

24819508Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick and illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

My two audience members were not yet one and not yet two. This story was really too long for them, but we read it the first Wednesday after the Caldecott and Newbery winners had been chosen, and I had this, Matt de la Peña’s The Last Stop on Market Street, and Kevin Henkes’ Waiting (a Caldecott honoree) in a pile beside me. My not-yet-two year old picked out this one, and we made a pretty valiant effort to get through it (I read maybe the last two or three pages to myself, but over the course of a half hour, we made our way through the rest of the story before the kids’ interest was entirely lost to the toys behind me). Finding Winnie tells the true tale of Winnie, an orphaned bear cub from Canada, who is saved from the trapper by a soldier and accompanies his brigade to England, where they will train to fight in World War II. Winnie stays with the soldiers until they are called away to the front, then she is left in the care of the London Zoo, where she is befriended by Christopher Robin Milne, whose father A. A. Milne was inspired by their friendship to introduce us all to our friend, Winnie-the-Pooh. The frame story is told by the soldier Harry Coleburn’s great-granddaughter, the author of the book, who tells the story to her little boy, Cole. As a Caldecott winner, I was supposed to be blown away by the illustrations, which are nice, but I was more taken by the photographs in the back of the book, proving the truth of the tale, and by the tale itself, which seems almost too perfect to be real.

****

You Can Be the Hero Too

the-night-gardener-9781481439787_lgThe Night Gardener by Terry Fan and Eric Fan (the Fan Brothers). Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

I was given access through work to an unbound page proof of this book, which is due out on my birthday, actually: February 16 (Happy early birthday to me!). The illustrations are the obvious star of this book—by which I mean, I fell in love with the illustrations almost to the point that the text is irrelevant—not that the text was bad; it wasn’t, but it was overshadowed. The book tells the story of a boy who wakes to imaginative topiaries and wonders who is creating these masterpieces. He ultimately stumbles into an apprenticeship with the Night Gardener. But really, just do yourself a favor and go take a look at these whimsical, marvelous illustrations. Wonder like I do how the color palette can be at once so vibrant and so muted.

****

9780803737891Skippyjon Jones: Snow What by Judy Schachner. Dial-Penguin Random, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I really enjoyed this story and the parents really enjoyed this story, but it wasn’t holding the attention of my audience of three (two of whom admittedly were under one). I warned them and I will warn you that my Spanish is… pitiful. I studied in middle school, but it’s almost entirely washed away now. I don’t think that my poor presentation helped. I fudged my way through most of the Spanish and the Spanglish and probably pronounced a few of the words with more French or Italian than they ought to have done. Does the Spanish and Spanglish keep me from enjoying the story? In no way. Little Skippyjon is the only boy in a passel of girls, and he is outvoted when it’s time to choose a story. He storms away and invents his own tale of Snow What, where he is once again the famous swordfighter Skippito Friskito, is forced into tights by his friends the poochitos, and is forced to kiss the ice cube coffin of the princess to wake her from her cursed sleep. He cannot escape the tropes of the fairytale, but he can become the hero, can tell himself a story that focuses on the prince instead of the princess. I appreciated that this one had less stereotyping of Mexican culture than some in this series (the original tale) and I appreciated the, well, backlash to the backlash of the Disney Princess tale dominance. As important as it is for girls to see themselves as heroines, it’s just as important for boys to see themselves as heroes.  This story also highlights the great power of imagination.

****

Clever Primers

y648-19780062110589Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2010.

Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons by Eric Litwin and illustrated by James Dean. HarperCollins, 2012.

Sometimes, the best review really comes from the kids. I read these two (and Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses) to a crowd of kids, who knew the stories well-enough to read pages to me, who knew the songs, and sung them for me. When the kids love the stories that much, it’s really hard to dislike them—and honestly, there’s a lot to like. I hadn’t stopped to consider that these are primers for an older crowd with a semblance of plot not usually in primers. I Love My White Shoes is the first ever Pete the Cat story and a color primer, where Pete sings about his love for his white shoes, and when he squashes strawberries, his red shoes, and when he steps in a pile of blueberries, his blue shoes. The refrain “Did Pete cry? Goodness, no. He kept walking along and singing his song” is a wonderful lesson in Hakuna matata. But really, this silly cat really ought to watch out for piles of berries. Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons is a counting and math primer. He sings another song about how he loves his buttons. The song changes to reflect the number of buttons as one after another pops off and rolls away. Both books play with words to make a surprising ending. Pete’s shoes are wet, but does he cry? Goodness no. Pete’s coat has no more buttons, but there’s still the best button of all left—his belly button! I had somehow missed these books. I don’t know how. I actually prefer the text from Kimberly Dean’s later book, Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses, because the text and story is more complex, but the lesson and theme of positivity despite circumstances is still there, but Kimberly Dean’s story lacks the primer aspect, so really I can respect both, and cheer both, and marvel that this is a picture book series that can kids can grow with in the same way that they can later grow with, say, Harry Potter.

