Wednesday, January 31

The Music of Dolphins

by Karen Hesse
Scholastic 1996

A teen-aged girl, a wild child, is found on an island off the coast of Florida. Named Mila by the Coast Guard crew who discover her, she is quickly handed over to a small group of scientists for further study. Unlike other feral children Mila exhibits a quick intelligence and the apparent ability to understand, if not communicate with, dolphins. There's a reason for this, as Mila explains how she was raised by a pod of dolphins who rescued her at the age of four when the boat carrying her and her mother was capsized.

Not that any of this information comes out so clearly. From the beginning Mila needs to be taught human speech and language, she learns to use a computer to keep a diary, and piece by piece she acquires the vocabulary necessary to communicate to the scientists around her. Early journal entries are in large type and stilted sentences, though her thought process and ideas are pushing to make her verbal skills catch up. She clearly thinks and knows more than she can say.

The more Mila learns, and the more she learns about terrestrial humans, the less she understands. Moved to a safe study house in Boston she doesn't understand why she can't swim the Charles River naked whenever she feels like it, why she must remain locked up in the house. She is happy to "perform" the tests and tasks asked of her, finds a common language in music and the song of the dolphins and whales, so much so that a creeping melancholy begins to take hold. It is clear that as time goes on she becomes less enchanted with her life on land and homesick for her life among the dolphins.

There are other complications as well. The lead scientist, Doctor Beck, hopes to use Mila as a link between communicating with dolphins, to learn the language of the cetacean world. Dr. Beck's son Justin, a teen himself, disagrees with his mother's motives and tries to answer some of the social questions Mila doesn't quite understand. In Justin Mila senses a stirring that causes her to think about mating and her family in the sea and the confusion between knowing her place in the world. Her journal entries begin to decrease, Mila becomes defiant, finally she begins to regress into a depression. In the end there is little else to do but return Mila to the sea... but can they?

At first blush using Mila's voice to tell the story Hesse draws comparison with Flowers for Algernon. As Charlie Gordon's voice and vocabulary grows in Daniel Keyes's story, so does Mila's but with one important difference; From the first page Mila is shown as having knowledge and vocabulary of her life among the dolphins, an almost poetic song similar to those of the cetaceans she's lived with. Mila's struggle isn't about a shift in intelligence but acquiring a new language with which to communicate. It's also about the struggle of trying to understand human emotions and behavior after having almost no contact with humans for most of her life.

To make the distinction clearer Hesse has included Mila in a small study area with Shay, another feral child, a small girl who was discovered locked away in a dark closet for all of her short life. Having no exposure to any nurturing during her short life Shay never makes any progress while Mila always seems to exceed the expectations of her minders. Mila makes it clear in her various journal entries that the dolphin community is much stronger than even most humans experience and that appears to make all the difference. It is also the underlying reason why Mila could never be happy on land.

The question in the end is whether the most responsible thing is to return Mila to her dolphin pod or force her to adopt and adapt to the ways of her species. After reading The Music of Dolphins the answer is obvious, but it's unsettling to think about. Which makes it near perfect to these eyes.

Sunday, January 28

The Story of Cherry the Pig

by Utako Yamada
Kane/Miller Books 2007

Cherry the Pig loves to bake. One day she makes an apple cake, doting on each step of the process to make the tastiest cake she can. Enjoying a cup of tea while the cake cools she hears from the kitchen "It's incredible!" Dashing in she finds a family of mice nibbling at her cake and shoos them away.

Did they say her cake was incredible? They're right! And with that Cherry the Pig sets about to enter her apple cake in the bake-off at coming the Harvest Festival.

Festival time comes and Cherry is as proud as a pig can be when entering her cake in the contest. Then she once again overhears a conversation, the family of mice again. "Why would she enter that incredibly awful cake in the competition?" Could it be? Had she misheard the mice the first time? Perhaps they were right, and perhaps she was making a fool of herself. But it's too late, the competition has already begun and the judges have begin their announcements.

