Tuesday, September 1

a funny thing happened on the way to school

by Davide Cali
illustrated by Benjamin Chaud
Chronicle Books 2015

Excuses, excuses, but it's the SIZE of the lies that impresses here.

When asked why he was late for school a boy goes into a lengthy, imaginative journey into all the obstacles in his path. From a story perspective it's exactly what one teacher once described as "one dang thing after another," and the twist on the last page isn't all that noteworthy unless the reader has had no experience with picture books at all. The best example of this type of story is Remy Charlip's Fortunately; unfortunately this book isn't in that sphere of clever.

But what I found most charming, even refreshing, was the size of the book itself. Slightly smaller than 6"x9" it is satisfying to hold and the smaller page seems to better convey the chaos on the page. Sometimes I look at a picture book with it's gloriously huge flatscreen-sized pages with so much dead space -- excuse me, "atmospheric space" -- and wonder why the book needs to be the size that it is. One look at the picture book section of a library or bookstore and you can see that there doesn't seem to be a standard trim size, but certainly not all of these books can justify their out-sized ego. Bigger isn't always better.

So, way to go, Chronicle! More quality books with smaller hands in mind!

Monday, September 22

abandoned: taken

by David Massey
Chicken House / Scholastic 2014

Teens in peril. That's where you lose me.

I try to read books as "blind" as possible, knowing as little as I can going in so I can let the freshness of the story carry me. Sometimes, though, I get a sense early in a book that it's going to piss me off. In the past when I was a younger man and felt like I had a lifetime to read everything I'd finish every book out of a sense of respect for the author and the craft. But I'm older now, aware that I will never get to read everything I want to, and some backs don't earn that right to be read to the end.

Here's the short version: I have no patience for books that put teens in extreme peril.

That sounds absurd. Peril, imminent danger, kids at the mercy of extremely dangerous adults, this is practically everywhere. Maybe I'm just getting tired of it.

Taken starts with a young woman meeting up with a group of young war veterans -- barely adults themselves --  getting ready to sail around the world for charity. Because the crew are themselves disabled their insurance requires an able-bodied hand named Rio, who is our narrator. There's some tension among personalities, resentment over having Rio as a babysitter, and as they set sail I suddenly get a hinky feeling.

This is called Taken. What, or who, gets taken?

See, I could get behind an adventure where a crew of new adults has to deal with the elements, a damaged boat, a clash of cultures and miscommunication, a trial of character. I can't resist. I flip the cover over and discover they are hijacked by pirates, held by a militant warlord, prisoners of war. There is an image of a fourteen year old girl clutching a machine gun with a necklace made of human teeth.

I'm out.

The news is full of kids in peril. A teen girl beaten and raped for protesting the public beating of her father. Women, girls, and boys abducted by militants, adding to the hundreds of others already gone missing. Terrorists using video games to recruit teens to their efforts. This is news, not something to be reduced to "ripped from today's headlines" sensationalized entertainment.

People can write what they want, people can read what they want.

I've got plenty of other books to read.

Saturday, September 13

goodnight brew

by Ann E. Briated
illustrated by Allie Ogg
Bailiwick Press  2014

No. Wrong. Sorry. Not for kids. Terrible parody with no redeeming qualities. Seriously.

You would be hard pressed to find a parody of a children's classic more tone deaf and misguided as this. The idea of a children's book parody should have echoes of childhood skewered with a winking eye. Goodnight Brew seems to labor under the assumption that a not-so-clever title reworking aimed at craft brew-loving hipster parents is going to be the next Go The F*ck To Sleep.

It isn't.

Unfunny, unclever, unbelievably dull, and with no plot to it. And for those who might be quick to point out that the source material, Goodnight Moon, equally lacks a plot I would say... yeah, okay, so it's a little thin. But it is satisfying, it has a lullaby quality to designed for bedtime reading. It has a purpose and for that purpose it does it's job well. Goodnight Brew is so relentlessly vapid that it cannot even muster a yawn out of a casual adult. At best, it might be just a tad above a bender following a suitcase of cheep, evil-smelling beer in the lost brain cells department, although this might still be giving it too much credit.

I don't have a problem with parodies of children's books, but if you're going to do it they better be stellar. I thought The Very Hungry Zombie book that came out last year was beneath contempt, but alongside Goodnight Brew it at least has some redeeming qualities.