****            ****

good-night-ct-cover-535x535Good Night Connecticut by Christina Vrba and illustrated by Anne Rosen. Good Night Books, 2009.

This book is part of a series that I think now covers all fifty states, some cities, some countries, some general locations, some general family members, some fire trucks and mermaids and dinosaurs. I’m a Nutmegger by birth and spent my childhood in the state. Much of the focus in this book is on tourist attractions more than on more general sights in the state, and many of those I’ve never visited, though I know of many of them. Most of the attractions have a short descriptor. While I haven’t seen everything listed in the book, the old stone walls, town green, beaches, and riding rings were a large part of my childhood environment. I bought this board book on a whim in a small store in Kent before leaving the state. Sometimes I just take it out to remind myself of home. This is not stellar writing, but it has nostalgia value, and it would have value as a primer for a vacation or to teach a child about her home state. It’s meant for young kids, kids who are still learning the sounds of turkeys and trains.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Challenge: Legal Theft: Her Price (1429 words)

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She couldn’t leave the river, and she was malevolent. Every legend agreed in those two things. She kept us from crossing the river. Ours was the last village before her river impeded northern travel.

No one quite knew what to call her: a naiad, a goddess, an ondine, a rusalka, a demoness…. Most in our area called her simply She.

She took the form of a woman with long hair the color of the sand on the riverbed. Most of us had seen her. She often wore a dress of river water, the fabric—if fabric it was—catching the light in just the way that the river did. Sometimes she wore nothing. It was said that she was at her most dangerous then.

She was not confined to one point in the river. She could follow an adventurer along the waterway to its source, it was said, though no one who had tried to circumnavigate the river had ever returned.

She subsisted on fish mostly, but she was not above insects and waterfowl or an animal that crept to her river to drink. There were tales of children, men, and women whom she had lured to the river, drowned, and eaten, leaving maybe a bone or two on the riverbed as the only evidence to their disappearance.

We drew our water from wells—for ourselves and for our animals. We built fences to keep the animals from wandering too near the river. We taught our children to keep away.

And then came the heat of a long summer, when little rain fell, and our buckets scraped mud and muck instead of fresh water.

The river was low, sluggish, but still ran after the wells were dry.

Some hoped that she would be weakened by the drought. Silas let go a sow of his, and we watched as the squealing pig was dragged off of the bank.

We didn’t see the pig again.

But we still needed water.

“Maybe she can be reasoned with,” Gabe volunteered.

“Maybe she can be caught,” Ron said.

“Catch the river?” Frances scoffed.

“Well, if we build a dam—”

“She can be anywhere in the river.”

“But can she jump a dam?”

And round and round our conversations went, while our throats went drier and our voices grew hoarse and no one could wet his lips.

Marcus slipped outside.

I followed him when I noticed that he was gone.

It had grown near dark while we’d argued. Marcus looked up at the star-seeded sky. Cloudless.

“No rain coming,” he said. He didn’t look at me. I didn’t know how he knew that I was there.

“When did you leave?”

“When they started talking about moving south. We can’t do it, Pryor. We can’t leave the village.”

“We need water.”

“We need water,” Marcus agreed. He started walking. And I hurried after him.

It didn’t take me long to realize where he was going, and when I did, I grabbed his arm. “Marcus, no!”

“We need water,” he repeated.

“The sow—”

“We need water.” He twisted his arm out of my grasp, and stalked on. “And I’m not leaving. Not without a fight.”

“You’re going to fight her? Marcus, she’s made of water.”

“And if I kill her there’ll be plenty of it.”

“You can’t kill water.” I emphasized every word as if my sharper tone could penetrate his thick skull.

But he shook off my words like midges around his ears.

He kept walking.

I drew my knife—because if we were going to face her, it was better to be armed, however little it could do—and I followed.

Marcus stopped mere feet from the water’s edge, and we watched her materialize, rising from the water like a burbling spring, slowly taking on form, till she stood, naked in the moonlight. Her long hair rippled, a dark waterfall down her bare back.

She looked up slowly at Marcus.

“I’m so tired,” she mumbled.

“Witch,” Marcus spat, “it’s time to give up.”

“Give up?” she repeated.

“Yes. We need water.”

“And I need water. I am water. You want me to give you myself? Freely?”

“Yes, witch.”

“I cannot do that. There’s a price for everything. As you would not give freely of yourself, so I won’t give up myself.”

“So what’s your price?”

She smiled. “You know my price. It’s why you teach your children not to come near me. It’s why you pen your animals to keep them from coming to me.”

“So how many animals?”

“You cannot pay me off.” Her voice sliced through the air like a knife against skin, soaked with enough threat to make me shiver. “The river is always hungry.”

