Wednesday, November 30

Around the World

by Matt Phelan
Candlewick  2011

Three remarkable journeys made by a trio of intrepid adventurers – Thomas Stevens, Nellie Bly, and Joshua Slocum – on the eve of the 20th century, rendered in graphic novel format.  

As a prologue, we begin with the wager that sets up Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. It seems an impossible (and almost arbitrary) goal to set, but fantastical enough to build an entire narrative around. Obviously Verne chose the time limit based on what was possible back in 1872 but it was enough to fire the imaginations of many a would-be adventurers. With this as a backdrop Phelan proceeds to take us on three journeys whose reasons and purpose were as unique as the people who ventured out.

First up is Thomas Stevens, a Colorado miner who's destiny is changed the moment he first sees a high-wheel bicycle. Sensing that bikes are "the future," and with no desire to spend his life in a mine, he decides to do what no one has ever done before; he intends to circle the globe atop a one of these unusual bikes. He isn't determined to break any records – how could he at something no one has ever done before – but does it almost in the spirit that has driven many to adventure: because it is there to be done. Stevens' journey is a travelogue with only a few minor hitches along the way.

Next up is Nellie Bly, intrepid girl reporter, who previously feigned insanity in order to be admitted to an asylum and report back the abuses she found to her newspaper, The New York World. Her hook is that she's confident she can beat Phileas Fogg's fictional record of 80 days and do the trek in 74 days. Traveling light, Bly's adventures hit occasional bumps along the way including a necessary audience with Jules Verne and the news along the way that another newspaper has sent a female reporter to beat her to the record. In the end she not only succeeds but beats her own goal by making the trip in 72 days.

Finally we come to Joshua Slocum, a retired naval officer looking to sail around the world alone on a 36-foot boat. A quiet man who keeps his intentions to himself, he sets a course east toward the Mediterranean only to discover the threat of pirates which sends his course westward around the world. Along the way he stops to visit the grave marker of his first wife and fellow adventurer who died in Argentina some years earlier. Then come the treacherous waters of the cape, becalmed seas, and a lot of time for Slocum and his thoughts. He returns to port as quietly as when he left and eventually publishes his journal of the trip. Then, almost 15 years later, he returns to the boat and sails away, never to be heard from again.

Phelan notes at the end that while he had intended to illustrate simply the narratives of their adventures he realized there were inward as well as outward journeys taking place. Everyone has their reasons and they aren't always as clear as a simple wager against time. Phelan also admits to having to read between the lines and though I don't fault him for the conjecture there were times I wish he made his interpretations a little more clear.

It is easy to understand why a miner might want to achieve something other than a life underground, but what drove Stevens to such a leap as to see the bicycle as the future, much less believe he had the stamina and determination to undertake a trip around the world? With Bly, perhaps the best documented story of the bunch, it is easier to see that she was an active part of the women's sufferage movement, but what were the personal reasons driving her in all she did? And with Slocum we see what is, perhaps, the most melancholy adventure ever presented as it appears he has undergone the trip because he feels some lasting guilt or remorse over the loss of his first wife. That his second wife "refused" to take this trip with him may be something of a ruse: he offered her passage knowing she would refuse, she refused knowing he was still obsessed with his first wife. But did Slocum say all this in his ship's diary, or is this the result of Phelan's line reading?

In fact, Phelan has forced the reader to read between the lines (or panels in the case of this graphic novel) and ask "Why that choice, why that decision, why that reaction?" Though I hardly would have wanted him to put words in their mouths I think its still possible to let us know how and why these adventurers chose to behave as they did. We're working in pictures here, its just as easy to show us some of this conjecture just as it is to draw a representation of an ocean liner without having to research the exact ship they might have taken, to choose a color and pattern of clothing of the era whether or not they cut and style were 100% accurate. In that, Slocum's story is the closest to showing us what's driving him, but damn, is it depressing.

While I like Phelan's loose gestural stylings, I found large sections of Around the World that looked more like dummy sketches than finished work. I can appreciate the amount of work involved in coming up with hundreds of pages of illustration for a graphic undertaking this size, but with many panels featuring only the subject surrounded by a light color wash there isn't a sense of time or place in the panels, which not only flatten out the images but the story as well. They suggest more than they depict, and with an historical narrative this would be the equivalent of a steampunk story without any of the greasy-geary details that bring the world to life. There is minimalism, and then there's minimalist illustrations that leave me feeling like I would have been better of with just the text. Around the World sits right there on the fence tottering toward a text-only narrative.

On the plus side, the book did leave me hungering and wondering about all the other trips undertaken in order to beat records and prove something. For every attempt there had to be at least one failure. Around the World makes me curious about those who tried and failed, which all things considered, is rather fitting curiosity to be left with.

Tuesday, November 29


by Norton Juster
illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Schwartz & Wade / Random House 2011  

Moving to a new neighborhood is tough. How do you find and make new friends? One boy has an interesting solution...

It's move-in day, and there's little for a boy to do while his parents begin unloading boxes and setting up the house. Mom can see that he's upset, she knows that it's hard to be the new kid in town, and suggests that maybe he should take a walk around the neighborhood. Maybe he'll make some new friends. "Yeah, sure," he says.

At the end of the block he shouts out "NEVILLE!" and is surprised when he's joined by another boy who tells him he's not loud enough. Soon the two boys are joined by a girl who tells them they aren't doing it correctly. Soon, a whole neighborhood of kids is shouting out for Neville and asking who this mystery boy is. As the sun sets and the kids return home they are convinced that this Neville must be a  pretty cool kid, and his friend isn't so bad either. As the boy returns home Neville himself has to admit to admit that his walk around the neighborhood wasn't so bad.