Just don't ask me what they were because I've already forgotten it, which is what I suggest we all do with Goodnight Brew as well.

Friday, September 12

shh! we have a plan

by Chris Haughton
Candlewick  2014

Four black-ops solders take on an impossible night mission with little hope of success. Just kidding!

In the depths of a purple-blue night four night stalkers our out with their nets in hopes of coming across something to catch. Actually only three of the stalkers have nets, the smallest seems to be tagging along. When they come across a bird the Little One cannot help but call out "Hello, Birdie" but is quickly hushed. "Shh! We have a plan."

Following the Rule of Threes the older trio creep stealthily upon the bird on the ground, in a tree, and out on a frozen pond, always failing to catch their prey. At last the Little One offers up some bread crumbs and they stalkers are suddenly surrounded by many birds. With the birds so close it seems as if catching them will easy until they realize they are outnumbers and outsized and off the run.

When they see a squirrel they turn to Little One. "Shh. We have a plan." And thus we end back where we started, with the stalkers unwilling to accept the truth and Little One shrugging at the reader.

Is it a lesson in respecting and protecting small creatures? The triumph of innocence over mischievous adventures? A subtle anti-hunting tract?

How about kids being kids?
Kids getting a notion in their head and proceeding with what they believe is a well-considered plan only to have it fail due, in part, to their own limited understanding of the real world.

Okay, I'll get out of the deep end now.

Stylistically, Shh! We Have a Plan is dark, but it's the darkness of night, the darkness of woods where even the light of the moon only makes things look various shades of blue. The human characters have a ragged torn-paper look to their edges while the natural elements have a cleaner simplicity to their shapes. The animals in particular, with their bright reds and greens and geometric shapes, are reminiscent of Alexander Girard without mimicry. A hat-tip in general to mid-century modern in both design and storytelling is owed here from Haughton who, it seems, has a genuine affinity for the naif.

Thursday, September 11

richard scarry's best lowly worm book ever

by Richard Scarry (mostly)
Golden Books  2014

A recently discovered Scarry manuscript is unearthed... and out pops Lowly Worm!

Weird-but-true, and totally irrelevant, anecdote about a Richard Scary book. Once while working in the bookstore a woman came in, furious, to return one of those cute little critter books because of its "gratuitous use of meat." Specifically, she was offended by a picture of a pig in a hot air balloon in which the balloon was in the shape of (or perhaps in some loopy sort of logic was actually) a giant sausage.

It's not hard to get off on weird tangents like this with Richard Scarry because his books, with their anthropomorphic animals and vehicles can be, at times... odd. Garbage trucks with toothy mouths painted on their backsides like they're about to gobble garbage furiously. A rasher of mice riding around inside a roadster made from a single pencil, implying either rather tiny mice or enormous pencils...

And in this most recent title, loosely following a day in the life of beloved Lowly Worm, there is a page simply titles "This is me" where Worm is drawn the size of a garden snake with all his accoutrement's laid out and labeled around him. That he has a head the size of a kitten, an eye as big as a grape, with a foot-shaped tail isn't as alarming as the fact that he's naked save for his underpant (singular) wrapped around his middle like a diaper. That's when you realize that Richard Scarry spent some time seriously considering Lowly Worm's attire. There's a trouser (again singular, as pants are plural for us bipeds), a shirt collar, a bow tie, and a shoe. A shoe for a worm that, in Scarry's word, often stands upright. From there anything goes.

All the Scarry cast of characters are here. The cat family, including Huckle, the pigs and bears and bunnies, all of them doing the things people do. This day-in-the-life was recently discovered by Scarry's son who finished the artwork in his father's signature style. It feels both old and new, and in a way it truly is both. It's a throwback to the timelessness that makes classics feel like they've always been there.

But if, like that one customer on mine, you find gratuitous meat a problem, you might want to skip this one. The page where Worm collects eggs for Farmer Cat for their breakfast might cause fits of apoplexy. Kids, on the other hand, will love it.

Wednesday, July 9

jack the castaway

by Lisa Doan
Darby Creek / Lerner  2014

Smart kid, dumb parents, and a menacing whale shark! What more could a kid want from a book? 

