Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas Books Revisited

In case you didn't see it, a couple of years ago I spotlighted some wonderful Christmas books. Here's the link for your holiday enjoyment!

Still, I feel I was remiss in not listing one of my very favorites in that post: Star Mother's Youngest Child by Louise Moeri, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. It's a small book, and it's written a little like a folktale. One Christmas Eve, a cranky old woman who lives alone in the woods rocks in her rocker, complaining to the universe and her dog, Uproar, that just once she'd like a proper Christmas. "Is that too much to ask?"

Meanwhile, up in the heavens, Star Mother's youngest child is fussing and fretting. It seems he would like to go down to earth and experience Christmas, just once.

You'd think this match made in heaven would play out predictably, but it doesn't, not really. When the little star shows up on the Old Woman's doorstep, he isn't at all pretty.
The Ugly Child stood blinking and shuffling on the doorstep. He seemed as nonplussed upon seeing the Old Woman as she was upon seeing him.

"Did you want to see me?"

"Not very bad," admitted the Ugly Child.

"Well?" shouted the Old Woman again. "What is it you want? We'll both freeze to death with the door open while you stand there tongue-tied."

"I was looking," said the Ugly Child at last, "for Christmas."

With a howl the Old Woman threw up her hands. "Mercy! Mercy!" she cried. "To be wakened on a freezing day like this by a vagabond whose wits have evidently frozen too! Looking for Christmas! I'll be bound—and where did you expect to find Christmas? Here?"

The Ugly Child peered past the Old Woman into the poor little hut. He carefully took in the shabby furniture, the bare table, the sparse stores of food and clothing. "Well," he muttered, "here is where I am."

Even as the two slowly come together to celebrate Christmas, the Star Child doesn't become any prettier and the Old Woman doesn't become any sweeter. Somehow, that makes their quiet triumph all the better.

Look for this odd, wonderful little book as you celebrate the season.

(My second favorite is Rumer Godden's The Story of Holly and Ivy, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Well, it's a tie with Julie Vivas's The Nativity!)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Picture Books to Look Forward To

Spring isn't as big a book season as fall in the publishing world, but that doesn't mean we won't see some wonderful new offerings after Christmas. Once you finish making your holiday wish list of books, start making a list for January and February!

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen (January 17, 2012)

In case you didn't catch on by reading Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World, or any of the Brixton Brothers books, which are spoofs of the Hardy Boys mysteries, Extra Yarn should remind you that Mac Barnett is a very creative guy. Weird, in fact, but in a good way!

This playful story of a girl who finds "a box filled with yarn of every color" manages to be both pragmatic and magical. After Anabelle has knit herself a sweater, she has some extra yarn. "So she knit a sweater for Mars [her dog], too. But there was still extra yarn." When a neighbor mocks her sweater, she tells him he's jealous. And she's right—so she makes him and his dog sweaters, too. But there is still extra yarn.

As the cumulative tale progresses, Anabelle fills a dreary winter village with sweaters. She makes sweaters for people, sweaters for pets, even sweaters for things like houses. Then people start coming from all over the world to see Annabelle and her village—including a dastardly villain, an archduke who wants that box of yarn. Even here, the story doesn't turn out quite how you expect it will.

But there is always extra yarn.

Jon Klassen is getting a lot of buzz for his book, I Want My Hat Back, but I'm all infatuated with his illustrations for Barnett's book. About the only color in these pictures, other than a touch of pink on human cheeks and noses, is found in the lovely, cable-stitched sweaters Anabelle makes. These are tinted in textured rows of green and rose and orange and yellow to marvelous effect. I predict awards for this odd, gently humorous, and uplifting picture book, which is almost, but not quite, a fable.

Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander, illustrated by David Diaz (February 21, 2012)

Elizabeth Alexander wrote this poem in honor of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration and read it at that event. Not everyone was in love with the poem at the time, but then, it hadn't been illustrated by David Diaz. Now that it has, poem and artwork feed off each other beautifully. For example, the first page reads:
Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

The color-drenched spread shows people and their dogs passing one another in a rich mosaic, eyes sometimes meeting, sometimes not. Diaz's breathtaking artwork supports the grand vagueness of Alexander's lines, bringing them into focus in just the right way.

When Alexander speaks of "the dead who brought us here,/who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges," Diaz gives us lines of men building railroad tracks. When she speaks of those who "picked the cotton and the lettuce, built/brick by brick the glittering edifices," we see men and women picking cotton, with a glittering city in the background. I'm especially fond of the page about music, done mostly in blues: "Someone is trying to make music somewhere/with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,/with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice." (Note that Alexander's original line breaks are preserved.)

