Wednesday, September 29

Round Robin

by Jack Kent
Prentice Hall 1982

A baby bird becomes so focused on eating it cannot fly south for the winter and is forced to walk the entire way.  In doing so there are some unintended consequences, both good and bad.

Last week when I reviewed Hoddy Doddy I felt like I wanted to give Kent another chance.  I thought maybe I was looking too closely, maybe I caught the one book of his that rubbed me wrong, and since there were plenty of books to check out I thought I'd give him another go.

Unintentionally, I think this book was ahead of its time.

Among the baby robins born there is this one who just loves to eat.  And eat.  And eventually becomes so rotund that the only way it can get around is by walking everywhere.  Come winter, when everyone else is flying south, the poor bird can only trudge along through the snow and rain.  By the time it catches up with the rest of the flock the robin is back to its normal size, slimmed by the exercise of walking. And so, in celebration, it eats.  And gets round again, just in time to fly north for the summer.  Except for the poor robin who is now faced with the prospect of having to walk all the way again. 

An analogy for our consumerist ways, a satire on the dieting mentality, or simply a foreshadowing of the obesity epidemic in the United States?  You decide. 

And you have to decide for yourself because Kent doesn't make it an issue beyond the fact that the poor bird can't fly.  The other birds don't judge robin for being what it is, so on the one hand it can be about acceptance.  Then again, if you're presenting the book to a child and telling them that people will accept you for who you are no matter what, well, that's one of those adult "lessons" that has a funny way of coming back to bite.

Once again, Kent's illustrations are simple, clean, and charming. Like cross between Charly Harper and Ed Emberly, all bold colors and simple outlines.  I'm going to give this one a thumb's up and maybe check out one more Jack Kent book to give it the two-out-of-three final verdict.

Wednesday, September 22

Hoddy Doddy

by Jack Kent 
Greenwillow / William Morrow 1979

Three folksy tales of the town fools in an Old World unnamed Danish town.  An interesting window onto a slightly politically incorrect beginning reader by the creator of the King Aroo comic strip. 

In a little Danish town, where these stories are all set, we see three small portraits of hoddy doddy's, or what Kent calls "foolish fellows." The first is a baker who, when told a Norwegian ship has arrived, goes to the harbor because he's never seen a Norwegian before.  When he arrives at the dock the ship is empty except for some stray lobsters that have fallen out of nets, and the baker assumes these are the Norwegians.  In the second tale, the town has learned that the enemy is approaching. In their panic to save the town clock, their most powerful possession, they dump it into the harbor where no one is likely to find it... including the townfolk.  In the last tale a town-proud miller spends his free time admiring how much better his homeland is than others. Upon hearing a contest between cuckoos of neighboring town, he decides to climb the tree and help his town's cuckoo win the contest.  For this he gets a statue erected in his honor as a town hero.

There is little denying the amount of story Kent manages to pack into these brief tales – and their illustrations take on the sort of Old World charm reminiscent of Paul Coker's work with the Rankin Bass animated holiday specials that also mined this territory – but there's something off kilter about identifying the residents from this town as being from Denmark.  The matter of fact presentation and definition of the phrase hoddy doddy makes it seem as if we are reading regional folk tales, but I've recently become aware of the phrase through The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in which it's defined as "all ass and no body," which itself was slang to describe short, clumsy people.

I can't presume that the late Jack Kent, whose visual work strikes a nostalgic thrum in me, was attempting to make fun of the Danes deliberately.  It may be that he'd heard the phrase and its meaning divorced from its original use and was simply using it as a peg on which to hang a set of fool's stories.  But it may also have been that its offensiveness went unnoticed until after publication, which may explain why it appears to be no longer in print but not why it's still readily available in my town library.  There's also the chance that I'm being overly sensitive, but it really jumped out at me from page one.

Had Kent not singled out "a town in Denmark" all I would have been able to talk about was his skill at condensing three vignettes into an enjoyable beginning reader with humor and an economy of language.