Sitting in the shade there is little left for Cherry to do but wait until the competition is over and take her cake home. Needless to say she is surprised when the winner of the Golden Whisk is announced and it's for Cherry and her apple cake!

Flush with the praise of all the judges Cherry the Pig is moved to open her own bakery. On her way home she discovers a bag of snacks where the mice had been sitting. Cherry tries them and to her amazement they turn out to be biscuits, very salty and very cheesy biscuits. Cherry
then understands everything, that mice with a preference for hard, salty, crusty biscuits would never find a sweet scrumptious apple cake delicious. Once she has opened her bakery and served all her delectable items to others she sets about making one last item, biscuits perfect for discerning mice.

Much of the summary of this story is between the lines. The story and dialog are very direct and easy to understand and charming in an innocent sort of way. The book is deliberately paced is a way that is reminiscent of books several decades older yet still feels fresh. In fact, the entire look of the book speaks to picture books of the past. The four-color illustrations in crayon and spot color, bright and cheery in yellow, green, brown and that peachy-red seem to have been borrowed from 1964. There is a sense of nostalgia, a very palpable link between past and present that makes the book feel timeless without trying. It's a bit of Mary Blair filling in a Golden Books pastry. Quite a concoction.

According to her biography on the Kane Miller website it appears this was
Utako Yamada's first book, that she has illustrated other books, and that she has been the proprietor of a tea house (named Karel Capek, which speaks volumes in and of itself) and a dessert shop in Japan. It also says she's illustrated at least 20 other books. If they're anything like this -- and the smattering of translated web pages I was able to hunt down with her work on it -- then I'll look forward to seeing those down the road.

As publishers have been dipping into their archives to revive anniversary editions of older books (Anatole and The Happy Lion, for example) it is nice to see that satisfying books can be made that slide in easily along side these classics. More like this, please; More warm and inviting stories with illustrations that match, and a little less of the cold, harsh workmanlike wanking of books whose titles will not be mentioned here.

Saturday, January 27

Fourth Grade Rats

by Jerry Spinelli
Scholastic 1991

"First grade babies!
Second grade cats!
Third grade angels!
Fourth grade . . . RRRRRATS!"

So goes the old playground chant, setting up the story of Spud and his pal Joey as they begin their first weeks of fourth grade. While Spud views the idea of being a rat something less than desirable Joey is proud of the possibilities. Being a rat to Joey means pushing smaller kids off the swings, making a mess of his room, defying his mother, trading peanut butter and jelly for bologna sandwiches, and bathing once a month. To Joey, being a rat is the first step toward being a man.

Spud is dubious, he's not really sure he's cut out to be a rat. Spud also has a crush on Judy Billings who doesn't even give him a second glance. But one day Joey allows a bee not only to crawl all over his arm but sting him and instantly he's a magnet for the attention of girls, including Judy Billings. And if that's what it takes to get her attention, then Spud's going to become a rat.

The going isn't easy for Spud. To prove he's no longer a crybaby he has to watch his video of E.T. and not cry. He has to dump his baby-ish lunchbox and start using a paper sack. He has to climb out onto the roof of his house and get over his fear of heights. And, according to Joey, he has to stand up to his mother and refuse to clean his room. Then Spud screws up his courage and tries to sit with Judy at lunch. When she rebuffs him, and when the school bully pulls the chair out from under him, he goes on a true rat-worthy rampage. He smashes a younger kid's face into his cake, he tosses kids off the swings with abandon, in short order he becomes the king rat.

Impressed, Judy wants to walk to school with him. Along the way she dares him to pick up and carry a spider to school, allowing it to crawl all over him, which vaults Spud into the third grade spotlight. But when Judy needs Spud to climb a tree and retrieve her cat his machismo falters as his fear of heights returns and he remains trapped in the tree until he can be rescued by his parents. Joey's own rattitude takes a sudden turn when his mother finally decides enough is enough. In the end, Spud learns his first steps toward becoming a man has little to do with acting mean and impressing girls and more to do with accepting himself for who he is.

