Friday, November 28

My Letter to the World

And Other Poems
by Emily Dickinson
with illustrations by Isabelle Arsenault
Kids Can Press 2008

It would take a very specific type of young reader to recommend this book, but for the receptive this is a gorgeous introduction to the world of Emily Dickinson.

In this slim volume from the Visions of Poetry Series by Kids Can Press we are given seven of Miss Emily's better known poems. The poems are short but spread across several pages each to better shift the illustrations to fit the mood. In this way they almost read like a collection of short illustrated stories.

As the poems have no titles, the careful reader learns that a new poem has started because the first word is set in an aqueous blue handscript with the rest of the text set in type. It can take a poem or two to understand what is going on -- especially since there's no way of knowing how long a poem will continue -- but it does have an odd way of extending the poem, lengthening the experience, forcing a reader to slow down and savor the word and illustrations.

Admittedly, I felt a little unsettled by the way the poems were broken up until I got into the rhythm. When you have seen these poems presented whole on a single page, to then see them pulled apart methodically over a few pages can be disorienting. I wasn't comfortable with what was happening until I realized that I shouldn't want to feel comfortable. This discomfort forced me to see the poems anew. What a lovely experience.

Taken as a whole, this collection feels a bit... dark. This is Miss Emily's territory, and probably another of those situations where these poems would not be published for children to read (much less illustrated so handsomely) if they were written today. Must protect the children, think of the children!

And so:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

It's Poetry Friday. Check out more over at Under the Covers.

Thursday, November 27

Adele and Simon in America

by Barbara McClintock
Francis Foster Books / FSG 2008

I'm not generally a huge fan of an excellent stand-alone picture book gaining a sequel but I'm going to give this one a pass because I love McClintock's illustrations.

Adele and Simon, those two early 20th century Parisian children, have traveled to America to see the country by train with their aunt. As with their previous outing, Simon is continually losing personal items as he goes, begging the reader to find the missing items among the details in the drawings. Sort of like a Where's Waldo? situation but with much finer art.

McClintock captures a certain nostalgia in her illustrations that recall Windsor McCay's "Little Nemo" cartoons, or a mid-century rendition of turn-of-the-century. The fine lines of her drawings are reminiscent of hand-painted etchings, full of fussy detailing. A true mid-century picture book would have been one or maybe two spot colors, not a full spectrum watercolor, so in that sense they are richer in tone and value. It's what I love, that mix of classic storybook style with modern print quality.

Alas, the story here is a bit clunky as a mechanism for getting Adele and Simon around the various parts of the United States, but it's all an excuse for the pretty pictures and the opportunity for kids to play hide-and-seek with Simon's lost items. If there was a way to do these books without words I think I might be in heaven. Why should David Wiesner corner the market on wordless picture books and get all the awards?

It doesn't have the fresh appeal or the natural simplicity of the original Adele and Simon, but you could do a whole lot worse in picture books these days, and many do.

Tuesday, November 25

The Great Powers Outage

The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Boy, Book 3
by William Boniface
HarperCollins 2008

What happens when you take a juvenile comic book storyline, one that would typically be 32 pages in length, pretend it's a title worthy of "prestige" dimensions of 72 pages, then convert it into a middle grade narrative that lasts for nearly 350 pages?

I don't want to talk about this book, I want to put a call out there to teachers and librarians: how many kids are asking for books about superheroes? How many out there are so vested in this series that they've been anxiously awaiting the third installment? I want a sense of the numbers of reader actively seeking this book out and not just plopped into their hands when they are at their wits end for what to recommend for a boy into superheroes.

I mean, wouldn't it be better to not pretend that this is better than having them read comics? Isn't it an admission of failure in publishing that they feel they have to compete with comics on this level?

Okay, I'll say this much about the book. Having read all three books in the series I could see maybe - maybe - the foundation for a TV cartoon series. But it would be half-hour episodes befitting their storylines and not padded to three-hour long endurance marathons. This series would benefit from some serious rejiggering. Pull these stories down to under a hundred pages and focus on the series readers. Quit clogging the middle grade shelves with pulp just because you can, HarperCollins.

Friday, November 21

Eddie, Incorporated

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Atheneum 1980

Everybody in Eddie's family is in business or on their way. His father runs a produce market and his mother bakes goods sold in the store. His older brother Roger worked in a shoe store with eyes on a management position. His other brother Joseph is a whiz with numbers with plans to become a banker, always with a calculator in hand, figuring out the interest on any sum being discussed.