“So what?” Marcus growled. “We die? We flee? What is it you want?”

“No matter what you do, I will continue.”

“Marcus,” I said, putting a hand on his arm. “Let’s go. Nothing will come of this.”

“I’m not leaving the village,” Marcus roared.

“And nor am I,” she said, quiet as rain on the thatched roofs.

“We’re not giving up. We’re not leaving,” Marcus told her.

“No one outlives the river. Nor can you cage water. No net, no trap can hold me. Even a rock prison I would break in time.”

“It only has to hold you till the wells come back.”

Her scimitar smile showed pointed teeth.

We were too near. I grabbed Marcus’ arm again. I tried to pull him back. We shouldn’t be able to see her teeth.

He tore his arm from my hands and took a fatal step away from me.

He was in the water in moments. I still don’t know how. She had him in her arms, wrestling him, his head twisted back, her teeth bared over his neck.

And then I was in the water.

I jumped in before I’d thought it through.

Marcus was thrashing still, churning the water with wheeling arms, and kicking with his feet as if he might be able to launch himself back out onto the dry land, out of her arms.

I heard the shouts, and I heard the hiss ,and I heard the splashing.

I kept pushing forward.

I felt the sting. I felt the fire rake across my arm as she lashed out at me.

I heard the gasp. I saw Marcus pushing away from her. It had been enough. I saw him staring.

She was on me now, and it felt every bit like drowning, like those first disorienting moments when you dive into the pool, and you’re too deep, deeper than you’d thought, and you open your eyes, but you’re not yet above the water, and you can’t figure out at first why you can’t breathe, and you don’t know if you’ll make it back to the surface because you don’t know how far away it really is, and you push, and you pray.

I didn’t push. I didn’t pray. I knew I couldn’t win. You can’t kill water.

She was on me. She had her hand twisted in my hair. She had her arm wrapped around me, pinning my arms to my side as she held a wrist behind my back. And she was pulling me under. Fluidly. As smoothly as if I weighed nothing. And then it was dark, and it was quiet, and I couldn’t hear Marcus screaming anymore. I couldn’t hear the splashing, only the pulse of riverwater.

And it was getting darker. Quieter. And my neck—my neck hurt. My neck seemed to be on fire. Below the water. How was that possible?

I blinked. And blinking hurt.

Breathing hurt. Breathing burnt. And when I did breathe out, a stream of silent bubbles, barely visible in the dark night and the moonlight, left me, like the leaves blowing off of the trees in autumn.

I was drowning.
I was dying.

But Marcus was safe.

She growled. Somehow she could still growl below the water.

“Why don’t you fight?” she asked. She shook me.

“Because you’ll win.” I didn’t know how I’d heard the words. They should have been more silent bubbles. Maybe I was hallucinating now. Maybe I was dead.

She hissed as if my answer somehow displeased her.

Her hands seemed to loosen as we sank deeper into the dark. They were dissolving into murky cloud and grit. She shrieked. Shouldn’t I have been the one shrieking? She feared instead of me.

And my eyes were still open under the water.

And I watched her dissolve, and stayed below long after I’d ceased to feel her holding me down.

The line this week is mine, and I’m rather pleased with this piece, though I’m still not entirely sold on the ending.  All in all, though, a good way to start the new legal theft year.

We had a big old gang for this one:

 Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “It Lurks.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Caging Waves.”

Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Bored Spirit.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Guardian” (648 words).

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Freedom” (170 words).

Book Reviews: November 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Part 1: The Anytime Books

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Mmm, Mmm, Good

cvr9781442443372_9781442443372_hrCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. Antheneum-Simon & Schuster, 1982. First published 1978. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Would you believe this is the first time I’ve read this book, though I’ve loved the movie for six years? I was surprised how many elements of the story found their way into the film, though the film is vividly bright and focuses more on how and who than what. I had a difficult time dividing the picture book from the story in the film, so I won’t comment much on Grandpa’s tall tale about Chewandswallow. This book takes the form of a frame story. After a breakfast of pancakes, during which one pancake is flung too far and lands on a child’s head, Grandpa is reminded of a tall tale that he tells at bedtime. The illustrations differentiate reality and the story: Reality is black and white. The story is colored. Perhaps the best part of the story is the ending where the narrator remarks that in the real world the sun looks like a pat of butter atop the hill, marking the blur of reality and fiction and the ability of fiction to improve reality, particularly with the touch of bright yellow bleeding into the black and white illustration on that page. The tall tale shows great inspiration from oral tall tales, especially at the beginning where Grandpa is describing where to find Chewandswallow and describing how Chewandswallow is like other towns. This is a good, out-of-the-box wintertime story (the kids go sledding) and a good grandparents story.

****

l_9781585369133_fcThe Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 5-8, Grade 1.

