Thursday, October 25

13 Days of Halloween: Flesh & Bone

by Jonathan Maberry
Simon & Schuster 2012

Benny and his friends continue on their quest to find what's left of civilization before the zombies and death cults get to them first. Third in a (seemingly) endless series.

Why is it so hard for writers, agents, editors and publishers to know when a story has gone on too long and jumped the shark? 

Long-time readers here at the excelsior file might remember how much I loved the first book in this series, Rot & Ruin. In it I thought Maberry had followed the time-honored tradition of using a known genre to explore some aspect of society, to provide a touch of social commentary among the horror. In that particular book I thought he'd touched on an allegory to our own times with zombies acting as a focus of xenophobic fear. There was a sense of "zombies were people, too" that underscored the ignorance of those who would simply choose to fear outsiders and live a life sheltered from the world at large. I thought Rot & Ruin might stand up over time as the beginning of a truly unique series.

The second book, Dust and Decay, was a little more of a hero's journey, the dark passage where Benny would become the merciful zombie silencer all the while working his way through the wilderness on a path toward finding the origins of a jet he once saw, his hope for a rebuilt civilization. In a sort of mash-up of influences there was a bit of a samurai movie that eventually gave way to a Thunderdome-esque ending that threatened to sink the entire story. There was also a hint of a new religion sprouting up from the decay, an apocalyptic death cult that was possibly more organized than Benny and company ever imagined.

Now comes Flesh and Bone, and in the anti-spoiler alert of the year, Benny and his friends don't end up any closer to finding that jet. Perhaps it was something in me that expected the story to come to some conclusion with this third book but it is so clear half way through (and confirmed in the end) that there is a great battle looming in an as-yet-published fourth book that I started feeling bored. How sad, to have felt such great promise in the beginning only to not really care enough by the end of the third book to even want to read the fourth.

I am not against the notion of epic tales, but when I look at a trilogy like Lord of the Rings and see what was accomplished in three books I tend to question whether lengthy series can actually justify their length. I also begin to wonder of the idea of television series, with their seemingly endless storylines, have conditioned readers to amble along until interest drops and then things get hastily wrapped up. Story arcs have multiplied and become so elastic and I don't always think that it serves the best interest of fiction in the end.

So Benny and Nix and Lilah and Chong continue on, with an army of mutated zombies and a war-hungry death cult and  escaped zoo animals all venturing into the wastelands of North America. If any traces of civilization survived that civil world has clearly been outnumbered by the rot and decay to the point where this reader asks "What's the point?"

But if your taste runs towards a small band of heroes facing off against zoms, Flesh and Bone's got your number.

Wednesday, October 24

13 Days of Halloween: The Gashlycrumb Tinies

Or, After the Outing  
by Edward Gorey
Simon & Schuster 1963 

A ghastly little abecedarian for hip little children... who might just happen to be teens or adults with a sense of humor.

I think this one is best explained by example.

You can probably figure out how the rest of this plays out. Twenty-six children, each with their own half of a dactylic couplet to explain their demise. With his signature illustration style and Victorian sensibilities, Gorey's alphabet poked a sarcastic finger through the overly-protective world of childhood where everything was still see-spot-run and friendly neighbors just down the street and around the corner in classroom readers. It might also be worth noting that the year this was originally published, 1963, was also the same year that brought us Where the Wild Things Are. Change and revolution was in the air and children's books were poised to enter a new era.

It's interesting to think that a book like this would hardly raise a fuss if released today. Picture books are full of subversive humor and tacit violence – ahem, I Want My Hat Back – but Gorey's approach is the reverse of what we see. Where we might have text and image imply some unsavory off-stage happenings Gorey is quite content to lay out precisely what has happened to the poor children and managed to capture them at the moment just before they realized their demise was at hand.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a high school bedroom or college dorm wall was as likely to have a poster version of The Gashlycrumb Tinies (still very much available, and inexpensive) as it might a Kliban cat, Bo Derek, or A Clockwork Orange poster. Where popular culture continues to march on,leaving some detritus in its wake, I think the resurgence (or recent dominance) of darkness in entertainment makes a Gorey renaissance inevitable. And why not?

Tuesday, October 23

13 Days of Halloween: The Monster's Monster

by Patrick McDonnell 
Little, Brown 2012 

Three little monsters decide to create a much bigger monster who, it turns out, teaches them that you don't HAVE to be a monster, just because you're a monster.  

Horned Grouch, hairy Grump, and two-headed Doom 'n' Gloom live in a castle atop a hill where their antics cause the villagers no end of fear. They smash and bash things, get upset over nothing, and their ten favorite words are all 'no.' One day they set out to Frankenstein themselves an ultimate monster but things don't go as plan when Monster turns out to be full of politeness and child-like wonder. Oh, the horror! as Monster teaches them to say Thank You (actually "Dank You" sounding like the late Alex Karras playing Mongo in a Mel Brooks movie), brings them powdered donuts to share, and takes them to the beach to watch the sunrise. Turns out all the little monsters needed was a good role model. 

There's something disarmingly cute about this. While thin on character development and motive there seems to be at the core a message about an accepted loss of civility. Or maybe a larger idea about transcending who we think by being shown what we can become. Or maybe it's just a twist on the Frankenstein narrative that suggests our collective "creations" can be larger and better than individual selves.

Or sometimes, a story about monsters is just a story about monsters.

McDonnell's art is breezy and cute in his typical style, though lacking the finer subtleties found in Me, Jane where character expressions on a stuffed animal did as much storytelling as the text. Here, the illustrations are all surface, leaving no real memorable images in their wake as the pages turn. That, coupled with the slight text, makes The Monster's Monster read like a light between-meal snack; more of a rice cracker than a cookie, and essentially calorie-free.

Still, for little monsters who might want a Halloween treat that isn't too scary, this would suffice.

Monday, October 22

13 Days of Halloween: Creepy Carrots

words by Aaron Reynolds 
pictures by Peter Brown  
Simon & Schuster 2012 

Jasper Rabbit loves carrots but they're starting to creep him out. Kids everywhere will cheer - they now have a real reason for hating carrots! They're creepy! But is there a deeper message here about the haves and the have-nots? 

Cute Little Jasper loves carrots, and how could he resist the temptation of Crackenhopper Field where they grow fat, crisp, and free? He can't. Then one day his little bunny ears twitch and he is sure he's being followed. Soon enough he is seeing creepy carrots everywhere he looks. The creepy carrots looking at him in the mirror? Those are orange-colored items on the edge of the bathtub. And in the closet? More orange carrot-shaped items.  

But after a week Jasper can't help but see those creepy carrots everywhere he looks. Finally Jasper hatches a plan and spends a Saturday enclosing Crackenhopper Field with a fence, surrounded by a moat full of alligators. There was no way any creepy carrot was ever going to escape and haunt Jasper again. 

And inside the fence the carrots rejoiced. Their plan had worked!  

It's easy to see this as Jasper's story – after all, he's the one being haunted at every turn – but the title of this (literally) dark picture book tells us who the story is really about. These poor, sentient carrots, passive in their existence, have had to deal with the horror of being yanked from the ground and consumed by a bunny with little concern than his own consumption. Is this a story of rabid consumerism? Perhaps, but then would that make the carrots the 99% who haunt in protest for their own rights to exist free of a predatory 1% who think nothing beyond the scope of their own desires.

Reading too much into a picture book again? Maybe the problem is we don't read deep enough.

As haunting as the carrots my be, they are merely creepy as an act of survival, and the ends justify the means as they find themselves in a gated community built on their behalf. That may seem workable for the moment, but how like the social welfare and housing programs of the past where well-intentioned governments (and some ill-intentioned ones as well) construct housing projects and artificial neighborhoods to protect the underclass.

Okay, okay, it's just a story about a rabbit haunted by carrots who are tired of watching kith and kin being eaten before their very carrot eyes. The illustrations in black, grey, and orange deliberately play off the Halloween theme of horror, a little trick-and-treat mixture of cute and creepy. The young'uns will eat it up, but not like carrots. More like candy corn I'd say.

Sunday, October 21

13 Days of Halloween: In a Glass Grimmly

by Adam Gidwitz
Dutton 2012

Jack and Jill (and a Frog) went up a beanstalk to fetch a magic mirror. Along the way they outwit Giants, Goblins, a fire-breathing salamander named Eddie, and their parents. A companion to 2010's A Tale Dark and Grimm.

