Tag Archives: grief

Book Review: Looking for Alaska and Looking for Answers

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9780142402511Looking for Alaska is my second John Green novel after The Fault in Our Stars. When I started out, Gwen, who graciously gave me her copy, warned that this was her least favorite, noting that in this novel is rougher, that what in his later novels gleams like gold and makes us all gold-sick, hoarding his book and wanting more, is not polished here. That was a pretty fair assessment. In the beginning, I noticed glimmers of beautiful wordsmithing and musicality. I think it more likely that I got sucked into the story and lost track of the poetry than that those glimmers disappeared, but they didn’t gleam enough for me to notice them once I was in the tunnel as they had when I read The Fault in Our Stars.

I knew fairly little about this book going in other than that it was a teen book of John Green’s. I’m not sure here what I should say and what I should keep to myself as spoilers.

It’s a contemporary fiction piece, a school story about outcasts and friends and prank wars and finding your place in the universe. Miles Halter leaves behind a life in Florida for a boarding school in Alabama. Miles wants to hang on to very little of his old life, to recreate himself, judging by how quickly he abandons the promises he made—and I’m sure all kids make—to his parents before they left him to live away from home for the first time: “No drugs. No drinking. No cigarettes” (7). Only that first rule does Miles not break, and the third he breaks within ten pages. Miles’ roommate, the Colonel, gives him almost immediately the nickname “Pudge” because of Miles’ skinny frame, and inserts him into a group of rebellious scholarship kids (at one point early in the book, Pudge himself as the narrator remarks, “The phrase booze and mischief left me worrying I’d stumbled into what my mother referred to as ‘the wrong crowd’” 20). This group includes Alaska Young, at times infuriating and frustrating, at times lovable and cuddly, always unpredictable. Miles is infatuated with the vivacious Alaska, but she is in a stable relationship with a musician from out of town. Pudge has come to Alabama looking for a “Great Perhaps,” something exciting, something beyond his less-than-exciting, rather friendless existence in Florida. For him, Alaska in all her unpredictable rebellion against society and standards represents the Great Perhaps. She is living while he merely coasting, and that I think is why he is so excited by the idea of her, apart from her apparently being a good-looking, curvy girl who wears tank tops and cutoffs and talks openly about sex and sexuality. But then in one wild night, she is no longer living, and Pudge has to decide if the Great Perhaps and he have died with her.

This book at once discusses the consequences of suicide and of drunk driving—but it is so much more than an issue book—really more a bildungsroman. The second half of the book masquerades as a mystery: what happened and why? The Colonel puts his analytical mind to work trying to unravel Alaska’s final mystery, her final act, her final rebellion. The school story form here helps too to provide a context and answers to the plot’s questions as the predominate class is a religions class where the students are encouraged to think about and write essays on the Big Questions that religions seek to answer: life, death, and our place in the universe.

The ultimate answer to suffering that Pudge finds is forgiveness—of the living and of the dead. Pudge chooses not to be held back by the past—or rather learns how to let go of the past—the very thing that I think he’s been seeking since his decision to leave Florida for Alabama and since his first cigarette. That message I can get behind—and I think most parents will find that they can too.

There is a great deal here too about the secreted world of teenagers—the one that they hide from adults, mostly represented here by the Eagle, the dean of students.

This book rarely disrespects or belittles teenagers and their small and large decisions, and I think that is part of what has made it so popular.

Other Goodreads reviewers have pointed out that Green’s characters are fairly flat and at times reliant upon stereotypes to uphold them or define them. I can definitely agree that the accents and syntactical decisions in particular were at times distracting and overblown. At times I saw Green as trying to distance his characters from their stereotypes, but more often than not—frankly—the characters did all seem a little flat and a little cartoonish.

Green works with a fairly small cast, each character standing for a group or a trope: the Eagle for adults, Alaska for the Great Perhaps, Longwell Chase for the rich Weekday Warriors who return home on the weekends to their parents…. Lara is really only present to be an attainable alternative romantic partner for Pudge.

All this said, I enjoyed the time that I spent in this book, and I tore through it— devoured it, you might say, in nine days (a short time for me).

I recognize that it definitely has some literary value, and is a worthy first novel, but I don’t think that it is Green’s best work.

****

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: SPEAK-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by John Green, SPEAK, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Passing of the Torch (292 words)

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He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her over so that she rested against his side, her head on his shoulder.  She had always shied from displays of affection, more likely to push him away, sometimes with a laugh or a smile, sometimes with a frown or a growl, than to let him hold her.  Her head now rested comfortably against his shoulder.  She didn’t complain, and she didn’t fuss.  He turned his head to hide his face amid the cloud of her hair, warm with the heat of her body, smelling of her and the shampoo that she used.