This book is marketed and displayed with the Thanksgiving books, but it’s really not specific to Thanksgiving. In fact, I don’t recall any mention of the holiday, and I know that I was relegated to the little kids’ table on holidays besides Thanksgiving—Christmas certainly, but sometimes July 4th, birthdays, really any holiday where families gather and share a meal. The adults’ table is dressed in all its finery: flowers on the table, matching place settings, and glasses made of glass or maybe even crystal. The kids’ table is a little rowdier—and more fun! They practice balancing spoons (and plates and flower vases) on their noses. The dog gets fed the broccoli casserole that the adults insist will help little kids grow strong even though it’s icky. The adults tell the kids to calm down, to be quiet, but the kids think that secretly the adults wish that they too could sit at the little kids’ table. Being sat at the little kids’ table can feel exclusionary, but this text helps to redeem the idea a little bit. For those families that deem a little kids’ table necessary and those kids who feel hurt by being sat away from the family, this book could be helpful. The text rhymes, but the rhymes are not too jarring. The illustrations are bright, and the family is multiracial without it being an issue.

****

9781484722626_3ed6dElephant and Piggie: I Really Like Slop! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

A new Elephant and Piggie book! What I really like about this book is that not only did Gerald try Piggie’s spicy, pungent cultural delicacy willingly after some hesitation but that it’s okay that he didn’t like it. That he tries the slop is touted as a mark of their friendship, as an act of love via shared culture, but Piggie is not upset that Gerald doesn’t like her slop, and their friendship continues, even stronger.

****

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Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson and illustrated by Jane Chapman. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2012. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is another book marketed for Thanksgiving, but why should it be? Friends can share a meal at any time, and one should always thank those who share with them—and again I don’t think that the holiday was mentioned by name. The rhyming text here was actually less smooth than Riehle’s, mostly because of the forced repetition of the clunky “Bear says, ‘Thanks!’” The order of the words there is less natural, though I understand the desire to end the phrase and thereby put the emphasis on “Thanks!” particularly in a Thanksgiving spinoff. Bear wants to have his friends over for a meal, but his cupboards are bare (see what Wilson did there?). Perhaps they’re psychic because they start arriving all at once with food without being invited to do so within the text. Bear thanks each of them in turn, but he is distressed because he has nothing to offer them in return. They assure him that his company and his stories are enough, and they all share a woodland feast in bear’s lair (because “lair” rhymes with “bear”). Chapman’s illustrations are beautifully soft and gentle, helping to sort of smooth over some of the roughness I found in the text of this book.

***

Cats! y648If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Joffe Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond. HarperCollins, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Following the circular, if/then style as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, this cat is given a cupcake, but spills the sprinkles, and gets hot cleaning up, so is brought to the beach, after which ultimately the sand in his swimming trunks remind him of sprinkles and of cupcakes. It’s a silly story, made sillier by the idea of a cat at the beach. When I was reading this, I really wanted a cat book, and I didn’t feel like that was what I got, but this remains a fun, silly story and well written.

****

24000733Pepper & Poe by Frann Preston-Gannon. Orchard-Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

A customer actually pointed this book out to me first. She had read a review and wanted to see the book for herself. The illustrations are pretty cute: black background with a white kitten with big orange eyes and a gray cat with big green eyes and a chestnut dog. Pepper, the gray cat, likes Sundays. He likes Mondays too and Tuesdays. These are lazy days, days when he can just enjoy the quiet house. But then a kitten arrives, and his days get worse and worse as the kitten causes chaos and Pepper is asked to share. Then Pepper and Poe create such a mess that they are about to get in trouble, but both simultaneously blame the dog. Scholastic describes this as a sibling story—but I’m not sure that blame your eldest sibling for trouble your fighting has caused is a good tactic to suggest to ease sibling tension. I don’t know that most kids will read this as a sibling story, though. The cats in the story are very catlike.

**

We Can Do It!

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Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007.

Iggy begins building very early. His parents are impressed and fairly supportive (except when he uses dirty diapers). The rhymes are a bit forced, but the story still has a good rhythm. When his teacher, Miss Lila Greer, refuses to even talk about architecture in her classroom, Iggy’s interest in school is killed, a fate I think too many will relate to. On a class picnic, the class is stuck on an island when a bridge collapses behind them, and Miss Greer drops into a faint from fear—dare I say hysteria? While crossing over a bridge that her class has built out of whatever was on hand while she was in her faint, Miss Greer sees that “There are worse things to do when you’re in grade 2 than to spend your time building a dream,” and she sees the class’ pride in their creation, and so she has a change of heart on the subject of architecture, even allowing Iggy Peck to give weekly lectures to her second grade class on the subject. Miss Greer goes from being a terrible teacher, crushing her children’s dreams and ambitions and interests, to an excellent one, nurturing and encouraging them to explore their interests and to share their expertise and interest with others, even deferring to them. I feel like there are two audiences here: One lesson is for teachers like Miss Greer (or really any adult) and that is to let kids be interested in what interests them. The other is for children—and that is to not let adults and authority figures crush your interests. I’ve spotted Rosie Revere, protagonist of the sequel book, in the illustrations, which are spare but endearing. Bonus points to Roberts for children of many races in the classroom.

