Friday, December 18

Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer


written by Van Jensen
created and illustrated by Dusty Higgins
SLG Publishing 2009

It's a clever idea for a graphic novel, marred slightly by clunkiness and serialization, but still fun.

Picking up where Collodi's original story left off, Pinocchio is older, only slightly wiser, and still a puppet. No, he wasn't turned into a real boy. And his town is suddenly being culled by dark creatures of the night who seem to be doing the bidding of the Master. Pinocchio has lost his "father" Geppetto to these creatures and now, with the aid of his carpenter friend Cherry and the Blue Fairy, stalks and kills the vampires in town with the aid of stakes he conveniently caries with him in the guise of a nose. While Pinocchio tries to warn the townsfolk the appearance of a pair of familiar-looking businessmen do their best to prove puppet-boy a lair.

Of course, if he were lying his nose would grow, but the townsfolk conveniently overlook this. He is, after all, only a talking puppet. Why would they listen to him anyway?

There's always been something almost Transyvanian about the story of Pinocchio to begin with, and the current vogue of vampires makes this an easy match-up. The storytelling in Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer is a little uneven – secondary characters and antagonists need to have emotional story arcs, I've recently figured out – and the chunky illustration style Higgins uses gets lost in the heavy zipatone, but I'm still left wanting more. For me, this is a good and a bad thing; good that I'm interested in following the story, bad because I hate waiting for serialized books and will generally lose interest by the time the next installment arrives.

At least, I'm assuming there's more to the story here. If not, well, then there's a bigger problem here.

Wednesday, December 16

Candor


by Pam Bachorz
Egmont 2009

How do you deal with unruly teens? Send them to live in the mind-controlled community of Candor, Florida.

Oscar's father built Candor in the wake of losing his oldest son. The town is a model community, perfect picket fences and everyone striving for greatness. To achieve this effect Oscar's father built subliminal mind control into the town's architecture, through music constantly playing and reinforcing only the messages he wants.

But Oscar's mother resented her husband's methods and left. Oscar was strong-willed and able to resist the messages long enough to teach himself how to counter-program himself and other rich kids for a price. He's helps a dozen or so kids escape and set himself up a little secret offshore bank account. He could leave any time he wants, but he'd rather help others get out while they can since he can keep up the charade without giving into the messages that totally remove his personality and turn him into a robot like the other teens.

Problems arrive in the guise of a girl, Nia, who fascinates Oscar. She's a hard case, but Oscar eventually convinces her that he's not the model citizen everyone believes and he's slowly preparing her to escape. Because he's in love with her. But Nia's parents don't feel her personality is conforming fast enough and they send her to a special room Oscar's dad has set up where she spends four days having her brain wiped clean of "bad" behavior and replaced by his extreme programming. Once out, Nia is as brainwashed as all the other kids and Oscar decides to risk everything to save her.

Author Bachorz lived in the planned community of Celebration, the "perfect" town created by the Walt Disney Company. If you've seen the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show you can picture this sort of community perfectly, because they filmed the movie there. Superimpose another movie, The Stepford Wives, on top of that and you've pretty much got Candor. Which is not to say it's a bad idea - it totally feeds into the notion teens have about their parents wanting them to be perfect little robots - but it isn't without problems.

Mostly what bothers me is that is the entire community is being fed messages, that would include adults and they wouldn't be able to argue about the treatment of their children (as they do here) because they wouldn't understand it. Oscar's dad, the staff at the hospital, all the adults are somehow immune to this subliminal messaging, and that selectivity just isn't possible in a town where the messages are 24/7. Oscar proves that deprogramming is possible, and the kids who are taken off-message do have to maintain a veneer of still being model Candor citizens for fear of being found out, but there's no sense that the adults are going through this same sort of counter-programming. Oscar's dad, who must maintain control over every aspect of the town's carefully planned existence, could not remain as analytical as he is if he weren't somehow constantly unaffected.

That this detail is never explained (either that or I blinked and I missed it) crushes the novel for me. World building in sci-fi and fantasy, including real world dystopias like Candor, live and die by their ability to not let the world outside the book take over. At every turn I was constantly finding myself pushed out of the narrative and wondering how this was possible, how these people were affected while others were not, and ultimately how a town could be built on mind control by someone without a degree in psychology and be kept secret from the outside world. This last part is most puzzling, as kids who graduate and leave Candor must do so with a pre-recorded set of "messages" to keep them in line else they will suffer from psychosis. One family is reported to have gone on vacation, forgotten their messages, and killed themselves and each other in a hotel as the programming "wore off." It all just doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny.

I ran this book by my resident 13 year old dystopia expert, and while she enjoyed it she had nothing to say about it afterward. This is unusual because most of the time she wants to talk about the Big Ideas that speculative fiction generates. When I posed the question of the adults not being influenced by the messages she had a couple of theories, but nothing that came from the book itself.

A for the idea, C- for the effort.

Tuesday, December 1

Sharp Shot

by Jack Higgins
with Justin Richards
Penguin / Speak 2009

Bond movies were the first place I encountered the idea of a story starting with an action sequence that was unrelated (or tangentially at best) to the rest of the story. The idea was to get the blood pumping with Bond in some perilous chase, have him come out victorious, slide into the title sequence, then into the story at hand.

It's an effective "hook" but what if you took it further. What if you opened with an action prologue set in 1990's Iraq, with British special forces getting ready to blow up a secret nuclear facility. Then jump ahead to today where one of the people from that mission shows up on the doorstep of his former team leader begging to be saved from unknown enemies, which sets off a chase that doesn't let up until the end... with a double assassination threat against two heads of state.

This is set-up for Sharp Shot, the third book in the Jack Higgins series featuring the teenage Chance twins, chips-off-the-block of their Bond-like father, John Chance.

As established in the previous books, Rich and Jade are more than up to the task of international intrigue and quick-witted action. If the plot gets stretched too the edges of credulity the pages burn at a frantic rate

Normally, if you asked me, I'd say I don't generally like these political espionage thrillers. At least not as books – I love this sort of thing as a movie. But I've read all three of the books in this series and I have to say, these things read like relentless action movies. No one is going to confuse these books with literature, but that's not the point; where's the fun of reading if every once in a while you can't just go with the fun?

(this review is also cross-posted over at Guys Lit Wire)

Tuesday, November 24

Superhero School


by Aaron Reynolds
illustrated by Andy Rash
Bloomsbury 2009

Leonard is excited to hear that his parents have signed him up for superhero school. After all, he has all the necessary superpowers like super strength and heat vision, and regular school was no place for him. But superhero school is full of math. Was there ever anything to drain a superhero of his strength faster than boring old mathematics?

But one day Leonard and his schoolmates arrive to find that ice zombies have seized the school and taken their teachers hostage. Its up to Leonard and his classmates – and the casual application of math – to save the day. And from that day forward Leonard never viewed math as a chore.

As tired as I am of superheroes in children's books – and I still have yet to be convinced this is a genre kids actually seek out – the blending here of math and superheroes is a slight step above the usual hero adventure. The math portions of the story aren't quite so didactic that they would turn off a reader; if anything, they could easily slip past a reader until the very end where the math portions are spelled out, and even then they can be easily glossed over. It seems doubtful to me that the picture book reader this book is intended for would have an awareness of operations like fractions and division, but it's all very simple, very benign.

On the art side of the equation, Rash's sharp and bold-outlined illustrations have just the right feel. Total geek that I am, I really like one spread in particular where images were overprinted to indicate invisibility and the reflections in a window. Whether this was part of his digital collage work or part of the printing process I don't know, but it's a nifty effect that caught my attention. I don't know how else it could be employed, but I'd like to see more of these sort of experiments in illustration.

Friday, November 20

The Great and Only Barnum


The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum
by Candace Fleming
Random House 2009

Assuming you've read nothing about his life, what do you know of P.T. Barnum? That he was a huckster and a flim-flam man? That his name was the first name in three-ring circuses for a good portion of the 20th century? That he said "There's a sucker born every minute?