Her hand when he took it in his was cold.  His tears, the sob on which he gagged was hot.  Her name was mangled by that sob, and he choked back any more words, because mangled words wouldn’t suit her, never could suit her.

She had been the speaker he never had been.

Now the burden of her words would fall to him.

But tonight was not for words.  Tonight was for mourning the woman in his arms.

Tomorrow would be for words, words to incite the rebellion, to chisel the bedrock of the society that had done this to her.

Tomorrow would be for following her.

And if he didn’t follow her tomorrow into the chill, numb place to which she had descended, he would wake up the next day, and he would continue to spread her story, to fan the flames that would destroy the Waykeepers.  He would wake each morning with his heart and his words aflame till he followed her.

He laid her body down on the concrete and stepped back.  He looked down at her.  And he called for oil.  He called for a flame.

Done so much earlier than midnight, and I bet that wasn’t you were expecting, Bek!  I thieved this first line from Bek of BuildingADoor.  Check out her blog tomorrow for the original story that she wrote beginning with this same line.

Book Reviews: July Picture Book Roundup

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Welcome to the second monthly roundup.

Moby Dick: A BabyLit Ocean Primer by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2013.

The first BabyLit Primer that I read (Pride and Prejudice), I didn’t much enjoy.  This second, a more recent publication, I liked better, maybe because I was better prepared for what to expect, but also perhaps because it simply is more complex, better constructed, and makes better use of the source text.  This integrates quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as it introduces young readers to both the story of Moby Dick and some usual (captain, fish, whale, ship, stars, sailors) and more unusual (harpoons; if anyone is looking to get me a gift) ocean vocabulary.  It takes the basic primer a step farther not only with its quotes but also with its labels of the various types of fish (more specific knowledge than I at 24 know).  Confession 1:  I have not read Moby Dick, but I know it is lengthy, and I know the basic idea.  Whether BabyLit retells Moby Dick I cannot say, but it does capture the basic story of a whale hunt, though BabyLit does not specify what becomes of any of the characters, cutting it short of killing or injuring the whale.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: The Little Mermaid by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2013.

Les Petits Fairytales retell classic tales in the form of board book primers with only one or two words per page and bright illustrations of round, toddling characters in complete settings.

I really appreciate Les Petits Fairytales’ ability to tell an entire tale in such a simple form and their decision to distance themselves from the Disney representations of these classic fairy tales.  Ariel is not a redhead, though the illustrator, Oliver Lake, could easily have made her so.  Instead the young mermaid sports black locks.  Confession 2: I’ve never read Hans Christian Andersen’s original “Little Mermaid.”  I do not know how closely this book stays or how far it strays from the text.  I can only really compare it to Disney’s.  The mermaid regains her grandmother (Disney never can allow two parents to care for their protagonists—or not until recently).  Following closer to Andersen’s version than Disney’s, the prince and mermaid do not wed (Les Petits Fairytales calls them “friends”) and the mermaid returns to the sea, though Les Petits skips the bit about the mermaid refusing to kill the prince to save herself and the part where the mermaid becomes a spirit, losing her mortal and bodily form altogether for not winning the love of the prince.

****

Les Petits Fairytales: Snow White by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillian, 2012.

Again, Les Petits Fairytales distances itself from the Disney version of the tale and remains closer to the original Grimms Brothers’ version.  The witch uses an enchanted corset and poisoned comb before defeating Snow White with a poisoned apple.  Les Petits Fairytales remembers its audience and allows only a forehead kiss to wake the sleeping girl.

 ****

Baby ABC by Deborah Donenfeld.  Dial-Penguin, 2013.

Obviously, this is an alphabet book.  The illustrations each feature a black-and-white photograph of a baby wearing or bearing some object alone in the photograph left colorized.  The color of this object matches the letter that it represents.  It’s a simple concept, a simple design, but very tastefully done—and of course babies (humans) like looking at faces, are predisposed to recognize faces, and humans as a whole are drawn to faces that look more youthful, more babyish, so what better than a smiling baby’s face?  There’s no plot to report on here, but there’s not meant to be one.

***

In My Ocean by Sara Gillingham, illustrated by Lorena Simonovich.  Chronicle Books, 2011.