Lately I've been wondering if we do more harm than good by making childhood too safe. I'm not thinking about car seats or non-toxic flame-retardant materials, but a sort of intellectual safety that prevents curiosity and the development of common sense more than it protects. We would prefer to believe it is more important to teach children to fear strangers than to develop an internal sense of knowing when and whom to fear.

The problem (for those who find it a problem) is that without a hard and fast set of rules we have the dual issue of teaching the difficult (intuition) coupled with an unacknowledged root source (adult responsibility, or lack thereof). The sad thing is that there is a solution, its been with us for hundreds of years, and we take it for granted: storytelling. There's a lot that can be learned in a story, and they don't have to be overly moralistic or didactic, and they can occasionally be quite fun. Horrifying, gory, disagreeable and yet unexplainable good fun.

And the best part is that kids really like it.

For those who haven't gleaned it from the title, In A Glass Grimmly, Adam Gidwitz's "companion" to A Tale Dark and Grimm, takes as its source the folk and fairy tales once told to children back when people lived closer to a world full of inexplicable horror. Lacking medicine, much less the concept of hygiene, there were invisible things far scarier than the shadows that dwell in the nearby woods, ah, but what wonderful stories could be constructed from those shadows. As a result, though these tales were as full of the sort of caution we might dole out to our own kids these days it was done with a great deal of adventure, magic, and humorous absurdity as well.

Gidwitz begins with parallel stories about a pair of children, a boy named Jack who is a bit dim and unpopular with other boys, and Jill who is being reared to be as shallow and cruel as her mother. Actually, no, Gidwitz starts with the story of a frog, a hapless amphibian who falls in love with a vain princess, is gifted with ability to speak, and suffers for believing the princess's promises of friendship in exchange for his assistance. These three stories, variants of "The Frog Prince," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "Jack and the Beanstalk" – all with quite a bit of modification – bind our trio of adventurers out to learn the harsh cruelties the world has to offer in exchange for obtaining the thing each wants most.

The astute reader can find within this tale any frame of reference they bring with them. Even those who might not recognize the original tales Gidwitz creates within his framework will nonetheless recognize the various hero's journeys found in other tales. There's as much Wizard of Oz as there is Lord of the Rings with all the blood and guts and foolishness of the true fairy tales of old. Meant to shock or call attention to the peril, the violence in these stories can be easy to dismiss as "once upon a time" but the cruelty, the psychological terror and abuse adults inflict on these children (and a hapless frog) are still very much real for many readers. If there can be advantage found in stories that reflect contemporary "issues" then I would argue the same for a carefully constructed epic fairy tale like In A Glass Grimmly.

But here's the biggest draw for me: it's fun to read. It's fun and it breezes by, pages flying with unbelievable twists, recognizing old tales and looking for the moments they diverge from their more traditional tellings. Gidwitz likes to break in occasionally (less than in the previous book, which was too bad, because I enjoyed those digressions) and warn the reader of what's to come. There's a wink and a nod because, as much as he's prepared us, the true horrors have nothing to do with the acts of violence about transpire. He's smart enough to trust the reader will know the purpose of these warnings is to break (or increase) tension and playfully knock the reader off balance. It makes the experience interactive, conspiratorial, and, as I said, a kick to read.

Finally, if there is a sense that readers have of "growing out of" fairy tales, as these stories being for more younger children, I'd like to suggest that the real problem comes from a progressive sanitation of these stories over time. It is easy to grow weary of happy endings that come with no larger lesson. The frog isn't turned into a prince by a kiss in the original, he is flung against the wall by the princess in a deliberate attempt to kill him, and when he is revealed to be a prince the princess is so humiliated she spends the rest of her days in his servitude. I daresay things for Frog are much worse here, though in the end he ends up the hero in a way he never was in any fairy tale previously written. If a teen guy were to give this book a chance they might find that they really do still like fairy tales.

(This review originally appeared over at Guys Lit Wire on October 10, 2012)

Saturday, October 20

13 Days of Halloween: Sailor Twain

by Mark Siegel
First Second Press 2012

A riverboat captain on the 19th century Hudson River nurses an injured mermaid back to health, hidden from his employer who is determined to find and kill her, but is he another of her victims caught in her wrath and fury?

Captain Twain, no relation to Samuel Clemens' alter ego, is a riverboat pilot who runs a tight ship and  prefers not to meddle in his passengers affairs. His current employer is the brother of his previous employer who mysteriously became melancholy, disappeared, and was later discovered to have committed suicide. One day Captain Twain discovers a wounded mermaid floating near death in the river. Taking her back to his room he nurses her back to health in secret, bringing her food and telling her stories to entertain her, imploring her not to sing to him so that her song doesn't bind him to her underwater limbo; the Captain's sickly love waits for him and he has no desire to be unfaithful. She agrees, but can she be trusted?

The Captain observes his employer take on many lovers simultaneously, almost methodically, while maintaining a postal correspondence with an author of stories about the supernatural, including mermaids. He also mysteriously throws messages in a bottle into the river and refuses to leave the boat for any reason. It becomes clear over time that his employer doesn't believe his brother committed suicide but has fallen under the spell of the mermaid the Captain is harboring and is, in all his unusual efforts, attempting to undo her power over the souls she has taken.

Throughout there is the story of the mysterious author who seems to know something about the mermaid of the Hudson, known simply as South, and about the ways she can be defeated. Being a mysterious recluse the author agrees to appear in public and give a lecture on the boat at his employer's invitation. When it turns out the author is a woman the press suggests she's a fraud and even her publishers admit they wouldn't have given her the time of day if they knew or believed their beloved author was a woman. She takes the moment of her heightened publicity to speak out against slavery and women's suffrage and, for a moment, looks to become the last of his employer's lovers which would break the spell the mermaid has over his brother.

Healed, South returns home, inviting Twain to join her below as she believes he is the one she has been waiting for, the one who can release her from the spell that keeps her forever bound to the Hudson river. Torn between wanting to free her and fearing she might take him as she has taken other souls, Twain devises a plan to return his former employer to the world of the living but in the end suffers a fate very similar many who crossed the mermaid of the Hudson.

Initially daunting at 400 pages, Siegel has crafted a haunting tale that tweaks Greek mythology, gothic horror, and the strange romance of life on a river. While Twain's motives aren't always clear, his thoughts not always articulated, he is strangely compelling in the way that he observes and studies those around him in order to piece together what is going on. Granted, much of Twain's movements are for the benefit of the reader, but its only under close critical scrutiny after the fact that a reader might find the otherwise hidden seams holding the narrative together. In truth, the tale was so compelling I was more interested in getting to the end to find out what happened (and giving up precious sleep in the process) that the only time I felt pulled away from the story was in the very active climax where I found things to get a bit muddled.

Indeed, this muddle was further confirmed in the comments section of a review at Guys Lit Wire. Why did the wheelman of the ship sabotage it? Was everyone on board the boat under the thrall of the Mermaid's song? Did Twain himself, like Ishmael, survive to tell the tale only long enough to be reunited with his spiritual self?

By the end, with the story framed by a his employer's wife who holds the key to Twain's resolution, all I wanted to do was go back to beginning and start all over. I did not want to spend more time with these characters in further tales – or prequels, or backstory – I wanted them to relive their lives in the hope they would make different decisions. It's been a long time I've read a story that made me feel that.

This graphic novel is clearly for the older YA set due to mature sexual themes – almost unavoidable, really, if you want to tell a believable story concerning mermaids. Haunting, brooding, and inevitably people are going to call it the love child of Twain and Poe with, perhaps, a bit of Washington Irving thrown in for good measure.

I'd shortlist this for a Cybil award as well, though with its messy resolution I'd be surprised to see it pass the first round.

Friday, October 19

13 Days of Halloween: Zombie in Love

Zombie in Love
by Kelly DiPucchio
illustrated by Scott Campbell 
Atheneum Books 2011  

A picture book about a zombie looking for love?  

Mortimer is, to be blunt, a bit clueless. He's looking for love in all the wrong places, scaring the pants off too many faces.  Does he not realize he's a zombie? Does he not understand that the living fear the living dead? In the end, it takes a personal ad (talk about a dead end) to bring Mortimer the one girl who cab return his putrefied affections. At a prom.

Granted, it's got cute moments, but its one of those picture books that make me wonder who the audience is: goth teens looking for a cute Valentine's Day gift? Tweens caught between being too old to trick-or-treat but still clinging to their younger days with newly jaundiced perspectives? Elementary school kids who are already fretting about finding a date for the prom?

The story feels too sophisticated for newly independent readers, full of too much mushy love stuff or too much gore-filled humor, and honestly just seems out of place among other picture books. It's like a zombie-themed valentine on steroids. 