Eddie didn't have a job, or prospects, or even the slightest idea about what to do to earn money. But he wanted a job, and not just any old job: Eddie wanted to be the boss and own his own business. After a visit with his tinkerer neighbor Mr. Clemmons, Eddie learns that if you can find a problem or a need you can build a business around it. Looking at his littered neighborhood Eddie decides to start an aluminum can collection business, and he brings his friends Dink and Elizabeth in as partners.

The can business seems to be going along well, but once they factor in their costs and divide the money Eddie and his friends realize they're making pennies a day and decide to fold their business. Eddie tries to invent a shoe deodorizer with disastrous results, a lawn service no one wants, starts up a local newsletter which requires more effort than it's worth, and eventually devises a benign protection racket at his middle school to prevent sixth graders from being hazed by eighth graders. Along the way Eddie and his friends learn about advertising, profits and losses, writing up business plans and contracts - everything a budding entrepreneur would need to know in order to set up shop. In the end Eddie creates a babysitter agency that acts as an intermediary between sitters and families in need, collecting fees from both sides for their efforts. In true entrepreneurial fashion Eddie discovers the joys of being his own boss, and that there are ways to earn money from the efforts of others.

I have to say, I love stories that show kids how the business world works and I wish there were more of them. Stories about kids setting up a business to make money are fine, but what I'd like to see are more of the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of what it means beyond "let's set up a lemonade stand and make a few dollars we can spend down at the candy store." Eddie doesn't just want a job, or a few quick bucks, he wants to be a boss and own his own business. Eddie doesn't have dreams about what he'll do with all the money he'll make, he's more concerned with making his businesses be both practical and profitable. He doesn't want to work for someone else but he's not lazy, Eddie works harder at making his businesses work than he would running deliveries for his father.

As usual, Naylor nails the middle grade world with its own sense of logic and independence. It's an older book, looks like it was last printed in 1985, which makes it a library find. My copy actually was a library find, a library discard sale book, which would indicate that it's lost favor with contemporary readers. Probably because it's the original printing and the illustrations by Blanche Sims give it a dated feel. I like the drawings, but I'm not a kid. With minor adjustments in dollar amounts (adjusted for inflation, of course) and fresh illustrations I think this is still a relevant title for budding executives.

Wednesday, November 19


Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka
by Jon Scieszka
Viking 2008

I totally dig that Jon Scieszka had the kind of wigged-out childhood that makes for good kid biographies, but I would hate to see the report some kid would write using this as their source material. Or maybe I wouldn't hate it. Maybe it's what some poor unsuspecting teacher deserves.

In 38 brief and amusing chapters the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and our current National Ambassador of Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress digs up the kind of family dirt that most people try to hide. From pee fights, to fundraising in order to name starving pagan babies in Africa, to threatening to have younger brothers hauled away for misbehaving -- this book is chock-full of all the things that naturally occur in a household of five boys.

This book hardly needs any recommendation. Boys who know the name Scieszka will pick it up and know what to expect. Mostly. If they haven't done similar things recounted in this book they probably thought them. And if they never thought them, then this book will inspire them. Word of mouth will ensure that boys pass this along and read these impossible to forget stories.

Reading, getting boys to read. A steady of diet of this stuff would kill anyone, but boys deserve a treat everyone once in a while. Oh, and for the adult boys out there who might have forgotten what it was like to be 8 or 10 or 12 years old, I'm sure there are a few memories kindled by these accounts.

As for these stories being either tall tales or "mostly true" all I can say is, having once been a boy, a disclaimer like that was probably some editor's idea. I can't imagine any true boy denying any of this as anything but the whole truth.

Monday, November 17

My Father's Son

by Terri Fields
Roaring Brook Press 2008

The only thing missing from the front of this book is an exploding gold medallion with the words RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES! printed in bold red letters.

One day as Kevin Windor is watching TV he sees a news bulletin: The notorious DB25 serial killer has been apprehended. What Kevin sees on the screen, though, is his own father being escorted away by police. It can't be, Kevin says in shock, he knows his dad is innocent!

Already Fields has lost me. Without establishing that Kevin's dad is (or might be) a good father I have to take Kevin's emotional, determined word that his dad isn't the killer. That means that Fields wants me to either take a stance against the main character -- essentially lumping me with all the local citizens who have seen the news reports and leveled guilt on Kevin's dad -- or I have to have faith that Kevin's unwavering and naive support of his father will be justified in the end. In the later case, since I have to correctly guess the end of the story in order to be sympathetic to Kevin, what's the point of reading further? Happy ending, story over.