That's about as much as I knew – or thought I knew – going into this biography, coupled with a skepticism that was little more than a glorified snake oil salesman. Nothing like a well-written biography intended for middle grade readers (and up) to clear the air.

First, the quote: Barnum never said it, one of his competitors did, apparently cheesed that Barnum was able to corner the market on drawing a crowd. The circuses came later in his career, built from a combination of his showmanship and the desire to mix the curiosities from his "museum" with a traveling show full of animal acts and clowns. In between there was his American Museum of alleged artifacts from history (many of them fake) and the type of human curiosities generally associated with traveling freak shows.

If Barnum's life seems like the natural extension of Professor Harold Hill's fast-talking salesmanship it's clear Barnum was born for the life he led. As a boy he was successful in drawing a crowd and making money from them. And what's most surprising is how genial he seems, how he never regarded the public as the "suckers" despite the importance of making money from their gullibility. He had a genuine regard for what we would probably call low entertainment and discovered that the general public didn't mind "harmless" hoaxes.

Fleming makes this a breezy read, well-documented with a strong narrative thread, and actually fun. Makes me wish there were more biographies like this when I was a kid.

Wednesday, November 18

Secret Subway


The Fascinating Tales of an Amazing Feat of Engineering
by Martin W. Sandler
National Geographic 2009

This is the odd tale of a man named Alfred Ely Beach and his plan to construct the first underground transit system in New York City in the late 1800's. Well illustrated and explained, curious readers will be treated to a world full of secret digging, corrupt politicians, unwieldy inventions, and a city on the verge of collapse due to excessive crowding and manure covered streets. Nothing at all like modern times.

Beach's plan for a pneumatic tubeway is presented in great, twisty detail as he sorts out problems keeping his project secret and dealing with the corrupt Boss Tweed of the Tammany Hall political machine. Sandler presents up all the key players nicely and sets the stage for the demonstration of the city's first subway, then follows through with the political pressure that put a halt to construction of a larger system and the eventual Renaissance of the much improved system still in place today.

Although it makes a briefest attempts to set the New York subway system within the context of other subways in Europe, I think I would have liked some comparisons with other mass transit problems and solutions. The elevated trains that sprouted up before the subways are shown negatively, yet they also appeared in other cities around he same time, suggesting that ideas about mass transit weren't isolated to one particular city. Chicago and Boston, for example, managed to have their mass transit in place before New York, but there is no mention of either of these systems or how any of them influenced each other.

Also, as far as the subtitle's hyperbole, while the tale is fascinating, the engineering doesn't really come off as being particularly amazing. For a book that better lays out how a subway is engineered Joe McKendry's Beneath the Streets of Boston: Building America's First Subway is probably the way to go.

When it comes to non-fiction for kids I like to walk away feeling like I learned something, even if I'm already familiar with the topic. It's a shame of my education that I learned more about Boss Tweed than I remember learning in my AP US History class back in the day. Of course, the fault here could be in my study habits, but I have a much better picture of the political fixer now than I did before.

Thursday, November 12

When You Reach Me


Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb / Random House 2009


I'm going to punt on the review here. People have been talking, and mostly raving, about this book for the better part of this year so I don't know that I have much to add. Because I agree, it's good, and because I think others have said pretty much what I would have said. So in the interest of not clogging the blogosphere with more arterial review plaque I'll merely add those things that are personal, that wouldn't be duplicated elsewhere (I hope).

This was the first book I've read in some time that made me want to go back and re-read it instantly. I'm not a big re-reader, mostly because there's so much out there to read and I am, generally, a slow reader. But this was not only a breezy read but a fun one, and the feeling of wanting to steep more in its mood left me running to get back on the ride.

The book feels "classic." I don't know if it's because it taps into the river of nostalgia that I believe I share with the author – growing up when books like Harriet the Spy were new – of the strong memories I import into the books 70s settings, but this book reads to me like an older title that is still fresh today. Which, obviously, is peculiar when it's a new book.

Then there's the speculative fiction element. The book has a light touch and the multiple levels of time travel – a traveler from our contemporary future goes back to the past, as viewed from that past – is really satisfying. I'm sure there are some who could pick apart some of the time travel elements, but I don't care. If there are flaws they didn't bother me.

And we need more speculative fiction for middle grade readers. Not science fiction, not fantasy, not alien invasions (cute or menacing), but solid stories that deal with real middle grade issues and at the same time play with big ideas. Trend-watching aside, I personally think this is the greatest gap in middle grade fiction: stories about Big Ideas that do not have a "trouble story" or a dystopia at their core. I don't know if Ms. Stead sees the book this way, or if she'd rather think of it as simply what it is – a great middle grade book – but I'm telling you it falls right into a giant gap in the types of books kids enjoy.

Not much of a review, I admit, but I'd been putting this off for a couple months now because I didn't know if there was anything new to add to the din of what is already out there. I have a couple books that have fallen off the shelf, so to speak, and languished unreviewed because I was unable to get a grip on how to articulate my joy or excitement with them (I think Gennifer Choldenko's If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period might be the one that haunts me most for lack of review). So for other takes on When You Reach Me you might want to check out fuse #8's review, or the 100 Scope Notes review, or maybe the teenreads.com review. This book is showing up on a lot of Best Books and awards shortlists, and well-deserved I should think. But as far as I'm concerned if it won no awards or accolades it still sits in the rare pantheon in my experience - those books that bear rereading.

Tuesday, November 10

The Snow Party


by Beatrice de Regniers
1959 Pantheon edition illustrated
by Reiner Zimnik
1989 Lothrop, Lee & Shepard edition
illustrated by Bernice Myers

Today, a little compare and contrast between two editions of the same book separated by three decades.

Snowed in on and old farmhouse in the Dakotas, a lonely woman begins to fantasize about having a little company. The man, her husband, points out that they don't know a soul and calls her daft for thinking such things. And besides, who'd venture out in the snow for a party even if they did have some friends. That night the storm takes out the electricity and the man decides to bring in 300 baby chick from the barn so they don't freeze. While he is out the back door the first wave of snow-stranded travelers knock on their front door. Happy for the company, the woman starts making some tea while the man welcomes the visitors. Then more stranded folks arrive. Carloads, busloads, whole wedding parties full of people stranded in the snow have made their way to the house. And then a bakery truck is stuck and there's cake and pastries and its a full party. By noon the next day the storm has passed and the stranded travelers move on. leaving the tired farm wife to sleep and dream the party all over again.

The first difference between the two is that the older version of the book is more of a picture storybook while the later edition hews more closely to what we recognize as a picture book today. In hardcover, the 1959 edition is closer in size to a trade paperback, and the illustrations are simple pen and ink drawings that have a folksy charm and seem more like spot illustrations. The pictures have a quirkiness to them, and the couple presented are round and old and very much country. Separate from a beginning reader, but not quite a middle grade book, this was clearly aimed at the emerging reader ready for slightly longer stories and fewer illustrations.

In the more recent edition (and it's odd to think of 20 years ago is "recent") the illustrations are full color and cominate the page in bright watercolors and more cartoon-y illustrations. The man and women here look a little more like aging hippies who were part of the back-to-land movement. They don't seem at all old. And as for its size the book is only slightly more square that the original, not quite as large as contemporary picture books.

Cosmetic difference aside, it's interesting to see how the text was modified for the new version. In 1959 the book opens with the happy couple in front of their farm house with the following text:
There was this little old woman and this little old man and they lived in a little old farmhouse 'way out in Dakota.

Charming, like a folk tale. Jump ahead thirty years and we get the following opening:

There was this woman, and there was this man, and they lived in a little old farmhouse way out in Dakota.