Monday, September 20

The Crowfield Curse

by Pat Walsh 
Chicken House / Scholastic 2010 

The arrival of a mysterious stranger to a medieval abbey draws an orphan boy into a battle between forces in the Old Magic realm searching out an angel for their own purposes.  

I'm going to ask for leniency up front for those of you better versed in fantasy.  It isn't a place I go to often so forgive any naivety or genre transgressions on my part. 

When his parents were lost to dark forces in a fire, young will was apprenticed to a nearby abbey for his upbringing.  One day while gathering wood he comes upon a hob stuck in an animal trap.  Secreting the hob back to the abbey for care two things become clear: Will has the gift of sight as few humans can see fay folk, and Brother Snail who Will brings the hob to shares this gift as well, which makes him an odd person to find in a Christian brotherhood.  While the hob mends and Will goes about his business a mysterious gentleman named Jacobus Bone arranges to spend some time at the abbey.  Though Bone is a leper the abbey could use the money he is willing to give them to be put up for a spell, and it is more than coincidence that has brought them to this part of the country; many years earlier an angel appeared to fend off an evil force, was killed, and rumored to be buried nearby.  Soon Will, the hob, Bone and his manservant Shadlock are enmeshed in a in a race to locate the angel before darker forces of the forest do and bring evil to the land. 

Now, if you were to ask me if I wanted to read a story about an orphan who lives in a medieval abbey, and who gets himself involved with Magic and fairies and the lot, I'd have probably politely said "No, thank you."  And I'll tell you, I could just as easily have put this book down twenty, thirty pages in if it weren't for one thing. 

The hob. 

Walsh doesn't exactly give a full description of the creature who gets named Brother Walter in the abbey, instead offering a more contextual impression.  A description of his red fur here, the way he curls his tail around him as he sleeps there.  By not drawing attention to the creature Walsh forces the reader to pay closer attention to the details when they appear.  I wanted to know more about Brother Walter and that desire, however slight, was enough to pull me through until the story in full took over.  There's also something about the matter-of-fact way Will reacts to seeing the hob, a creature modern readers would assume to be mythical but here treated as a "few see them" with nothing about this revelation really shocking Will that much.  The effect is of a time and place we know to be real while at the same time existing outside of our historical knowledge of those times.  The story is a nicely woven tapestry that, while covering some familiar territory with regards to good versus evil and magic, nonetheless feels fresh and would find appeal among readers who might insist they don't generally read or enjoy fantasy. 

Like me.

Wednesday, September 15

Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow

A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix 
by Gary Golio 
illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
Clarion  2010

A picture book storyography of the 60's icon's early years told with an unusual objective that isn't obtrusive or moralistic. Or is it?  

Okay, a picture book about Jimi makes me wonder two things before I even open the book: how do you convey the sense of person who would come to change the way rock and roll was approached, and how do you deal with the fact that he died from an overdose.  On the musical front the one thing I find myself thinking is that no book is ever going to be able to fully convey the music, and this is true of jazz and country and any other genre of popular music.  And I presumed that the point of focusing on Jimi's early days was a way around dealing with, what the British might have called back then "death by misadventure."  

From and early age Jimi has got the music in him.  He's pucking out a rhythm against the rain, he's playing the mouth trumpet to amuse his friends, he's rockin' a mean air guitar to Chuck Berry and Elvis.  It's only a matter of time and fate that would land Jimi and his peripatetic father in a boarding house where the landlady's son will part with his worn guitar for five bucks.  Soon Jimi's playing songs on the radio note for note, then getting a job with bands, and finally hooking up with a low-end electric guitar and learning how to bend notes and pitch feedback.  We leave Jimi at the crest of his creative wave, ready to shower the world with his rainbow of music... then onto the back matter. 

