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.