I have to say, I was pleased to see a cheerful zombie picture book, but I wished it had been about something other than finding a mate. That's Frankenstein's territory.

Monday, October 8

Squish #4: Captain Disaster

by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm 
Random House 2012 

Squish, an amoeba, and his single-cell friends learn life lessons in a primordial soup that looks a lot like an upper elementary school. 

As a kid, one of the things I used to love about going out to a restaurant was that the family-friendly places would have comic books for us to read at the table. They were cheesy, with easy-to-solve puzzles and comic adventures that would loosely incorporate the restaurant's mascot and some lesson in good citizenship into eight or twelve pages, the perfect length between ordering and getting food. It was also the perfect length for delivering a didactic message about sharing or bullying or bike safety or recycling or whatever the topic du jour was at the time.

So when I say that Captain Disaster makes me feel like I'm sitting back in a Bob's Big Boy circa 1971 it isn't with a warm and fuzzy glow of nostalgia but with a certain level of puzzlement. Are kids no longer getting these messages in TV cartoons and in other formats that we need them to be produced as graphic novels for a younger readers? Or, conversely, can we not perhaps ask that graphic novels for younger readers elevate themselves above the level of the Archie comics found at the dentist office?

Why does this book make me feel like a snob all of a sudden?

Squish and his friends Pod, also an amoeba, and Peggy, a paramecium, all try out for the soccer team and very quickly learn they don't have any skills. Squish is made team captain and with very little guidance is expected to "steer the ship" of his team forward. While the Coach (a cycloptic crustacean) keeps hammering home the idea of having fun no one on the team is enjoying the fact that they lose every game. Squish's dad suggests that as captain he should try to help take advantage of his teams skills and so he works out a set of winning plays that turns his team around. The problem is that Squish somehow manages to miss the fact that he is always the one to score and Pod and Peggy want to quit the team over it. Realizing that he's focused on winning over inclusion Squish turns things around and returns to the team having fun despite losing.  There's a handful of biology terms thrown in occasionally, not enough to build a curriculum around, with a simple physics experiments at the end and a draw-the character page... all of which brings me right back to those restaurant comics.

Maybe it was the times, and the times they are always a-changin', but it seemed like we got comics like this everywhere we went. At the dentist office, sure, in comics and magazines like Highlights and Boy's Life; No trip to a national park was complete without some comic lesson about forest fires or steering clear of bears; Police and firemen would come to classes to teach us bike safety or the dangers of chemicals or electricity, all with cartoon pamphlets; And there were always fairs with kid-friendly material about recycling or public safety or any number of other civic lessons. I guess what I'm trying to say is, this stuff was everywhere, and it was free, and I'm wondering if we really need more of this stuff, stuff like Squish.

Regular reader know I am a very big advocate of graphic novels for kids, and like anything that includes art there is always a question hanging in the air about how one can discuss something like illustrated stories which many seem to think comes down to a question of personal taste. But as I've said before, the rules for graphic novels and comics for kids are the same as narrative text: are the characters multi-dimensional, is the story emotionally complex, are the secondary characters and plots clearly drawn and equally compelling? Time and again when I come across a graphic novel I find weak, and people question my assessment (usually because they disagree with it), I simply say "If this story had its pictures removed and were told as a traditional story, would you find it of a quality you'd be comfortable calling "good storytelling" for kids?

Quite often the answer is "no," and suddenly the question surrounding the value of graphic novels rears its head again.

Squish is not by far the worst offender in this sense, but when I see glowing testimonials from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Studies I can't help wondering when someone's going to realize the emperor is naked. The problem isn't that these comics shouldn't be made, they simply don't hold up as books that don't deserve the heaps of praise they've received.

You tell me, am I being too hard, or are these graphic "novels" for the younger set filling a need that's no longer being met?

Tuesday, October 2

A Wrinkle in Time

The Graphic Novel
by Madeleine L'Engle
adaptation by Hope Larson
FSG 2012

The classic middle grade book gets a solid graphic novel treatment by award winning artist Hope Larson.

The weird thing about graphic novel adaptations is that they tend to be much longer than their source material, and they rarely convey all the details and explanations in their retelling. Graphic novels conceived as graphic novels from the beginning work to condense story where adaptations, it seems, look to open up narrative, alternately speeding along the story and slowing it down at the same time. There's a certain elasticity of time and events involved.

Could there be a better-suited book for a graphic novel treatment than A Wrinkle in Time?

Meg is an odd duck, rendered here like your typical unruly tomboyish nerd girl. Impatient and impulsive, she doesn't fit in even among her family; her mother has beauty that she envies, her twin bothers the model of normality, and her baby brother Charles is a precocious clairvoyant mistaken by those around him as a moron. Her father? Mysteriously away, subject of much gossip, though truly gone in a way the local townfolk could never conceive (much less believe) if they knew the truth.

Charles is in contact with some old ladies who live in a house in the woods most consider haunted. Mrs. Whatsit at first seems like a doddering old fool, her companion Mrs. Who speaking often in quotation, and eventually the occasionally unfocused apparition Mrs Which presents, taking the form of a Halloween witch. Together, these tree form a trinity of Star Sisters who serve as prophets, guides, and guardians for the journey about to come. A classmate of Meg's, the sensitive outsider Calvin who is better at passing as normal, finds himself drawn to the haunted house in the woods and once united with Charles and Meg they are informed that they can help bring Meg and Charles's father but that the mission involves some peril.

as always, click image to enlarge
Traveling the wrinkles in time, the sextet make it across the galaxy to the planet Camazotz where a cloud of evil is holding the kid's father as a prisoner. This evil has grown and crept across the galaxy, threatening to force the inhabitants of other planets to succumb to fear and remain orderly and obedient. This evil is controlled by IT, rendered as little more than a massive brain sitting on a pedestal in a protected tower. Utilizing their wits and few tools left them by the Star Sisters they rescue Meg's father but at the expense of losing Charles in the process. They regroup at a safe distance and discuss options for rescuing Charles, where Meg finally comes to realize that this is her destiny, and enters a final confrontation with IT using as her weapon the one thing IT wants but IT doesn't have.

I'm going to admit right here that I am as old as this book, and that I read it when it was less than a decade old. I have vague memories of images from that initial reading that have, over time, merged with images from episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Prisoner, bits and pieces from other science fiction stories (Bradbury and Clarke most likely), and special effect from the occasional badly produced movies that would end up on TV in the afternoons on weekends. Which is to say that the material read fresh to me while at the same time oddly derivative. But more startling to me was the complete mash-up of Cold War fear, Orwellian dystopia, post-war mythology, and a solid dose of budding New Age religious thinking. None of this is negative or unwelcome, as I was suddenly aware of how tame and safe a lot of middle grade fiction is these days by comparison. Talking time travel as if it were as easy as breathing, quoting classic scholars and thinkers, lumping artists and religious icons together as visionaries who have tried to explain the unexplainable... after a while it was a little like the articulation of thoughts from someone gloriously tripping on LSD. Again, not a bad thing, but odd all the same.

I applaud Larson for taking on a classic that, like movies made from books, will no doubt disappoint those who have set ideas of what the characters look like or how certain elements should be rendered. It's also no small feat to take on the telling of a story that has as its base the notion of time travel without any real explanation for how it is possible. Merely referring to "the tesseract" and giving a basic description of how travel across the fifth dimension could easily lose a reader, but the story is carried along by the strong-willed personality of Meg and her through-line desire of finding and rescuing her father.

As excited as I was to get my hands on this I had a little bit of graphic novel adaptation remorse after finishing it – I probably should have reread the original novel first and made a true comparison. But I've thought this over and decided that as much as I'd like to think of graphic novels as gateways to reading in general I sincerely doubt a majority of readers are going to read both: unlike book-to-film interest there is little evidence of a similar graphic-novel-to-book conversion taking place. We can debate and discuss this all we want, but the reality is what it is, when a kid finishes a book they don't generally go hunting down the graphic novel adaptation, and vice versa.

With that thought in mind I am glad there is this second, and perhaps slightly more accessible, graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time out there. It provides more opportunities to open up young minds and getting their heads wrapped around the notion of time travel and just what intangible is truly the most powerful weapon in the universe. Besides reading, of course.

Monday, September 24

Oh, Rats!

The Story of Rats and People 
by Albert Marrin 
illustrated by C.B. Mordan 
Dutton / Penguin 2006 

Is there any pet more widely considered vermin? The nonfiction picture book examines the facts and myths surrounding the rodent people love to hate.  

