Tag Archives: issue book

Book Reviews: April and May 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2007. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I missed this one, I think, in my childhood. A boy writes to the zoo for a pet, and the zoo obliges. A box arrives. Opening it reveals an elephant. He is too big, so the child sends him back. The zoo then sends a giraffe, but the giraffe is too tall. It continues like this, until the zoo thinks very hard and sends the child a perfect puppy. The animals are never actually named, so it’s a primer for a more advanced toddler, one who’s already learnt all the animals’ names. Or this can be a read-aloud book where the reader names the animals for the child. Precious. And a perfect use of lift-the-flaps.

****

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Follow the Little Fish by Olivier Latyk. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2015. First published 2013 by Templar. Intended audience: 2 years.

This was a surprisingly fun bargain book. The foil fish on the cover caught my eye. The book is rife with onomatopoeias. The fish jumps from one unlikely body of water to another (a pool, a glass of water), and ultimately ends up in a drainage pipe, then in the ocean. The foil does not remain past the cover, but the colors are bright, maybe even a little too loud. With the onomatopoeias especially, this would be a lot of fun to read aloud.

***

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Hi! by Ethan Long. Appleseed-Abrams, 2015.

This is a board book primer of animal sounds (though some of these are less readily associated with their animals like “yak” and “slurp”) and two basic English words: “hi” and “good-bye.” The animals’ sounds are in rhyming pairs, so I suppose it makes sense to have the final pages be the human “hi” and “good-bye” but the switch to human seems abrupt after all the pages of nonsensical animal sounds. Had the book opened with the “hi,” the animals’ sounds would have seemed like responses. Pairing the animals with images of day and night might have implied a “hi” and “good-bye” meaning to the sounds. Most of the images are set during daytime with each animal in its natural setting. Each animal waves to the one on the opposing page. Perhaps they were all meant to be saying hello (that was my first assumption), or maybe they are paired hellos and goodbyes. Because there is a page with all the animals and the boy opposite and finally the boy’s “hi” and the mom’s “good-bye” to the reader, perhaps the context is meant to be the animals’ greeting one another training the boy to greet his mother in his own tongue, but that’s hazy at best. There’s just no way to know the meaning behind the sounds, and that disappoints me, but the colors are bright and the illustrations welcoming.

**

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Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

The illustrator, Holly Clifton-Brown, deserves especial commendation for this book. I like to think that the author was in on the wonderful diversity that the illustrator slipped into the background of the story, but I have no proof. Diverse ethnicities and diverse family situations are slipped quietly rather than obtrusively into the story, making it a more enjoyable read, and making the diversity seem less of an issue to be dealt with, as can happen when an author is too “preachy,” and more “normal” and acceptable.  Though an issue book, this did not read as one.

The story focuses on Stella and her two fathers. Minor characters include a boy with two mothers of two races and a boy raised by his grandmother while his mother is away at war, as well as families of a mom and a dad. The students are all of varying ethnicities. I’m glad the publishing world was ready for this book.

Using the dilemma of whom a girl with two dads should invite to a class Mother’s Day party, Schiffer discusses the normality of a family of two dads, how there’s still someone to kiss boo-boos and read bedtime stories and pack lunches and all the rest. Stella does not feel badly for having no mother in her life. She realizes that she has a wide family who act as her mother. Her solution, suggested by a friend, is to invite her whole family to the party, since they all act as her mother.

The story leaves an opening for continuation with the mention of Father’s Day and in the background of Stella’s happiness the boy with two mothers beginning to wonder whom he will invite to that party.

*****

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Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2003. First published 1959.

I have found the source of that oft quoted, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Pop-ups add a spark of extra fun and excitement to this board book. This is a book really meant to be gifted and really only meant to be read once a year, and that is a sad thing, because it would be an inspiring anthem any day of the year. I appreciate this book more when separated from its title. The board book is abridged and less often mentions the festivities as birthday celebrations and makes it more universal; I actually prefer the abridged book over the original for its universality. Dr. Seuss’ rhymes always elicit a smile.

Maybe it’s not fair to rate Dr. Seuss (I couldn’t possibly give him a poor rating), but I feel as if this abridgement and pop-up deserves at least:

****

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Uh-Oh Octopus! by Elle van Lieshout and Erik van Os and illustrated by Mies van Hout. Lemniscaat USA, 2014.

The illustrations caught me on this one. Every page is beautiful and bright with rare realism. Every review I’ve read and even the descriptions posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble highlight the illustrations over the story.