****

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Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2013.

Iggy Peck I think had the better story, but at another time, I’d love to read this one alongside a story about Rosie the Riveter, Rosie Revere’s great-great-aunt Rose, though the text does not make this explicitly clear (if anyone knows of a good picture book about Rosie the Riveter or women in WWII in general, please do share). Rosie’s inventions send one of her uncles (and his snakes) into peals of laughter, and while he says that he likes the invention, the laughter hurts Rosie’s confidence and she hides away her talent, building things in the attic of her house and hiding them under her bed, but never letting anyone see the inventions or see her inventing. But her great-great-aunt is an inspiring woman, and she longs to fly. Rosie thinks that maybe she could help her aunt, but her flying machine crashes, and her aunt laughs. Some of the rhymes felt a little forced, but the rhymes are still lilting and give the story a good rhythm. My favorite line may well be “But questions are tricky, and some hold on tight, and this one kept Rosie awake through the night,” because that, as a writer and not an engineer, I can relate to well. Great-great-aunt Rose tells Rosie the importance of never giving up and having confidence in yourself and your ideas. Failures to Rose are just first tries. I do like that we have here a young female protagonist with a passion for science and engineering. Busy illustrations filled with Rosie’s inventions and the creativity of her parts (and including Iggy Peck in classroom scenes) are drawn in pastels on a white background.

***

425818How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers. HarperCollins, 2006.

A boy in love with the stars wants one of his very own, to be his friend, to play hide-and-seek, and with which to take long walks on the beach. He decides to catch a star—not the best way to acquire a friend, it must be said—but his efforts are in vain, because of course you can’t catch a star. He can’t jump high enough, he can’t climb high enough, his rocket ship is made of paper and doesn’t fly well, and seagulls aren’t known for being helpful. Eventually the boy does get a star of his own, one that he’s found washed up on the beach, and they walk along the beach, just like he’d imagined. The colors in this book I think are its best part. They’re beautiful, bright colors. Particularly I enjoyed the sky and light at different times of the day and the particular attention to shadows. There are some beautiful lines of text in this book too: the star “just rippled through his fingers” and “He waited… and he waited… and ate lunch” and “Now the boy was sad. But in his heart, the wish just wouldn’t give up.” Oliver Jeffers is one of my favorites because he is able to be sweet and funny, and because his illustrations use whimsical and pay particular attention to shadow, even when they are spare, which they are not always.

****

Adventuresome Birds

1484730887Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

A grumpy bear who likes to eat eggs in fancy recipes that he finds at the Internet returns with all the other ingredients for his meal to find that his goose eggs have hatched into goslings, who now believe that Bruce is their mother. Honestly, the plot felt a bit overdone (Fly Away Home, anyone?) and the jokes were too adult to be caught, I think, by most of my very young audience (jokes about return policies and identity theft and shopping locally for free-range organic eggs). Mother Bruce raises the children well, but cannot get them to fly away South when it is time for them to migrate, so they all get on a bus and migrate together to Miami. Bear skips his winter hibernation—since it’s still summery in Miami—and spends time on the beach with his goslings—now geese. I as an adult enjoyed it, seeing the cute story of a bear who raises four goslings into geese and understanding the jokes about current human culture, but I don’t know that it played as well with the kids at my story time.

**

24880135Waddle! Waddle! by James Proimos. Scholastic, 2015. Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

The style of this book, the humorous dialogue, and the final punch all strongly reminded me of Mo WillemsElephant and Piggie books, though Proimos’ illustration style and his story were both different enough from any Willems book that I could cry no foul but could only cheer. I hope this expands into a series too. Waddle! Waddle! introduces us quickly to the problem: to find the penguin protagonist’s lost friend. The penguin meets two other penguins—one who sings and one who plays the horn (neither particularly well, but both loudly)—but neither is the friend that he met yesterday. He goes to a third character—but realizes too late that this is a polar bear, not a penguin at all, and definitely not the friend that he met yesterday. The polar bear is sorry for the penguin’s plight, but announces that he will eat the penguin now. The singing and the horn-playing penguins come to their new friend’s aid and stun the polar bear with their talents, causing him to drop the penguin protagonist. The penguin slides away and discovers his friend from yesterday! But let’s not tell him that his friend is only his reflection in the ice. The dancing penguin, the singing penguin, and the horn-playing penguin go off together wing-in-wing into the sunset. I did have one parent go wide-eyed at the polar bear’s casual announcement that he would now eat the protagonist, but the tone softens the blow, I think, enough to not frighten children—and anyway, our fairytales often include such threats.  “Waddle!  Waddle!  Belly slide!” is a lot of fun to repeat and read aloud.