It was while soaking in this book that the phrase bait-and-switch came to mind.  The current trend in picture book bibliographies (or storyographies, those books that don't tell a whole life but instead lean on creating a narrative tone poem) is to cover the stories that would most appeal to a young reader and then cover the bases with more complete info in the back, either to inform more curious readers or to give the adults a chance to weigh what is worth sharing to the children in their charge.  For some of these books, this back matter is a sort of "out" for playing fast and loose with the subject's story, an opportunity to lay down the facts in a straightforward if not exciting way.  But in some books, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow being one of them, this back matter offers an interesting perspective on the subject that underscore the purpose of the narrative's approach.  

First, we get a "More about Jimi Hendrix" spread that does the traditional birth-to-death overview that speaks in the specifics the storyography didn't cover.  Golio chooses to paint a picture of Jimi's childhood as a carefree series of musical encounters that spill over with color and sound, often making slight references to some of Jimi's lyrics.  There's almost a subliminal quality to the phrasing, as I imagine an impressionable reader one day hearing Jimi for the first time having a light bulb moment without realizing where it came from.  Then, as mentioned, the back matter that covers the bases in terms of where and when. 

But then Golio does an interesting thing with the author's note.  He dedicates this space to discussing Jimi's accidental overdose at the age of 27, mentioning the experimental drug use of the day, following it up with a sympathetic entreaty the problems of alcohol and substance abuse, including websites and reference books for further exploration.  Suddenly I find myself going back and seeing the narrative with new eyes.  Golio wasn't putting a gloss over the darker moments in Jimi's life, or deliberately sheltering readers from a harsh reality, he's showing readers that Jimi lived for the music and didn't hide within it.  There may be a presupposition that Jimi was abusing drugs at a time when there was widespread experimentation, and that the "emotional abuse, and depression of childhood poverty" was at play in Jimi's life, so while I applaud the frank and direct discussion of Jimi's death I'm a little put off at the thought of adults using this book as channel for opening up conversations about substance abuse.  Especially given that none of this emotional turmoil or depression are even hinted at in the narrative. 

And don't think that just because Jimi wrote a song called "Manic Depression" that he was writing autobiographically.  The phrase was given to him by his manager during a press conference and Jimi introduced the song as being about a guy who was frustrated because he wanted to make love to music.  Well, maybe that was Jimi a little bit, but he wasn't clinically depressed as far as anyone can tell. 

On the illustrations, Steptoe decides to go with collages made from layered plywood.  Yes, plywood.  In looking for a material that would mirror Jimi's music he went with wood, the same material used in the guitars Jimi manipulated for his art.  Chunky at times, rough-hewn and weathered-looking, I'm not quite sure it best conveys either the essence of Jimi or his music, but then I think there's always a problem in trying to show or express what is generally best left heard.

In the end, as Elvis Costello said (or Martin Mull, they're both credited but neither one is owning up to it) "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  I think books about musicians ought to include music, especially so for kids.  You can't see Jimi's rainbow, you have to hear it.  Or as Jimi might have insisted, you'd have to experience it.

Monday, September 13

Killing Mr. Griffin

by Lois Duncan 
Dial 1978 

A group of high school kids decide to teach their hard nosed English teacher a lesson in humility by kidnapping him and threatening to kill him.  Hilarity ensues. (Not!) 

As a "light reading" choice among the other required reading for one of my daughters this summer I decided she might enjoy Killing Mr. Griffin.  She has an odd sense of taste and humor, and my recollection was that this story would be a nice respite from some of the heavier reading she was doing (i.e. The Book Thief, her new favorite book of all time).  When the book came home from camp at the end of summer with a bookmark a third of the way in I was confused.  Did she not have time to read it?  Was it too dark?  "I just didn't like it," said the girl who finished practically everything she picks up.  So I decided to reread for the first time in maybe decades.  

I understand now what happened. 