The breaks in the newer version remove some of the cadence of the original, and the word 'old' has been removed as a descriptor. Already I'm struck with wondering why the changes were made. Did it somehow seem irresponsible to put a pair of old people out in the middle of nowhere in a snow storm? Does it seem improbably that old people could want to party? Was this a question of ageism creeping into the revision?

And where the first book opens simply with that one line, the later version continues on for three more short paragraphs with the couple indoors talking. Through the window you see snow but no sense of the scenery you get with the older edition where, cleverly, the title page, the LOC page, and the dedication page all show the farmhouse and a nearby tree going through the seasons from spring through fall, with winter in full effect on that first page. It's setting and place and time and not a word used. It's the book equivalent of a movie's title sequence, or a musical's overture, and it doesn't feel anywhere near as jarring as simply jumping into the story without taking the time to establish itself.

The two books have exactly the same page count, and yet in the older book the second page explains how they lived on a farm with chickens, and in the third it talks about it snowing and snowing before the woman talks about being lonely. In the update the woman talks being "mighty lonely here with just you and the chickens for company" in the second sentence.

I don't think I'm reading into this by suggesting that the original version implies an empty nest couple who suddenly find themselves alone at the end of their days. The passage of time, the seasons, are clearly an indication of time's passage. With the new version we find a couple who don't look old enough to have raised kids and so the woman's longing for a party comes off more as a whim, a fancy, and somehow less serious. Frivolous.

Form here out the changes seem more one of economy – allowing for larger pictures and shortcutting the story where it isn't necessary. When the first guests arrive the woman sccops up some snow to make tea. It's a small detail from the original, not missed in the revision, except it is all the richer for the imagery it provides a story. The reader can try to imagine how much snow would be needed to make enough water for a tea party. It is precisely because the older book isn't a traditional picture book that it includes these details, but by reducing the story to fit the format is looses something.

The newer illustrations, had there never been anything to compare them with, would have been perfectly fine. But in comparison it is hard not to notice that for all their color and vibrancy they lack a depth. They are all surface, flat, stagnant. The older pen and ink drawings might bore younger readers for what they lack, but in return they have a sense of depth and paegentry. At the end, when the baker's truck is unloaded, the Myers illustrations show a sea of heads each holding platters of different pastries. In the Zimnik illustrations the line of helpers unloading the truck is repeated over two pages, which give the story a sense of lots of trips and an abundance of treats. In addition, despite the lack of horizon line, there is depth in the processional with the blank of the page serving as part of the white-out created by the storm.

The conversion of the picture storybook into another format is not new or unique. One of my favorite childhood picture storybooks, Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger, now exists as a rather slim middle grade book with Quintin Blake illustrations that don't have the same warmth and magic as the ones originally provided by William Pene Du Bois. Here, the book was shifted down to a picture book which is the only way it could go because it isn't quite enough for a middle grade reader.

But what is the problem with the book for children that is about the length of a short story? Why do kids have to make this progression from picture books to beginning readers to series books like The Magic Treehouse? I fear the day someone decides (really, its only a question of time isn't it?) that William Stieg's picture storybooks would make better middle grade readers, or become simplified into board books using their original illustrations. I feel sometimes like the adult world is pushing kids to reader faster then they are ready, faster than they want, and to accept longer and longer books out of some need to not leave them behind, educationally. Reading for fun, for the sense of accomplishment, with stories that can be reader and enjoyed and reread in a single sitting... I sometimes sense these are the casualties in the publishing and reading wars.

But let's hear it for the libraries that still carry both editions of The Snow Party so that readers can find the version that suits them best.

Thursday, November 5

Amulet, Book Two: The Stonekeeper's Curse


by Kazu Kibuishi
Scholastic 2009

Here's a problem. If you're an author of a series, you would want your readers to have such vivid memories of your previous books to be able to delve right into the new one and get their bearings instantly. But, if you were creating a strong, well-developed story and it was taking you longer than they usual book-a-year grind that most series require, you would hope the readers would not only be patient but willing to dive back and reread your earlier books as well so they can savor the newer book better.

But, if we're talking about younger readers, how long can we expect their interest to hold over time? If they have dozens of new titles coming at them all the time, and especially as the graphic novel format gains ground in publisher's catalogs, can they be expected to wait anxiously for a drama to unfold and still maintain interest? Will their tastes be the same, will the reader be the same, at the end of it all?

I'm thinking back to how Harry Potter carried an entire generation of readers over the course of a decade and how well it would have fared without a fanatical following and movies to keep interest buoyed. More recently the Wimpy Kid phenomenon holds its ground by shrewdly following what I call the Madonna Cycle; every nine months, without fail, Madonna appears in the news one way or another. Either she's released a new album, or she's adopted a child, started a new business, whatever. Madonna, better than anyone else I can think of, has mastered the art of staying in the public eye for almost 25 years. This constant draw of attention, not too often and not too far apart, is what keeps a brand alive. And ultimately, if publishers would look a little closer at this, could garner better sales for them.

I know I'm not talking about Kibuishi's fabulous follow-up to the first volume of the Amulet series, but in a way I am because it feels like forever since the first volume came out (almost two years by my clock) and I found that I was forced to go back and read the first book just to remember who the characters were and how they got there. Down the road there will be readers who will have the entire story laid out for them and can read them straight through, but reading a series as it goes, and with long stretches in between chapters, makes it difficult to keep any momentum (much lest continued interest) going. A middle grade reader may be well into high school – complete with a different set of interests – before the next installment comes out. Is that any way to retain an audience?

In this second installment, Emily discovers that the amulet's power is strong enough not only to possess her but to overtake her. Coming to terms with this power while trying to save her mother, it becomes clear that Emily's role in this parallel world is much larger than she imagined as the keeper of the stone; she is nothing short of a second coming, a savior in a world menaced by the evil Elf King. In the end it is clear that stage is set for an ultimate battle, but how long it will take and far it will go is hard to say.

Parallels between Amulet and Jeff Smith's Bone series are strong. There isn't as much humor, and unless this is a long series the characters don't have the same depth, but it plays to the same audience looking for solidly paced fantasy adventure. The illustrations are rich, almost moody, and its clear that a great deal of care is being put into this graphic novel at all levels. But if this series is planned to go beyond three volumes, then perhaps Scholastic should consider holding up the series a bit until they can roll them out on a faster schedule. Amulet is too good a graphic novel for young readers to get lost in the apathy of growing, fickle readers.

Tuesday, November 3

The Seems: The Lost Train if Thought


by John Hulme and Michael Wexler
Bloomsbury 2009

By all accounts I should really like this series. No, I should love it. It's got all the things I've identified as being the perfect book for boys. It has action and adventure, clever wordplay and humor, other-world fantasy with real-world consequences, a tinge of romance, political upheaval, and a teen boy working alongside a world of adults. So why do I feel like its all a big, over-calculated, relentless cheat of a series?

In this, the third book of The Seems saga, we find fourteen year old Fixer Becker Drain still doing what he does best: using his uncanny 7th sense to help locate and repair the problem areas in the world-behind-the-world known as The Seems. Figurative expression in our world are very real in The Seems. There actually is a train carrying several weeks worth of Thought that goes missing in a place known as The Middle of Nowhere. A Brainstorm is the sort of thing that has physical consequences. The Court of Public Opinion is where legal issues get hashed out. There isn't a page that isn't chock-a-block with these living idioms, always in Capital Letters to remind the reader of their actuality.

The missing Thought Train looks to be the work of the resistance group known as The Tide who are looking to shake up a new world order and give the world – both worlds, actually – a fresh start. Due to his meddling in the real world, Becker finds himself on probation within The Seems and finds himself looking for the sort of redemption that generally has fatal consequences. Saving both The Seems and The World in just the Nick of Time is inevitable, and whether Becker ends up in A Better Place (or whether or not there's any difference between A Better Place and The Seems and Heaven) is up to the reader to decide.