Stating with a tale from his own life, Marrin recounts how he was playing in a wood pile as a kid when he first came face-to-face with rats. Out his fear his father offered this wisdom: "Learn about them: you'll feel better."

With that we embark on a journey to learn everything we can about rats. We learn their history and evolution, their ratty ways and how they've interacted with people (and the ways people have interacted with them), we learn how they are pesky and how they are yummy, their eradication and their cause in spreading the plague, and even how they have been used (inadvertently as well as deliberately) in scientific research. It's seemingly very thorough for a book that could serve as a first serious introduction to a child learning about – or how to get over their fear of – rats.  

One of the elements that takes the edge off the book is the fact that it is illustrated with woodcut-like illustrations, similar in style to the work of Barry Moser. This one-step removal from actual photographs makes the rats seem less threatening though the detail on their faces and the red spot color on the mostly black-and-white images gives them a bit of realism that may still make some queasy. I would have preferred a little more interplay between images an texts – as opposed to small inset circles and sidebar illustrations – but as presented the images and text are still handsomely laid out and designed. 

Occasionally the text felt like it drifted between different aged readers. The chapter on rats and the plague seemed to trade on the reader's knowledge of a higher vocabulary and reading sophistication while other chapters contained text that bordered on condescension. Take

Yersina pestis is a bacillus belonging to the family of bacteria shaped like thin rods. Visible only under a microscope, a single plague bacillus is 1/10,000th of an inch in length.
compared with

The famous Larousse cookbook includes one for "Grilled Rat Bordeaux Style. Bordeaux is a famous place. 

Indeed, Bordeaux is a famous place, but a sentence like that has no meaning without context, and even the description of the wine cellars that follows fails to explain the significance of Bordeaux, the cookbook, and what it being famous has to do with rats. Do the rats know Bordeaux is more famous than other wine regions? Does Bordeaux somehow attract more than the usual amount of rats to its cellars? When contrasted with the chapter on the science of the plague and how the rats transmitted the disease, the text in the cooking chapter and elsewhere wavers between reducing facts to their simplest book report factoids and deeper explanations worthy of a kid deeply interested in the subject. 

There are other moments where it feels like information has been simplified or facts generally lumped together for the sake of simplicity. There are, according to this book, only two families of rats, though many types of rats are grouped together on the generic terms "black rats" and "brown rats." Any reader clearly interested in rats would want to know these differences in families, just as they would with subjects like snakes, sharks, bees, and so on.

These points aside, I love this book for not shying away from touchier elements, such as people eating rats and details concerning scientific experimentation. It is reasonably well-rounded and keeps its balance between the earnest, respectful, and gross elements that a subject like rats arouses in readers. 

Saturday, September 22


by Raina Telgemeier
Scholastic 2012

Romance and friendships are tried and tested during the production of a middle grade play where everything is one giant emotional... drama.

Callie is crushing on Greg, and after he breaks up with his girlfriend Bonnie it looks like she might get a chance at him, but after one sweet kiss it goes south when Bonnie and Greg reunite. Good thing there's the upcoming play production to distract Callie from her short-lived non-romance. Better, the play is a Southern love story and Callie is chock full of enough ideas as part of the stage crew to put Greg quickly out-of-mind.

While posting the announcement for auditions Callie meets brothers Jesse and Justin who have their own interests in the play and in short order they all become close friends. Things start to get messy when Bonnie tries out and gets the lead in the play opposite heartthrob West and they start dating. No, things get messy when Callie starts falling for Jesse who has his own heart set on... West? And after the Spring formal, when Greg realizes he's been a bonehead by letting Callie go will she forgive the way he's treated her in the past and consent to be his new girlfriend?

So much middle school drama!

There's a lot of shifting alliances and subtle game-playing that makes Drama feel natural, warm, and authentic to the middle school experience but at the same time Callie ends right where she started, without a love to call her own, without the one thing she had been wanting all along. Has she grown because of her experiences working on the play? Certainly, and she's perhaps learned a thing or two about the heartbreak of choosing the "wrong" guy more than once. But the story ends with Callie and her extended stage crew friends toasting their triumph and making plans for next year's play. She's come full circle but she's right back where she started and it feels extremely anticlimactic.

I had this same sense after finishing Telgemeier previous graphic novel Smile, this sense of a time captured in amber but frozen in a way that left it life-like and lifeless at the same time. Both books read more like static snapshots in a private photo album rather than narratives full of characters who experience growth. Both books ring true because they are true-to-life, but in the same way that a diary can be a true record of events without a real or strong narrative through line. You can follow all the character's emotional upheavals, see everyone interact, get come closure on all the open issues, and still not feel like anyone's really changed.

Unless I've misunderstood and the one true love of Callie's life is the theatre, in which case the story has a bit of an "and then I woke up" feel to it. But I don't think that's was the intention. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of this kind of backstage mixed-up romance, and they tend to be MGM musicals from the Freed unit back in the 1940s and 50s. The "let's put on a show in the backyard" Andy Hardy movies with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney are cut from this cloth, as is another Judy Garland vehicle, Summer Stock. But these films knew the audience was there for the singing and dancing and didn't hold out for great character revelations. Perhaps that's what felt missing to me, that the graphic novel with a backstage setting didn't have enough singing or dancing? Yes, that's ridiculous of me, but at the same time it makes sense; at least in the musicals there is a sense of emotion conveyed in the song and dance portions.

Among middle grade graphic novels I think there is a lot of great opportunity for realistic contemporary stories like Drama, but I think I'd prefer the ones aimed at a girl audience not focus on romance. That's just a preference, not a scathing indictment.

How long, I wonder, before a true graphic novel wins a Newbery? Or is that just out of the question?

Wednesday, September 19

Moby Dick

Chasing the Great White Whale  
by Eric Kimmel
illustrated by Andrew Glass 
Feiwel & Friends 2012 

Finally! A version of Melville's classic I can actually finish! In one sitting! With pictures even! 

So, up front, I'm no fan of Moby Dick. I have tried and tried and simply cannot traverse the literary muck and mire of Melville's meandering meditation. I get about 60 or 70 pages in and I start to entertain notions of gnawing off my own leg. Then I realize I can put the book down and walk away, and I do. I have done this five or six times now and I just. cannot. read it.

What does it say about me that I love this picture book adaptation, told in well-crafted rhyme, with its details artfully smeared across the illustrations? Does it say I'm lazy, or that I have no patience, or is it simply that I find this to be the most accessible, tastefully done adaptation from classic literature I've seen in picture book form in a long time.

Yeah, you're right, it's probably a combination of all those things. 

Looking at it from the perspective of the intended audience, a child with an interest in pirates or sailing or whales, this book probably stands out above many others simply because the main characters are neither children or animal stand-ins. It's a curious thing that we tend to think a picture book as something that reflects the child or their world when, outside of books, their interest extends far beyond those small world limitations. I often wonder if we don't do children a disservice by presenting them books where adults are non-existent or merely two-dimensional foils for a child-like fantasy. How can we expect children to know how to interact with adults if they are constantly told adults are inconsequential?

This book doesn't address this issue, but it does faithfully (in its own way) hold true to Melville's tale (I know it, I just haven't read it) of Ishmael setting out on a whaling vessel with an obsessed captain, the lone survivor to tell the tale to the reader. There's just enough in the verse and images to get a feel for the grittiness of life on the seas once-upon-a-day, the adventure and the peril, and that hint of madness that you can sense even before you've learned the name for it. Kids see plenty of adults, and their behavior scares them, so perhaps they recognize more of the adult world than we give them credit for.

Kimmel and Glass don't shy away from this madness, or death for that matter. Ahab, his eyes wide, holds aloft the dubbloon he offers for the first man who sights the whale, drawn from a perspective both low and foreshortened so that he appears to be coming toward the reader. It's that in-your-face, impossible-to-ignore obsession that reads exactly as it should without belaboring the point in the text. And to an unfamiliar reader, the mention of Queequeg's coffin must seems like a random and bizarre detail until it becomes a de facto life raft when the ship has been smashed to bits. It registers as dark humor, that coffin as a life preserver, and the kind that introduces the picture book reader to the concept of foreshadowing and irony as part of their visual literacy. 

To be honest, when I first heard about this, I scoffed. I thought, What next, Anna Karenina? Sinclair's The Jungle? But after chuckling at the first couple pages I realized I was more interested in this telling than I ever was with the original.

That's the power of a good picture book: it can make you like something you thought you'd hate.

