Tag Archives: magical realism

Book Review: American Born Chinese Smashes Stereotypes and Issues Challenges Directly

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Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is another book that I was introduced to by A. LaFaye in that same History and Criticism of Children’s Literature class at Hollins University, and is another that I have read many times since that class. This is an award winning graphic novel about Jin Wang’s struggle to fit into a predominantly Caucasian America as a Chinese American. It parallels with the ancient Chinese tale of the Monkey King, a powerful monkey who wants to be a god, but whom the gods refuse because he’s a monkey. Told with a laugh track and canned applause like a 90s television comedy, the third strand of the story, “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” features the worst of Chinese stereotypes in Chin-Kee, a cousin of all-American Danny who so embarrasses Danny that Danny has to change schools each year after Chin-Kee’s visit. The three tales intersect at the end of the book with a lesson to learn to be happy as one is rather than wishing to be something one is not.

This was the first graphic novel I was able to enjoy, though a few others had been put into my hands prior, including Tamora Pierce’s White Tiger, which I’d have loved to have enjoyed. I cannot pretend to have a breadth of knowledge about either comic or manga illustration styles. I have had difficulty particularly with the American comic book format. When confronted with the form, my mind can focus on either the text or picture but not on both. A. suggested that this is a more common problem than I ever would have expected and related to the same reflex that makes me cover my eyes during horror films. In American comic books and horror films, the action is generally directed out of the page at the audience, so I flinch from horror films and dodge the illustrations in American comic books, glossing over the pictures, missing the details they add to the story, and catching only the dialogue. I also don’t approve of the hypersexualization of characters that seems pervasive in comic book illustration.

Yang’s style is more confined to the pages, even the fight sequences only occasionally having a limb extended out towards the reader. His colors are brighter, though I’m not sure what effect that would have on my reading ability unless the brighter colors are more welcoming in the same way that picture book illustrators recommend bright colors to keep a child’s attention and to create a stimulating image. The characters are not hypersexualized but rather of fairly average body type. Most of the illustrations feature forward facing characters and often direct stares, placing the reader in the position of a character, of a confidant or aggressor or opponent, creating empathy in many cases and inviting introspection and close reflection of the characters’ words.

That’s one of things I love best about this book: It issues a challenge to the reader while being readily accessible, even with its graphic novel form inviting more reluctant readers to read. It takes its challenges of stereotypes to every level, going beyond its text, challenging the belief that a graphic novel cannot have literary value (though this is becoming a less firmly held belief among critics, educators, and parents, I believe). Its illustrations blend manga and American comics while creating something new, its form a metaphor for the story’s message. It speaks openly about racism and race and prejudice.

I don’t admittedly know enough about Chinese mythology or folklore. I believe though that in the spirit of the melting pot, Yang melds Chinese mythology and Christian mythology. The emissaries of Tze-yo-tzuh, an all-powerful god who created the world and everything in it, are a bull, lion, woman, and eagle. A man, bull, lion, and eagle are traditionally used to depict the four Christian Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Journey into the West taken by Wong Lai-Taso and the Monkey King is to see and bring gifts to a humble man in a brown robe and a woman in a blue mantle with a young child. The couple and child look like the traditional representations of Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus, and Wong Lai-Taso’s and the Monkey King’s journey west to give them gifts then parallels the journey of the wise men (from the East) to present their gifts to the Christ child in the Christian story.

Yang creates a wonderful piece of fiction, complex and intricate.

*****

Yang, Gene Yuen. American Born Chinese. Color by Lark Pien. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Yuen Yang, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of buying an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and buy it through Bookgrail?

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes Delights

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Ray Bradbury has had a huge effect on me as an writer. I’m not sure I realized how much till I took a break from editing my own WIP to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury’s prose is florid and fantastic in a way that few writers can claim in this century or any other. Maybe that’s a little expansive, but I enjoy it immensely. The man creates vivid metaphors and twists language with the skill and delicacy of a spider in a web.