The series is full of itself when it comes to this sort of linguistic gymnastics, and perhaps that's what is gnawing at me. Readers need to really invest all their energies into keeping track of this alternate universe while at the same time possessing enough experiences with language and idioms to get their double meanings in an instant while whizzing through the action. Its almost too clever at times, vacillating between elitism and a massive inside joke that's too complicated to explain. Over long stretches of reading I suppose its possible for a reader to become immersed in this world that it all washes over but I never could get lost in the story because the narrative was working Too Damn Hard to remind me of its Cleverness.

Also, and this just occurred to me, the plots are built around the interaction of all these different elements in The Seems that it's easy to miss the deus ex machina element. In fact, the entire notion of The Seems is that it is both the deus and the machina. Everything is designed to go according to The Plan (the Plan being the stand-in for God, and it's all a part of the intelligent design) which created The World and The Seems (heaven and earth) as a co-dependent unit where failure in one creates the end of all. No, I didn't just catch the religious allegories – I caught them from the start – what I just realized, and what might be the itch I couldn't quite scratch, is that these stories are all solved through the mysterious hand of fate. Where there is danger and death, salvation and redemption, a battle won and lost, it's all been so carefully tooled that it could only be plausible in so artificial a world. Ultimately, if "The Plan" is to be believed, everything is predestined and preordained, and every character is a mere puppet to plot.

Character should determine plot, but here plot determines all.

At the end of The Lost Train of Thought there is an open door for the series to go two different directions, maybe three. Without saying outright this is end of a trilogy or a continuing saga the book appears poised to jump wherever demand sends it. There has been a Seems movie that's been listed as "in development" since 2007, and IMDB shows a 2010 release date for a movie with no cast or director details. While there is plenty of action and visuals to make these movies work it is difficult to know how much of the humor will be lost when the Words said by actors don't stand out the way they do on the page.

I would think, all my misgivings aside, that there are readers out there who would enjoy this, but in the end I suspect there is a very narrow band of audience for this series. It has the earmarks of science fiction but is really pure fantasy, and unless the reader is an undiscerning fan of both – and possesses the ability to catch the verbal humor – The Seems is likely to either disappoint or frustrate.

Friday, October 30

Half-Minute Horrors


edited by Susan Rich
HarperCollins 2009

Billed as a "collection of instant frights from the world's most astonishing authors and artists," Half-Minute Horrors lives up to its title by presenting super-short sudden fiction to middle grade readers who like a little creepiness. Just a little, not too much. A set-up, some sort of mystery, and an unsettling cliffhanger of an ending are the norm here, almost all of them short enough to read in the promised half a minute.

And when I say a little creepiness that doesn't mean they can't be somewhat disturbing. There are implications of cannibalism, creatures laying in wait to swallow you whole, disembodied hands that come calling while you sleep... but all stopped right at the moment of impact so that the reader can quickly turn the page if necessary. Because the engagement is so short there isn't enough time to plant too strong a mental picture to disturb. Yeah, if you think about some of these stories long enough they can really delve into truly terrifying territory, but the reader interested in horror is going to feel cheated if the author or the story pulls its punch too much or too quickly. Many of these stories plant their final, fatal twist in the last line for maximum impact so that even the seemingly odd story suddenly can turn on a dime.

There are also some illustrated stories - I hesitate to call them comics, but some do take that format - which perform the graphic equivilent of their narrative counterparts. Perhaps only "Worms" by Lane Smith, a visually retelling of the gory old rhyme "The worms go in, the worms go out..." goes the furthest with its graphic depiction of life pre- and post-humus. Still, all good creepy fun.

One of the things this book reminded me of was a series of books I had as a boy called "One Minute Mysteries" which would set the reader up with a drawing room situation and some details that would allow a reader to guess what had happened. Only I could never guess correctly and instead of enjoying the mystery I found the books frustrating because they made me feel stupid. I suppose the idea of a minute mystery was meant for boys like me who (at the time) were struggling with reading, but that book sent me the wrong direction. Perhaps the lack of character and emotion was the problem, but I never really got into the mystery genre as a result.

There's no similar problem here with Half-Minute Horrors because the stories clearly spell out the (pending) doom, leaving the reader to invest as much emotion as their own fears permit. The various authors are all top-notch – M.T. Anderson, Adam Rex, Sarah Weeks, Holly Black, Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, Avi, and Lauren Myracle to name but a scant few –and include some generally regarded as adult writers, like Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem, delivering on a wide variety of themes.

I realize this comes too late to incorporate into Halloween lesson plans, but I would hope that the audience for this kind of thing sees this as more of an evergreen title. I think for the reluctant reader the ability to whiz through dozens of stories at one sitting will make the book feel much shorter than its 130 pages, and for other readers the shortness of these stories can serve as a sort of palate cleanser between much larger books, a sampler platter of ghoulish delights.

Yuk, did I just write that last semi-blurb-worthy sentence?

Anyway, lots of gory fun.

Wednesday, October 28

Punch and the Magic Fish (with video bonus)


A Grimm Brothers' Tale Retold
by Emanuele Luzzati
Pantheon / Random House 1973

Luzzati's retelling of the Grimm's "The Fisherman and His Wife" get overlaid with the Punch and Judy comedy of the hapless hunchback and his shrew of a wife. Not as opulent as some of Luzatti's other illustrations, the story melds the two stories fairly well until the end when it veers a little and the magic fish from the original ends up in the frying pan.

I've done coverage on the original Grimm story long ago when I was doing that sort of thing more often with my Grimmoire series. Basically, Punch the fisherman finds a fish who, in exchange for his freedom, grants the fisherman a wish. His wife Judy sends him back repeatedly to upgrade the wishes even though Punch is perfectly happy with his life at every stage of the story. Finally the wife goes one wish too far and the fish returns them back to their poor life with a family of hungry kids.

Luzatti is usually very bold with his colors, but here everything is set against open fields of white and it doesn't work for me the way his other books do. Still, the mix of torn paper collage and sketchy marker give it that whimsy that I like about his work.

As an added bonus, I was able to find a video Luzzati made around the same time that features Punch and the music of Rossini. It isn't "The Fisherman and his Wife" but it shows another side of this illustrator's work. The darker elements of a traditional Punch and Judy story are here - the beatings, Punch's journey to hell - but I think this could still work for kids today. Some kids. Anyway, enjoy.

Monday, October 26

See and Say

a picture book in four languages
woodcuts by antonio frasconi
harcourt, brace & world, inc 1955

Until just this moment when I looked up the publication date I would have sworn this book was 15 to 20 years younger than it is. This multi-lingual abecedarian groups words and images at random throughout with each object named in English, Spanish, French and Italian, including a pronunciation guide as well. The words and images are common items independent readers would know, allowing for this book to be a beginner's guide to learning common words in four languages. On the last page there is a list of common phrases, a sort of beginner's phrase book for world travelers of the picture book set.

Another book checked out more for the pictures than the content, Frasconi's woodcuts are bold and simple graphics that use layering and the texture of the wood grain to good effect. The use of four colors (and black) is done in a very modern way, and the lower case font I think is what initially threw me in terms of guessing the book's year. Despite its age, the book is still serviceable (though I believe it is no longer in print).

Out of curiosity, I was curious to see when Mattel first produced the See n' Say, a toy where children would line up a pointer to an illustration of an object on a clock-like face, pull a string, and hear a stirring voice say something like "The cow goes.. moooooooo!" These simple analog learning toys were quite the rage in the 60s (and still in production under the Fisher-Price name) work well enough for the pre-reading set, but are limited to a dozen objects and quickly are abandoned. The book See and Say, which predates the toy by a decade, contains at least 60 words and their variants in three other languages.

My point? That even today, there is more value to be had in a book than an expensive toy, that simplicity doesn't mean limitation. Once a child has learned to match an image with a name and a sound, what more is there? What prompts the child to want to explore more? With See and Say there is the opportunity to not only learn the name of things, but the similarities and differences in names across cultures. There is an open door to sound out new words, and the possibility to excite the love of languages in young minds when they are most elastic and available to learn second, third, and fourth languages.