Constructed like the worst sensationalist television drama, Kevin moves through the accusation and his father's unwillingness to tell the truth (despite the fact that it would support his innocence) like a clueless teen whose knowledge of the law and the real world came exclusively from watching cop shows. Bad ones, with corny stilted dialog. When he goes to confront his father's lawyer Kevin seriously believes that if he could only talk to his dad and hear directly from his that he's innocent that everything will be okay. Then when his dad cuts off communication and says he's going to plead guilty -- to a string of murders, mind you -- Fields has upped the ante in manipulative absurdity.

Unless Kevin's dad truly was guilty of the crimes he's accused of, and the story is an examination of what it feels like to be the child of such notoriety and parental deception, the only reason to have Kevin crusade on his father's behalf is to show how a trial-by-media and guilt-by-association brings out the worst in people, the worst in society. Rather than letting the reader into what Kevin feels it's as if Fields wants to hold up a mirror and accuse the reader of being no better than the people who shun Kevin and his mother.

Now, if Fields were instead using Kevin to serve as a detective to prove his father's guilt (with his father's knowledge and cooperation) we might have had a reasonable mystery story here. There'd still be the son-of-a-serial-killer stigma involved, but it would serve as an adversity for Kevin to battle with emotionally. But that's not the book Fields wrote, and in the worst tea cozy mystery tradition she has dad explain everything to Kevin in the end, a tidy little summary delivered in the best tell-don't-show fashion.

My Father's Son is episode of Jerry Springer turned into an ABC After School Special. It's high concept, lowbrow entertainment. Minus the entertainment.

Friday, November 14

Poetry Friday: 3 by Christina Rossetti

taken from
An Early-Start Preschool Reader
illustrated by Victor Lazzaro
Wonder Books 1965

I haven't yet been able to get into Proust, but I can dig where he's coming from. I think we all know too well how easy a little thing can trigger deeply buried remembrances. Having grown up in the post-war capitalist republic that I did, many of my memories are associated with commercial things: Board games and television commercials, music and books.

Many of the books of my childhood did not survive the punishment they took in our household. If I didn't destroy them through a lack of care then they eventually disintegrated in the hands of my younger sibling. As a result, there are countless books I have read but do not remember until chance brings them back into my adult consciousness.

Our local library has a nook just inside the entrance where they hold a year-round sale to benefit the friends of the library. As the library sells off profitable donations and purges its shelves of unread books, the stock of what's available varies almost daily and a frequent scavenger can stumble across some treasures. This week I spotted a small square book that I nearly ignored. It looked too old, too old-fashioned, to hold my interest. But a second glance, and something about the cover design, made me look inside.

In typical 1960's style the book contained line drawings with a single spot color of brown. Flip, flip, and here it was, the image of a child in a rain poncho on cobblestones, and I was back at El Rincon Elementary School. The poem that accompanied the picture, "The Rain" by Robert Louis Stevenson, was more than vaguely familiar. It was as if it had been tattooed along the edges of my reptile brain, the fingers of memory running over the raised edges of those words in darkness. Though not this exact copy, I have held this book in my hands, once, long ago. Whether it was mine or not, I owned this book.

I paid the twenty-five cents for the book and took it home without looking any further inside. Luck, fate, or karma had returned this book to me, another piece of my childhood regained, another fragment of memory restored, another piece of the puzzle that is me put back into place.

A collection of shorter poems based on nature, the book contains two anonymous poems, three by Robert Louis Stevenson, one my Alfred Lord Tennyson, and three by Christina Rossetti. At first I was surprised to see the authors names in a preschool book, then I began to wonder about the unfamiliar name, Rossetti. Was she someone hired by Wonder Books to fill out the slim volume?


We'll have to save an examination of Christina Rossetti for another day, but it turns out she was an English poet who wrote romantic, devotional, and children's poetry. She bears some investigation as it appears she was a proto-feminist who did such things as volunteer at a home for prostitutes while writing children's poems. Fascinating. She also shares my birthday, along with Joan Didion and Walt Disney. Odd company, indeed.

For today I'm featuring the three poems from this crazy sliver of my childhood. Care for a madeleine?

The Clouds

White sheep, white sheep
On a blue hill.
When the wind stops
You stand still.