***** 9780802738288

Penguin’s Big Adventure by Salina Yoon. Bloomsbury, 2015.

Yoon’s first, Penguin and Pinecone, delighted me, and I keep giving the series chances to live up to that high bar. Penguin decides to do something great, something no one else has done: He decides to become the first penguin to visit the North Pole. He sets off. His friends are doing wonderful things too. He visits old friends along the way (Pinecone and a crab from the beach). He reaches the North Pole, plants his flag, and celebrates, but he is not alone. A polar bear is there. Penguin has never seen a polar bear, and the polar bear has never seen a penguin, and both are afraid, but they smile awkwardly and both realize that neither is frightening and become friends. Penguin’s friends find him at the North Pole, having used their crafts to make a hot air balloon. Penguin says goodbye to the polar bear, and he leaves with his friends.

The inclusion of the friends’ craft-making seemed a little rough and unnecessary to me, but I suspect Yoon wanted to show that great things and new things need not be so extreme as crossing the globe and to be able to explain the hot air balloon at the end. Had the construction of the pieces of the hot air balloon have seemed with direction and intention rather than happening to come together at the end to make a balloon, I would have been more pleased. Or I could have suspended my disbelief long enough to do without an explanation for the balloon.

This is a timely book about seeing friends in people who look differently or unlike anyone that one has ever seen. I could have done with more time exploring Penguin and Polar Bear’s new friendship—though making new friends has already been explored in several other books of the series.
From the title, I expected more of an adventure, and more about the journey. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but it all seemed like a lot to put into a short book.

***

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 Review: Revisiting Old Friends in The Secret of Platform 13

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402100I have a feeling this might be a month for old friends. I don’t know when I first read Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it since then. I do know that it was the first of her books that I read and the first of hers that I loved, the one on the merit of which I picked up the next, and the next.

Rereading it now was a very interesting experience. I couldn’t remember all the pieces, but one detail or another would remind me of what was coming, or remind me of parts of what was coming, so that reading the story became more like stringing old bits of memory together, finding the missing negatives in a string of photographs (too dated a metaphor?).

This was published three years before Harry Potter and I think it needs to be said that one can raise an eyebrow and expect that Rowling might’ve found this book too. An entrance to a secret world is found on an abandoned train platform, known by only some and particularly to those affiliated with magic. Raymond and Dudley share a great many things, including a penchant for perfect knickerbocker glories and a tendency to pitch a noisy fit when their desserts are anything less that perfect. Mrs. Trottle dotes on her Raymond as fiercely as Petunia Dursley does her Dudley, but the similarities fairly end there. Ben is the special boy neglected by his caretakers, but Ben is taken in happily (at first) while Harry is an unexpected, unwanted burden on the Dursleys. Ben is among other servants in basement quarters where Harry is shoved into the closet like a broom.

Eva Ibbotson has expressed approval of Rowling and her series, wisely saying “we all borrow from each other as writers,” but I haven’t found any comments from Rowling on Ibbotson.

After the kidnapping of a young prince, when the opportunity of rescue comes nine years later, a humble and kindly king and queen choose unlikely heroes for their son’s retrieval: a fey who is kind to everyone; an ancient wizard whose robes are covered in bits of old, dried spaghetti; a gentle, sensitive, yodeling shepherd who happens to be a tall and strong ogre; and a twelve year old hag who wins herself a seat among the rescuers by suggesting a gift for the prince to lure him back—a creature native to their Island that resembles a baby harp seal that loves nothing more than music. They meet a boy they think is the prince who turns out to be a servant among the household, but are drawn to his ease among strangers and magic, humility, will to please, and loyalty. The boy they think they’re supposed to bring back to the Island is spoilt in the worst degree, greedy, and selfish. This book nods towards high-action, especially at the end when elaborate heists are planned and assassins must be fought to defend a harmless, magical creature, but ultimately the heroes are kindness and friendship not pride or greed or wealth. Like all of Ibbotson’s books, it seems, the good guys are starkly contrasted with the bad and goodness is rewarded with a happy ending. Ending as they do, and being written for a younger audience so that the pacing is quick, the text is short, and the language is not particularly challenging, Ibbotson’s novels—and particularly this one with which I have such a long history—are comfort reads, excellent for stressful weeks and sick days.

*****

Ibbotson, Eva. The Secret of Platform 13. Illus. Sue Porter. New York: Scholastic, 2000. Originally published 1994 by Puffin-Penguin Putnam.