In the 1950s, when See and Say was published, the post-War world embraced travel abroad and the idea of learning more than one language was a bit of cultural capital that was also a high point of education. Today, with English having established itself as the international language of commerce, it is no longer necessary to learn another language in order to travel and breeds a sort of arrogance that other nations and cultures resent. It is not unusual to find Europeans who know three or four languages, including English, but in the US a polyglot is seen either as a learned scholar or a show-off. I hear kids marvel at how well foreign students speak English and know several languages while they struggle to master their own native tongue.

So while I was drawn to this book for its art I realize that things have changed in the past half century in picture books, because I don't know how popular a book like this would be today. We live in a country where English-only ballot initiatives underscore just how intolerant we've become, where instead of learning other languages we now suspect those who speak foreign tongues might be terrorists out to get us. We might do well to consider the generations coming up and looking at the books we give them as a way of fostering tolerance and understanding.

Or we can let publishing get taken over by electronic devices and continue to insist that our cultural arrogance is everyone else's problem.

Wow, how'd I get way up here on this soapbox?

Friday, October 23

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars


and other School Poems for Two Voices
by Betsy Franco
illustrated by Jessie Hart
Candlewick Press 2009

I have this thing about poetry for children. Basically, it has to either be incredibly clever or exceptionally executed and preferably it is both. Kids who read poetry for fun do so because they still have a love of language, because they haven't had poetry units that have diluted their joy of words and wordplay. And kids are smart. They can recognize good poetry even if they cannot explain why. So I tend to feel that any children's book that traffics in poetry and rhyme needs to be impeccable.

Messing Around on the Monkey Bars collects original poems intended to be read by two voices, or in some cases groups. Which means these poems are mean to be read aloud. There are instructions at the beginning for how each reader knows when to read – regular and bold for the individual voices, italic bold when both reads speak at the same time. Fairly straightforward. Then come the poems.

When reading poems aloud the reader will quickly come to rely on the cadence of help them. The sound of the words and meter will stand out more than when a reader has the chance to read at their own pace, silently hearing the poems in their head. Out loud, minor flaws and imperfections stand out; worse, they will trip up readers who expect a rhythm that isn't maintained or is inconsistent.

Most of the poems in this collection fail this cadence test. Just to test them out I had my daughters read a couple out loud. Some were okay in the beginning, then tripped them up when there was an off meter or change in the patterns, some didn't work out of the gate. Poems that are expressly meant to be read aloud shouldn't cause the readers to stumble the way these consistently did.

As for content all the poems are limited to the experience of school which I am beginning to suspect is more detrimental than good in children's poetry. Here's what I'm thinking; I'm thinking that when poetry focuses on the school experience then the experience of the reader is that poetry is about school. And if poetry is about school then there is no reason to go exploring poetry outside of school, which makes poetry a school-only activity. This in turn eventually turns off readers to poetry altogether. I also suspect that when the subject defines the poetry, when the poet is confined within the limits of the school experience in this case as Franco is, then the poems themselves suffer from this inability to explore beyond the walls of school. School and poem then become a sort of prison that the reader can feel.

Whew, that's harsh. Okay, there is one poem in this collection that, had the entire book been of this quality, would have made it an instant classic. "Anatomy Class" runs through a list of items found in a classroom pointing out their humanly-named attributes. "The chair has/arms. // The Clock,/a face." and so on. It's clever, the rhythm is just right for both reading silently and aloud, and it doesn't have the faintest whiff of feeling forced. This poem is often featured in reviews, and is reproduced on Amazon (if you're interested) which doesn't surprise me, but might surprise the unwary if they expect the rest of the book to be this good.

Wednesday, October 21

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves


retold and illustrated
by Emanuele Luzzati
Random House 1969

I don't remember when I first heard the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but I'm guessing it was originally from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Maybe it was a retelling with Popeye the Sailor. I know it wasn't the only place I heard it, because it was one of those stories that was sort of assumed with popular culture. Everyone knew the story of Ali Baba tricking the thieves out of all their loot, stored in a secret cave opened by the words "Open Sesame!"

But kids today don't know the story, not as far as I can tell. They know Aladdin but certainly not Alāʼ ad-Dīn of the "original" Arabian Nights tales. They might not even know The original Arabian Nights stories, or think Scheherazade (or more properly Shahryar) is a rapper, and there's some question as to whether or not Ali Baba even belongs with the other stories from ancient Persia. Still, some knowledge of these old tales no matter how bowdlerized or maimed would be better than nothing, yes?

Here we have an ancient example, circa the late 1960s, of a loose retelling of the tale. In it we have a lazy Ali Baba cut from the same cloth as Tom Sawyer in that he possesses smarts but would rather lay about. One day, from a secret vantage point, he spies the thieves entering their secret lair and once they've left, Ali avails himself to all their loot. Once home, he proceeds to practically give away the spoils of his adventure until the day the thieves come calling to Ali's town. They figure out he has their trinkets and gold and devise a couple of plans to get their money back.

They are armed cutthroats, why are they even messing around?

Anyway, Ali Baba tricks them and steals away to the life he once had, living carefree and poor.

From a modern day adult vantage point, after surviving the PC wars and all the other cultural baggage of the last 40 years, it is hard not to look at this depiction of Ali as a layabout and wonder if this isn't some form of racism, or cultural insensitivity at the very least. I suppose this happy-go-lucky demeanor offsets the generic evil of the thieves but it seems an unnecessary detail. Perhaps it also softens up the dubious morality of a story where stealing is viewed as okay, so long as you steal from thieves and then give it all away.

Should I cut Luzzati some slack because he was better known as an illustrator? I'm going to have to say no here because the choice to make Ali a sort of lazy trickster character was all in his retelling. He could have made Ali Baba more of a simpleton, but the core of the story is that he outwits the thieves and gets away with it. There are other details, fantastic details, that would have been just as interesting to expand on, if they didn't make the book longer than it is. Like the fact that Ali shows his brother Kassim the cave, where he later returns without Ali only to be hacked to bits. Now, I know that's not exactly picture book friendly but it's no less grim than some Grimm tales, especially when Ali has his brother sewn back together by a town tailor so they can give him a proper burial without making the town suspicious.

That would make for some fun explaining on a parent's part! There's also a slave girl in Kassim's house who helps Ali and who he later marries... this story has it all!

I did pick up the book for reasons other than story – more for the art by Luzzati, which has the thick, dark outlines and bold colors of a stained glass window – but unfortunately even they cannot blind me to the problems of the telling. Luzatti was also part of an animation team and a few years later made a short animated cartoon of this story. There are a number of Luzatti cartoons on YouTube, but unfortunately not Ali Baba. I'd be curious to see how it translated.

In the event that anyone from Random House is out there, if you still own this property you might want to consider having someone use these illustrations as the basis for another author's shot at retelling. Disney has recently been having contemporary writers retell their versions of classic fairy tales using concept art from the movie adaptations, this would be no different. A little more cultural sensitivity, some nicely rephotographed layouts, and I think you have a great little reissue.

I might even know a certain MFA candidate who would be willing to give the story a go. Just let me know.

As a final footnote, what is interesting here is how the term Ali Baba is being used today. According to the keeper of all knowledge, Wikipedia, US military forces in Iraq currently the term Ali Baba as derogatory slang to describe looters. Ironically, Iraqis also use the term for thieves as well. It is perhaps the one thing both sides can agree upon. It would be interesting to know just how much of the original story both sides really knew, or whether they received all their knowledge of Ali Baba from a cartoon or a badly retold picture book.

(I realize the cover shown above is slightly different than the US version. I couldn't get the copy I borrowed to fit on the scanner, and there weren't any other versions available in the Internet.)