The astute young reader will figure out pretty quickly that the unnamed boy is Neville and that he's accidentally stumbled into a pretty clever way to make new friends. Whether this will ring as true to kids today as it did for me I would be curious to know. Growing up it wasn't uncommon for us kids to wander in the general area of where we knew certain kids lived and just shouted out their names. Goofuses on the roofuses, hollering our heads off so to speak. Phones were for adults, and it always seemed we only ever sort of knew where our friends lived. It also wasn't unusual for parents to roam the streets calling for their kids to come home either. That cacophony of neighborhood life, another victim of better manners and the age of cell phones.

Karas's illustrations are inviting and softly rendered with a very child-like quality to them. At times there are images where the children are drawn small on the page, almost too small; I think at this point in publishing every picture book needs to take best advantage of the page's canvas. I'm not saying a page can't include white space or needs to be crowded and busy but that traditionally printed picture books can hardly make their case against a digital world if they aren't making the most of their real estate.

Simply written and cleanly told, Neville is a pleasant take on the new-kid-in-town story.

Monday, November 28

The Day the Cow Sneezed

by James Flora
Harcourt, Brace & World 1957
reprinted by Enchanted Lion 2010

Noted Mid-century Modern illustrator tells a shaggy dog story. Not all illustrators are meant to be seen and heard.

"I bet your cow never sneezed a hole in the schoolhouse wall," begins The Day the Cow Sneezed, and truth be told, the cow in the story didn't either. Through a chain reaction like Rube Goldberg on steroids, the cow's sneeze precipitates a series of events that leads to a number of animals on progressively larger runaway vehicles doing much mayhem to country, town, school, zoo, and carnival rides. And when it was all over, and the world neatly set to right almost as quickly as it had been destroyed, little Fletcher (the boy whose neglect allowed the cow to catch a cold in the first place) is dragged off to the barn by his ear for a little good old-fashioned country discipline by Papa.

But you know what, forget the story. Don't even read it. It's a cumulative story that builds one preposterous whopper on top of another simply to provide Flora a canvas on which to draw this wild anarchy. It's like putting up with a few minutes of boring movie expository in order to get to the explosions. I really don't have a problem sometimes with dropping the whole set-up and starting with the second act in medias res.

Without the story – whose text is a tad tedious – the story makes a perfect madcap storyboard for a cartoon. It isn't sophisticated, but it isn't really much different from any other children's book in the mid 1950s, and the bold shapes and colors Flora employs show us just how tame most attempts at a retro style really are these days.  

His influence at the time is nothing to be, ahem, sneezed at either. As the graphic designer for Columbia Records in the 40s and 50s Flora's work is iconically linked with hundreds of jazz recordings. It's a style you can recognize by sight, one that many hip parents back in the day might have been drawn to without even realizing the connection.

Having said that, it is understandable that the text might fall a little flat. Many great illustrators are able to convey good stories through images without really being able to do the same thing with text. Paul Rand was a genius of graphic design – logos for IBM, ABC, and UPS among others – but no matter how visually modern or stunning, few would call his Little 1 a great children's book. I'm not about to attempt to tar every graphic designer with the same brush and say none of them should write, but there are many, today even, who design and illustrate books they should not be writing themselves. I think sometimes illustrators are giving a pass because they can visually wow an editor that perhaps might intimidate them or make them fear they might lose a good book by suggesting that perhaps they should stick to pictures. It's hard to know for certain, and I admit I may be shooting in the dark here, but I do tend to find that the better picture books come from teams and not individuals.

Now watch, the next dozen books or so I read will completely prove me wrong.

Wednesday, November 23

The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True

by Gerald Morris
Houghton Mifflin  2011

King Arthur's undefeated knight learns some lessons about making (and keeping) promises and the values of courtesy and friendship in the most satisfying book yet in The Knights' Tales series.   

Sir Gawain is a great knight, an undefeated champion when it comes to battle. He is also more than a little self-absorbed and quite rude about it. Upon saving a damsel from distress he is more interested in discussing his tricky battle moves than in receiving thanks for his efforts, unwilling to take a kiss or a gift for his efforts, too full of himself even bother asking the lady for her name. Having discharged his duty he doesn't even to think to see if the lady requires a ride home after the ordeal. Returning to Camelot, Arthur is quick to point out his rudeness, as Arthur is keen on having his knights be courteous above all things, and the matter is left as a lesson for the future.

At a Christmas celebration Arthur's court is visited by a strange guest, The Green Knight, who engages Gawain in an unusual contest: the knights will exchange blows, one at a time, until a winner is decided. Gawain is allowed to go first and is instructed by the Green Knight to take his axe and lop off his head. With one blow Gawain lops off the head of the Green Knight's who, to everyones surprise, merely picks up his head and reattaches it to his body. Now it is his turn, but the Green Knight isn't in any hurry. Instead, he gives Gawain a year to live and then, the following New Years, he must report to the Green Knight's castle to receive his killing blow to the neck.

What follows feels at first like a series of random events that turn out to be anything but random. Arthur and his knights set out to find Merlin to find a solution. Surly the Green Knight was some sort of sorcerer and could be defeated without Gawain having to lose his life. Along the way they meet a dwarf, Spinagras, caretaker of the woods, who tells them of a local nobleman, Gologras, who refuses to vow allegiance to Arthur. This, couple with a lot of talk of vows and promises leads to a tournament of battle which itself becomes an exercise in futility for all involved. Finally they learn that Merlin is not to be found and return to Camelot.