This review is not endorsed by Eva Ibbotson, her estate, Sue Porter, Scholastic, Puffin Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Mystic and Rider: Internal and External Journeys as Foreground

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I hadn’t read Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider for four years. I’d reread all the other books in the Twelve Houses series at least once before returning to this first book. There’s much to draw me to the Twelve Houses books as I’ve discussed before, but there is something especially compelling to me about the deep friendships between the six primary protagonists. In this first book, those friendships remain unformed for the majority of the book, the six are instead plagued by prejudiced distrust and several brief fights that must be broken up by more level-headed and duty-driven members of the group. It was interesting to revisit this time before their friendship because I had foreknowledge; I know how inseparable this unlikely group becomes. More than that, I know the trials that they will face in the future, and I can see the foreshadowing in their dialogues. I enjoyed laughing and mumbling, “Oh honey, you don’t even know.” I can also enjoy a writer who foreshadows because it shows a plan and it shows forethought (usually).

The exterior action of the plot is concerned with assessing the attitudes of various regions and ranks of a kingdom. The worldviews of a society are the sort of detail that is usually relegated to an emblematic scene or a throwaway line of dialogue or exposition. It’s impressive to see Shinn maintain the readers’ interest in what is so often so condensed and shoved to the background by other writers.

Granted, Shinn supports this plot with a romantic co-plot and the drama of six diverse personalities in prolonged, close quarters.

I think Shinn does a good job of integrating these the internal and external plots so that neither seems to take precedence over the other. It could be read with either or neither as the primary focus.

Shinn also adds a bit of mystery by concealing one character’s background in particular and having another spend the book not trusting her because of that concealment. I never read the story without knowing Senneth’s story, having read the third book in the series first. I suspect though that that mystery helps too to drive the reader through the story.

Shinn writes fantastic characters, all invoking a great deal of empathy. She writes a fantastic, vast, and vivid world. If you haven’t yet been intrigued by my earlier reviews of these books, I advertise them one last time. Beyond this, there are no more books in the series for me to review, so this will be the last you’ll hear of them from me for a while. If you like high fantasy; poetic, solid prose; empathetic characters and stories of close friendships; if you like fantastical romance; if you enjoy a little politics and intrigue and fantastical religion, give these a try.

I’ve grown a bit with these books, and as I’ve grown, I see them differently, but they are only a bit tarnished for being away from a circle of friend and fellow fans. My rankings of them fluctuate a bit with my circumstances. What once I liked least, I think I now like almost best. And these books set the bar for fictional boyfriends very high. I’m glad that I have these books as warm friends’ smiles in my bookcases, and I considering purchasing the series a solid investment for all the times I will pick them up to smile over a scene or ask Shinn’s advice on worldbuilding.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Wizard of Mars: My Argument for the BroTP

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By the ninth book in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the young wizards aren’t so young anymore. I’m not sure that I wholly approve of the latest sign that Kit and Nita are growing older. For at least seven of the previous eight books if not all eight, these two characters have fought within the text against the worlds’ supposition that any male-female partnership has to be sexual if not romantic, and I was all aboard their ship—their BroTP ship. Yet in this most recent book, A Wizard of Mars, the two of them are becoming more romantically attracted to one another. If this pair becomes an OTP, I may just have to jump overboard and head for the nearest desert isle, not because Kit and Nita (Kita? Nit?) are a terrible or even unlikely pairing, but because I was happy thinking that somewhere in the sea of teen fiction there was a ship that did not need a heart-shaped sail.

The world—our world—the literary world has too many romances and too few male-female friendships untroubled by romance. We do not celebrate singleness, and we over-romanticize romance to the detriment of friendship. By doing so we undermine friendships. I have noticed in my interactions with boys, in my friends’ interactions with boys, in boys’ interactions with me and with my friends that we are damaged by this pervasive idealization of love. There are obstacles put in front of male-female friendships unnecessarily. It ought to be as uncomplicated for me to have male-female friendships as it is for me to have female-female friendships, but it is not. We ought not to have to second-guess every action or word when interacting with the opposite sex. We ought not to feel pressured to feel things toward one another that we may not, and we ought not to believe that any positive feeling towards a member of the opposite sex is romantic.

In a world where too early and too incessantly we are bombarded by the ideals of marriage, true love, romance, and sex and our bodies are sexualized too often and too early, Young Wizards’ male-female BroTP was a breath of fresh air—and a very much needed one.

That all being said, this does not feel like a forced romance and if a romance had to be introduced, I think Duane did so skillfully here. It made sense within the context of the novel, paralleling as it did with a Romeo-Juliet (or Oma-Shu) romance that was important to the action of the plot, so that the romance did not seem jarring. The characters’ thoughts about one another seem… realistic and… earthy. Kit surprises himself when he notices that Nita is “hot.” Nita notices Kit noticing other girls. She has touches of jealousy and general confusion as her feelings towards him begin to shift from platonic to romantic. These thoughts follow gender stereotypes that may have at least some basis in our reality—and by that I mean the reality created by eons of societal expectations. I am glad that there were eight books of a male-female friendship without any stirrings of romance, not only because it provides an example of healthy male-female friendship, but because this romance, if I must now live with it, comes then not from a lightning strike, love-at-first-sight cliché, but a real back and forth, friendship, and slow engendering of greater attachment and attraction. At least then, if romance this must be, it is a more realistic romance than some of the fluff pumped into bookshelves.