I happened to flip the book open first to the last page, which got my feminist hackles up. So then I naturally had to read the story to see if my rage would be justified. Was it? I wasn’t entirely soothed, but I think it more just an odd little story than divisive propaganda. The story is this: The little octopus has a sweet pad in the reef, but one day comes home to find a too-big invader, its powerful, scaled tail sticking out of the entrance and its head hidden inside of Octopus’ home. The octopus runs away and asks all of the sea creatures for advice on getting rid of the invader, but Octopus is not comfortable taking any of the advice that they give. Ultimately, after he hears a mysterious voice asking what he would do, he goes to politely ask the invader to leave his home. The invader explains that it’s been stuck in the octopus’ cave for some time and asks for help freeing itself. Octopus again begs the help of the other sea creatures, and they free the invader, who turns out to be a classically beautiful mermaid. “‘Oh,’ Octopus blushe[s]. ‘If I’d only known you were a lady!  That’s different!’”  I don’t think the author intends to say that women or that beautiful women or that anyone to whom you’re attracted ought to be treated differently–certainly that’s not the book’s primary moral–but those messages could be found in that line.  Interspecies relationships are less taboo in picture books, but it still struck me as an odd ending and poorly worded as it did elicit that spark of feminist fury when read out of context. As a Dutch import, I am a little more willing to be lenient as well, expecting the book to either have been translated from its original language (and so putting the fault on the translator) or having been written in the author’s second language.

The illustrations deserve at least four stars. The story itself… maybe two, so:

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

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Book Review: Sold Accomplishes Much

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I purchased Patricia McCormick’s award-winning book, Sold, for Hillary Homzie’s Giving Voice to the Voiceless class, and while I did not end up completing the course due to time and financial restraints, I kept the books. This one for its free verse form and unexpected topic piqued my curiosity. Sold follows Lakshmi from her village in the Nepalese Himalayans across the border into Indian, where she is sold to a brothel. Ultimately, Lakshmi escapes the brothel with the help of an American.

Before I get too in depth into the structure and storytelling, there is one quibble that stands above the rest. This story is incomplete—for me. I read the last page and turned it to look for the next only to find a page of acknowledgements. Lakshmi runs to an American man who has brought with him policemen to help him help Lakshmi out of the brothel. We do not see Lakshmi leave. We have no guarantee that she safely arrives at the safe and clean sanctuary. Especially in a book that has been warning us of the wickedness of American men, I needed to see more. I needed to have Lakshmi truly safe before the story ends.

Now, there are reasons—that I can see—for ending the story mid-story. It leaves Lakshmi in peril like so many women still are in peril, and it leaves the reader to finish the story, to do what he or she can do to help these women.

But as a reader, as a human, I still wanted more closure in this tale, for this woman.  I would have liked to have seen her Ama with a tin roof.

This interview posted on McCormick’s website actually addresses a lot of my other concerns with the book. Why have an American man rescuing this Nepali woman? Why tell the story in free verse?

McCormick says that she chose an American hero because her primary audience is American, and she wanted her audience to see themselves as able to make a difference to these women. She admits though that given the opportunity, she would make her heroes the local Indian men and women. I notice too that for the upcoming film (release date March 2015), produced by Emma Thompson and directed by Jeffery Brown, a Caucasian woman rescues Lakshmi—or so it seems from the trailer.

The story is told in vignettes (which take the form of free verse) because McCormick found it too “daunting” to tell all of Lakshmi’s story. She liked the fractured format and she thought that the white space would encourage pause and reflection in her readers.

Poetry is rarely marketed for teens, although several authors, notably Ellen Hopkins, have enjoyed success with stories told in verse for teens. Hopkins like McCormick in this novel, tackles big social issues in her books: drug usage, prostitution, and mental illness. I’m not familiar with enough teen books in verse to comment on the correlation between verse and tackling social issues.

I think that—apart from ending her story too soon—McCormick told her story well. The form did not make for a confusing narrative, and I think—for me—the brevity of the poem scene helped make this book more accessible. This is a difficult subject, a heartbreaking subject, and one that can be difficult to read about. Because the encounters with Lakshmi’s horrors were brief, they were endurable, and for being endurable, the book made an apt vessel for McCormick’s message of social awareness. Within that form–a mere 263 pages of poetry, so not a great time commitment–McCormick is able to create well-rounded and vivid characters—as much as most prose novelists. McCormick too is able to create a full sense of place.  I think this book is well worth the time to read it.

****

McCormick, Patricia.  Sold.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Patricia McCormick, Hyperion Paperbacks for Children, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Nothing Dazzling About the Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin

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In probably a rare moment of wisdom, common sense, and listening to my body, I’ve dropped the graduate class that I was taking.  I plan still on reading some of the required texts—on my own time when I feel in the mood to do so—and I will, if I review those books here, still tag them as being part of Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  I may also do some of the writing exercises.

