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."


Friday, October 16


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


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.