Something Wicked is a coming-of-age tale with a thorn. Two friends—nearer than brothers—are nearing adolescence at different rates. Jim Nightshade is growing up more quickly than Will Halloway, is more fascinated with the dark and what goes on in the dark: carnal love, the promises of adulthood offered to him by a carnival in possession of a carousel that can carry riders backwards or forwards through the years. Will remains tethered to innocence and youth. He is the grounding force for Jim.

Charles Halloway, Will’s father, has lived through the years. He longs for a return to his youth, but he overcomes the temptation offered by Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show with nobility, reason, and research found in books and dark corners of the library that is more his home than his home. He is the temperance and wisdom of age, the 20/20 hindsight cast onto youth and aging that keeps Will and Jim tethered even more so to reality.

Bradbury’s work here is insightful—about humanity and the human condition, about the bildungsroman genre. It is both within the genre and without. It shares the message that aging comes with pain but also wisdom and knowledge, but it looks backwards more than hurtling forwards at the breakneck pace of teenage exuberance. Will and Jim are narrating characters and certainly they—or at least Jim—hurtle recklessly onward (Will hesitates and teeters on the cliff’s edge), but more of the weight of the narration falls on Charles. Will and Jim and Cooger and Dark create plot. Charles creates perspective.

The plot—uncovering the nefarious devices and deeds and escaping the grasping hands of a demonic carnival—is exciting enough to keep a casual reader interested, I think, but the depth is there, easily accessible for those who want to plumb it, and maybe too for those who would rather just read the adventure, coming hand-in-hand with the adventure so that it cannot be missed.

The triumph of joy and joyful abandonment over darkness add a spark of hope into the novel—and that joy is not only for youth if youth might find it more easily. This is almost a tale to laud never growing up—or maybe more accurately not forgetting the joy of youth for it does not discredit age. In fact the most heroic of the figures ultimately is the eldest of the narrators, Charles, who, with the eyes of experience and the acceptance of his own fears, is able to see the dark creatures as pathetic and frightened and so defeat them with the power of his own confidence and smile and love of son and of Jim.

This book was recently a summer reading book for a local high school. I find it ideal for that age or college students perhaps more so, straddling as it does the line between adulthood and childhood and looking backwards and forwards across it to give a piercing perspective of the two ages. There’s also merit in it for an adult audience, with an adult hero saving youth and recovering his own youth through the acceptance of his age and the through the release of his fears and dourness.

*****

Bradbury, Ray.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  New York: Avon-HarperCollins, 1998.  First published 1962.

This review is not endorsed by Ray Bradbury, his estate, Avon Books, or HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: July 2014 Picture Book Roundup

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First a quick acknowledgement: The first picture book roundup was posted July 1, 2013.  I have officially been doing this for over a year now; I just hadn’t realized it.  Since I’ve realized it, you might notice a small detail added to the title of this post.  I guess it’s time to start distinguishing by year as well as month.

Also, I ought to apologize.  This month’s is awfully late.  But never mind.  Here it is at last.

Waldo the Jumping Dragon

Waldo, The Jumping Dragon by Dave Detiege and illustrated by Kelly Oechsli. Whitman-Western, 1964.

This one I found in an antiques mall, drawn to it by the dragon on the cover. Waldo is a careless dragon who doesn’t look where he’s going, and because the characters warn the dragon that that heedlessness will get him into trouble, I’m tempted to think of this as a didactic story. He runs into a knight—literally—and the knight decides that he must slay the dragon. The knight chases him, eventually catching hold of the dragon’s neck after the dragon frightens a king and a queen. Waldo, however, just continues to jump from place to place with the knight clinging to him, until he runs into a tree, dislodging the knight, who runs away from the reckless dragon, deciding that he is too dangerous. But before dislodging the knight, Waldo admits that he is a lonely dragon, so his recklessness leads not only to danger for himself and others but also a lack of friends, making it truly unenviable to a young audience. Because he isn’t watching where he is going, Waldo breaks the 4th wall and jumps off of the page. I’ve always been a fan of books that break the 4th wall and acknowledge themselves a book. 