Finally a year passes and Gawain makes his way to the Green Knight to honor his vow. Spinagras leads him to a huntsman named Bredbaddle who, it turns out, is married to the damsel he rescued at the beginning of the book. In very short order everything that has happened before, every lesson and friendship and strange circumstance, comes into play proving that it all wasn't just killing time between visits with the Green Knight. Only courtesy and friendship can save Gawain from a beheading from the Green Knight who, it turns out through a trick of sorcery, is someone he has befriended along the way.

This is the third in Morris' The Knights' Tales series and a gem of a middle grade book. Morris's breezy tone is light and occasionally conversational – the subtle breaking of the fourth wall to explain to the reader that descriptions of certain battles have been left out because they are tedious points out, rightly, that most descriptions take longer to relate than to watch and drag down a story. Which might seem counter intuitive to a story about knights who do, indeed, have frequent battles, but Morris is smart and sparing in his choices, and the battles that are described arrive only when relevant to reveal plot and character. They are also humorously absurd, again undercutting the glory of violence while at the same time providing action and lift to the story.

If I had any complaint it's that one book a year (or so) just isn't fast enough. I don't wish to hurry Morris along, because clearly the time and care he is taking with these books is certainly worth it, but if I were a middle grade reader I would want to plow through these one after another, and I could wait maybe nine months between titles, but I want them all now.

And while I know I'm either barking in the wind or preaching to the choir here, Morris manages more in his 120 pages than many middle grade books twice this length. I don't tend to think of myself as having a short attention span – I'm a slow reader, but not a quickly bored reader – but I find that smaller books and smaller chapters are easier to hold in the brain than stories, plots, and characters that become unwieldy beneath the author's cleverness. Yes, detail and depth are impressive, but they can also bulk up a story beyond what is necessary, and especially with middle grade books. I have begun to suspect that some authors view a reader's limited reading time as a precious piece of real estate that they must occupy with as big a book as possible. Good, short books make the reader hungry for more, as I found  with The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True.

Tuesday, November 22

Babar and Zephir

by Jean de Brunhoff
translated from the French by Merle S. Haas
Random House  1937

Babar's little monkey friend goes home for summer vacation. All hell breaks loose.

It is the end of the school year and time for Babar the elephant to bid his monkey friend Zephir farewell for the summer. His friends wave goodbye to him as his train passes them by the river, and it is impossible to wonder if Zephir isn't partially relived to be leaving his colonial oppressors behind him.

Arriving at Monkeyville, Zephir throws himself into his mother's arms though he cannot help but marvel at how capitalist his old home town has become. Though he puts on a happy face for his family Zephir secretly wonders if he wasn't better off back in Celesteville.

Arriving at his home Zephir climbs the rope ladder to his home and instantly realizes that Monkeyville is inaccessible and discriminatory toward the obese, like his friend Babar. While entertaining his younger sibling, Zephir catches the smells of his mother cooking bananas and chocolate, her French cuisine another colonial influence in their lives.

Zephir wakes in the middle of the night to the realization that he has made a mistake, that he should never have come home. Unable to sleep he sits and stares blankly into the darkness until dawn when he receives word from an early bird that a package has arrived for him at the train station. His hope that it is a piano, but this conceals the fact that he secretly wishes for a piano crate in which he can ship himself someplace else. Anyplace by Monkeyville.

The next morning he discovers the package from his friend Babar contains a small boat. This only confirms that he is not the only one who believes he should escape from the suffocating jungle of his youth. Nearby, Princess Isabelle takes note of Zephir's ambition and realizes that this might be time for escape as well.

Taking the boat out for its maiden voyage Zephir goes fishing in the hopes of catching a decent meal when his line ensnares a sea harpy named Eleanore. Believing briefly that he is in an fairy tale Zephir insists the sea harpy will grant him any wish for setting her free. Eleanore promises to return the favor any way she can though, honestly, how could she? If she had any power at all she would have avoided getting caught in the first place.

When Zephir arrives back on shore Monkeyville is jumping with news that Princess Isabelle has gone missing. The little monkey is not surprised. At this moment he conceives of a scheme by which he, too, can escape. He spreads a rumor among the younger monkeys that a green cloud has taken Isabelle and hidden her somewhere in Monkeyville. This sends the adult monkey's frantically searching all over the land while Zephir returns to his boat to check on a hunch.

On the water, Zephir calls out to Eleanore the sea harpy who confirms that Isabelle has indeed made her escape. She agrees to lead Zephir to the cage of an old water witch who is known for harboring runaways.

The water witch explains that Isabelle showed up to trade some of her royal jewels for passage to another land but was lured away by Polomoche, a monster who collects orphans and strays for his own amusements. Many who go with Polomoche are never heard from again. Despite being sympathetic for her need to escape Zephir is a monkey of the world and knows Iasbelle is in over her head and must be rescued.

Arriving at Polomoche's private island he is alarmed at the number of stone piles surrounding the land. They resemble nothing short of burial cairns, sending a chill up Zephir's spine as he thinks of all the missing children beneath them. Zephir knows that if he is to succeed he must keep his wits about him.

Sneaking into Polomoche's stone home at the top of the island, Zephir's fears are confirmed when he sees Polomoche entertaining a number of his friends with his latest find, Isabelle. The Princess cries, for now she knows that the amusement he promised was for her to "entertain" his guests in a most vile and humiliating manner. Polomoche whispers that if she doesn't come to her senses she'll soon find herself literally between some rocks and a hard place.