Josh Berk’s The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is the last book that I read on the syllabus’ schedule before my giving my notification (so to speak).  The book chronicles the extraordinary events that happen in the public high school of a small, Pennsylvanian coal-mining town shortly after Will Halpin transfers from his local deaf school because of what he describes as deaf culture politics (for wanting to be part of the hearing culture as well as the deaf, he is shunned).  On a class field trip, Pat, the star quarterback and son of a wealthy casino owner, is killed when he falls down a mineshaft.  Will’s friend Devon, the only person with which Will really communicates at a school that largely doesn’t understand sign language or the ways in which they can help Will communicate and understand, pulls Will into a Hardy Boys type investigation.

As a child, I read more Boxcar Children books than my mother cares to remember, and The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin became reminiscent of their plots—tracking down clues by somewhat dangerous means, often by defeating suspicious adults.  Written for an older audience and being a stand-alone instead of a series, Hamburger Halpin was less about kids overcoming adults than The Boxcar Children, and dealt more with the peer group and finding one’s place among it.  Hamburger Halpin also delved deeper into more adult and teen themes and ideas (I’m literally talking about sex, drugs, and rock and roll) than The Boxcar Children ever did.

[SPOILERS] As Will teases Devon when Devon comments:

“[…] I can’t believe that everything turned out exactly like a Hardy Boys book.

“HamburgerHalpin: except for the part where the quarterback had a sex liaison with one of his educationalists

“Smiley_Man3000: Oh yeah.

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the prom queen got knocked up and pushed him down a coal shaft

“Smiley_Man3000: Well there is that, but…

“HamburgerHalpin: and then the police arrested frank” (244-245) [END SPOILERS]

As Will relies heavily on technology (instant messages on computer and handheld devices) to communicate easily with Devon, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin may quickly become outdated.  I would have said that its references to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys would have made it feel a little dated already, being uncertain that today’s kids still read these series with any regularity, but I actually did have a giggle of three girls come to me this week to beg to be shown where to find Nancy Drew.

Will’s deafness really only served, for me, to make him a good lip-reader, and therefore a good partner to have when watching surveillance tapes.  Otherwise, Will’s deafness just gives him a reason to have a difficult time in school (any number of other reasons would have served) and a second reason (in addition to his weight, with which Will actually seems surprisingly comfortable, so props to Berk on that point) to be outcast at school.

Neither plot nor prose wowed me, but Hamburger Halpin may interest fans of kid detectives when those readers reach their teens and will be good to recommend for teen mystery readers, though the first 116 pages are given to a bildungsroman and investigation of life for a deaf teen rather than to a mystery and whodunit.

There was something more genuine and interesting about the bildungsroman and Will’s perspective on everyday life than the mystery for me, but I gave up my Boxcar Children obsession long ago and have not adopted another detective series since unless you want to include Harry Potter (which I don’t think that I would).

**1/2

Berk, Josh.  The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin.  New York: Ember-Random, 2010.

This review is not endorsed by Josh Berk, Ember, or Random House, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes Is a Bildungsroman and Issue Book for All

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Let me preface this review with a life update:  I’m back in grad school!  I’m about to embark on my first ever online course: ENG 561: Giving Voice to the Voiceless, a literature class taught by the Hillary Homzie.  We will be reading books where the writer has given voice to an otherwise voiceless child or teen, whether that child is physically incapable of speech, she is forced to be silent by adults, or her situation is such that her voice cannot be heard, and examine the techniques and forms used by these writers in trying to genuinely capture a voiceless voice to be able to emulate these in our own writing.

This class is going to consist primarily of realistic fiction, and a lot of it will be darker.

Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is not the first book on our reading list, but it was the first that I was able to get my hands upon, again, having found it at my local used bookstore.  It is a hard read.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is narrated by Eric “Moby” Calhoune, a once fat middle school student, now a somewhat slimmer high school swim team star.  Eric’s best friend is Sarah Byrnes, a tough and clever girl who has been outcast because of the severe burns that mar her face.  Those burns she claims to have gotten when, as a toddler, she pulled a boiling vat of water off the stove.  At the beginning of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (who goes only by her full name because she is aware of its irony and would prefer others to ridicule her on her terms to her face rather than behind her back) has ceased talking and ceased responding to the world at large.  She is living in a psychiatric ward, where Eric visits her.