That's quite a bit to cram into 80 pages, and Spinelli does it with the breezy economy that appeals to middle grade readers. It's interesting that Spinelli goes for the fourth graders moving from underdog to top dog because it is clear even in this book that the true top dogs are the barely-mentioned sixth graders. In that respect I think the book serves as a cautionary tale for younger readers who might be looking forward to moving into the top slots, a reminder that age is better served by humility and wisdom not bullying and bravado.

I stumbled onto this book recently after doing some research on playground folklore and anthropology. Although the "fourth grade rats" line is traditional for rhymes ending at fourth grade, versions that go all the way though middle school are slightly different.

First grade babies,

Second grade tots,

Third grade angels,

Fourth grade snots,

Fifth grade peaches,

Sixth grade plums,

Seventh grade ladies,

Eighth grade bums.
There are all sorts of slight regional variations, but none of those that go beyond fourth grade call them rats. I'm not quite sure how seventh grade boys feel about being ladies, or how eighth grade girls feel about being bums, but I can see why a fourth grader might prefer being a rat to a snot.

Thursday, January 25


This is turning out to be my one-stop mood-lifter. John Green and his brother Hank are exchanging video blog posts. Today John answers Hanks' questionnaire and follows up with the "In Your Pants" game of book title suffixes. John singing his version of a Carter Family favorite just threw me back into the world of the living.

John, I don't know you, but you totally rawk.

Back On the Horse

I've been in a strange funk all this week without reason. I don't know if it's Seasonal Affective Disorder or the lack of snow this winter or just a random case of the blahs. Anyway, late last night I came to the conclusion that I hadn't been blogging enough lately, so here goes a little blog therapy.

I have tired, daily, to post some sort of commentary on the idea of the graphic novel as literature. Part of me feels like I'm trying to reinvent the wheel with my ideas while another part feels like I'm trying to build a hybrid car with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. I've gone through several "drafts" of a blog post and I find myself saying "They're just your opinions, it's only a blog!" every time I get bogged down. But I think before I jump back into that I need to read and review some more books. Y'know, to clear the palate.

Meanwhile, over at the Lisa Yee blog they've announced the winners in the Bodacious Book Title Contest and while I neither won nor took honors I was pleased to see that my entry was one of Lisa's favorites. I am the anonymous party responsible for Pop on Hop.
After suffering the back-breaking abuse of his young cubs using him for a trampoline, Papa Bear becomes a heroin addict.

You know, even when I was a kid I wondered about all that abuse poor Pop took. I had younger sibling and we would occasionally pigpile each other (dogpile to some of you) and that was bad enough. If memory serves we also used to follow up our rough-housing with a game of pretending we were feeble and old and needed to go to a hospital. Ah, childhood.

Monday, January 22


I could just as easily titled this post Blue Monday, in honor of it being the most depressing day of the year. But it's such a day of mixed feelings that I thought Rejected better spoke to my mood.

It's never good to get that envelope back from a publisher, especially when it looks recycled and has the previous address covered with a sticker and other bits and pieces covered over with a fat felt-tipped marker. I'm no Kreskin, but the envelope had all the markings of a sloppy, harried intern. I won't say which publisher or which editor's name was attached, only that it was a little sad to get back the manuscript with nary a comment in sight.

I didn't even get a terse little form letter.

But all is not lost. Before the mail came I was able to toss out 13 lucky manuscript pages that, raw as they are, feel a whole lot better than the manuscript that came home with it's tail between it's legs. Granted, we're talking apples and oranges here -- picture book versus YA -- but it was still nice to be able to get something out ahead of the influence of otherwise bad news.