Though this sort of story has proven to be popular over time – the movie Heathers probably owes some debt of gratitude to Duncan, as does Michael Northrop's Gentlemen – what probably kills this book for a contemporary reader is the language.  I can't tell if it's a question of style, a book of it's day, or if Duncan was trying for something Gothic in tone, but all throughout she uses words and phrases that would strike a modern reader to be stale as opposed to of an era.  There were words that nicked and jabbed at me as I read, then on page 30 I was stopped dead.

      He put a pan of water onto the stove to boil and opened the cabinet where his mother stored foodstuff.  There were two boxes of Jell-o, cherry and banana.
     "Good old mom," he muttered resignedly.

The word "foodstuff," the stiffness of "Good old mom" and the tortured dialog tag "he muttered resignedly," these didn't just tumble clumsily in my head, they were actually hard to read aloud without stumbling. I probably should have sensed it coming from the beginning when a character Susan "told herself vehemently" and "thought wryly."  I could accept that the English teacher in question, a pompous ass who gave up college level teaching in order to show the high school world how it's done right, would speak formally and in drawn out, stilted phrasing, but to have a teen thinking (much less speaking) in such obvious SAT adjectives should have tipped me off.

At the story level, coming out in the late 70's as it did, I'm not surprised by the troubled-kid-leads-the-others-astray morality summation.  I don't think it would have been possible to write this as the lark of well-intentioned kids gone haywire back then; books for teens still needed to justify themselves beyond entertainment.  The problem is that it takes an unsympathetic character like Mr. Griffin and tries to get us to like him by making him a victim when, in fact, he was a terrible instructor with no interpersonal skills and should never have been teaching in the first place. 

My daughter never got to figure that out, though.  She gave up on it possibly because of the language and possibly because there were no characters she could identify with.  The good characters are weak, the bad characters are whiny, and the title character is a jerk.  A lesson here on making sure you fully remember (or reread) older books before handing them off to younger readers today.

Friday, September 10

Don't Touch That Toad

& Other Strange Things Adults Tell You  
written by Catherine Rondina
illustrated by Kevin Sylvester
Kids Can Press  2010

A collection of superstitions and folklore passed down by adults, refuted and supported, and an attempt to arm kids with the facts behind the phrases.  Entertaining, but it's no

I like the idea of arming kids with the truth as a way of disarming the myths kids often find themselves presented with, whether from parents as this book presents or, as I experienced many of them, from other kids.  Everything from french fries can give you acne to ostriches burying their head in the sand when scared shows up here, with the myth presented on one page with the reveal on the page turn.  Grouped under health, science, weird, and animal, with a special section set aside for the unexplainable things parents say ("I wasn't born yesterday, you know!") Don't Touch That Toad fits snugly among those nonfiction titles that benignly amuse and casually educate.

If only.  

In presenting the information in a light-hearted conspiratorial tone it would be nice if the counterarguments presented had some bite to them, and perhaps a little more background.  Early on we get An apple a day keeps the doctor away which we're told is false.  It's yummy and packed with vitamins but eating one a day won't prevent you from getting sick, a reader is told.  So, yes, technically, it's not correct.  And the text goes on to explain how apples have the ability to kill bacteria in the mouth, helping prevent tooth decay, so it reasons that an apple a day might keep the dentist away.  But what is the origin of the phrase?  If a reader were told that an apple helps fight high cholesterol, that daily apples can improve repertory problems including asthma, that the vitamin C they contain helps promote the immune system, could it be that there's more truth to the phrase than simply the idea that if you eat an apple you won't get sick? 

Another canard I was hit with as a kid is here, If you swallow a watermelon seed, a watermelon will grow inside your stomach.  Preposterous, given the number of seeds accidentally swallowed every year by people of all ages.  My aunt used to scare me that an apple seed (apples again!) if swallowed would grow a tree out of my navel.  In disproving this myth the text goes so far as to talk about a doctor trying to replicate the conditions of a human stomach in which to grow seeds.