Zephir enters and startles Polomoche and his company with an offer to entertain them in Isabelle's place. As one runaway is as good as the next, they agree, and Zephir sets about distracting them by telling tales of things he has seen during his days in Clelesteville. Of course, Zephir embellishes his tales, adding layers of debauchery and immorality enough to whet their appetites. During this time Isabelle hides herself away, unsure of what to do next.

Clever monkey that he is, Zephir next gets up and plays the clown. Singing and dancing he seems so innocent and pure, arousing dark thoughts among Polomoche and his friends. Then, unseen to them all, Zephir delivers a potent drug to their beverages which cause them to act giddy and gay until they pass out. This, of course, is neither shown or mentioned in the text, but clearly this is what happened.

Once back to Zephir's boat he offers the Princess the choice to either return home or escape with him. He is disappointed when she says she wants to return home, but is encouraged by her promise to see that he is rewarded handsomely. With enough money Zephir could legitimately travel without it looking like he was running away himself. They are greeted at the shores of Monkeyville like returning heroes. Zephir smiles through it all, though deep down he despises cheap idolatry in all its forms.

At a ceremony in his honor Zephir is given his reward: Princess Isabelle is his to marry when they are of age and ready. Zephir visibly sags in disappointment and Isabelle is too smitten and simpleminded to even notice. Even back at home Zephir cannot bring himself to admit his disappointment to his family and goes along with the charade of happiness that he is home safe and sound, a hero of Monkeyville.

The rest of his summer drags on, an endless cascade of days full of mind-numbing boredom. He vows that when he returns to school in Celesteville he will find a job or some other excuse to prevent him from ever returning home during school breaks. Princess Isabelle will just have to find some other monkey to marry. Colonial oppression never looked so good.


This, of course, is not the actual summary of Babar and Zephir. This lesser-known and often out-of-print book in the Babar series is, I found, truly bizarre. Perhaps all the Babar books were a little it strange, but Zephir's tale seems exceptionally so. In choosing to "read the pictures" the way a child might, I found it interesting that I could access such a dark undercurrent. I wasn't trying to find darkness, I was simply looking for ways to build on what was there, scene by scene.

In the text, Zephir does return home for the summer, gets a boat as a gift, and rescues the Princess from an evil monster who has abducted her for his own amusement. The fact that it's monkeys and monsters (and mermaids) might add a layer of separation from the anxiety of child abduction, but that story thread is clearly there. It seems so innocent at first, and so simply child-like, that you can almost forget what is really going on. It's just a cute story about a commoner rescuing a princess in the end, right? Just like any fairy tale.

But the story is also lacking in quality. Something I noticed was that de Brunhoff often would describe or explain the pictures, including details that added nothing to the story. On a page where Zephir is thanking his mermaid friend for helping him find Polomoche's island we get this paragraph:

After a good crossing, Eleonore and Zephir land without being seen by the Gogottes. The country looks bleak. They are now silently taking leave of each other. Zephir holds his friend's little hand in his own.

Do we need to know it was a good sea crossing? Would we have expected something else without being told? They land without being seen tells, again, rather than shows but the place looks deserted to begin with. The landscape itself may be considered bleak because of a lack of vegetation, but unexplained is the connection a reader must make (if they can) that the rocks of the surrounding hillside are the actual victims of Polomoche who, we've been told, turned them into stone. Finally, Zephir and Eleanore's farewell sounds like someone describing a silent movie to a blind person.

Written in 1937 it would be easy to forgive Babar and Zephir for its transgressions. Last reprinted in 2002, I found the book still readily available in my local library. For fans of Babar himself the title is misleading – he is merely a speck in the book's first illustration and never returns again – and for that alone the book is probably least enjoyed in the series. As a stand-alone title I find this one sags a bit.

Unless you make up your own story for the pictures, you know, the way some kids do.

Monday, November 21


by Craig Thompson
Pantheon 2011

A sprawling, epic graphic novel of love and... no. Just love. But also a lot more.

Chance throws together Dodola and Zam, a pair of child slaves, and theres is an intricate story of love, admiration, and survival. It's a love that survives all the worst things that can happen to lost and forgotten children, and it is a love that seems to span thousands of years at the same time. It is an almost unwieldy story that falters adventurously where most storytellers would probably play safe, and it rewards the reader with something that feels as old-world authentic and modern at the same time.

The story begins when nine-year-old Dodola is sold as a bride to a scribe, a man old enough to be her father. Despite the forced consummation of their marriage he isn't entirely a brute and in short order begins to teach Dodola how to write. Yes, in the beginning was the word, and the word lead to the Qur'an, and to stories. These stories come to calm young Zam, a slave whom she saves and raises like a younger brother. They also save Dodola in the same way they saved Shahrazad when captured into the sultan's harem, they serve as a comfort to her when locked in jail and when she hovers near-death and is being nursed back to health by a grown Zam. Throughout the bonds of love that weave through the stories also wend through Dodola's and Zam's lives as they are separated and long for each other.

It might be easier to explain a book like Habibi if it had a traditional narrative structure but Thompson has chosen to bite of quite a huge chunk of landscape. Arabic stories and the stories of the Qur'an make their way into adventures and parables that could have come from the Arabian Nights tales. Actual religious stories and texts are part of the fabric, as is a fair deal of unashamed carnal humanity, and though it doesn't bother me in context I would be remiss in not mentioning in a review that there's quite a bit of nudity and violence in Habibi. Just like life, which I'm going to assume was part of Thompson's intent.