Jack is a sheltered kid on the cusp of puberty living with his Aunt Julia safely in Pennsylvania. Or at least he was living safely until his Aunt met with misfortune and Jack was forced to call his world-traveling parents home from their latest scheme, panning for gold in the Amazon. Jack's parents are everything Jack isn't: reckless, thoughtless, careless dreamers with no grounding in reality. Since abandoning Jack with his Aunt they have gone from one dead-end business to another but now they are forced back to raise a son who has more sense than they do collectively.

So begins Lisa Doan's Jack the Castaway, the first in a series aimed squarely at the emerging, struggling, or reluctant middle grade reader looking for an adventure series with humor and a sturdy story. Playing off the trope of kids being smarter than the adults that surround them, Doan has amped up this discord by giving Jack all the typical traits of a worry-wort adult and made his parents the equivalent of hyperactive teens. Where his parents wouldn't never even think of making a list or a plan before setting out on an adventure, Jack prefers the logical order of his life and would rather spend his time in school. Reunited as a family, Jack's parents think it only natural to bring their risk-adverse son with them to a tropical island where they intend to open a snorkeling enterprise, despite having no experience. But before long Jack finds himself alone on the water, then shipwrecked on a tropical island and... is that a shark keeping watch on him from the shore?

There are many ways a story like this could go wrong, but Doan keeps a fine balance between humor and adventure, particularly when dealing with Jack's brief experience alone on a tropical island. Where many readers might find the prospect of being alone to do nothing, away from the school and responsibilities that Jack craves, it's Jack's practicality that allows him to stay calm and survive. Where Jack errs on the side of caution the reader is allowed to guess that he is overreacting, removing any real danger that would otherwise make the story too dark.

And while I wouldn't say I was much like Jack when I was young I will confess that he and I share a certain blood-chilling close encounter with a large, benign sea creature. Both Jack and I survived to laugh about it in retrospect.

There's a lot of summer reading out there that kids are having foisted on them, and while much of it is good I strongly believe that there's room for lighter, well-crafted fare. I realize this might skew a bit younger than most of what lands on Guys Lit Wire but sometimes boys need to catch the reading bug at a younger age to ensure they continue into the goods we reviewers dig up for the older teens. Put Jack the Castaway in the back seat on a long road trip and see if it isn't devoured in one single gulp.

This review also appeared at Guys Lit Wire, in case you thought you saw it somewhere else.

Also, as a matter of full disclosure, I received a review copy of this book from the author who, like myself, is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts' Writing for Children and Young Adults program. If you find this troubling, email me, I'll be more than happy to put your mind at ease. 

Tuesday, June 17

I Am Rosa Parks

I am Rosa Parks
By Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos

A whitewashed (ahem) picture book biography of the famed Civil Rights icon. Parson Weems would be proud.

Now that we have Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice out in the world I feel it is incumbent on anyone treading toward teaching kids about the Civil Rights do so with a more open understanding of history.

Rosa Parks was chosen as the symbol for a bus boycott, and sometimes what you need is a symbol to make history, but you need a balanced and more nuanced hand to tell history, especially to kids.

Parson Weems is responsible for the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, a myth so prevalent that kids know it almost without being taught. For Weems, writing over 100 years ago, the idea of mythologizing American heroes was a conscious effort meant to galvanize a national pride. But we’re smarter than that now, right?

Apparently not.

Meltzer – better know to adults as a writer of adult thrillers – spends a great deal of the this book painting Rosa Parks as a child who always stood up for herself, leading to her taking a stand on that famous bus seat. This is well and good, but then we jump ahead to the Civil Rights and her meeting MLK and a happy little ending about how important it all was that she stood up for herself.

But she wasn't the first.

Don’t kids deserve to also know about the young Claudette Colvin who preceded Rosa Parks by a full 9 months, the first person to actually be arrested for protesting the segregation of public busses? Certainly there are ways to skip the messier parts of Colvin’s story, or to include them within context, but to ignore that part of history altogether? Well, that's just inconvenient toward the narrative.

This book is part of a series “Ordinary People Change the World” which is a great idea in theory, but the other people in this series include Lincoln, and Amelia Earhart, neither of whom were really that ordinary when you think about it. I’m not trying to take anything away from Rosa Parks or from kids knowing who she was historically, but when it comes to teaching kids history there is a responsibility to get it right, to tell it right.

Some source material at the end of a biography would be nice as well. Unless, you know, it’s all just a storybook and not a history at all.