The bildungsroman follows Eric as he tries to negotiate the secrets that he learns and the pain that he experiences.  Apart from Sarah Byrnes’ apparent withdrawal from the world, Eric is in a new class where they discuss relevant contemporary issues (abortion and religion are the main issues to which Crutcher devotes scenes), is striving to ready himself for the state swim championships, gains a girlfriend as his mother gains a boyfriend….  Issues that arise in the class force him to reevaluate his rival, who is a legalistic Christian.

Crutcher incorporates more of a villain and more of plot into his bildungsroman than some (Salinger) have done, and I greatly appreciate that for its good-versus-evil battle familiarity.  I think that this and the broader spectrum of issues with which Crutches deals (abortion, child abuse, the dangers of a narrow worldview and a worldview that allows only perfection, suicide; issues that should be talked about, dealt with) make Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes more readable than some others and rescue Staying Fat from the casual label of “boys’ book” that I would throw at it on the grounds of it being a bildungsroman from a male perspective.  I believe that Staying Fat is readable, enjoyable, and helpful to both genders.  Another “well done” to Crutcher.

As per giving voice to the voiceless:  Crutcher uses voicelessness in two ways: first as a disability or effect of abuse (as with Sarah Byrnes, Jody Mueller, and Mark Brittain) and second as a shield against abuse or hurt (as with Sarah Byrnes and Carver Middleton).  This paradoxical dichotomy lends an original voice and complexity to the very idea of voicelessness and makes the novel both more enjoyable and interesting.

The epilogue resolves what it can and allows for a generally happy ending to a heavy and dark read, while acknowledging that high school and the beginning of college are a time of flux and it cannot be tied in a neat bow.

***3/4

Crutcher, Chris.  Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.  New York: Greenwillow-HarperTempest-HarperCollins, 2003.  First published 1993.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Crutcher, Greenwillow Books, HarperTempest, HarperCollins Children’s Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Series Review: All-American Girl: Because Not All Issue Books Have to be Dark (Apparently)

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Spoilers ahoy!

All-American Girl and its sequel Ready or Not provide Meg Cabot with a lively soapbox from which she can preach her views on politics.  The heroine of these books is Samantha Madison, a D.C. resident, who finds herself saving the president from an assassination attempt and subsequently becomes teen ambassador to the U.N. and the girlfriend of the president’s son, all while dealing with the tribulations of the life and high school of an average American teen girl.  Sam, a vocal teen, who in the first book hankers for the life of a jaded rebel, at least once per book finds herself at odds with the president’s policies, and Cabot, taking advantage of her character’s voice, I must assume, voices her protestations.

The premise is interesting, and the books are much more fun reads than most teen issue books, being fluffy, fun, and quick.  Cabot chooses one topic per book and focuses her efforts on it, and these issues are less melancholy than frequent topics of teen issue books (rape, suicide, etc.).

Both of these books focus on the rights of teens and the government’s attempts to sabotage those rights.  In All-American Girl, Sam’s chosen winner of an art contest of which she is judge is at odds with the white-washed version of America that the government wants to portray, Sam’s choice being a painting of illegal immigrants sneaking across the border rather than a scenic lighthouse.  Sam learns the value, through art classes that come to reflect her life, of seeing versus knowing.

In the second, the president wants to push a focus on the family.  This new initiative includes a law that requires pharmacists and clinics to notify parents when children purchase any form of birth control.  This comes to light as Sam is struggling with her belief that the president’s son, her boyfriend, has asked her to have sex with him over Thanksgiving.  Sam learns the benefit of communication between families and between partners as well as a focus on the whole working as a unit rather than individual parts.

Ready or Not reminds me to warn those who know the white-washed Meg Cabot of The Princess Diaries films that that is not Meg Cabot.

Stylistically, these books are a little awkward.  The messages of Sam’s art lessons being forced forward into the real world seems, well, forced.  The inclusion of top ten lists breaks the text, though by the second book, I was enjoying the breaks rather than finding them awkward.  Last, some of the sentences really did read awkwardly and could have been helped by further or correct punctuation (ex: “And I also realize that actually?  It really doesn’t matter.”  Here, I would have used a comma in place of the question mark, making a complete thought instead of a fragment and statement, and this not maybe the best, most awkwardly phrased example.).  I understand that Cabot is going for a conversational prose but firmly believe that written text needs to be punctuated as written text not as transcribed dialogue whenever possible.  I know it’s a personal peeve, but I’m sure some others will share it too.

I didn’t dislike these books, but nor would I consider them favorites.  My dislike of the writing style and the forced lessons hurt them greatly.

***

Cabot, Meg.  All-American Girl.  New York: Harper Trophy-Harper Collins, 2002.

Cabot, Meg.  Ready or Not.  New York: Harper Teen-Harper Collins, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Meg Cabot, Harper Trophy, Harper Teen, or Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.