As a fan of Thompson's tale of first love, Blankets, I was cautious not to read too much about Habibi before I could see it for myself. But I had gleaned that some find issue with his western appropriation of Arabic stories and tropes. I am not learned enough in these areas to gauge those assessments, but I could see where a caution might go up when considering the perpetration of stereotypes and cultural biases. But I have read non-western religious texts, and the Arabian Knights tales, and creation myths enough to know that at the very least Habibi reflects much of what has been written before. Does the current global political situation make us more sensitive to these images and stories? Perhaps, but wouldn't a discussion as opposed to a condemnation be a good thing?

Habibi is strictly for teens, mature ones at that. In addition to the nudity and frank discussion of sex and reproduction the violence includes rape, voluntary castration and torture. There is also, very carefully worked into the story, an historical progression where the story seems to begin several hundred years ago but ends in the modern era. The implication that the more things change the more they stay the same may bother some, suggesting the middle east hasn't changed in a thousand years or so, but as we've seen a reactionary turn to old values cropping up perhaps we shouldn't shoot the messenger here.  Habibi is an accomplished work of art and graphic narrative that at the very least should raise the bar for what can be done with the medium.

Wednesday, November 16

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

by Meg Wolitzer  
Dutton  2011  

Three kids at a Scrabble tournament realize there are more important things in life than winning. Wait. One of these kids has a superpower?  

Life's been tough for Duncan and his mom who have moved back to mom's childhood home in Pennsylvania to regroup at Duncan's Aunt Djuna's house. New kid at school, fish out of water, mom working for a thrift store owned and run by the town eccentric.

Oh, and Duncan can apparently read text by touch. Sounds a little like reading braille but what Duncan can read is ink. Which makes him perfect for cheating at a game like Scrabble where letters have to be picked from a bag, as bully Carl realizes. Yes, a Scrabble-playing bully. Carl and his equally less-than-scrupulous mother connive to get Duncan to be part of Carl's team for the national Youth Scrabble Tournament in Florida, which is where everything will come to a head.

But this apparently isn't enough story. We also need two other parallel narratives; April and her partner Lucy in Oregon and Nate and his partner Maxie from NYC are all down for the adventure and have their own reasons. Lucy comes from a family of jocks who live and breathe sports and don't believe Lucy's Scrabble event is a sport (and they're right, but whose quibbling) and (deep breath) she's also on the hunt for a boy she once met years ago at a pool at some motel, fool-heartedly believing that by teaching him how to play Scrabble he would possibly show up in Florida on this one particular weekend. Nate is the tragic character, the son of a Scrabble tournament loser, who's spent his entire life home schooled and trained for this event, this filial act of redemption. Compared to these twisted narratives Duncan's magic fingers and his hapless milquetoast meanderings hardly stand out.  

Ah, but Duncan has a conscious, and is actually a natural Scrabble whiz without his magic touch. He teaches that bully Carl a lesson in humility and (oh, sorry, this might be a spoiler) wins the tournament fair and square. Lucy concedes that her hopes are wild and baseless, and for a while there's a fear that either Nate or Duncan might be the mystery boy in question, but... what? Ho! Look at that! Next door to the Scrabble tourney is a gymnastics championship and, what's this? Mystery boy is a gymnast? Wow, that's almost a sport as well, and so, Lucy finds her boy. Nate, tragedian of the bunch, just wants to be a normal kid and while he loses the competition, he gets the girl. Yup, he asked Maxie along because he sort of harbored a crush on her and her carefree ways, and in losing he not only teaches his dad a lesson but earns his freedom.

While none of these four plots (the three teams plus Duncan's abilities) would stand on its own as a book, combined they stretch credulity to the point of busting a gut in and odd and empty manner. The characters get a cursory depth, perfectly acceptable for a TV sitcom perhaps but lacking any real backstory or shading. And sadly I am coming to the realization that television is defining the depth of the pool when it comes to literature. The idea is that if you throw enough complication and interconnection into the hopper you create a sense of depth that prevents readers (and viewers) from asking questions because they believe they're getting "real" answers (and "deep" characters) in dribs and drabs. When the story is over we have the feeling we have taken the journey of a thousand miles when all we've been doing is circling the block. If the loose ends are tied up who cares that none of our questions were answered? Add a touch of magical realism as a hook, string the plot along by jumping between threads, and we feel sated despite the nutritional void.

No, not every book needs to aspire to literature. Every story doesn't need to be serious, nor does magic need to be explained scientifically to the satisfaction of character and reader, but in the end I feel that if a story is worth telling it should tell the reader something worthwhile. If not telling us something new at least tell us something old in a unique way.

Cheaters never win, winners never cheat; Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy; There's more to life than winning.

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman in less than 25 words. Any kid who writes more than that in a book review is padding his assignment.

Tuesday, November 15

Grandpa Green

by Lane Smith  
Roaring Brook Press  2011  

A boy fondly remembers his great-grandfather through the topiary garden he has built over the years.  

There's something missing here, something I can't quite put my finger on. Or maybe something off.

We have a boy, ostensibly the main character, going through the garden and explaining the meaning behind all the various animals and objects his great-grandpa has created. We see something unusual in picture books these days, a life-to-death story of a character... but not the boy. No, instead we are told the life story of Grandpa Green who doesn't appear until the very end, when history has caught up with him, and then... he is gone? As the boy models for an elaborate tableau of a knight fighting a dragon there is a sense that we have finally come to the present day, but then there is a final page turn where the boy has taken over and is sculpting an image of his grandpa. I think this is open-ended enough that readers (and their parents who read to them) can decide whether the boy is taking up the family trade or, indeed, is happily clipping a memorial to his late progenitor.