Oh yeah, and the ALA made some sort of announcements today about some kind of awards. All I really have to say is that as much as I like Flotsam I was pretty sure it would be passed over for something like Adele and Simon. Time will tell whether American Born Chinese really is the best that graphic novels have to offer. I have issues with graphic novels, and it's all about the disconnect between the history and tradition of the form and whether or not the librarians and booksellers really are up to speed with understanding what makes a truly good graphic novel. I'm still stewing over a post about this. Some day...

A parting shout out to Vonnegut, who first introduced me to the phrase Goodbye Blue Monday and saved me from myself back in 8th grade when I was a pubescent mess.

Sunday, January 14

Polo: The Runaway Book

by Regis Faller
Roaring Book Press 2007

"When a smiley face steals his book, Polo goes on another fabulous adventure to retrieve it."

That was the note I made to myself. You can tell I used to summarize movies. Badly, at times.

In what amounts to a graphic novel for the picture book set (and for those of us who enjoy a good, lengthy visual story) this follow-up to Polo's last adventure deals in the same sort of flights of fantasy where the unexplainable is quite natural. Along the way Polo confronts, visits or enlists the help of a variety of creatures and beings who are equally at home in their little worlds -- the genie in the desert, the princess pig in the land of clouds, the chicken flying a balloon craft over the ocean, the cloud people whose boxing ring becomes a dance stage, the penguin whose knitting unravels and becomes the sort of living line that was the stock and trade of Harold and his purple crayon, all jumping from one fantastic setting to then next.

Faller's book doesn't fall into the traditional category of "European" (the book was originally published in France) in that the illustration is immediately approachable. What does feel non-American about it is the scope of the story, it's length, and episodic nature of Polo's adventures. It's a question of trusting the attention span of young readers, I fear, that and the attitude European audiences have toward graphic novels. I have already heard adults refer to this book as a comic book because of its multi-panel format -- lumping it generically and with total ignorance into the same camp as Superman, The Archies and Peanuts gang -- writing it off as something lesser than a traditional picture book. Which is a shame.

If a pre-reading child can sit for 30 minutes and watch, and follow, a television program they deserve enough credit to be given a book with 80 pages that manages to transport them to half dozen worlds of fantasy and adventure. And they only need to know two words to follow along, a phrase only uttered twice in the entire story.

"My book!"

Saturday, January 13

Marly's Ghost

by David Levithan
with spot illustrations by Brian Selznick
Dial 2006

The premise sounds less than promising: Take Dickens' A Christmas Carol and update it to present day, change the holiday to Valentine's Day, and turn Scrooge into a 16 year old boy hardened and embittered against all things romantic after having lost the love of his life.

(Spoilers, such as they are, follow).

Marly is the young girl Ben (short for Ebenezer) has lost to an unnamed cancer, the chains binding her to the living are a charm bracelet filled with memories and mementos her Ben holds so dear they keep both of them from moving on. The three spirits who visit Ben are of Valentine's Day's past, present and future giving him glimpses into who he was, is and could be. The diminutive waif Tiny Tim here becomes a gay couple, Tiny and Tim, who first feel the brunt of Ben's anger and frustration only to see him turn and become their biggest supporters.

It's quite a feat to update Dickens and make it relevant to a teen audience and the effort here is admirable, if flawed. The book calls itself a remix as opposed to a retelling because Levithan has attempted to retain as much of Dickens's original text and dialog wherever appropriate. The effect is that the narrative is woven with odd little bits that never quite seem to mesh with the story being told. There's almost a sense of the archaic in some of the speech, particularly when Ben communicates with the spirits.

I'm also a little confused about the message. Is it that Ben shouldn't grieve the loss, or simply that he's gone too far in wallowing in his grief. With Dickens it is understood that Scrooge had hardened himself over a great many years and his heart hardened over so that his conversion required divine intervention. But the idea here is that Ben has succumbed so quickly that it appears no one has tried to provide the boy any sort of grief counseling at all. Granted, it removes the story from it's flow to look too deeply beyond the simplicity of its origins but it also distracts from the believability of Ben's conversion to suggest that all he needs is an extra-terrestrial reminder of what he's become (and a glimpse at being dead by age 19) to send him to the other side of the emotional spectrum. I'm not a big advocate of psychotherapudic pharmaceuticals but a low dose and a little counseling would have helped Ben a whole better than his conversion into an exuberant pro-love apostle out to spread the good word.