Thursday, September 13

Legends of Zita the Spacegirl

by Ben Hatke 
First Second 2012 

Out titular (and accidental) heroine returns for continuing adventures as her fame sucks her further and further from ever returning to Earth. Bad for her is good for readers... 

A robot crawls out of its recalled packaging and imprints on the first being it sees: a poster of Zita advertising her tour of various planets as savior of Scriptorious. Finding a mop and fashioning a costume the robot not only begins to look like Zita but starts to adopt aspects of her personality, as witnessed while she is dragged out to sign autographs. Escaping her fans Zita crosses paths with her robot doppelganger and concocts one of the oldest bad ideas in the history of bad ideas: trading places with the robot in exchange for some freedom.

Naturally, this goes terribly wrong.

As Robot Zita learns and adapts and adopts more of Zita's personality it comes to believe it really is Zita, heroic spacegirl. While Zita is away a pair of Lumponian Ambassadors arrive looking for Zita to save their planet from a deadly attack by star hearts. While Zita's minder ponders the situation Robot Zita agrees to save Lumponia and away they leave... without Zita the Spacegirl! Zita and her sidekick Pizzicato the Mouse now must catch up with their friends and save the day, oh, and also do something about that pesky identity-stealing Robot Zita. And after a battle with the Queen of Star Hearts...

...To Be Continued.

The incredibly fast-paced adventure that began with the first Zita the Spacegirl continues here, with so much detail unexplained beyond the illustrations. What I mean is, it is up to the reader to fill in details that can be gleaned from the illustrations, as well they should. Seriously, nothing bogs down world-building faster than explaining why otherwordly creatures look and act the way they do, better to simply let them be (as Hatke does here) and let the reader back-fill whatever they need to know.

Though not as deep in mythology as Jeff Smith's Bone series, the Zita books have an accomplished sense of knowing where they are headed and a deft humor that makes them a joy to read and reread. Rereading will be crucial as details about characters and situations from the first book are left for the reader to recall on their own, just as they will need to consult this volume when the third Zita book comes out. Again, this is not a bad thing, as the books are simply good fun.

Or are they? I think their simplicity and the fast pacing is a sort of slight-of-hand for a non-Aristotlean (or Homeric if you prefer) narrative form.

While it's true that Zita has an overarching goal/desire – she wants to get home – everything that comes her way just piles on as one-damn-thing-after-another. Some narrative purists hate this sort of thing, but it allows for a more organic possibility in storytelling as real life rarely conforms to a Freitag Pyramid. Things do simply happen to Zita while she's in the middle of dealing with something else that's been thrown her way, but Odysseus had the same problems, and with no less freaky creatures to confront. 

So while I welcome (sort of) the continuing adventures of Zita the way I might if reading the Odyssey in serial form, trusting that she'll eventually make her way home, my one quibble is the "To Be Continued" that ends the book. The cliffhanger ending has never really worked for me in any narrative medium, and while I recognize the ending her comes at a good point I hate the feeling like I only got half the story. We could argue this point about sequels and series – you and I fair reader – but sometimes the story ends at a natural point and feels complete and sometimes the cliffhanger aggravates. It's a quibble and doesn't really ruin the fun of Legends of Zita the Spacegirl in the slightest.

Tuesday, September 11

Wonder, part 2

Yesterday I wrote a "review" of R.J. Palacio's Wonder wherein I was trying to work out what I was thinking on the fly, on the screen, sorting out my thoughts in public. even as I was committing the post to go public I was still left with the feeling that I hadn't really scratched the surface. I've been trying to stay as close to gut-level in my reactions while at the same time shortening my reviews to something a little more manageable; people respond better to shorter reviews, or so I've been told, and anecdotal reader response tends to bear this out.

What I realized during the day was that I hadn't really discussed the book itself, in particular the elements of craft that impressed me, and perhaps an examination of how the book falls into the mold of a potential "classic" by virtue of possessing a certain quality that, for lack of a better term, I simply call award-bait. I don't mean that in a mean way, there are just some books that have a tone and feel that sits just above all others in such a way that they attract the attention of people who give awards for noteworthy books. 

I have to admit, the reason I'm coming to this book so late from all the hoopla of its initial release is that I've found more and more I find the hoopla surrounding a book's release tends to be a distraction. I wanted to get to a point where I couldn't really remember what I'd heard in order to delve into the book with fresh eyes. I'm glad I did because there were some nice surprises in store.

First, Augie Pullman has a great voice. He's optimistic yet realistic. He knows his deficits but underneath he's just a kid with the same worries as other kids entering middle school: Will he be able to make new friends? Will there be any kids as into Star Wars as him?

Will these kids stare and make fun of him the way other kids have his entire life?

That Augie discusses his facial deformities and surgical procedures with a detached boredom doesn't remove the fact that emotionally he knows he trapped behind this mask forever. He knows he'll never be normal but that doesn't stop him for wanting, just once, to be treated for who he really is and not what he looks like... and certainly not out of pity. Palacio finds a nice, light touch for Augie's voice, a balance that straddles his inner and outer worlds.

The biggest, and most welcome, surprise comes when the point-of-view shifts. I realize I've just gone ahead and made it so someone wanting to read with fresh eyes as I did will now have to wait until they have forgotten this review, but such is the nature/danger or reading and writing reviews.

The shift in POV solves a problem with most first-person narratives in that it gives the reader insight to the other characters Augie interacts with, and in particular provides elements of the story Augie couldn't possibly know. This is a great trick because it retains the intimacy of Augie's world and provides background and depth without either diluting or undermining his perceptions. His saintly sister Via enters high school and goes through an emotional roller coaster of emotions that Augie cannot fathom. Nor can his parents, it seems, and it isn't until we hear Via's own take on events that we learn that her sacrifice has come with a price. This shift happens again when his new friend Jack Will cannot figure out why Augie is giving him the cold shoulder (but the reader knows), and when Via's boyfriend plays a small role in undermining a bully at Augie's school, and when his friend Summer chronicles their work on a Science project. The effect is a bit like a documentary where the narrative shifts according to which person has the most insight into an event. It works because, as with Augie's voice, it is carefully crafted and not gimmicky.

As I hinted at yesterday, the one false note is the ending, which isn't so much deus ex machina as it feels too good to be true. And by that I mean that what makes it untrue is that it quite simply is too good. Too good in the sense that Augie's soaring triumph at his middle school seems to set him up in a way that is potentially dangerous for him down the road. If it sounds like I'm concerned for the imaginary future of a fictional character, I am, because in order to buy the rest of Augie's story I have to care enough about him to not want him given a false hope. Yes, I want uplifting, but I also want honest, and it matters in a story like this. Everything about Augie and his world has been rendered in a realistic and unflinching manner, and then comes an award ceremony that doesn't simply elevate his self-esteem but paints an entire school as having been moved by Augie's humanity. The totality of this communal change elevates Augie's personal moment to something that, to my sense, felt slightly messianic. Augie is a special boy, indeed, but is he really that special?

Without digging up the reviews I so carefully avoided or deliberately forgot, the hoopla for Wonder is deserved, but with the caveat that the book serve as a point of discussion for young readers and decidedly not as a lesson. There is nothing more I hate than watching a solid book with a unique character used to club innocent children over the head with the weight of heavy-handed moralizing and guilt-inducing pity.

Which, sadly, tends to happen with books that get little gold or silver medals affixed to their covers.

Monday, September 10


by R.J. Palacio
Knopf 2012 

Can a boy with a deformed face find friends, happiness, success, and acceptance when he first goes to middle school? Only in a middle grade novel. 

I'm going to lean a little heavy on this book, despite the fact that I found the writing and narrative structure compelling and well crafted. Bear with me, I'm thinking aloud.

There are buses and billboards and junk mail that I see fairly regularly with pictures of a kid with a cleft lip or cleft palate coupled with an appeal for me to do something to help the poor child pictured. I hate these ads because not because of their appeal to help children but because they do so by attempting to guilt us into giving by trying to shock us into a politically incorrect place. We are so used to beautiful images of people in ads that when we see a child with a disfigured face our initial reaction (according to the psychology behind the ad) is to cause us to reel in horror and then instantly feel bad about having that response; if this were not true they wouldn't put the photo in the ads. These images force us to to look away, then look back with pity, and finally assuage our guilt via a donation. It isn't charity so much as penance for our thought crimes.

August "Augie" Pullman, the narrator of Wonder, is the photo in these ads times ten. It's the combination of two separate medical conditions that has disfigured Augie's face, a one-in-million set of circumstances, made only slightly better through dozens of surgeries in his twelve years on the planet. Due to his constant need for care and recovery from surgeries Augie has been home-schooled but his parents believe the time has come for him to be mainstreamed, to get a solid education and learn how to deal with the realities that life is going to dish out to him over time.