That's not even the missing part for me. What is missing is an arc, I realize. Grandpa Green's life may have a beginning, middle, and end, but are the linear events of a life enough of a story to satisfy as a "story?" Is it enough to say "He lived a full life, and now his great-grandson is taking over?" And even if it is a story about remembrance, about generational bonds, does the story really require a traditional narrative arc, or are the memories enough of a starting point to engender conversation? There's a telling statement toward the end – "He used to remember everything" – suggesting that much of what grandpa created no longer reminds him of the events they portray. It's almost be touching to imagine that grandpa creates the topiary as a replacement for his slowly vanishing memory, but that requires some effort even for an adult to read into it, much less a child.

Lane Smith, whose books I tend to love without reservation, has created a richly-textured study in green. The topiary on the page are just as marvelous as if they had been clipped and shaped from hedges, simply shaped and yet full of dynamic visual tension. There is a whole story in that chicken with a hatchling beneath its tail, and a certain muted sexiness in the scene where grandpa met his future wife at a cafe in Paris. To that end the book begins to take shape in my mind as a picture book for adults. Placed somewhere in mid-life, an adult reader can be taken by the hand as the boy ushers them through a certain nostalgia of their own childhood, their own grandparents' stories of war time and family building. Our narrator refers to himself as a great- grandchild but the book calls him grandpa, squaring up that this is a portrait of an adult parent's own grandfather as seen through the eyes of their own children.

Grandpa Green is a quiet, lovely book, the kind one gives to adults the way one gives Dr. Seuss' Oh The Places You'll Go! to high school and college grads and You're Only Old Once! to adults as a cautionary tale about life post-retirement.

Friday, November 11

I Want My Hat Back

by Jon Klassen
Candlewick  2011

Bear has lost his hat, have you seen it?

They say that in this day of limited attention spans (and I'm talking about adults, not kids) shorter is better when it comes to picture books. I have a theory about this, but let me talk about the book first.

Bear has lost his hat. It is red and pointy. He asks various animals if they have seen it but they have not. Depressed, Bear despairs of ever seeing his beloved hat again until Deer asks him what it looked like. As he describes it both Bear and the astute reader will realize they have seen the hat before, atop the head of Rabbit who, when queried, was suspiciously nervous in his response. Bear retraces his steps back to Rabbit, calls him out as a liar and...

Well, now, this is interesting. We normally see talking animals in picture books as human stand-ins. They talk and we accept it as a fantasy world because in a book anything is possible. What we don't expect when animals behave as humans is to see them revert to their animal ways suddenly. This becomes the twist as Bear is next seen sitting where Rabbit once sat, wearing his hat finally, making the same sort of nervous pronouncements about not knowing where Rabbit went to. In his denial he even goes so far as to spell out what has happened between the page turns: Bear has eaten Rabbit out of anger.


This is funny?


It's funny because it is unexpected and yet totally natural at the same time. Like the punchline to a joke (and it bears a resemblance to the story of the wide-mouthed frog, if you know that one), the expectation is that Bear will find his hat and that there might be some tension in the resolution but certainly the law of nature never seems to come into view because, up to this moment, it hasn't been there at all. Like an unexpurgated fairy tale there are consequences and despite how we humans might resolve such issues in the wild things are handled much differently. Hello, kiddo, the animal world isn't all fluffy and cute!

Now, about those short-attention-span adults (a short rant)...

When an adult enters a book store looking for something for a child – whether their own or as a gift – the last thing they want to do is read. That's been my experience at least. "I'm looking for something for my five year old niece/granddaughter/son, something good and not too long." When it comes to picture books what this tends to mean is that they are looking for something they (the adult) won't tire of on multiple reads but is short enough to not turn a book at bedtime into a lengthy routine. You wouldn't think it would be hard to sell an adult on George and Martha but... "You mean to tell me there are FIVE stories in here?!"

So here's how it used to go. Adult walks in, has a child in mind, a type of book, and preferably something new because the kid is eating up books faster than they can check them out from the library (never mind that the reason they have to check out so many is because they are all so slight of text). These adults expect you to put three to five books in their hand from which they will make a selection within five minutes. Like an impatient child they will flip through the pages and make a judgment about the art first. If the art doesn't appeal, out it goes, the end, pfft! Next comes the story. Most of the time they will flip through the pages and read as if they are skimming for difficult or objectionable words – they can't possibly comprehend what the story is about. If it looks "wordy" after a couple of pages they may, unashamedly, turn as ask "What's this one about." If it cannot be summarized in a sentence of fifteen words or less out it goes. At that point whatever is left, if there is more than one book, simply comes down to a recommendation by the bookseller. If I wanted to push a particular book all I had to say was cute and it was chosen.

This push for shorter books – five years ago 500 words or less was the goal, today it's closer to 300 or less – makes titles like I Want My Hat Back more popular despite their being slight on text. And while it is possible to write shorter books it isn't easy to do well, much less create something that might one day survive as a classic. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed I Want My Hat Back for the same reasons I liked Kevin Sherry's I'm The Biggest Thing In The Ocean: both books had a simple premise with an unexpected twist ending that made me laugh. And both books will make some (but not all) like-minded kids laugh. But despite landing on the New York Times list of Best Illustrated books for 2011 I hardly see I Want My Hat Back becoming the sort of book that kindles nostalgia or endures to become a classic.

Thursday, November 10

Bigger Than A Bread Box

by Laurel Snyder
Random House   2011

As her parents are going through a separation, a girl finds a magical bread box that can grant her almost any wish she can imagine. But what if what she wants can't fit inside the bread box?