He should have tried replicating lungs.  As recently as a couple weeks ago a man was discovered to have a pea germinating in his lungs.  And a year ago a man in Russia was discovered to have a fir tree sprouting in his lung.  It doesn't negate the point that the myth of swallowing seeds holds no merit, but if the point is to arm young readers with facts to bat down their parents this counter-intelligence should include things to arm parents into being more responsible with what they tell children.  Another myth was based on the idea of the "three second rule" for eating food that's been dropped on the floor, but one day recently in the kitchen my kids and I heard an NPR story about a scientist who did studies and found that depending on the environment the rule could extend to a full 18 seconds.  That's quite a different result than the one presented in Don't Touch That Toad. What's a kid to do in the face of such contradictions?

I realize this borders on the idea of criticizing the author on what they didn't write, but the fact is my kids heard the news story about the 18 second rule at the same time I did.  They head about the seeds growing in people's lungs as well.  News of the weird is out there, and in the battle against superstition and urban legend truth is almost always more alarming than fiction, and the best antidote.

Okay, so the book probably shouldn't scare kids with too much depth.  I get that.  But that aside, I would have wished the book included more background into where these notions come from in the first place, especially with the "parentisms" at the end of the book.  Many of these are idiomatic phrases, like no use crying over spilt milk and you made your bed now you lie in it, that are written off as "unexplainable" when clearly they could be. 

I like the idea behind Don't Touch That Toad, I like the format and what it covers, but I'm afraid that if you're going to offer kids information to combat the sayings and aphorisms adults toss out then you need to truly arm them with information that will stop them cold.

Wednesday, September 8

Outwitting Squirrels

101 cunning stratagems to reduce dramatically the egregious misappropriation of seed from your birdfeeder by squirrels 
by Bill Adler, Jr 
Chicago Review Press 1988

A very opinionated, wryly humorous approach to preventing squirrels from eating out of bird feeders, intended for serious birders, but chock full of amusing anecdotes and information about those pesky rodents.  

This might not, on the face of it, seem like an appropriate book for children, and indeed, it wasn't written originally with them in mind.  But for the teen who is beginning to take an interest in birding, and for the teen interested in learning more about the cunning of squirrels, this book makes for good reading.  Also, it's pretty funny.

When I was six I announced to my parents that I wanted a pet squirrel.  There was a coat closet under the stairs in our apartment that was under utilized and I was determined to turn it into a squirrel habitat.  Never mind that I had never seen a live squirrel in my urban neighborhood, ever, or that the closet habitat had no source of natural light, and that in my mind it would just live in the dark except for when I chose to visit it and occasionally throw it acorns I found at the park, I was determined.

Until I'd read Outwitting Squirrels I hadn't realized there was such a huge division between bird people and squirrel people, much like there are cat people and dog people.  Clearly, from the age of six, I knew which side I was on, and Adler does a pretty good job in his book proving that I chose the right side.

Adler admits to having casually set out a bird feeder, only to find it ravaged by squirrels due to easy access.  Then, like the maniacal groundskeepper Karl in Caddyshack, he purchases and mounts an increasing array of feeders designed to keep the rodents out... if he can only find the right place to do so.  Squirrels, it turns out, are true acrobats in the animal world, diving and climbing and jumping from incredible angles and dangling from various positions in their attempt at a good, free meal.  They aren't easily discouraged and, compared to birds, appear to be a lot smarter about using the tools at their disposal.  In all, Adler explains how he went through almost two dozen different feeders in his attempts to keep those furry little creatures from eating the seed intended for the winged creatures.