Mind you, Augie is perfectly normal in every other respect, and is the kind of whip-smart kid that is part-and-parcel of most middle grade stories. But where most protagonists have a goal placed before them Augie's is simply handed to him and his best hope is simply to cope. He is given the option of baking out of going to school, but without saying it Augie knows that he would essentially be choosing a lifetime of house arrest, so there isn't much of a choice.

Augie is used to kids recoiling in horror at his face, he's used to the brutal honesty of kids who speak their minds without intending to be mean, wounding him all the same. Inside he's just a kid like the rest of them but its the outside world that must bend to meet Augie half way. And as entertaining and heartwarming as all this is, it was about the halfway point that I started to wonder...

In the early 1960s this story could have been about the one black kid in an all-white Southern school. In the early 1990s this could have been about a kid with AIDS coming to school. The first girl in an all-boys prep. These stories all fit the mold of a kid who is different bringing people closer to understanding their "issue" while growing themselves in gaining acceptance. It all started to leave a bad taste in my mouth, like the waxy coating after eating a donut that tasted good at first and then suddenly not so much so.

My thoughts continued to drift as I read. I remembered The Elephant Man (which later is referenced in Wonder) about Joseph Merrick, a victim of his own deformities who lived in the much less forgiving Victorian England. Or was it? Merrick, despite his outward physical appearance and limitations, left school to earn a living in the workhouses of the time, and despite the story of his being a sort of sideshow freak who was taken advantage of, Merrick actively sought out this lifestyle. A shy and withdrawn man who once dreamed of meeting a blind woman who could love him because she couldn't see him, by comparison Augie didn't seem to have it so bad. Little Augie may have been taunted as a Zombie or the butt of a middle school joke called the Plague, but fat and gay kids are taunted and bullied far worse than anything Augie experiences.

So while Augie had to put up with betrayal by his closest friend and deal with older kids from another school giving him a beat-down, he also had at least one girl friend who could see beyond the surface, and eventually the return of his best friend after a little time-in-the-wilderness guilt and anxiety over some overheard comments. In many ways Augie's deformities are almost irrelevant to the story. He is sweet and charming, and after a while it was as if his face hardly seemed to be deformed at all. Not because we were see the real Augie beneath the surface but because the surface became unrealistic by virtue of the story's commonplace events.

In a story like this, a kid like Augie should triumph, but his stakes need to be exponentially higher than "normal" kids. By the end of Wonder it's as if the entire school (save one bully type) have turned and been won over by Augie. In one school year he went from zero to hero, as they say, but the notes are so high at the end that suddenly it becomes clear Augie's in for a lifetime of letdown. He's survived his first year of middle school and... it's all downhill from here. He might have been mainstreamed to the point of acceptance (not quite normal) but he'll never have a year as spectacular as the one in this book (no character could) and, when I think about it, its kind of sad.

Yes, of course, the point is that by the end the world sees Augie as "normal" and he can (theoretically) continue to have the normal sort of adventures most kids have... but in the real world? In the real world kids who start Wonder will try to align themselves with others in the book who recoiled in horror then came to accept him as just a good-natured, Star Wars-addicted kid with nerdy tendencies, but like those bus and junk mail ads, it comes at the expense of the reader's internal guilt. For 320 pages they have been shown how time and again Augie's face has shaped the reactions of people inside and outside the book, and the happy ending is the penance paid to let the reader off the hook.

See, everything worked out okay for Augie in the end, so don't beat yourself up over the fact that initially you realized you wouldn't have behaved so kindly if you'd met him for the first time.

Young readers will put the book down, grateful the visit to Augie's world was only a short one. They will convince themselves they learned a great lesson and may themselves be changed by it (if they can be that honest with themselves), but once the book is closed it's no difference then send a check to the people who paid for the cleft palate ads.

Out of sight, out of mind, guilt paid off in full.

Monday, August 27

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

 by Ransom Riggs  
Quirk Books 2011   

After his grandfather dies under bizarre circumstances young Jacob goes on a journey to uncover the truth about the odd and fantastic stories he'd been told as a child... and how they weren't made-up stories at all!  

Jacob cannot stand his life. At sixteen he has little to look forward to beyond working the family business and seemingly few friends he feels close to. When his grandfather dies from a horrific assault that is explained away Jacob recalls the fantastic stories he'd been told as a young boy and how his grandfather feared he was being hunted down his entire life. To put his mind at ease he visits a psychiatrist who supports his visiting an aisle in Wales where Jacob could learn and see for himself the fiction of his grandfather's imagined persecution and put his own fears to rest.

And if that were all well and true there'd be no story to tell.

In short order Jacob not only learns that his grandfather's fantastic stories of unusual children with peculiar talents were far from made up. There's a girl who is lighter than air, a boy who can animate clay with the hearts pulled from living animals, a clairvoyant and a girl with superhuman strength, and many others. Stranger still, they are all exactly as they were when Jacob's grandfather was a boy, as if somehow frozen in time.

And then there are the creatures that killed Jacobs grandfather and haunt his thoughts. What was it they wanted, and has Jacob inadvertently helped them achieve their dark goals by leading them to the island?

Where I initially found Jacob a difficult character to care about in the beginning – I found his distance from his parents and friends a little too think – the story is quick to move forward and there's the inherent interest in the photos that are included at the beginning and throughout. There is a narrative dissonance between the word and image that carries the reader where text alone would not and for this alone the book would make a fascinating read. How all these images and loose ends will eventually connect propels the reader and is enough of a welcome distraction, as it did for me, that character weaknesses could easily be overlooked.

The dynamic between the Unusual and the Normal people in the world is a bit like that in Harry Potter where the world of hapless Muggles don't seem to realize the dangerous Wizards in their midst. The difference here is the way the fantastic bleeds into history and it's a pretty nifty trick to use old photos to make the link seem more realistic.

This is a book that demands the print format to give the enclosed photos and handwritten notes that are integral to the story an archival weight. While there isn't anything preventing this from working in a digital format the care taken in the printing and the glossiness of the page give the enclose ephemera a verisimilitude, like the reproductions are faithful artifacts. I found myself wondering which came first in some situations, the photos or the plot elements, but in the end the visual and the verbal are well meshed. 

Without saying too much, Jacob and his band of misfits find themselves in the position of being able to rewrite history and distort the time traveler paradox, where he can live to not only witness his own birth but even meet up with his grandfather as a man not much older than himself. I found this to be incredibly unsatisfying: not every great adventure should be stretched out into multiple books, and some cliffhangers leave just too much for the reader to imagine.

Overall, Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children is a tale well-told ruined by a sequel-bait ending.

Tuesday, May 29

The Rain Puddle

by Adelaide Holl   
pictures by Roger Duvoisin
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard 1965

The barnyard is once again astir when the little red hen convinces the other animals that a puddle contains their drowned doppelgangers!

Coming across a puddle a plump hen catches sight of her reflection and assumes that another bird has fallen and needs rescuing. One by one the hen convinces the cow, sheep, pig, turkey, horse and others that their reflections are others who have fallen in. And as they rush about trying to find help the puddle dries up and they all assume the trapped animals were freed and part of the melee. Once it is over only an owl sitting on a branch above it all chuckles to himself.

Falling squarely in the tradition of dumb animals who apparently drink water to survive but cannot fathom their own reflection without resorting to illogical panic, the one upside of this book are the illustrations by Duvoisin. The use of the blank white page to serve as the puddle, drawn from a high, almost flat plane, is simplicity at its most brilliant. He's taken the artist's ability to see that the water doesn't need to be represented, only the reflection, and in that the white highlight and forced perspective are best represented by white space. It's almost zen, this absence-as-presence, and really the only reason to read this book.

Aw, that sounded harsh. I don't mean to imply that the story itself is entirely without merit, except that if it were more traditionally rendered there is little to distinguish it from countless other similar fables. With the reflections beneath a translucent blue water – as we might imagine water to be represented in a traditional illustration – we lose the power of the negative space and the sense of how brilliant and realistic the reflections are for the animals. The simple eloquence of the illustrations compensates for the busy cut-a-cuts! gobble-obble-obbles! mooo-mooos! and oink-oinks! cluttering the text.

Perhaps okay for lap-sitters if you run across a copy at the library, but a must for illustrators looking to learn at the feet of a master.

Thursday, May 24

Planet Tad

by Tim Carvell
HarperCollins 2012

Emmy-Award winning head writer for The Daily Show! and contributor to MAD Magazine! attempts to write a middle grade book!