****

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Touch the Red Button by Alex A. Lluch. WS, 2014.

Hervé Tullet’s Press Here has spawned several copycats, including this book and Bill Cotter’s Don’t Press the Button. (There are more copycats than I’d realized. Here’s an online version intended for an older audience.) These books ask readers to interact with the illustrations, and the illustrations reflect the readers’ assumed interaction. It’s a pretty fun concept, and though I recognized pretty quickly that Lluch’s book was a Press Here copycat, I still read it all the way through, then held it out to a coworker for him to play with too. This more than any of the other books I’ve found—including the original—is more complimentary, praising the reader for following directions. But it’s also less original than Cotter’s book.

These will never be good story hour books but will always be good bedtime books. They’re educational. The interactive model makes them books of play for kids and adults too. The novelty of the concept is starting to wear off, but I think that the interactive and playful nature of the books will ensure that they keep selling.

***

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Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! by Sebastien Braun. Nosy Crow-Candlewick-Random, 2014.

This flap book shows hints of the animal behind the flap. It is peppered with animal sounds paired the animal’s name. It’s actually been pretty highly praised, but I found nothing in it to disappoint and nothing in it to blow me away.

***

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Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Good Books, 2010.

Now Smallman seems about as enthusiastic about dragons I am, and I understand that Vikings and dragons have a long history, but there are so many echoes of Cowell and of DreamWorks here that it seems nothing so much as a leech to the How To Train Your Dragon franchise’s fame (the movie was released about six months prior to Dragon Stew’s release). In Cowell the bathroom humor of middle-grade boys is age-appropriate. In a children’s picture book, it seems grotesque (though I do recognize that my disgust is also mixed with my outrage at the book so blatantly coasting on Cowell’s success without acknowledging it). For an older audience, I’d love it, and maybe for, say, ages 7-8 (ages which are within the realm of picture book marketing), it would be great. It’s an exciting adventure about bored Vikings who decide to go and hunt a dragon for their stew without knowing what a dragon looks like, battle their way past sea monsters, eat all of their teatime sardine sandwiches, land on a dragon’s island with the help of a killer whale, examine a pile of dragon poo, and then are confronted with the dragon itself, who rather than allowing himself to be chopped up for stew, sets their bums alight. It might be a delightful picture book, but it’s not one I’m likely to read to my children while they are young enough and incompetent enough readers for picture books—and by the time they’re ready for it, I hope we’ll be reading chapter books.

**

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The Silver Pony by Lynd Ward. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

A wordless picture book! A wordless picture book from the ‘70s! So it’s a much older concept than I’d thought. I stumbled across this book in a local used bookstore. I was at first attracted by the title and then because the illustrations reminded me Wesley Dennis’ artwork. Dennis illustrated all of Marguerite Henry’s books, so the style was familiar and warm as a childhood security blanket. When I realized after several pages that no text was forthcoming, I became more intellectually interested.

In this tale, a farm boy with his head in the clouds spies a Pegasus. The boy tries to tell his father, but his father doesn’t believe his wild tales, and the boy’s punishment for his perceived tale-telling is a spanking. The boy sees the Pegasus again, however, and this time befriends it rather than fleeing to tell his father. Once friends, he and the Pegasus travel the world, helping other children, delivering sunflowers to young, lonely girls—acts of kindness and bravery and chivalry, sure, but I can’t really cheer the depiction of children of other ethnicities and cultures, as they are shown to need the help or love of the superior white man and his flying horse. (I’m a product, aren’t I, of my generation, as much as this book is of its time?)

[SPOILER] Like so many good horse stories, the boy is hurt riding, and he thinks that he has lost the horse. The injury softens the father. The book ends with the boy receiving a pony who is the doppelganger for his lost Pegasus as a gift from his previously hard father. [END SPOILER]

But aside from that, these illustrations are pretty beautiful, particularly the landscape and animals. I could hope for a little more emotion from the human characters but not from the animals. The format delights me. There’s room for creativity but enough to have—I think—a fairly similar story and enough illustrations to make the story coherent as well so that it is a feat of storytelling in picture format.