This is another book the draw of which is the design not the text.  The book is done with concentric cutaway pages of ocean landscapes, essentially oversimplifying a day in the life of a baby dolphin.  The baby dolphin, it should be noted, is a finger puppet, which is sure to delight, though I noticed that the puppet is quite small and quite shallow; I have small hands for my age and had a difficult time maneuvering the puppet.  The book ends with a reminder to come home to family.

**

No Matter What by Debi Gliori.  Houghton Mifflin, 2008.  First published 1999.

Small fears that Large doesn’t love him because he feels unlovable, “grumpy and grim.”  Large assures Small that there is nothing Small can do or be (a bear, bug, or crocodile) that will make Large love him less.  Small becomes surer of Large’s love through the story, the crocodile question being less fueled it seemed to me by fear than as a challenge given with a giggle.  Small asks about the qualities of love, and Large confesses her ignorance of whether it can bend or break.  Large assures Small however that, as the stars shine after they die, her love for Small will go on beyond her death.  This is a small book with a lot packed into its short, rhyming text.  The images nicely take the pair through the actions of getting ready for bed, giving the book a grounding and context that is rare in such picture books.

I love that the characters are Large and Small rather than a more boxed in Mother, Father, Grandma, Grandpa, Baby, etc.  I should mention too that I have arbitrarily assigned genders to these characters for the sake of the review and that they are never specified.

This is a great, little-known alternative to Robert N. Munsch’s Love You Forever or Barbara Joosse’s Mama, Do You Love Me?, and one that deals additionally with the question of death not just misdeeds that children fear might diminish a parent’s love for them.  The rhyming text is enjoyable with a great message.

*****

My Little Pony: Friends Forever: Play-a-Sound.  Publications International, 2013.

This is a “meet the ponies” book.  Spike convinces Twilight Sparkle to leave her studies to go seek the company of her friends.  The book has little plot and consists primarily of the gathering of the friends together.  The book includes flaps to lift and reveal the friends and buttons to press to hear the character’s theme music.

**

Bizzy Bear: Pirate Adventure illustrated by Benji Davis.  Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013.

Pirates are all over the bookshelves lately.  I blame Jake (and the Neverland Pirates) but want to say that we at Hollins’ Children’s Literature program were ahead of this trend when we voted the 2012 Francelia Butler Conference’s theme to be Pirates and Treasure Seekers.  This is a board book, filed at Barnes & Noble as a “first concepts” book.  Within the rhyming text, there are examples of opposites (left/right, up/down) though the book markets itself as an adventure not a primer.  This is a board book with moveable pieces.  Readers can hoist the sails, steer the ship, dig for treasure, and open the chest.  Even the cover illustration allows readers to toss the ship on the waves.  The illustrations are quite detailed and colorful even aside from the captivating moveable bits.  The book is thankfully constructed of sturdier material than most other books with moveable pieces.  The plot is pretty simplistic, though, I suppose for its genre (first concepts), it’s actually quite complex.

***1/2

Ponyella by Laura Joffe Numeroff, Nate Evans, and illustrated by Lynn M. Munsinger. Hyperion-Disney, 2011.

As you can probably guess, this is a retelling of “Cinderella,” where all of the characters sans the prince and the stepmother are ponies or horses.  I actually thought that this was an extremely well done retelling.  Ponyella’s farm is bought and she along with it by a new owner (stepmother) who brings two of his own beloved horses with him (the stepsisters).  Ponyella is shoved aside so that the owner’s horses can have the nicest stalls.  She receives less love and attention.  He even put her to work pulling carts of heavy coal.  A horse show is arranged which it is rumored that the Princess Penelope will attend to look for a new pony.  Ponyella’s godmare arrives, cleans up Ponyella, gives her diamond horseshoes, and turns a friend of Ponyella’s, a mouse, into a rider.  Ponyella attends the horse show and shows off her ability to jump the higher than the other competitors.  When her glamour wears off, she loses one of her diamond horseshoes, and Princess Penelope uses it to search the land for the pony that it fits, ultimately finding Ponyella and taking her to live at the castle as her own pony, showering her with love and attention, putting her up in the largest, nicest stall, and feeding her carrot cake.

The retelling uses all the elements of the story and twists them just enough so that they fit the new cast.  It’s sure to delight young riders and horse-enthusiasts.

The story is beautifully and expressively illustrated by Munsinger in pastels and pinks.

****

Imagine by Bart Vivian.  Beyond Words-Aladdin, 2013.