There are five levels of humor:
Hilarious – laughs so hard the belly aches, the eyes water
Funny – consistent laughter, often pointed and insightful, occasionally absurd
Amusing – good for the occasional laugh-out-loud (IRL not fake LOLs)
Smirkworthy – a solid effort that misses the target, but forgiveable
Trying Too Hard – rock bottom, unfunny, unimaginative, lazy

Sure, some of these are modifiable with adjectives like uproarious and riotous and mildly, but these are five points on a scale as exponential as the Richter scale is for earthquakes. There are degrees of Funny that lead up to Hilarious and down to Amusing, but there is a percipitous drop from Smirkworthy to Trying Too Hard. And when you reach rock bottom there has to be a point where the intended audience is left wondering: why can't they see this isn't working?

Planet Tad is Trying Too Hard to be funny.

Understand, humor is hard to pull off. There are rules for establishing a situation that appears to be normal, setting a trap of expectation that creates tension that anticipates humor, then springing an unexpected curve that relieves that tension with a release of laughter. Sometimes you have to lay down a lot of groundwork before a joke can payoff, but doing so makes the humor that much stronger. It also sometimes helps to let the audience know what to expect – give them a small taste – so they will follow you along until the jokes pay out.

Where Planet Tad falters is right at the beginning when Tad explains he has five resolutions for the new year: start a blog (which this book is a chronicle of), finish seventh grade, get girls to notice him, do an ollie on a skateboard, and begin shaving. Is any of that funny, even to a twelve year old kid? It is possible to make those things funny down the road, but there's nothing inherently funny in the list itself, and presuming this is what Tad's exploits are going to be about, well, why bother? What would be funny?

What if Tad instead decided to give himself Hemingway's list of things you must do to be a man – plant a tree, fight a bull, write a novel, and father a child. Two of these could already be incorporated into Planet Tad: he's already writing a novel via these blog posts, and at one point as part of a lesson on sexual responsibility Tad and a girl have to share custody of an egg for a week without breaking it. In an effort to end the week with an egg in tact Tad boils it, only to be discovered at the end of the week when it rolls off the teacher's desk. He boiled their kid, ha ha. How much funnier than what's in this book would it be if Tad took his "fathering" instincts to their (il)logical conclusions, trying to hatch an infertile egg, or truly becoming paternal during the week to the point where he defends his "son's" honor in a fight because someone made fun of him? Carvell sells his readers short by setting his sights too low, and the result is that the humor doesn't evoke sympathy, cringing anticipation, or even a true moment where you can laugh inwardly.

The point here isn't to rewrite Carvell's book, but to underscore just how badly he missed the mark. The meandering blog posts sound authentic in the way that kids would simply record their life events and move on, but the list of resolutions is barely thread enough to string it al together and even Tad himself seems to only casually remember what he's set out to do. The gags themselves also play out too fast, with set-up and resolution happening within a few pages. Where marketing for the book touts this as being squarely aimed at the Wimpy Kid crowd those intended readers will be sorely disappointed that Carvell can't pull off what Kinney did with jokes that were set up pages and pages earlier that delivered their punchlines when a reader least expected it. Wimpy Kid's humor was droll, dry, and delivered with expert timing; Planet Tad rushes the humor (what little it has) so fast and moves on to the next gag that readers might not even realize there was a punchline to the gag at all.

Fortunatley, kids are smart, and when faced with Trying Too Hard humor they know when to say "Why can't they see this isn't working?"

And then they'll move on to better, funnier books.

Tuesday, May 22

The Eleventh Plague

by Jeff Hirsch
Scholastic 2011

I'm going to pose a seemingly nonsensical riddle worthy of the Mad Hatter: How are good dystopian novels like gangster films from the 1930s?

In a future very near to us war has broken out between the US and China, where biological weapons were used to unleash virus that brought about a world-wide pandemic and plague. In a distant future, sixteen years after the war, chaos reigns as small enclaves of survivors eek out primitive lives as society tries to pull itself back together. Small bands of scavengers brave the wilds sifting through the detritus of shopping malls and downed aircraft looking for anything of value to trade for food or necessities. America, it seems, is little more than pockets of feudal communities clinging tenaciously to the way things were with roving bands of ex-military slave traders looking to trade the only commodity left on the planet. This is the backdrop against which The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch begins.

For his entire sixteen years all Stephen has known is the nomadic life under the direction of his ex-Marine grandfather, and the book opens with Stephen and his dad burying the patriarch who like millions before him has succumbed to the plague. There is a sense of being relieved of a burden while at the same time being set adrift. Stephen and his father will continue as they have, as scavengers looking to trade for sustenance, but is that really all they want from life?

Holed up in an abandoned plane during a storm, Stephen and his dad encounter a group of slavers with some newly caught slaves. Their moral compasses properly set, they attempt to free the slaves but are barely able to flee for their own lives. During the escape Stephen's father is injured and falls into a coma, and while nursing him he is taken by what he believes are a rival band of slavers. Instead he is taken to the town of Settler's Landing where, for the first time, Stephen catches a glimpse of what life was like before he was born.

Unlike some of the other encampments of survivors trying to make their way in the new world, Settler's Landing is engaged on returning things to as close to normal as possible. They farm, the have a school for children, kids play baseball, and they all live in homes that were clearly part of a gated community before things went bad. They are shut off from the rest of the world and doing just fine, but Stephen's life has taught him to be wary of strangers even as they have the medicine and knowledge to keep his dad from dying. Slowly Stephen accepts his place in the community, drawn to another orphan, Jenny, a Chinese girl who has a chip on her shoulder as big as they come. It is Jenny the misfit outsider who shows Stephen some of the cracks in the facade of Settler's Landing, and its her wild anti-authoritarian mischief that spins the story into it's second act examination of whether mankind is simply doomed to destroy itself.

When I first was aware of this book last fall I gave it a glance and then put it aside. It felt a little too much like well-trod territory. Then recently I overheard someone in a bookstore rhapsodize over it because "it has a positive, hopeful ending."

That got me thinking: don't all good dystopias have this sense, this need, for a cathartic ending?

The question then is: what, exactly, is a "good" or hopeful ending for a story about how human civilization has brought itself to the brink of extinction? Is it a return to the old, comfortable world we currently live in or the promise of something new learned from the ashes of the old?

I think this may be the most valuable point of conversation for teens about these dystopias they are drawn to – what exactly is it that gives them more comfort, and ending where the world will turn back to where it was, or a world that has learned and will move forward? In some ways I think this is a trick question, because in order to accept that this bleak future will bring about change is to suggest that everything the way it is now is entirely (or nearly so) wrong. And yet, with the glimmer of hope on the horizon, there isn't really a concrete sense of what that next step would be. It's like belling the cat to say "all we have to do to change things is..." but if we're so smart then why can't we change things without nearly annihilating civilization?

But I have an alternate theory about why people are drawn to these dark futures, and it mirrors a time of great anxiety in American history where stories of crime and violence engaged the imaginations of movie-going audiences of that era. Let's look back at the question I opened with.

The answer to the riddle about dystopias and gangster films lies in what people want from their narrative entertainment, be it movies, TV, or books. In the 1920s and 30s during the depression and prohibition there was a rise in the gangster movie, films that seemed to celebrate the lives of notorious criminals and fictitious public enemies. At a time when people had so little beyond their economic anxieties, there was some satisfaction in watching the stories of people bold enough to take what they wanted, by any means of force necessary. Audiences rooted for these "bad guys" as they moved from one murderous exploit to another... but only up to a point. In the end, the gangster had to die. He had to. There was no way for an audience to reconcile rooting for the bad and feeling good about it unless there was a cathartic moment of justice in the end. It was okay to ride along on the sideboards of those big cars while people were being tommy-gunned so long as we knew that the world would be put to right in the end.

And this is where I think we are with modern dystopian novels. The economy is in the dumps, wages have stagnated while corporate profits have boomed, we're actually in worse times economically than during the Great Depression, so we need some sort of diversion that makes us feel better at the end of the day. Our current anxieties about the world demand some sort of outlet. We need to see the world worse than it currently is in order to feel like things aren't so bad, and like a gangster movie, readers want to delve into these dark futures but only if they can emerge with a sense that things are not as bad as they seem. They want to emerge from the book and find some comfort in the world they currently live in, not worry about how to change it. If these dystopias truly were suggesting a global change was necessary they would set about showing readers a road map out of our current path toward these dark places, but they do not. To do so would risk becoming pedantic on the safe side and propaganda on the extreme.