Diane Duane I have always admired both for her prose and her blending of science and magic and word. In speaking to a coworker about why she was unable to get into the series, I commented that sometimes I feel like I need an understanding of basic physics to understand this series. If you enter into the series thinking it’s a straight fantasy, as she did, it will be jarring. Reading this book, I noticed, having finished George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons just prior, that I had to look up more words used by Duane than Martin. Some of those were scientific jargon, but the majority of words that sent me to a dictionary were not. The vocabulary level in these books is high, and I say that more to their credit than their denouncement. I appreciate authors who push readers, particularly their child readers, because too often that audience is underestimated, if not in fiction, then in the world at large.

This is the first of the books I would hesitate on some level to recommend to a younger child—not because I think them unable to handle the content or the language but because I think Duane’s intended audience is now teens. She all but says so in the final pages of the book when one of the Senior Wizards explains to the gathered young wizards the shift in wizardry and in the manifestation of the Lone One that comes with maturity—and explains that they’ve just faced one of these more mature trials. This being said, there is nothing in this book any more explicit or complicated than is in the fourth Harry Potter book or any of the later books in that series, so if your child is ready for Goblet of Fire, they’re ready for A Wizard of Mars.

****

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars. New York: Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Dark Moon Defender: Rereads and the Effects of Nostalgia

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Dark Moon Defender, third in Sharon Shinn’s The Twelve Houses series, is well written, its characters rounded and alive, its world expansive and deep, the cultures and religions and worldviews diverse and detailed, but when I tried first to write a review of this book based on those merits, I couldn’t find much else to say.

Sometimes the real value of a book is nostalgia, the times that it recalls, the friends with whom it is connected.

Such may be the case for me for Dark Moon Defender. This was the first of the series that I ever read, a recommendation from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master when we were still college kids. It was then passed around a group of us.

When I first read the series, I’d have said that Dark Moon Defender was my second favorite after the fourth and climax, Reader and Raelynx.  I hadn’t read it since.

Rereading Dark Moon Defender was like meeting a friend again—a friend introduced to me by friends and with whom I share friends, none of whom I’ve seen face-to-face in too long. It reminded me of all of those friends.

But since we last had seen one another, we’d grown apart a bit—Dark Moon Defender­ and I. Life happened. And while I enjoyed rereading the book, preferred it to other books that I had been reading, it was not the same book that I remembered—or I wasn’t the same person who had read it those few years ago.

Perhaps in some ways it is because of what this series means to me that this book did not sink as deeply into my heart this time around. This series—for all its many strengths—I like perhaps best because of the incredibly strong and warm friendships between the six main protagonists—a friendship that in some ways echoes that which I share with the friends with whom I first read the book. But the friends in this book are separated—not indefinitely but for large portions of the book. I found myself enjoying the book best when at least two of the friends were together.

Though I think Shinn would say that these books are meant as romances, the romances are just not as moving to me as are the friendships or as exciting as the overarching series plot of treason and war.

The Thirteenth House, second in the series, I realized this previous read-through is more bildungsroman than romance. When I read it as a bildungsroman, I liked it much better than when I had read it as a romance. It has perhaps even surmounted Dark Moon Defender in the ranking of favorites. I suppose there is an aspect of bildungsroman in Dark Moon Defender if one assumes that a healthy marriage is a necessary step in growing up—which I’m not sure that I do, though certainly it can be a step in some people’s journey. I feel though that most of Justin’s growth and education had occurred prior to this book and would classify this more as a romance than any other genre.

Maybe I enjoyed Dark Moon Defender so well the first time through partially because I had not read the others and did not know what Shinn was capable of and so was able to enjoy it as a straight romance, expecting nothing else.

If Dark Moon Defender is read primarily as a romance then it has to be noted too that while Justin is, I know, the ideal hero to some, he is not the type of hero to whom I am immediately attracted, and because the story is primarily a romance, I think my “type” hindered my enjoyment of the story. I like adorkable and cute and brainy more than I like brawny, dutiful soldiers. My preference makes Justin no less of a wonderful character and no less loveable.

Perhaps because I was more apart from the world and the characters than I had been during any other reading of one of Shinn’s books, I found myself stumbling a few too many times on Shinn’s flowery prose—a strange critique from me (my own prose has received the same critique on many occasions). Sometimes “said” really is the best verb.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 3: Dark Moon Defender. New York: ACE-Berkley-Penguin, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, ACE Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.