The illustrations of this inspiring picture book are gorgeous.  Black and white images of kids in the now and the real are contrasted when the page is turned by bright, bold illustrations of what could be or what one could imagine the real to be (ex: a tree house is a castle or you could become a real life hero as a firefighter).  I hope kids don’t need the reminder to imagine, to dream.  It almost seems to me to be a book for older children (graduates).

***

An Elephant and Piggie Book: I Love My New Toy! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2008.

Piggie has a new toy.  Elephant Gerald plays with it, but it falls to the ground and snaps.  Piggie becomes very upset, upsetting Gerald.  Then a kindly squirrel happens by to explain that the toy is supposed to break, and Piggie becomes embarrassed for having gotten angry with her friend.  Gerald and Piggie realize that friends are more fun than toys, and the toy is forgotten.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: My Friend Is Sad by Mo Willems.  Hyperion-Disney, 2007.

Elephant Gerald is sad, Piggie notices.  Piggie tries to cheer him up by dressing in elaborate costumes as things that she knows Elephant enjoys (a cowboy, a robot), but Gerald only seems to become sadder each time Piggie tries.  Piggie finally approaches Gerald without a costume to apologize for not being able to cheer Gerald up, but Piggie’s appearance heralds Gerald’s happiness.  Gerald explains he was sad because he saw all these awesome things, but Piggie wasn’t there to see any of it.  Piggie reminds Gerald that she is here now, and Gerald explains that he needs his friends.  Piggie tells Gerald, who did not recognize Piggie in any of her disguises, that he needs new glasses.

Willems’ depictions of Gerald’s devastating sadness are particularly expressive, and this book contains such great gems of lines as “How can anyone be sad around a robot?”

****

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: June Picture Book Roundup

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This June I read a lot of picture and board books and little else.  I seem to have a harder time reviewing in depth such books, but I don’t want to utterly ignore them either, so I’ve opted for a monthly roundup of such books, each with its own brief review, starting now.  I want to mention that the idea owes some to Rick Riordan, who posts monthly brief reviews of books that he’s read.

BabyLit: Little Miss Austen: Pride & Prejudice by Jennifer Adams, illustrated by Alison Oliver.  Gibbs Smith, 2011.

I built this book up too much in my mind and didn’t realize it was a number primer/counting book.  This book counts 1 English village, 2 rich gentlemen, 3 houses, 4 marriage proposals, 5 sisters… up to 10 thousand pounds a year!  Round about the middle—maybe it was by 6—the numbered objects became more nonsensical—horses and soldiers—unless there were actually only that many horses and soldiers mentioned in the books (which I find unlikely), then it’s rather brilliant.  I expected Pride & Prejudice to be more like the Les Petits Fairytales, the illustrations for which I find more appealing, softer, more childish, and more complete.  Some counting books are masked in a plot, but this one, while it might use a plot as its basis, cannot claim to tell the story coherently through its pages.  I have a difficult time with stories without a plot—even when I know that plot is not the point.

*1/2

Les Petits Fairytales: Sleeping Beauty by Trixie Belle, Melissa Caruso-Scott, and illustrated by Oliver Lake.  Henry Holt-Macmillain, 2013.

I’ve been reading a lot of books in this series because they are quick and I can read them while I walk them back to their assigned shelf.  I have read Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel besides.  These are board books, meant to be the earliest introductions to the fairy tales.  These are the fairy tales reduced to their simplest ideas, nouns attached to illustrations, simple and complete illustrations, not like those that are attached to Eric Carle’s Favorite Words books. Belle et al.’s books seem to invite its own retelling by a child in time, for which I’d laud it.  They cannot really be read aloud—or would be dull and extremely short to read aloud.  These are books to give to young readers or would-be readers, essentially a set of flashcards in board book form attempting to tell a tale because of their arrangement.

***

Are You a Cow? by Sandra Boynton.  Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

A simple story in which the characters of Boyton’s books ask the reader if he or she is a cow, a dog, a duck, a frog, etc.  It ends with the affirmation, “You are YOU,” sure to get a giggle out of most young children, whom I’m sure will take it as a responsive, interactive book, sure to mean a little more to readers who return to it as more aware children, teens, or adults.

****

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.  Candlewick, 2011.

The illustrations say so much that the words do not.  The bear searches for his hat, asks a number of creatures whom he meets about his hat, always politely, always thanking them for their denial.  Young readers might spot the hat in the pages, might guess before the bear that the wearer’s fierce denial should be taken as an affirmative.  The bear gets the last laugh, squashing the thief and winning back his hat.  It’s a much darker book than I expected.