People didn't leave gangster movies wanting to take up a sub machine gun to shoot up the town, just as kids who read dystopic novels don't put down the book feeling a sense of nihilistic hopelessness. This idea of these books being to "dark" comes from adult denial of just how dark the world looks to kids at the moment. Historically, teens have always felt the older generations have screwed things up and should just get the hell out of their way. So if you think a dark work of fiction is more detrimental to a child's mind than, say, our current divisive political climate or the profits-over-people mindset of big business, then, as the hippies used to say, you're part of the problem.

Fix the world and the books will fix themselves.

This review is cross-posted today with Guys Lit Wire, home to all things teen boy readers might like. 

Monday, May 7


by I. C. Springman
illustrated by Brian Lies
Houghton Mifflin, 2012

It's Hoarders for the picture book set! A thieving magpie collects and collects until... well, as they say, less is more.

One of the oddest thing about reviewing  picture books is that it often takes more words to describe them than it does to read them. Quite simply we have the story of a bird with a propensity for stealing colorful, shiny things and bringing them back to his tree where they accumulate until, finally, the weight of everything sends it all tumbling to the ground. At last the blackbird is forced to accept that only a small number of things is the right amount.

For a book to illustrate the concepts of more, less, too much, and enough, More is a beautiful vehicle. The paintings have the studied care of detail painted into them yet the layout is simple enough to stay focused on the action. But from the perspective of narrative I am bothered by the mouse (or mice, as there are more than one) that acts as the blackbird's external voice or reason. I've thought about this for a while now and what I think bothers me is the dissonance between the illustrations and the cartoon-like behavior of the mice. If the illustrations were more comic the dynamic might have made more sense, but as it is the realism of the blackbird against the imploring nature of his tree-bound rodent friend reads a little like a National Geographic documentary with Disney characters animated into the proceedings.  

But I do like the message of learning to do with less, and imagine many a parent will appreciate having some ammunition against young lap-sitters who might be tempted by commercial culture to want more and more and more.

Now if it didn't have Jiminy Field Mouse and his moral tacked onto it...  

Friday, May 4

The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius

Adapted from the Latin by M. D. Usher
Illustrations by T. Motley
David R. Godine 2011

Ah, the good old days of Ancient Rome, where a reckless traveler manages to turn himself into an ass – literally, a donkey – and survive to tell the unbelievable tale to his traveling companions.

First, for those who know the original tale and might have some concerns, Usher's adaptation is cleaned up enough for slightly raunchy middle grade tastes while keeping the overall plot in tact. For those new to the story Lucius, the narrator, comes across another pair of travelers on the road to Thessaly who are deep in a heated argument. It appears one, an 11 year old boy named Prudentius, has a fantastic story and the other insists he is a liar. Lucius is asked to listen to the tale and decide whether he believes it, and if he does he will agree to put the pair up for the night at an inn. Lucius's curiosity is piqued, and he agrees to the terms.

In very short order we hear of a magic ointment that can turn a person into an animal, and without a moment's hesitation Prudentius becomes an ass only to learn that the ointment is meant for nighttime use. In order to undo the spell he must eat rose petals, but before he can find them he is discovered and treated as the ass he is, forced to eat hay and live the life of a beast of burden. From here it is one event after another, where Prudentius the ass is sold, beaten by a mean boy, stolen by thieves, all the while maintaining his human capacity for human thought and feeling but only able to bray. At last Prudentius is restored to human form (deus ex machina through the assistance of the goddess Isis herself) and he is a changed man – changed in that he was a man originally but Isis has turned him into a boy with all his year's wisdom in tact. The tale ends with the travelers arriving at their destination and Lucius concedes that, though fantastic, he believes the story and prepares to uphold his end of the bargain. There might even be a story he can write in all this...

Excised from this retelling but in the original is the elaborate tale-within-a-tale of Cupid and Psyche. Though this additional story might have accounted for the passing of time along the road it does divert attention away from the primary storyline. What is interesting is that this change underscores how the focus on Prudentius's tale of becoming an ass ambles along through a series of unpredictable events. This isn't the narrative tradition we now expect which is character and goal driven. Okay, it is, because he does set out initially to find roses to relieve him of the magic, but he just as quickly is willing to give up hopes of being human when he finds a way to turn his transformation into an asset. In the end the story manages to come full circle but has the hero taken a journey or were we treated to a series of Chaucer-like tales of life in Ancient Rome connected by a donkey? Or perhaps these are closer to the tales of Sheheraazade, tales told to achieve a means to an end, loosely connected by the teller right down to the nesting of stories within stories.

Purists may be upset with some of the liberties Usher has taken with the text – turning Lucius into a man hearing the tale rather than being the focus of the adventures, softening the ribald nature of the story – but I think there is something to be said for providing younger readers an introduction to the tale they might pick it up again some day. Outside of college-prep Latin or AP Literature classes I don't believe The Golden Ass is in the general curriculum, and that's too bad.

What Vermont classics professor Usher manages in 96 pages is to make the first complete novel from antiquity accessible to a modern audience. Boys especially, the quick-witted ones with a taste for wordplay, will enjoy the text's unsubtle uses of the word ass, and all readers will enjoy the occasional illustrations by Motley that accompany moments in the story. There probably isn't much beyond this to recommend to readers who enjoy The Golden Ass and would hunger for more – unlike fans of Greek mythology being able to turn to a variety of stories ancient and modern – but there's enough here to counter any argument that ancient history is boring.

Wednesday, April 25

The Hero of Little Street

by Gregory Rogers  
Allen & Unwin, Austrailia 2009
Roaring Brook, US 2012

The Boy, who previously met the Bard and the Bear and battled a Midsummer Knight, takes "readers" on another adventure, this time through the world of Vermeer.

The Boy, out titular hero, is kicking around when a soccer ball appears. One swift kick and the ball lands in a fountain, and the bully boys who were previously playing with the ball are none too happy. They chase the Boy to take refuge in an art museum where he finds himself joined by a dog from one painting, helps a musician in another painting, and is let out into the world of Flemish masters through Vermeer's "Little Street." When his canine companion is taken from him the Boy tracks him down to a basement butchery where hundreds of dogs have been captured and caged. After making a daring escape the Boy and the dogs return to the "real" world where they meet up with the bully boys again. The Boy gets the last laugh as the newly freed dogs chase the bullies down as a favor to their new master, and the Boy continues on to another day and another adventure.  

click image to enlarge
That Rogers does all this without words in a comic-framed format is only half the marvel, his real strength comes in the ability to make the real and the fantasy imaginings slip fluidly in and out. When the dog slips out of Jan Van Eyck "The Arnolfini Wedding" the reader doesn't question it any more than the Boy does, it simply happened and is part of the world. As it is the world Roger's Boy inhabits has the feel of another time and place where time and technology play no part. It adds a sense of timelessness about the whole affair, a story of a boy and a chase and a series of adventures.

And it was while thinking about the story in this light that I realized this is where picture books are more liberal than their wordier counterparts up the literacy line. A picture book has the advantage of being like a short story where there may be a one-up change in the main character's position of predicament from the beginning of the story, but no need for there to be the sort of emotional or plot development necessary for traditional narratives.  I mean, I suppose I could find a three act narrative in The Hero of Little Street – act one: hero chased by bullies; act two: in the museum world; act three: return of the hero triumphant – but in the end it feels more like a cumulative series of adventures in the mode of the Odyssey. Four of five more of these Boy books by Rogers and they could be bundled together into an epic tale of their own.

you probably want to see this bigger, too
The last lingering element that was hard to place was Rogers visual language. It is a comic format but something keeps me from calling it a graphic novel. It isn't simply length, there's something that taps into something I couldn't place for a long time until I studied the poses of the characters, their lines of action while standing still, their contrapposto if you will. One thing computers haven't managed yet is the ability to search for sense connections beyond words, those memory senses of image and smell and touch that can't be entered as a search term. In the end I finally made the connection: Sergio Aragones, the "marginal" artist from MAD magazine whose linguine-legged people and wordless comics are echoed in Rogers' storytelling. The actual influence may not be there at all, but the fluidity of moving through these visual ideas is there, it's a shared vocabulary of images. I think if you know both artists works it's easy to see the connection, even if they are only distant cousins half a world apart.

As a final thought, based on a conversation I had yesterday, one of the great things about picture books like this without words is that it allows "readers" to provide their own dialog, their own interpretation of the story. It's malleable or it can become firmly fixed, but in keeping with the "picture worth a thousand words" Rogers books contain millions of words... but no text.