In studying his enemy, Adler learns and shares a great deal of information you would normally expect on a dry nature documentary.  But who would watch a dry documentary about squirrels when you could read one outrageous story after another describing how, in a matter of hours, squirrels have once again defeated Adler in his attempts to keep them away.  Then there are the casual-but-curious facts.  I had assumed (as many do) that squirrels keep a memory of where they bury their nuts.  Not true.  In fact, squirrels are communal animals, socialists if you will, who bury food for the community.  Come spring when they go rooting around for food, they are merely sniffing out the grounds where they suspect others in their community may have buried things.  They have territories, which they share, and they will chase away those digging in their food beds, but otherwise whatever they find is a question of luck, not memory.  Fascinating!

There is a rather dry section – a good middle third of the book – devoted to brands, models, and design features of specific squirrel-proof bird feeders.  The book is very serious in its subtitle.  But After reading it twice for fun I can promise that those pages about feeders can be easily skipped and the rest of the book enjoyed for its tales – unless, of course, the reader is truly interested in birding and finding the right feeder.  Then the book doubles as a valuable resource written by someone who has seemingly tested them all!

Practical, funny, short non-fiction.  Perfect for fall as the family Sciuridae is out and about, stealing from birds and acting like the socialists they are.

(This review, in a slightly different form, is cross-posted today at Guys Lit Wire.  Looking for books recommendations for boys?  That's the place to go!)

Monday, September 6

Dark Life

by Kat Falls
Scholastic  2010

A dystopic sci-fi hybrid of life between settlers who have gone to homestead the sea and the topsiders who remain on land in overcrowded conditions.  And a child shall lead them... 

Living and farming under the sea with his family, Ty cannot wait to turn 18 and claim a homestead of his own.  One of the first children born and raised entirely in the ocean, Ty's abilities and instincts seem almost super-human.  His skin has the sheen of luminescence from eating deep sea fish, but what of his being able to see and hear things others cannot?

The arrival of Gemma, a topsider and ward of the surviving Commonwealth, comes looking for her lost brother in order to become emancipated from the welfare system and so they can live happily as a family again.  She suspects he's gone prospecting which puts her in 16 year old Ty's world, a sort of a reverse of the fish out of water.

Additionally, there's a gang of criminals who have been stealing from the homesteaders, who have been supplying the topsiders with food grown in the ocean, creating a tense situation between all sides.  The homesteaders are charged with bringing in the undersea thugs or risk losing their supplies from the mainland, Gemma must find her brother, and Ty finds himself up to his neck in danger as it becomes clear that he possesses a Dark Gift that makes him either special... or a threat.

I have to admit that I guessed most of the twists in this story early on but was compelled to read onward for the descriptions of life under the sea.  Falls does a fun job of thinking through this world and making it seem plausible even in moments when I doubted the possibilities.  In a lot of ways it's no different than a story set on a Martian colony, except that it's based on Earth, in the ocean, and that's a subject I find intrinsically fascinating.  What would it be like to live under the water, to adapt to the environment, to suddenly have the other 70% of the world available to you to explore.  Yeah, yeah, ambiguities between good and bad guys, uh huh, strange new human superpowers, whatever, just give me more of what life is like under the sea!

It doesn't come as a surprise that this has already been optioned for a movie – Falls is a professor of screenwriting, and the pacing of a feature film is all there.  Though to be honest the inevitability of the ending causes the action to feel drawn out because so much action has to be explained where in a film it would all flash by in visuals that take up much less time.  I'm starting to wonder if that isn't the actual root of the problem I have with a lot of kidlit being about 100 to 150 pages too long; that authors are writing more cinematically and in doing so find themselves given in to recording detail better handled in pre-production by set designers and special effects departments. 

The book is solidly middle grade, but I suspect that Hollywood will gear the movie toward an older teen audience much like they did with The Lightening Thief.  The book's strength is in it balance of politics and action (at least until the final action scenes) and if I could have hoped for more it would have been in understanding how and why it takes the homesteaders so long to have a teen boy explain to them why the topsiders need the frontiersmen and women more than the other way around.  But like I said, give me a story about humans colonizing the sea and I'll forgive it just about anything.