When I was a teen and reading rock and roll criticism seriously there was a review for something that the critic derided snidely as "perfect for 14 year olds in love". Well, I was 14 at the time, in love, and didn't understand why that was such a bad thing. This would have been the perfect book for me back then.

Wednesday, January 10

Remy Charlip

This is Remy.
He was born on this day in 1929. I met him when I was a boy, sometime around when he would have been 40 years old, around the age he was in this picture.

I don't fully remember the circumstances, the time or place, it's all part of the dreaminess of childhood. It was a large room, filled with kids, and this free-spirited man who must have come across like a whirlwind. Could it have been at the L.A. County Museum of Fine Art? Perhaps. The space had the large, open feeling of an empty gallery, but more finished and refined than a dance studio or performance space. There was music and singing and dancing, all of it very unconventional. Imaginary Dances, I believe he called them. We were kids, we didn't care what they were called, we just did our little interpretive wriggling and posturing and had a lot of fun.

He wrote and illustrated children's books as well. One of my favorites was a hodge podge collection of illustrated jokes, poems, puns, songs and other playful amalgamations of word and image. It was called Arm in Arm and is, occasionally, still available.

Another book of his that was a favorite is the kind of book that has seeped deeply into the subconscious of many people I have met. Strangely, while many are familiar with the book -- and the sort of word game it engenders between budding wordsmiths and their parents -- few can name it's author. Perhaps you are familiar with Fortunately.

Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.

Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute....

Once I got the rhythm of this in my head as a child I could never let it go. For the rest of my days, whenever I heard someone make a declarative statement beginning with either the word fortunately or unfortunately I would find myself (often in my own head, for my own amusement) countering with a humorous rejoinder. And I have heard the call and response of parent and child making up their own fortunately/unfortunately dialog so I know I'm not the only one.

He wrote and illustrated many other books. The circular playfulness of I Love You. The silhouetted gothic of Mother, Mother, I Feel Sick; Send for the Doctor, Quick, Quick, Quick. The gentle care in illustrating the lesson of Margaret Wise Brown's The Dead Bird. The anonymous beasty of Four Fur Feet. They endure because they reach into a vast well of understatement that promotes and celebrates the power and beauty of a child-like imagination. They bare the unmistakable mark of a poet choreographer whose fondness for sharing his exuberance with children was evident in all he did.

Remy suffered a stroke a few years back and has been slowly on the mend. Before the stroke he finished work on a children's book called A Perfect Day to be released in May of this year by HarperCollins. The summary of the book:

A parent and child spend a perfect day together, from sunrise to nightfall.

Though I'm sure it's an accurate summation, somehow I doubt it's as simple as all that.

Monday, January 8

Not a Box

by Antoinette Portis
HarperCollins 2006

Jules over at Seven Impossible Things has managed to basically say everything (and then some) that I would have wanted to say about this book.

So I'm just going to stand here and nod while you go visit her and read for yourself. Go on, I'll be here when you get back.

* * * !

Excuse me. Sorry, just finishing up some holiday candy. Welcome back.

One of the things this book did was rekindle a memory from my younger days, shortly after I discovered MAD magazine. Dave Berg was a regular contributor who provided cartoon strips grouped around a single subject. The cartoons always felt dated, like an old man from the 1950's giving the younger generation (the 1970's) a jaundiced look. To be fair he took shots across all generations and exposed all for the folly of their thinking.

While I read his cartoons every issue I felt they really said little that wasn't either obvious or cliched. Then One day he did a cartoon centered around Christmas. The house has been ravaged by a trio of kids tearing through their presents, the parents are frazzled, the toys lay scattered all around. But where are the kids? Outside, playing with the oversized cardboard boxes their presents came in.