****1/2

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

Book Review: The Art of the Con: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair Magically Maintains My Interest

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

Spoilers.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama is a historical fiction with elements of magical realism by Laura Amy Schlitz and is outside of my usually indulged fantasy genre.  I bought it for a graduate course, quit the class, then read and finished the book despite.  That in itself is a pretty good review.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair is written from the point of view of Maud Flynn, an orphan adopted by three spinster sisters, the Hawthornes, who hold séances for rich patrons to maintain their lifestyle.  Maud lives as a “secret child” with the sisters and is asked to take part in their séances, acting the role of one particular child, Caroline Lambert.  Sneaking out the house, Maud meets Mrs. Lambert, Caroline’s grieving mother, whom she begins to like despite herself, and whom she begins to feel guilty for conning.

During a séance, an accidental fire destroys the Hawthorne’ house.  The Hawthornes and Mrs. Lambert flee, leaving Maud locked in a cabinet behind.  Maud escapes and stumbles away from the burning house, and in exchange for her honesty, is helped by the owner of a carousel that both Caroline and now Maud have become fond of riding.

At first Mrs. Lambert despises Maud along with the sisters who have conned her but Mrs. Lambert comes to realize that Maud has reminded her of her daughter, Caroline, and Mrs. Lambert forgives Maud and offers Maud the loving home that she has so desperately wanted.

This is the external plot, but its morals are of discerning truth and untruth and appearances from reality; the true plot is Maud’s confusion about whom to trust and whom to distrust and what to keep secret and what to reveal.  Perhaps as a result, the adults in the tale who are manipulating or using Maud seem significantly more interesting than Maud herself, and Maud, though she acts and acts against the orders of the adults in charge of her, seems more catalyst for their reactions and a foggy lens for the reader than she does a heroine who acts throughout the story.  Though she was nice enough, Maud didn’t leave that much of an impression upon me, and I think that I remained with her to see whether or not Mrs. Lambert would be tricked and then to ensure that the sisters got their comeuppance.

The class for which this book was an assignment is called Giving Voice to the Voiceless.  Maud is forced by the Hawthorne sisters to maintain her silence and hide her identity, not through fear of physical violence as with Sarah Byrnes in Chris Crutcher’s Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes but through fear of rejection, out of a belief that by behaving and doing all that the sisters tell her to do Maud can win love.  Maud’s voicelessness is what the Hawthornes require and desire, and it is a boon to them.  Her voicelessness hurts Mrs. Lambert.  Whether or not it is a boon or harm to Maud is difficult to say without a lengthy discussion.  Her singing voice first wins her the Hawthornes’ attention and they take her away from the orphanage where she’s been living.  Her voicelessness ensures her continued situation with the Hawthornes, where she is provided with better food and more elegant clothes than she has ever been allowed and more personal attention, though whether she is more genuinely loved by the orphanage’s staff than by the Hawthornes is again up for debate.  By remaining voiceless as the Hawthornes implore her to be, Maud distances Mrs. Lambert, who could provide her with an even better living situation and genuine love in addition.

Along with Maud’s enforced voicelessness, the Hawthornes employ a mute servant, whom they call Muffet.  Maud befriends Muffet and begins to teach her the words for objects and later to read.  Muffet and Maud together make the journey from voicelessness into a voiced and into a loving home.  Schlitz seems to be very firmly of the opinion that voice and truth and honesty are virtues.

Maud’s is a supremely innocent close third voice, but I think I’d have liked her better if more of her impertinence had come forward in her voice as well as in her dialogue rather than being most prominently displayed in the labels of adults.

***1/2

Schlitz, Laura Amy.  A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Laura Amy Schlitz or Candlewick Press.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.