Monday, October 19

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek


A Tall, Thin Tale
(Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend)
by Deborah Hopkinson
picture by John Hendrix
Schwartz & Wade / Random House 2008


If in 2007 a book appeared by a 90 year old author claiming to have been a boyhood friend of JFK, relating an experience where the two as boys nearly drowned in the Charles River of Boston one summer day, where the author saved the young JFK's life and thus played an important role in our nation's history (who would have defeated Nixon in 1960 if JFK weren't even alive?), and there was no one alive who could refute it...

Did it really happen? And would we tell the story as a picture book?

Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek tells a similar story concerning Abraham Lincoln's Kentucky neighbor Austin Gollaher, about how the the two as young boys attempted to cross a creek, and how Austin rescued Lincoln which allowed him to live and, eventually, become our 16th president. The book attempts to tie up this story with the moral that "what we do matters, even if we don't end up in history books."

That's all well and good, but who's to say it happened? Hopkinson sites at the beginning of the book two titles that quote Gollagher from 1898 and 1921 and a third from 1922 that confirms the story, probably taken from the same sources. Given all the biographical scholarship on Lincoln done in the past 90 years it seems odd that more recent references couldn't be cited.

Unless the story couldn't be proven to modern standards.

Here, again, we see another recent example of the "storyography," the biographical recounting that place story before biography and, in this case, the anecdotal above the known. Hopkinson covers her bases by saying "The events described in this story, so far as this author can determine... did, in fact, take place..." Yes, well, short of Lincoln's personal account, or a third party's account, what we have is, as the subtitle indicates, a tall tale concerning a real individual from history. And since it is a tall tale is there really any reason to lend the story a level of legitimacy by pointing out sources? Does the fact that Lincoln is a character require this level of explanation?

And, as always, shouldn't this information be spelled out to the reader in the text and not placed in tiny type on the Library of Congress page intended for adults who won't be as nearly confused about the legitimacy of the story as the intended reader?

Actually, Hopkinson does attempt to alert the reader in the text that the story contains some questionable details. At the point when Lincoln falls into the creek a giant, incongruous caution warning splashes across the illustration announcing "I want to make sure we get this right. Because maybe it didn't happen like that." The narrative then proceeds with an alternative version of the event in question because, as Hopkinson later suggests, "For that's the thing about history – if you weren't there, you can't know for sure."

Ah, I see. Because we were not there, because the source of the story is perhaps an interested party who could profit from the attention of having been the late president's boyhood friend, because no one can say for sure it didn't happen we can proceed to tell this story as if it did.

A book is a powerful thing. It represents the labors of a lot of people – writers and illustrators, editors and publishers and printers – and when presented by adults like parents, librarians, and teachers takes on the weight of authority in a young reader's eyes. They would not have gone through all this trouble if the story weren't true, would they? When a child is handed Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek and reads the text only, do they have any reason to doubt the story happened as described, or at all? Do we teach young readers how and when to question historical events and to vet them for accuracy? No, of course not. They accept what they are given because they trust adults to be honest with them.

That said I do not suggest that Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek should not have been written, and that other books that attempt to tell historical anecdotes from the childhood of historical figures cannot be retold, only that it be clearly and directly related to the reader that such stories might not be factually accurate. There should no question in a reader's mind about the story they have just been told, nor should they confuse that story for history if there is any question.

I have an unusual perspective in this area, having been researching Lincoln's life from the period just after the events in this book. Earlier biographies contain second and third hand accounts of events that do not hold water in biographies written after the 1920s. In fact, I could write a few similar picture books concerning the pre-teen life of Lincoln that, while entertaining, would not be considered accurate by modern Lincoln scholars.

For the past decade we've seen a number of biographical picture books that seem to escape the rigor and expectations we would apply to books intended for older readers. This is a mistake, because (and I think I've said this many times before) that this young age is when we do the most damage in terms of misinformation. Children today STILL have heard the story of Washington chopping down a cherry tree when we now know that the story was a fabrication of Washington's childhood neighbors, told to their children as a morality story, recounted to biographer Parson Weems as gospel truth. It is not true and yet the power of this misinformation still courses through our national psyche.

Accuracy should not suffer at the hands of entertainment, not in the books we present to picture book readers. "What we do matters."

Exactly.

Friday, October 16

Legacy


by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Delacorte 2009

At the risk of repeating myself, and stating the obvious, I cannot fathom for the life of my why anyone would seek out a superhero novel. Movies have made the idea of superhero stories vogue, and comics have long perfected and delivered the superhero story in an economical and vibrant format, but I am still unconvinced there is any sort of hue and cry for superhero fiction.

Lucus is a high school drop out in a dead-end desert town working the auto shop. His mom works the local diner. They live in a trailer park. After work he drinks himself drunk and sleeps it off.

The day after he miraculously and instantaneously heals from a knife wound inflicted by a local thug Lucas is visited by a mysterious man claiming to be his father. More, this mystery man who needs a cane to walk turns out to be billionaire Clayton Hartwell, and the old man can kick his ass in a fight. Turns out Lucas is his long-lost deadbeat father and...

Wait. I have to pull this joke: "Lucas, I'm your father! Search your feelings and you'll know this to be true!" Love the George Lucas/Luke/Star Wars reference. Really makes me want to take things seriously. Okay, where were we.

Oh yeah, so dad drops in to say (a) he's dying, (b) that he's a famous superhero named The Raptor and (c) that it's Lucas's legacy to take over. Lucas refuses and wants to confront his mom, but the minute she admits that it's true the trailer park is under attack and, after a fiery inferno takes the place down but leaves Lucas unscathed, he finally accepts who he is and is drugged into a deep sleep.

So we get the billionaire crime fighter with a secret identity, a mansion full of high tech gadgets, a flying suit... he's like Ironman and Batman rolled into one. But not just any Batman, but the Dark Knight who must be convinced that Seraph City (seraph = angel, so I'm guessing Los Angeles) is worth saving. Then again, Hartwell is a little like Ironman's Tony Stark who has decided to use his money and access to technology for good, so he's a conflicted Raptor.

Anyway, once Lucas accepts his fate, or legacy, or whatever, dad puts him through rigorous training whith I have to say is a bit sadistic. Seriously sadistic in some cases. Actually, every life-or-death struggle Anakin puts Luke.. er, I mean that Hartwell puts Lucas through is a pass-fail exam where success is measured by not getting killed. In the end Lucas has to decide whether the old man has gone bats, and whether he's going to take over the family businesses, and be the upholder of vigilante justice in the name of a city he never really loved the way his father allegedly did.

Here's where comic books get superhero stories right and novels, especially novels for teens and middle graders, get things wrong. In comics there is usually some crime and action scenes establishing the superhero and maybe a brush of backstory along the way toward catching the bad guys. Once the comic is established, and the readership solidified, they'll take a breather and give the superhero origins story. By then reader interest is piqued and they want to know who this person is and how they got there. But in novels you don't get several (dozen) stories to build a readership before giving the backstory, and as a result the superhero novel always has to begin with the origin, which slows things down, is tedious, and basically isn't why the reader has picked up the book in the first place.

The reader wants action, and battles, and an evil that must be fought, and they don't want a bunch of inner dialog and pondering to get in the way. With Legacy we even get something worse: an entire novel-length origin/rebirth story. This might make a good story ten or so issues in on a comic line, but in novel form it's just deadly. I kept thinking "Okay, once we get past this father-son ordeal we can get into the nature of crime fighting, or the problems of having to sort out the subtleties of good and evil when you're only 18 years old, but no. Just dad torturing son who he keeps threatening with the old "not good enough" guilt trip line.

What surprises overall is that Sniegoski is a comic book writer as well as an author, and I would have expected him to know better than to recycle a bunch of tired tropes and types that are easily identifiable. If the argument that the book is intended for a younger, less-familiar audience then I find that insulting. Sniegoski is also the creator of the Billy Hooton, Owlboy series aimed at a middle grade audience, another title that suffers from this misguided notion that kids go into bookstores asking for books about superheroes they've never heard of. Newsflash from a former bookseller: they don't! Not only that, the boys who do mention superheroes as an interest are looking for comics and give booksellers the stink-eye if you pull one of these titles on them.