Which is how Dave Berg fits into all this.

I don't know an adult who at one time or another didn't find more fun with a cardboard box than anything it could have contained. My girls squeal in agony whenever we throw out an empty box, even a shoe box, because they can always see "project" potential in each of them. As a packrat personality (and a messy desk genius) I totally understand; somewhere around her I have a cigar box that I've been holding onto for nearly 15 years and just last week found the perfect project for it. All I have to do now is carve out the time to work on it. That should add another five years to the life of the box before it's either lost, destroyed or repurposed.

The thing about Not a Box is that it's one of those perfect books that makes people slap their heads and go Right! Why didn't I think of this?

And why didn't I?

Wednesday, January 3

On Notice 2007

Just a few of the people and things that ought to be on notice.
Subject to change. Daily.

Tuesday, January 2

The Homework Machine

by Dan Gutman
Simon and Schuster 2006

There's a lot going on in this little book, and a summary would probably take more words than are in the original book.

Basically four 5th grade misfits find themselves in a heap of trouble when the nerdiest among them uses his computer mastery to invent -- that's right -- a homework machine capable of scanning an assignment sheet and spitting it out complete with answers that mimic their handwriting. The troubles ought to stem from the homework machine itself, but in the cockeyed world Dan Gutman's created it isn't until the kids panic and destroy the computer by tossing it into the Grand Canyon that they even get caught.

Their real troubles come out in the course of things. Snik is the brash loudmouth whose Air Force dad gets deployed to the Middle East. Kelsey lost her dad long ago and has been clamping down on her emotions ever since. Judy's just an effortless brainiac who is longing for something a little more social than hours of homework. And Brenton is the tie-wearing computer whiz who created the homework machine and inadvertently became the coolest kid around by not being cool at all.

That four kids with nothing in common but a large dose of distaste for one another find themselves bound together tighter than most life-long friends is part of this book's larger charm. Leave aside the implausibility of a psycho-stalking marketeer looking to exploit the quad's ability to set trends nationwide, or the willful ignorance of their teacher to follow up on her suspicion that the kids might be cheating, and you're left with the kind of fantasy world 5th graders love to delve into. What could be better than thinking you and your friends could build a homework machine? What could be better than thinking the world is full of adults who haven't got a clue?

Is this a perfect book? Is this a great work of literature for children? No, it is neither, but it's a lot more entertaining than a lot of what I've been reading lately.

It's funny, I've seen some interest in this book by kids but adults who want nothing to do with it once I start in on details. One parent thought it was "dreadful" that a children's book would contain a reference to the current war in the Middle East. Another used the world "distasteful" to describe a book with a main character whose father had died. Almost all thought the idea of the homework machine itself preposterous.

Exactly. Adults don't get it and the kids do, which is why I don't think a vast majority of adults should be buying their kids books. Alas, they make the money, they control the purse strings.

(On the flip side, I witnessed a mother recently supporting her little Billy as he bought an entire shelf of Deltora titles with the justification that "as long as he's reading, I'm happy." Yeah, and you could feed him nothing but cheese sandwiches three times a day because that's all he likes and just as easily say "as long as he's eating, I'm happy", but that would make you an irresponsible parent. Variety being the spice of life and all, I'd rather a kid read 20 different junk titles and learn how to discern good stories and writing from bad. They become better readers that way, as opposed to intolerant binge readers.)

I guess what I enjoyed most about The Homework Machine is that it's the perfect kind of summer read for the 5th grade set when they get tired of Where the Red Fern Grows or wish to shift gears after Number the Stars.

Monday, January 1


A few days ago I received a check in the mail. I had assumed my days for getting paid to write were still in a foggy future. Apparently "paid upon publication" now includes electronic sneak peaks and so I find myself here.

I cannot actually see which of my little brickbats and bouquets are actually available on line but it looks like there's a baker's dozen of them.

Now, what's up with those picture book queries I sent out a while back...