And maybe, just maybe, it could be written by someone who wasn’t white.

Thursday, July 25

The Skeleton Pirate

by David Lucas
Candlewick Press 2012

The unbeaten Skeleton Pirate who refuses to accept defeat is beaten not once but twice in this quirky picture book.

The Skeleton Pirate knows one thing: that he will never be beaten, and will fight to the, uh, death to prove it. But when a band of pirates chains him up and throws him over board... he still will not accept defeat. rescued by a Mermaid he is free for but a moment when they are both swallowed by a whale. Still refusing to accept his plight the Mermaid has a plan to help them get out of the whale, which succeeds, and sends them both sailing into a golden sunset on a gold-filled ship made of gold, where the Skeleton Pirate looks into those Mermaiden eyes and accepts he has finally been beaten... by love!

While the title might sound on the scary side, younger readers aren't going to be put off by the stylized Skeleton Pirate Lucas has created. Looking for all the world like he might actually be made of balsa wood, he's so far from reality that no child would even consider asking the really big "adult" questions like: Why does he only wear pants? and; "If he's a skeleton, isn't he already dead?" and; "Why is he so cranky?" In truth, I missed the biggest clue of all on the title page where the Skeleton Pirate appears to be emerging from the wreckage of his own ship. Not to read too deeply here, the Skeleton Pirate is a lost soul doing the only thing he knew how to do until something (or rather, someone) came along to show him the truth.

Love beats fighting, any day.

Lucas is very crafty in not letting the romance show up until the final image and gives up a goofy tale in the process. Lucas has a thing for whales, and the sea, and this time around his watercolor palate feels much bolder. I'm a fan.

Friday, May 10

if you want to see a whale

words by julie fogliano
pictures by erin e. stead.
roaring brook press 2013

a very old school picture book
poetic in word and image

now this is what i’m talking about.

the title is the premise
a set of instructions for what you need to do
in order to see a whale

it starts with a window
and quickly moves to a landscape
of the mind
the text and instructions
more of a tone poem
told legato

you must look closely
and rule out those things that aren’t a whale
avoid the distractions
stay alert to the possibilities

and then
when you have done all that
as if by magic
you will see a whale

the text
all lower-case and sans punctuation
reinforces the poetic quality

he illustrations of
a boy
and his dog
and the world of his imagination
are often set against sparse
monochromatic backgrounds
that allow for the focus
on unspoken elements in the text

and there are whales throughout
if you look for them
which is what the picture book
is all about~

seeing and making connections
with what is and isn’t there

i hate to use the word
but even the size of the book

a manageable seven-by-nine inches

not only fits the hands of smaller explorers
but echoes the picture books of old
like the original sendak-krauss collaborations

it reminds us
that small readers
don’t require larger pages
to get lost in
that bigger
doesn’t always mean

even if it’s a book about
spotting a whale

Thursday, April 18

status not so quo

There's reading, and there's writing, and there's blogging about reading and writing.

I haven't been doing enough of any of these lately.

Actually, I have been reading. Quite a lot, and much of it kidlit. I keep meaning to come here to the ol' blog-a-roo and load up what I've been reading but...

And while I've been incredibly busy with a number of writing projects I still don't feel like I'm getting enough done...

But blogging? That just fell off the face of the earth.

So I'm gearing up for a soft relaunch here at the excelsior file and am looking forward to getting back in the groove.

Feel that? That energy in the air? That's my groove. I'm working on the harness so I can get that groove back on.

For those of you still out there, reading; soon.

Tuesday, April 2

A Little Book of Sloth

by Lucy Cooke
Margaret K. McElderry Books 2013

This non-fiction book, ostensibly for kids, should forever change the synonym for sloth from "lazy" to "cute."

Many decades ago when I first learned about sloths and their sloth-like behavior they seemed to me a perfect insult. Calling someone a slug was up there but there was nothing that rolled off the tongue quite like "move it, you sloth!" All I knew of sloths were that they were slow, tree-dwelling, and, uh, slow.

But how slow? I couldn't tell you. And when you think of something as 'slow' there's also that connotation that they might not be as quick-witted as other creatures as well, but was that true of the sloth? I also assumed that the reason they were green was because they were too lazy to groom themselves, but it turns out that there's a very good reason NOT to groom away that algae in their fur.

Who knew?

