Wednesday, April 28

The Castaway

by James Stevenson
Greenwillow 2002

In 1937 Hubie the mouse and his family go to the movies where they see a horror film typical of the day: The Island of No Return.  Although the young mouse is clearly freaked out by the movie's tidal waves and volcanoes, Hubie tries to play it cool.  At home, a postcard arrives from Aunt Ella vacationing on Barabooda Island, which gives Hubie's family the idea to vacation there themselves.  Despite Hubie's objections, they board a dirigible for their trip and very quickly Hubie wanders off to distract himself from his fear of heights.  Falling out of the dirigible, Hubie lands on a nearly deserted island occupied by a castaway named Leo.  On Leo's island he has fashioned many things to amuse himself – a drum kit, a baseball stadium, a mini golf course – and Hubie ends up having a great time. On an ill-fated test run of Leo's new "car," Leo and Hubie fall in a river, go over a waterfall, and land safely on the dirigible.  Hubie reunites with his family and proceeds with the vacation as if he had never been gone.  Back at home his family is confused by the pictures Hubie had taken – they don't appear to be of the same island they vacationed on – and he's ready for the next family trip... to Mt. Everest? 

The rambling narrative in this hybrid picture book/comic is typical of the kind of thing one of my writing teachers used to refer to as the "one damn thing after another" sort of story.  Initially I bristled at this sort of description of a narrative because, in my scholarly MFA haze, I believed it was a possible approach to storytelling that would appeal to boys and was not bound by the hard and fast laws of Aristotlean thought.  What I've since come to understand is that the real problem with this sort of structure is that it is difficult to pull off, and as a result it is easy to declaim it as an inferior narrative device rather than confuse young writers with nuance. 

If this seems like far too heavy an approach to a children's picture book allow me to suggest that underneath the visceral "I like" and "I don't like" there are sometimes sophisticated reasons beneath what "works" and doesn't, and puzzling out what causes that rift I find useful.  In The Castaway what doesn't work is that the one-thing-after-another (which for a variety of reasons I think of as an Ovidian structure) doesn't convincingly build to it's conclusion.  In the beginning we have Hubie who is clearly afraid, and in the end we have Hubie the fearless, and in between we have a series of events that happen to him that show no shading of his changing emotional state.  It doesn't "work" because it doesn't satisfy our desire to see exactly how the character changes.  Events happening to a character don't necessarily change a character unless we can see how. Things happen just because, and we all understand how unsatisfying "just because" can be as an answer. 

Along those same lines I think Stevenson gets away with it because he can, because his stature as a children's illustrator is high enough that he can put together a story like this and not be challenged at the editorial level because the publishers can bank on his name making more sales than if an unknown were to put out a similar book.  Don't misunderstand, I genuinely like Stevenson's loose ink drawings for the same reasons I like Quintin Blake's work; both artists have a shabby gestural style that is immediately recognizable and for the most part fun. 

I wouldn't say I had high hopes going into this book, but it did surprise me that Stevenson had put out essentially a graphic novel for the picture book set before it fell into vogue and I was curious to know why it hadn't shown up on my radar before.  Now I know.  Style and concept can't carry weak execution on the narrative level. 

Thursday, April 22

Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder

by Jo Nesbo
translated from Norwegian by Tara Chace
Aladdin 2010 

Proving that some humor is universal, this Norwegian import is a romp worthy of all the comparisons to Roald Dahl that I've read in other reviews.  

Tiny Nilly moves to a new neighborhood in Oslo and discovers that his neighbor, Doctor Proctor, is a bit of a nutty professor who invents wacky, seemingly useless stuff.  Like an industrial-strength fart powder that doesn't smell and can hurl a human into the atmosphere.  Enter the villains, a set of twin boys named Truls and Trym and their Hummer driving father who plot to steal the powder and sell it to NASA before the good doctor can.  And just because this sort of premise isn't weird enough there is a man-eating snake in the sewers and the problem of there being no gunpowder to set off the cannons on Norwegian Independence Day.  Oh yeah, it'll all come together in the end. 