There is no arguing, divorce is rough on families. It's usually rough both before and after for all parties, but especially so during, and no more so than on kids who get caught in the middle. And Rebecca is right there in the thick of it, listening to her parents argue when the power goes out, her mother reaching the breaking point as she berates her father for not paying the electric bill, again. But it's just a fight, right? Or rather, just another fight? But the next day Rebecca comes home from school to find the car packed and her mother waiting to take them from Baltimore to Atlanta where Rebecca's grandmother lives. "For a visit" she's told but Rebecca is furious at being taken away from her father, her friends, her home; more so when she wakes up the next morning and learns she's going to be signed up for school in Atlanta.

Refusing to speak with her mother Rebecca goes exploring and finds her way into the attic. Among all musty old things she finds a bread box, one of three but different that the others. A casual wish for a book to read is answered when she opens a red bread box and there, waiting for her as if by magic, a book to read. Soon, Rebecca discovers that the bread box can grant any practical wish, provided it fits inside the confines of the box. An iPod pre-loaded with her favorite tunes. An endless supply of her favorite snack cakes. A thousand dollars. A thousand dollars! About the only thing the bread box cannot deliver his Rebecca's life back the way it used to be.

But Rebecca has other problems when she is enrolled in school and battles with being the new girl. Buying off friends (courtesy of gifts from the bread box) she finds herself bumping up against the school's queen bee who, it turns out, has family troubles of her own she's hiding. And when she uses the bread box to find a birthday gift for her mother – a collectible spoon – and then later tries to return the spoon out of guilt once she realizes where it came from, Rebecca's story spins in a whole different direction altogether. Just as strangely, it all comes together in the end, although not with the happy ending Rebecca had hoped for.

There is, within the various structures of fiction, the "rule of three" that suggests things happening in groups of three are more satisfying to the reader. In Bigger Than a Bread Box the three main story elements are the divorce and relocation, Rebecca at the new school, and the magical bread box. All three work well together... and yet there's a part of me that wonders if this story could have managed with only two, any two, of them. Because the bread box is key to helping Rebecca learn some "lessons" it should stay, so then the question for me is did this have to be a story about both a divorce and fitting in at school? Looking at it from that perspective I like the divorce story more because there's some real gut-level, kids-on-the-front-lines emotions to be dealt with, while the school story is just, eh, a bit of a distraction from the other two story arcs. This doesn't mean I find the overall story flawed, only that I think I would have preferred there to be two books, The Bread Box Divorce and The Bread Box Goes to School. I know, I know, I need to review it as written.

It used to be that divorce was not a topic of middle grade. Divorce – along with runaways, drug use, and other social misfittery – was once the providence of YA. Oh, sure, you'd get a bounced-around Gilly Hopkins now and then, or the occasional inner city family landscapes of Walter Dean Myers, but for the most part middle grade was the stomping ground of golden tickets and Swedish tomboys and the occasional girl who speaks to wolves. That "issues" stories have shifted toward middle grade is neither  new nor news, and a divorce story like Bigger Than a Bread Box is welcome in a world where readers actively seeking both answers and escape in their own lives. What is new, and refreshing, is the use of a fantastical or science-fictional element within realistic fiction to tell these stories, and in that Bigger Than a Bread Box has much in common with Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. For lack of a better description I would put both of these books in the category of middle grade magical realism, something I would like to see more of.

It is said (I've never read a first-hand account) that Jules Verne was upset with H.G. Wells for writing sci-fi that didn't explain the science of the fiction. When you're planet is being invaded by aliens from space and destroying life as we know it, who cares about the science! Some might suggest that this becomes the dividing line between science fiction and fantasy because, after all, if you can't explain it as either the cause or the result of science then clearly it is fantastical. But ultimately I find the arguments over genre slightly tedious and only barely helpful from a marketing perspective. So why bother mentioning it at all?

How the bread box does what it does is never fully explained, and I'm fine with that. Really, it's fine. The bread box is a middle grade McGuffin designed to present a mystery that isn't actually the point of the story. True, it presents complications that have consequences within the narrative arc but it's not a story about a bread box. It's a story about divorce, and a girl named Rebecca trying to navigate that emotional territory, and these are subjects firmly based in a real world that real middle grade kids have to deal with in their lives. To a child afraid of the dark an imaginary friend my become a comfort, to a teen it might be experiencing elaborate fantasies about defeating seven evil exes, and these are coping mechanisms for both the character and the reader to process the emotional terrain of the stories.

All of this to say that I think we might want to consider moving away from classifying middle grade books by genre. I know, I've drifted afield here, but what Bigger Than a Bread Box underscored for me is that I think sometimes we adults look too closely at the wrong things. We're like Rebecca's mother who despite having the weight of her world on her shoulders has simply forgotten to look closer at what her middle grade daughter might need, assuming that our adult decisions and responsibilities are enough. We can't, and shouldn't, presume that any one book will reach out and help a child cope, but sometimes, like a girl in the attic wishing things could be just a little better, a book can provide a moment of grounding and hope. In those moments the hair-splitting of genres and the science of magic hardly matters.
Full disclosure: While I don't happen to think these things matter here, I received this book from the author via her publisher, and I consider her a friend (though we have yet to meet). Take from that what you will.

Wednesday, November 2

Abandoned: SkateFate

by Juan Filipe Herrera
HarperTeen 2011  

A teen journal, mostly in verse, of a boy ironically nicknamed Lucky as he picks up the pieces of his life following an accident that leaves him in a wheelchair.

It isn't a hard and fast rule, but when I come across a novel in verse, or one that purports to be the inner most thoughts of a teen, I kind expect it to blow me away. Otherwise, why bother with either format?