The Wind

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bough down
their heads,
The wind is passing by.

The Clouds

Boats sail on the rivers,
Ships sail on the seas
But clouds that sail across
the sky
Are prettier far than these.

The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by Yat-Yee Chong.

Wednesday, November 12

The Spectacular Now

by Tim Tharp
Knopf 2008

(cross-posting today at Guys Lit Wire)

It's an odd, almost unsettling experience to finish reading a book, fire up the internet to see what sort of buzz the book has, and then discover that almost simultaneously the book was just named as a finalist for the National Book Award. That's exactly what happened a few weeks back, in one of those moments when you wonder if the universe is trying to tell you something important.

Cue eerie music.

Sutter Keely is a charmer. A senior without a care, he is an unrepentant alcoholic living in the now, willing to embrace the weird. The only problem is that his beautiful fat girlfriend Cassidy is getting tired of his shtick. He's late and constantly drinking Seagam's and 7-Up; he's fun but irresponsible; he's a good time at parties but he's selfish. When the last straw comes and Cassidy finally dumps him Sutter figures she'll eventually come back around to his wannabe Dean Martin swagger.

The problem is that Cassidy is looking down the road at life beyond high school and Sutter isn't there. And not just Cassidy, all of Sutter's friends seem intent on trying to figure out what comes next. After years of floating without a care Sutter doesn't see the big deal, or the need to plan beyond his current buzz. So when Cassidy shows how serious she is by picking up with a new boyfriend, Sutter redirects his energies toward hooking up his best friend Ricky with a girl of his own.

Wallowing drunk, he is found passed out on a lawn early one morning by Aimee, one of those withdrawn girls everyone walks all over. Taking her on as his own special project to help her grow a spine and realize her inner self, Sutter finds himself promising to take her to the prom, officially declaring her his girlfriend, and knowingly leads her on in an effort to build self esteem. But Aimee isn't like the other girls he's dated, willing to hang out with a party boy until it's no longer fun. Aimee has fallen in love -- deep, hard, and seriously -- and slowly begins to entangle Sutter into her plans and dreams, into their combined future together. She could be the girl Sutter has always needed, the one he never realizes he'd always wanted, a girl who could change him for the better.

If Sutter doesn't first succeed in dragging her into his own dead-end spiral.

Will Sutter reform, confront his deadbeat father and clean up his drinking? Or will Aimee become his sloppy, drunken sidekick, the girl who abandons her dreams of college and NASA to stay by the side of the only guy that has ever bothered to give her the time of day?

Up until the final pages there's no way of knowing how this is going to turn out. Tharp does a nice job of having the characters remain true to themselves in such a way that every meeting is a quiet trial of wills. When Cassidy continues to get together with Sutter on Thursday afternoons after they break up -- and with the full knowledge of their new dating partners -- Cassidy makes no bones about the fact that she will probably always be drawn to Sutter's bad boy antics but cannot let him back into her life as anything more than a buddy. This suits Sutter just fine, but his unspoken longing for Cassidy seeps in and pushes him that much farther along. He's like a comet that gains velocity in her orbit, then spins wildly out into the universe seemingly with a lack of control, but he's always drawn back into her gravitational orbit when he reaches the outer limits with Aimee.

Tharp pulls a nifty trick in giving us the portrait of a charming young drunk well on his way toward becoming a pathetic one. But he doesn't judge -- Sutter's friends are more than willing to do that, and they do it with a large dose of tough love despite the apparent futility of their gestures. There were moments when I was almost afraid Tharp was romanticizing teen alcoholism in trying to present a realistic portrait, but Sutter's own aimlessness undermines anything remotely cool about being drunk. It plays as humor when Sutter goes to his sister's house for dinner and nearly sets himself on fire when he tries to secretly smoke a joint in her closet, but Sutter's empty apologies and quick judgments about his family members make the laughter ring hollow.

I wasn't as impressed with Tharp's last outing, The Knights of Hill Country, because there was something about it that felt stale. This time out Tharp returns to his Oklahoma soil with an approach that feels slightly on edge. Not edgy, but teetering at the brink of excess and charm -- much like its main character. It is unflinching in its handing of teen drinking, almost casual, but equally sober about what sort of dead end that leads to.

I don't think it's necessarily undeserving the National Book Award, but given the competition I'm having a hard time seeing this pull through as the winner. Then again, perhaps the universe was indeed trying to tell me something. We'll find out soon enough.