If the subject of farting as an integral part of the narrative turns you off, if it would prevent you from enjoying a funny and engaging narrative, then that's a shame.  While I certainly don't condone gratuitous use of potty humor to engage young readers we have, for better or worse, lost those days where a story like this could be told about belching or something more innocent.  In fact if I think too hard about this there's a quite bit of The Absent Minded Professor in this story, which makes it hardly the most original idea.  But Nesbo keeps things light and, uh, airy, and fills the story with bits of the preposterous that make it genuinely funny.

Like flushing poor Nilly down a toilet so he can escape a prison cell and swim (yes, swim) through raw sewage in order to escape, but becomes swallowed by the boa that lives there.  And there's Nilly, watching as the snake's digestive juices dissolve the rubber on his shoes, accepting his fate and not the least bit frantic (maybe a little nervous)... until he notices something promising about some of the other contents in the snake's stomach.  Without giving too much away, Nilly does indeed escape and Nesbo gives this image of a snake flying out the sewer drain and flailing around the skies above Oslo's harbor like a giant balloon quickly deflating.

Nesbo has, until recently, been an award-winning writer of detective fiction in Norway and this is his first foray into children's literature.  Normally I get a hinky feeling when I hear about successful adult writers tapping the children's market because sometimes it feels like the author is trading on their name, and the publishers are simply going with a known quantity over seeking out quality.  That isn't the case here as Nesbo clearly knows how to entertain the audience with clever, goofy humor.   And I sincerely hope that the second book, Doctor Proctor and the Time Bathtub, manages to find its way to translation soon.

ALA question: Could this be a contender for the Mildred L. Batchelder award, or is it not serious enough?

Tuesday, April 20

The Adventures of Jack Lime

by James Leck
Kids Can Press  2010

A trio of hardboiled detective stories for the upper middle grade set.

Jack Lime is a kid people go to when they need to have problems solved.  Problems like cheating boyfriends and missing bikes and gambling rings and kidnapped... hamsters.

As with all detective stories, Lime has to wade his way through the sort of half-truths and double-crosses he's presented with, trying to reconcile what peopletell him with what he has to piece together through observation.  And as with all who meddle in the affairs of others there is a price, usually a punch to the face or the breadbasket.  Getting around the issue of doing a job for hire, Lime does what he does for the favors he can collect and use as barter down the road.  He's a lone wolf (orphaned, living with his grandmother), worldly (from big city LA to small town Iona),  who can usually solve the case but rarely gets the rewards he deserves.

Written in the first-person tough-guy voice of classic hardboiled fiction, Jack Lime is the closest I've seen to anyone grafting Raymond Chandler's Marlowe into children's literature.  Not that other's haven't tried, but those others all suffered from the strain of their own efforts to appear clever and arch.  Leck has managed to find just the right tone and though it is still an affectation of style it comes off as effortless and natural. 

And it's appropriately short.  I would have been happy for any one of these cases to be a book unto themselves, but that Leck gets three satisfying stories into 126 pages makes its case against those books that drag out a single drama for upwards of 275 pages.  Present the case, get on the job, land in some trouble, wiggle out of trouble and solve the case.  No need to get clever and drag things out endlessly.  The "crimes" are within the realm of possibility, if slightly exaggerated to match the genre, solved without the use of unbelievable talents, and doesn't pit whiz kids against idiot adults.  I think this is my new standard for what can and should be done with detective stories aimed at the older middle grade reader.

Tuesday, April 6

The Wonder Book

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
drawings by Paul Schmid 
HarperCollins 2010

A fine collection of illustrations, accompanied by an okay set of poems. 

I admit, sometimes I come to books from odd directions, especially illustrated books.  A good deal of my life has been dedicated to a number of visual arts and occasionally that is the greater draw for me.  I'll forgive weak content over strong visuals, and sometimes I'll even miss the weak content.  Not here, though. 