I've listed this as an "abandoned" book because I didn't finish it and didn't feel compelled to finish it, but I nearly labeled this a "failed" review because of its inability to grab me. But I pulled back at the last minute because I wondered if the failure was partly my fault. See, poetry is one of those areas where I feel you know what does or doesn't when you read it. And my "work" I mean for the individual reader. Not all poetry is meant to be understood and appreciated by all people. I do think people should have more poetry in their diet, but I don't think they should convert to all fiber, if you know what I mean.

The problem for me here was that I didn't get Lucky's voice. I didn't get where he was coming from, and since its an indirect journal full of allusions to details presumably to be filled in later, it was difficult to see where he was going. Basically, the writing didn't carry me along far enough to make me wonder or want to care what was going on in Lucky's life. That's a pretty heavy problem when the book is (apparently) about a skater who ends up in an accident that puts him in a wheelchair, kills his friend, and shoves him into the foster care system because his mother has died of cancer.

There may be a good and compelling book in SkateFate, but I couldn't find it in time to not set it aside.

Tuesday, November 1

Return of the Dapper Men

written by Jim McCann
illustrated by Janet Lee
Archaia  2010

In a world, where time has stopped, populated by eleven year old children and their robot minders, comes a story of the day the men from space came to repair the damage that had been done long ago...

It would be fun if I could say that this book struck a balance between Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland and the British TV show The Prisoner, because that was my initial sense. Instead, I found myself early on feeling like a rubbernecker craning to make sense from an accident that took place at the corner of Trying Too Hard Avenue and Style Over Substance Lane.

Snark aside, Return of the Dapper Men suffers from an unusual form of a malady I've found in a number of graphic novels with a juvenile theme or aimed at a younger audience; namely, it lacks a coherent, well-plotted storyline with compelling characters who show real growth within the framework of the narrative. This is especially crucial in fantasy or historical stories as the modern reader needs to "buy in" to not only the character's story but the background to the world being built before our eyes. Sadly, what I think happens is that people confuse illustration with world building, and that by setting a futuristic or other-worldly story in a richly rendered place will explain a lot of the missing narrative.

What we are told (and told such a leaden narrative at the beginning) is that Verona, er, Anorev is a land that somehow, at some time, has been plunged into a sort of a temporal hold pattern. Populated by eleven year old children who hide underground and live in a perpetual state of recess, they are a little like Peter Pan's Lost Boys in that they have been away from adults or the influence of society that they all they know is their petty playground ways. Above ground live the robots, seeming caretakers who know little or less about the world they inhabit than the children. Yet among them is a young boy, Ayden, and his robot girl sidekick Zoe who have apparently awakened from some great slumber and begun to ask questions.

Seeming, apparently, somehow at some time... I don't use these vague terms because I am lazy but because these points aren't clearly explained in the story. In fact, Ayden and Zoe have a number of telepathic conversations where we only hear Ayden's side (Zoe is the one robot who never talks out loud) and while we can infer some of what Zoe is saying it is difficult to believe that she or Ayden have made a great leap in their emotional development. It's especially clunky when Ayden says straight out "We're both different now. We have to be. If I can change so can you." Too bad we don't actually get to hear what Zoe says that would convince us of any of this. And to have a character say out loud that they have changed, well, you better have delivered on that to the reader so they aren't left scratching their head going "Really? How?"  Better still, if the characters truly have changed they aren't likely to announce it, and you don't need to tell the reader either.

So much to do, so much yet to come! And yet... what?!
Add to this the Dapper Men, Deco era dandies in their double-breasteds, spats, bowlers and brollies. Out of the sky they fall, deus ex machina, to help kick-start the age of questioning and learning to set the time rolling again. 314 come to the land, one specifically to sacrifice his life and serve as guide for Ayden, the other Dapper Men to roam like silent robots to, I don't know, do a bit of gardening and polish some brass? They have come to fix things, but why so many, and what do the others do, and why, why, why? Why did they leave, only to return? Return from where? Why robots? Why can't Ayden achieve inner growth without their arrival (especially since they don't appear to do much at all to begin with)? What does time have to do with anything? Is this some parable about the loss of innocence, and if so, what besides petty squabbling is lost? What, indeed, is a reader supposed to make of such abstract joylessness as exists in the land of fair Anorev, where we lay our scene?

Lest anyone be confused let me make this clear: deliberately leaving out information, or deciding not to explain the hows and whys of a fictional landscape does not create mystery. It does not provide a window for a reader to fill in their own personalized detail, nor does it make the story profound. It isn't necessary to spoon-feed readers every little detail but they must be guided, grounded in the world of the fictive dream. The only thing being deliberately enigmatic does is announce to the world that your little fiction is, like the emperor's new clothes, naked of some crucial coverage.

Visually, stylistically, the book is lovely to look at.  For a bit at least. There is a layered effect, with the artwork cut out and laid upon painted background that provides chroma and texture, but after a while their effect fails to stand out. Its almost as if all the backgrounds are of the same color value -- as if they'd all register the same color gray if viewed in black and white. If this seems unusually close scrutiny for the illustrations perhaps its because at least when I'm looking at colors I can make some sense of the intended mood. The skies being a blue painted over words presents a thin veiling of what has been lost to the citizens of Anorev, though if that text could have been legible and reference similar stories of children lost in space – Wonderland and Oz and Skull Island – it might have made the images feel more connected to something larger than itself.

I don't know if there's a better, more satisfying story in Return of the Dapper Men that just didn't make itself out, but I do know that when you strip away the illustrations and try to read the story straight it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Simply adding pictures didn't add anything to what wasn't there.