Tuesday, November 24

Superhero School

by Aaron Reynolds
illustrated by Andy Rash
Bloomsbury 2009

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20

The Great and Only Barnum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18

Secret Subway

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12

When You Reach Me

Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb / Random House 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10

The Snow Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5

Amulet, Book Two: The Stonekeeper's Curse

by Kazu Kibuishi
Scholastic 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3

The Seems: The Lost Train if Thought

by John Hulme and Michael Wexler
Bloomsbury 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Character should determine plot, but here plot determines all.

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

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