Paul Schmid is an illustrator I would hire to do spots drawings for my mythical magazine I hope to one day start.  His black and white line drawings do echo Silverstein, but there's often more than meets the eye.  They have a childlike whimsy and an innocence about them, his characters all blobby and bendy and spindly at the same time.  And there are the odd details that beg you to dig further, to look back at the text, and find the invisible connecting thread between them.  Yes, I'm talking here about the elephant on the page.  Literally. 
Too bad I hid a boot.
Rosenthal's palendrome is nothing new – I have it in at least two other books I own – so it falls to Schmid to give us a new reading with his picture.  And what do we have?  A small boy in a striped shirt (or old fashioned one-piece bathing suit) holding a shovel and a pail and wearing only one rain boot.  Cute, but that's not all.  Flanking the boy on either side are a pair of elephant rear ends, both facing the boy.  For a boy who looks primed to try and shovel several pounds of maneuer into a two pint bucket it is, indeed, too bad his is minus a boot. 

Not every illustration contains such quiet gems, but then the poems don't always exactly inspire more than a literal representation.  Which is not to say this is a terrible collection, but it is a weaker one for the effort.  I think it is far too easy with poems for children to go for the rhyme or the unusual without actually stretching the imagination.  When I look at poems for children  – especially humorous poetry – I am looking for something that would make both me and the reader wonder how a mind could come up with such images, such quirkiness.  Puns and palindromes and the recasting of nursery rhymes are fine, but lacking a theme or the spark of something truly unique the collection becomes pedestrian. 
This little piggy played the stock market
This little piggy loved a gnome
This little piggy was a toast thief
This little piggy loved a nun
(And the French little piggy went Oui Oui Oui all the way home)
This is the sort of thing writing students toss off to keep the juices flowing, a game of Tweak the Familiar.  It dosen't really satisfy as nonsense because it doesn't take enough of a risk to differentiate itself from the original or stand out on its own.  

The lasting effect of this collection was that when it was over I had to start over again because I couldn't remember a single poem.  But the illustrations were fun.  

Friday, April 2

Garmann's Street

by Stian Hole
Eerdmans Books 2010

The photoshopped freakishness of Garmann's Summer returns with another look at a socially awkward boy and the near-death, stamp-collecting retiree he is drawn toward. I'm beginning to think Garmann is the son of Death...  
Garmann doesn't exactly fit in well with his peers, and here his peers are a bully boy and the fence-sitting twins who fawn over him.  When bully boy kinda-sorta dares Garmann to light some matches you have to expect what happens next: the overgrown grassland that is his neighbor's yard catches fire and everyone bolts except for Garmann who, oddball that he is, takes off his flimsy t-shirt and attempts to bat the fire down.  But this incident exists to introduce Garmann to his neighbor, a retired postman all the other children (perhaps rightly) fear.  He's a daft old man, this postman, who natters on about stamps and the number of days in a life and other bits of philosophy that would fly right over the head of most kids.  In the end both Garmann and the postman are happy to have met, with a subtle indication that now that they have the postman can die happy. 

If my reading of this story is off it's probably because I was struck early on that in this sequel to Garmann's Summer we once again see a boy more socially comfortable in the presence of the elderly who appear to find comfort in the boy.  It's as if Garmann we're Death's cute little boy from down the lane come to prove that his dad's not the meanie everyone thinks he is.  "How could Death be so bad and raise such a nice, well-intentioned little boy," they might reason.  And throughout there are visual clues – crows and dead trees and stamps of famous dead people – that suggest what the text does not: that the end is near for someone on that block.

Most frustrating is how these other children exist as a measuring stick for Garmann, but their interaction is superficial at best, and are merely a flimsy shorthand for character types.  True, outcasts often get their unfair share of bully boys and snooty girls, but there has to be something for them to aspire to, especially if the main character is a bit touched themselves. 

I feel like I'm missing something, or that something didn't translate well from the original Norwegian text.  Is Garmann truly shy or is he just dim?  Are these books intended to show children to pay closer attention to their elders, or is it just a romp where a boy deals with (as publicity material states) "the fun and crazy personalities" of his neighborhood?  And, sheesh, are these digitally maipulated illustrations grotesque.  I'm not saying picture books have to hold to some great barrier of beauty or whimsy, but they should at least be somewhat friendly. This is one of those books I bet no child picks up willingly, or asks to have read over and over.

No child except Garmann, perhaps.