I know now, and I think many adults will learn quite a bit from this book as they read it to their little ones.

There is a place called Slothville in Costa Rica that is a sanctuary for orphaned and injured sloths. As pictures from this book reveal, even a creature that looks like a cross between a kitten, a piglet and a hedgehog that's been stretched out can be awfully cute. They appear to be the most mellow of jungle creatures, sleeping 70% of their lives away (though no one knows how long that lifespan really is), chowing down on green beans and hibiscus flowers, and hugging, hugging, hugging.

Oh, and I now know that a full-speed they top out at fifteen feet per minute.

And the images make this book. Cooke's fondness for sloths is equally matched by their cute-overload behavior. Hugging stuffed animals, hugging each other, their odd (and equally slow) bathroom routines, and three words that really ought to become a catchphrase for something: bucket of sloth.

Sloths for the win!

Thursday, March 7

Happy Harry's Cafe

by Michael Rosen
illustrated by Richard Holland
Candlewick 2013

Harry makes great soup, or so we are told.

Harry is a Bear.
He work's at a cafe that bears his name.
Harry's friends are birds and cats and other animals.
Harry's friends love his soup so much they come running before it runs out.

But on this day Matt the cat does not like the soup.
Because he hasn't tried it.
Because he has no spoon.

Once Matt has a spoon and tries the soup.
He is so moved he sings a song about the soup that sums up the story.
And everyone joined in and they were all happy.

In the world of children, this story makes sense.
Or rather, it makes up a certain non-sense that is a part of the way kids make up stories.

But it is not a real story.

It is like soup without a spoon.
There is nothing to taste,
and worse,
it is like everyone around you telling you how good the soup is.
But unless you can taste it it isn't very good soup.

Happy Harry's Cafe is told in a very simple way.
Even the youngest lap-sitters will be entertained.
They can watch the animals in Harry's cafe laughing and having a good time,
and then they can retell the story themselves
because it requires very little of them to remember.

On the book flap we are told that Michael Rosen is an award winning author.
And illustrator Richard Holland has illustrated many books
including books that inspired him to develop the collage style he used here,
a mixture of simple cut shapes and suggestive sketching.

They both live in England.

There is nothing bad to be said about them here
except that this particular soup they created
like it's sparse storytelling and muted palate
is pretty bland.

Monday, March 4


by Boaz Yakin
illustrated by Joe Infurnari

Some Greek guy runs from one place to another. And for this a race is named after him.

Have you ever seen a movie storyboard? At its most basic, it's a collection of images with key dialog or actions described beneath the sketches to help communicate what the final film sequence should look like. It is a way for the director to communicate to the cinematographer how to frame a shot, for an editor to get a feel for the tempo of a scene, for a producer to understand what exactly they're paying for. If it were good enough to stand on its own it wouldn't need to cost millions of dollars and countless resources to make, you could simply publish the results and call it a day.

Marathon, written by filmmaker Boaz Yakin (The Punisher, The Rookie, Remember the Titans) and illustrated by Joe Infurnari, reads like a storyboard, one with only the barest of dialog attached and very little story development. You get the jist of scenes, or emotions, of impulses and motivations, and some very direct and unsubtle dialog to help you along, but a large portion of this book is action scenes. Sketchy, difficult-to-make-out action scenes, scenes so hard to follow sometimes you wish they had decided to give every character a different neon color so you could follow what was going on. Because at the center of this book what is going on is a story not often told.

The Olympic sport of marathon was the result of a the Greek legend of Pheidippidies, the messenger sent from the battle at Marathon (a place) to Athens to announce the Persians had been defeated. He made this run after having fought in the Battle of Marathon itself and was so exhausted that after giving his message he died. Buried in the myth is the idea that the god Pan aided the Athenians, and some misguided military decisions based on the favorable placement of the moon. Toss in a little backstory about Pheidippidy-do's being a slave whose family was first spared then killed when he was a boy, and his wife making an offering to the god Pan, and now we've got ourselves a movie.

But not a readable graphic novel.

I get how this could make a compelling action film, and there are hints of that buried in Marathon, but the owing to Infurnari's loose, sketchy nature of the art and Yakin's seemingly tacked on human interest elements, the book simply falls flat.

This was a finalist for the Cybils Award and, quite frankly, I'm curious to know how this got past the first round of judging.