Given the lead time on books I'm going to be optimistic and hope this is just one of the last entries in the superhero bandwagon that publishers jumped on a few years back. Yeah, that's it. Once the economy tanked and they looked at sales they realized that there's just no way Barnes & Noble is going to install a Superhero section in their stores and have stopped accepting new superhero manuscripts. Probably one or two more like this and the "genre" will be officially dead.

Lets hope.

Wednesday, October 14

When It Rains.. It Rains


by Bill Martin, Jr.
with pictures by Emanuele Luzzati
Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1970

Much like last week's Martin/Luzzati collaboration, When It Rains.. It Rains is another small book that deals with repetition and familiarity to hold a young reader's attention. It didn't occur to me before, but these small books with their childlike illustrations and simple texts were precursors to the board books of today.

Here the pattern is established in the title. Each spread deals with a different type of meteorological event like rain, snow, and fog before moving into the emotional territory of age and temper. There is more of an attempt to bring in images of non-white children which speaks to its age, though their representation tends toward the Small World variety of stereotypes: a white-turbaned Indian boy beneath a palm tree in the heat, a Mexican boy in a sombrero and blanket poncho. Nothing too egregeous for the modern age, but as with Whistle, Mary Whistle, probably enough to keep it from ever being reprinted.

But, again, my draw to these books was the illustration. The pictures contain the same innocent qualities of another Martin collaborator, Eric Carle, with a warm use of vibrant color. Luzzati, along with Nicolas Sidjakov, The Provensens, Mary Blair, and M. Sasek all have that mid-century modern look illustrators had that I'm just a sucker for. Inky outlines and loose crayon against solid blocks of color. There are a few modern practitioners (who might be surprised to be considered part of this group) like David Ezra Stein and... well, now I'm drawing a blank. I think Jeremy Tankard is doing some great work in digital that is along the same lines in terms of boldness of color and naivete of spirit. And there is an artist I've been following since she was a student in animation school (on her blog, I'm no stalker!) named Lorelay Bove who has landed a job illustrating Disney's newest Golden Books and whose work reminds me so much of Mary Blair.

What was I saying? Oh yeah.

Taking a couple more looks at this it slides in nicely alongside Bill Martin's other books. No more and no less sophisticated than Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and its ilk.

Monday, October 12

DWEEB


Burgers, Beasts, and Brainwashed Bullies
by Aaron Starmer
Delacorte 2009

Denton, Wendell, Eddie, Elijah, and Bijay have been framed for a theft they never committed by Vice Principal Snodgrass. Rather than turn them over to the police with mountains of manufactured evidence the boys agree to follow Snodgrass into the basement of Ho-Ho-Kus Junior High where they are to study for the Idaho Exams. A more unlikely bunch of misfits could not be assembled, yet they realize that the only way out of this nightmare is to figure out what is going. Quickly they learn that above ground things have changed radically and realize that there is something darker afoot. With skills that would rival a Bond film, and action only a TV hero could achieve, our dudes will win the day and save the world from a fate they could never have imagined.

Starmer's debut carefully spring-winds the plot with the opening chapters by focusing on each of the boys. When they are taken to the basement and shut out from the world there is a palpable sense that they have been not only cut off from the world but from any hope of ever understanding how they got there. By following a different boy with each chapter Starmer is able to spend some time on each of the characters while propelling the story forward, a tricky and mostly successful endeavor. At times it can be difficult to follow the timing of the actions, and sticking with one character while plans and actions take place "off stage" feels a little like cheating at times.

But middle grade readers won't care. The story moves at the pace of a cartoon and the actions are relatively believable. One of these days the video gamer won't be able to hack into any computer system, and the kids won't all be smarter than the adults, and the world won't be saved at the last moment by an unruly bunch of boys. And that book will be a masterpiece all for the originality. Until then, readers who harbor fantasies that school administrators have the power to rule the world and that jocks are the ultimate bullies will eat up fantasies like this with a spoon. Double helpings, if you please.

Friday, October 9

Harry and Horsie


by Katie Van Camp
pictures by Lincoln Agnew
Balzer+Bray / HarperCollins 2009

Here we have the promise of some truly bold retro graphics marred by a weak text with the faint whiff of celebrity, second-hand by-association celebrity at that.

Late at night, while she should be sleeping, Harry sneaks out of bed and grabs his Bubble Blooper down, a 50s space gun that shoots large bloopy bubbles. The bubble are large an sturdy enough to pick up toys from Harry's room and send them airborne. But when a bubble takes Harry's stuffed Horsie it's superhero Harry on his rocket into deep space for a rescue.

The star here isn't Harry but the art, that look like a cross between block prints four-color offset comics. Seriously, if I could, there are a few pages in here I'd love to own prints of and have framed. They certainly don't suffer from a lack of 264 digital color process, with bold blue-black outlines and deft use of spot color.

The story? Eh.

Van Camp holds the distinction of being the former nanny of a boy named Harry who really does have a Horsie and happens to be the son of Late Night impresario David Letterman. Yeah, that's the second-hand celebrity connection. The story itself is fairly light – typical hero-to-the-rescue night-journey stuff – with no real peril, no real growth involved. It isn't necessarily a bad story, but the art is much stronger that the text and that only highlights the disparity.

Wednesday, October 7

Whistle, Mary, Whistle


an old jingle adapted by
Bill Martin, Jr.
with pictures by
Emanuele Luzzati
and handlettering by
Ray Barber
Holt Rinehart, and Winston 1970

Yes, as a matter of fact, there are some books I do read for the pictures.

One of the lasting after effects of wanting to grow up an be an animator is that I still keep an eye open for blogs and news about cartoons and animation, especially from the pre-digital era. It's also no secret that I hold a fondness for mid-century modern illustration, and anything else that feels like my childhood. So when these things all come together in one place, or in this case a book, my curiosity is piqued.

Emanuele Luzzati was an illustrator, animator and graphic artist whose work has a very familiar look that carried a lose, childlike feel to it. When coupled with Bill Martin Jr. in a small picture book the hook is irresistible. But what we land when the hook is reeled in is a bit odd to these adult eyes.

"Whistle, Mary, whistle, / And you shall have a..." is the text on the verso page, with the last word being an object promised to Mary id she will whistle. On the recto Mary offers up her reason why she cannot whistle, surly a made-up excuse, which always rhymes with the first part of the verse. It's a fairly typical call-and-response sort of text whose repetition takes on the sing-song qualities of a playground rhyme or an old folk song.

But the punchline is that the thing that makes Mary whistle.
"Whistle, Mary, whistle,
and you shall have a man."

Tweet, tweeet, tweeeet, tweeeeeeeet, tweeeeet,
I just found out I can.
"
Uh, yeah.

This was 1970? Was this Bill Martin holding on to the traditional verse, or Bill Martin holding onto Victorian ideals in an age of budding feminism? Obviously this book would not pass muster today, and I don't believe it's been in print since originally published.

Visually, Luzzati's work had a playful joy to it that I would still like to see in books today; it's loose, playful, and childlike in a way that is inviting to young children. I find many books today with computer generated images have fine texts but are otherwise cold and sterile. The inclusion of hand-drawn letters (and a title page credit) is something I think would be welcome over the font choices made today. Even when alternative fonts are used today they too often feel like the office temp making posters for the employee kitchen using Microsoft Word. Cold images, cold fonts... reading should be a warm and inviting experience. If this makes me sound like a crusty old man, so be it.

Monday, October 5

The Devil's Storybook


by Natalie Babbitt
FSG 1974

Ten little short story gems concerning the Devil himself and his inability to corrupt good souls or fully control bad ones.