****

What Makes a Rainbow: A Magic Ribbon Book by Betty Ann Schwartz and illustrated by Dona Turner.  Piggy Toes, 2003.  First published 2000.

Magic ribbon is right!  If I at 23 am marveling over it, I can only imagine the wonder in the face of a child of the appropriate age.  This is meant for the very young, a concept book to teach colors, and given a loose plot to string the colors together—and what better way to string the colors together than in a rainbow?  The little rabbit asks his mother “what makes a rainbow?” and she sends him across the forest to query his friends, each of whom responds with a color needed to make up a rainbow that also happens to be their primary color. The pages are bright.  The text is nothing stellar but neither is it entirely forgettable.  With the turn of each page, the appropriate color is added via a ribbon to the rainbow growing at the top of the pages over the gutter.

***

Bluebird by Bob Staake.  Schwartz & Wade, 2013.

This is a powerful book.  I was left staring at it in my hands after I was done.  Bluebird is a wordless picture with lessons in moving past grief after a loss and death, anti-bullying, and true friendship and love.  A young boy befriends a bluebird that follows him on his way home from school through the city, even into a dark and twisted forest where they meet several bullies who throw sticks at the boy and bird.  One stick catches the bird and kills it in the air.  The bullies and the boy are appalled.  The bullies run away and the boy is left to mourn his dead friend.  Then they are descended upon by a flock of brightly colored birds that lift boy and bird into the sky where the bluebird undergoes some kind of resurrection and flies away.  I’m not entirely sure what Staake meant the ending to mean.  While the resurrection of the bird and the soaring boy give hope to children dealing with loss, I’m not sure that the ending doesn’t also give unrealistic expectations—of birds, of death, maybe even of friends, though I count myself extremely fortunate in my friends.  Yet, I cannot say that the nebulous and potentially overreaching ending much diminishes the power of the book.

****1/2

That Is Not a Good Idea! by Mo Willems.  Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2013.

Willems’ retells Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck, itself arguably of the Red Riding Hood tale type.  I wish I’d realized before or while reading it that that was the premise of this book.  The tale stirred distant memories, but I thought it an old Aesop’s tale maybe.  Retelling Potter is better.  Jemima was foolish and had to be rescued.  Willems’ heroine can save herself.  Not only that, she can manipulate the situation from the beginning.  Women and tricksters win!  Illustrated to remind audiences (mostly the parents who will understand the reference while the kids, I’m almost sure, will not) of silent films, this tells a common story, a fox and a mother goose meet by chance the fox invites the duck back to his home for supper.  The audience of the film within the book—a flock of young goslings whom I assumed from the get-go were the geese’s children—yell at the screen that what the characters are doing is not a good idea, really, really not a good idea, don’t do it!  In a twist both in the age-old story and my imagination and understanding, the duck throws the fox as the last ingredient into his own stew, and the chicks, it is revealed, were warning him not her of the danger.  I enjoyed the surprise, I enjoyed the twist, I enjoy it all more that I realize its inspiration.

****

The Pigeon Loves Things That Go! by Mo Willems.  Hyperion, 2005.

This book starts out simply enough, listing a few basic modes of transportation: a bus, a train, an airplane, objects that seem to catch the interest of many young boys.  Following these is a twist.  “A hot dog?  What is that doing here?”  The duckling explains that a hot dog can go too—right down into his stomach.  It works as a board book, meant to have a simplistic “plot” and a few pages, but I don’t think it would work as a hardcover, where I expect a little more.  This is a book for the very young—and the parents tired of reading books that are solely lists and in need of a good laugh; call it a variation on a theme.

****

An Elephant and Piggie Book: A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2013.

Elephant Gerald and his best friend Piggie are back, and a big guy has taken Piggie’s ball.  Elephant Gerald is big too.  He’s going to get the ball back for Piggie.  But the big guy is very, very BIG, and he says it’s his ball.  Gerald returns empty-handed, but he’s soon followed by the big guy, but like many other side characters in The Elephant and Piggie books, he seeks to share Gerald and Piggie’s friendship, and whale ball is invented.  Elephant and Piggie stories are often heartwarming and always funny.  Best friends like Elephant and Piggie are hard to find—in real life or fiction.

****

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

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Happy Pig Day! by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2011.

Elephant Gerald feels excluded because he’s not a pig and feels he can’t celebrate with his friend.  Gerald’s sadness makes Piggie sad too, but Happy Pig Day isn’t just for pigs.  This book shows kids how exclusion feels and reminds them to include everyone—a common theme in The Elephant and Piggie books.

***

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.