I stumbled onto this (as with many older titles these days) in an sales alcove at my local library. Discarded, withdrawn, and donated books are in constant rotation, and with prices between twenty-five cents and a dollar it's impossible to resist. I'm always so surprised when I stumble on a title I haven't come across before, or an author I recognize but not the book in question. Just another one of those reminders about how much is out there to discover, how there will always be hidden gems to be mined with careful eyes.

These stories fit a type of tale that I know there is a name for, but can't quite recall. In each, Old Scratch has decided to adopt a disguise to trick the unsuspecting into performing an act of evil, or has co-opted the innate evil of certain individuals for his own purposes. His ruses never work, and his plans always fail, which is as it should be.

But what a delight to see such a classic form of evil as the main character in a collection. On the one hand it seems novel to take a character who is usually an antagonist and make them the butt of every joke, but then the devil always gets his due just as if he had once again been outwitted in someone else's story.

Rarely do I find story collections so even that it's hard to pick a favorite, but the one that stays most with me is the last story "The Power of Speech." In it, the Devil has a fondness for goats, and one goat in particular, but the goat is wearing a bell and this is somehow like garlic to a vampire (who knew?). The goat's owner is no dummy and will not remove the bell, so the Devil grant the goat the power to speak. What a mistake that is! A more whiny, grumpy, cantankerous goat you'd never heard! Realizing what a pain this new talking goat is she decides to remove the bell and send him on to the Devil. Once in Hell, the goats incessant chatter drives the Devil crazy, and while he is able to grant the power of speech he cannot remove it. Finally he turns the live goat into a stuffed one and returns him to his previous owner.

Babbitt writes with the breezy charm and economy that mirrors classic folk tales (and who know, perhaps these are folk tales I'm unaware of) and there's something secretly delicious in wondering if Satan's really going to finally have something go his way. They read like a cross between something Carl Sandburg might have cooked up if he were reinterpreting some Grimm tales. The characters are vivid, well drawn in such little space, and the stories feel much more full then their page counts would have you believe.

When I finished this book I thought my 11 year old would like the stories. "Oh, yeah, I already read those. They're good. I think there's a second book of Devil stories as well." Turns out she's right, there is. I had the wind taken from my sails that I couldn't spring a new-old title on her, but at least I was correct in thinking she'd enjoy it.

Friday, October 2

The Eternal Smile


by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim
First Second 2009

This graphic omnibus collects three shorter illustrated stories that are bound by the common thread of illusions that people tell themselves to survive.

The first story, "Duncan's Kingdom," at first seems to be a fairy tale fantasy, a dark Grimm-like tale where two men are to battle the Frog King to win the princess. The twist comes when Duncan comes to realize that the sage who has been guiding him is also protecting him from a secret that reveals his true self. The choice forces Duncan to decide whether to remain trapped in his fantasy or to face the cold, hard reality he has been avoiding.

"Gran'pa Greenback and the Eternal Smile" begins as a parody of the old Disney Scrooge McDuck comics where greed is good and celebrated until a mysterious smile appears in the sky. Greenback decides to take advantage of the apparition and establish a cynical religion designed to fleece believers until a competitor sets up camp offering something a little closer to faith. The twist here is that the world of Gran'pa Greenback is actually a television program that built a Disney-like empire by employing animals with digital implants designed to make them perform. Another opportunity for choice, this time for the frog forced to perform: can he escape his fate and return to a normal life in the pond?

In "Urgent Request" we find Janet, a lonely computer programmer who is so desperate for contact that she responds to an email request from an unknown Nigerian prince to send him funds to help him preserve the fortune he is about to lose - the Nigerian scam that frequents many an email inbox. Mousy shy but otherwise intelligent, Janet gets sucked in deeper and deeper until her bank account is drained. When she insists on a face-to-face meeting with the "prince," and then hunts him down, she finds a college student using the scam to fund a questionable online venture he's dreamed up. Janet's choice is what she will do from here out, and the impression is that she'll start standing up for herself.

The theme that everyone has a choice to make between fantasy worlds and facing reality might be novel for less experienced readers and could provide some "teachable moments" with compare-and-contrast discussions. As I have read in other reviews, I found none of the plot twists surprising, nor where their outcomes difficult to guess. Taken together this collection would make for a good starting point for middle grade and YA readers who might suspect that all comics are superhero and that graphic novels have nothing to offer them. Nowhere near as engaging as Yang's American Born Chinese or Kim's Good As Lily, but still entertaining.

Wednesday, September 30

Andromeda Klein


by Frank Portman
Delacorte Press 2009

Tedious. That's the first word that comes to mine when thinking about the title character to Frank Portman's follow-up to King Dork. And self-absorbed and self-important. Unfunny and uncharming. Manic, but not in a pixie dream girl sort of way. Did I say tedious?

At the core of this book is a teen girl who views the world through a prism of tarot and dark magic. When she loses her best friend and partner in magic, Daisy, and her boyfriend in the same week she is convinced the universe is sending her messages. More specifically, Daisy is sending her messages from the great beyond via her cell phone. It's a puzzle – what is Daisy trying to tell her? – that only the most egocentric of people would assign magical properties to. Steeped as deeply as she is in the teas of the occult, there isn't a moment that doesn't in some way echo back with acridity to Waite or Crowley or her tarot misreadings. There are numerical coincidences, and concordances with books in the library in which Andromeda works, but in the end the Great Mystery from the great beyond is little more than a prank that may have once had altruistic origins but has sense gone off the rails.

Portman's portrayal of Andromeda reads like an avatar for his own dissemination of arcane knowledge more than an enriched character portrait. Andromeda suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that causes her bones including those in her ears to be fragile, allowing her to mishear conversations right and left. This coupled with her constant analysis and regurgitation of the arcane reduces the storytelling to a lurching train of words coupled, at times, to mind-numbing lengths. Portman's third-person narrator slips conveniently (or sloppily, depending on your read) between a distant observer and a voice so close it might just as well be Andromeda's subconscious. There are writers out there who could make this work, and to great effect, showing the reader how messed up Andromeda is in a way that would make us sympathetic. Portman isn't that skilled and the result is a bit of a slog to read.

With a story so deeply invested in various rituals and magik you would hope that the journey through its 400-plus pages would reveal something quiet and reaffirming about the confluences of life's various streams. Instead we find Andromeda the butt of a joke so base that police action is inevitable, but not shown, rendering the intricacies of following the girl's journey virtually worthless. The biggest cop-out comes in not following through on the aftermath, which would have been far more interesting than a good chunk of this book's flabby middle.

Nope, sorry. It's been a while since I had a book make me regret the time I spent with it.

Monday, September 28

The Day-Glo Brothers


The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand New Colors
by Chris Barton
illustrated by Tony Persiani

The picture book biography of the two brothers who developed, by accident mostly, the process by which hippies were able to enjoy black light posters and the military was able to signal aircraft from great distances. Okay, that's a bit flip, but while the subject is unique what is more fascinating is that, as far as I can tell, this is the first biography on the Switzer brothers outside of a self-published book written by a Swtizer family friend. I am hard-pressed to think of one other biography written specifically for a picture book audience that wasn't based on secondary source material; Barton's book reflects his own primary research.

Not realizing that at the start I found myself feeling like the narrative was missing some details about the brother's early lives. But, of course, if the only way to tell the story is by interviewing the Swtizer's living relatives and colleagues then of course background is going to be limited. We know how they came to discover and then develop their daylight fluorescent paints but was it really just as simple as picking up some books at the library and playing around in the basement? Wasn't anyone else working on something similar somewhere else in the world? Had the military never considered developing something similar prior to the Day-Glo brothers? My curiosity is piqued with Barton's book, but unlike other biographies I have nowhere else to go for such answers without doing the research, and possibly writing my own book.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book on a fascinating subject that I think would have a lot of appeal, especially for boys. And I know the limitations of a picture book might be part of the problem here, but I'm left wanting more. In a good way.