There are those who complained that Alexander's poem was too prosaic when it was recited at the inauguration, but I feel she was channeling Walt Whitman, trying to portray millions of people and 233 years-plus of history in one fell swoop. Not an easy task, but one made easier here by the addition of Diaz's distinctive and glorious artwork.

Children may not understand all of this poet's language, but I think they will understand the joy of Alexander's intent, not to mention the beauty of her phrasing.

Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (February 28, 2012)

Hahahahaha! (That's basically my review.)

Fine, I'll explain. This book is a spoof of a traditional alphabet book. An uptight zebra is managing the project, cuing all kinds of ABC characters to take their places on various pages. In fact, on the spread with the copyright information, you can see them lining up: Apple, Ball, Cat, Duck, Elephant, Fox, Glove, Hat, Ice cream, Jam, Kangaroo, Moose—

Wait a minute! M doesn't come after K! (The moose is actually holding Lollipop in one hoof and Needle in another.)

Turns out Moose can't wait for his page. Like the small child you'll read this book to, he keeps popping up and wanting to know if it's his turn now. Well, A, B, and C go smoothly enough, but when you get to the D page, you will see "D is for Moose," with an outraged duck barely visible in the background. Zebra cries out (in two voice bubbles): "Moose? No. Moose does not start with D. You are on the wrong page."

Across the spread, we see moose rambling into "E is for Elephant," saying, "Oh, sorry." And the irate elephant exclaims, "Look out!" Meanwhile, the duck hides behind one of Elephant's legs, peeking out.

The artwork here is a surprise because Zelinsky is known for his detailed, old master-looking fairy tale illustrations for books like Caldecott winner Rapunzel. This art is cartoonish, but it certainly suits its topic.

You may think Z Is for Moose's premise is a one-note joke, but as Moose wreaks havoc through the rest of the alphabet, you will find yourself laughing—even before you get to a couple of great plot twists. It should not be lost on you that the alphabet objects are completely predictable, making it even more gratifying to have Moose around to shake things up.

What an amazing, funny, perfect book!

Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes (February 28, 2012)

Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. You have spoiled me with your hilarious Lilly and your absurd Sheila Rae. Now I come across Penny, and I find myself confused by the lack of major humor.

To you readers out there: This book is sweeter and less funny than many of Henkes' previous books. You will just have to let go of Lilly and discover Penny!

She's a little mouse, yes, but Penny is a musician, not a purse carrier. Here's how we begin: "Penny came home for school with a song. 'Listen, Mama,' said Penny. 'It's my very own song.'" Whereupon Penny tries to share her song with her mother. But Mama stops her, saying, "You will wake up the babies." Penny tries her father. He, too, warns her about waking up the babies, little twin siblings.

Frustrated, Penny sings to herself in the mirror and to her glass animals, but it isn't enough. Next she sings at the dinner table, but her parents make her wait again. Finally it is time for Penny's song, and her whole family listens. She even teaches them the song.

Penny and Her Song is set up as an early chapter book. It only has two chapters, but will still make young readers feel like older readers. The reading level is about first grade.

If Penny resembles Lilly in any way, it is for her child-appropriate lack of patience. Just as Lilly wanted to show off her purse right now, Penny wants to sing her song right now. But Penny—and you—will just have to wait.

Penny and Her Song may not be what you expect, but it's a tender little story just the same. I especially love its emphasis on the joy of singing, both alone and as a family. I grew up in a family that sang together, and I can tell you: that's a real gift to a child.

I'm Fast! by Kate and Jim McMullan (January 3, 2012)

It started with I'm Mighty! and hit its stride with I Stink! Dirty, Bad, and Big are the other three books, leading us to #6, I'm Fast! These are all titles with strong appeal to little boys, of course. I am also reminded a bit of Jim Barton and Tom Lichtenheld's Shark vs. Train with this newest outing, mostly because it's all about a contest.

The competitors are a big blue train and a small red sports car. Our story begins as the car issues a challenge and the train responds:

What's that, Red?
You wanna have a RACE?
First one to Chicago wins?
You're on!
Lemme load my FREIGHT.

I really like the next spread, which shows the different kinds of train cars and what they carry in question and answer format, e.g., "Gas? Tank car!"

Be ready to make some excellent sound effects when you read this one to a small child. For example, the page where this pair sets off reads: "THROTTLE UP! Ready? Set? ROLL! Chooka chooka chooka chooka VVRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMMMMM." (Yep, I counted the letters!) And some of the words are printed in red or orange or purple, making the whole thing easier to follow and even more fun.

The journey through tunnels and over snowy mountains is terrific, and the two characters run into different challenges along the way. Who will win?

Vvrrrrrrooooooommm! Chooka chooka chooka! Read and find out in this fast book for a high-powered little lap reader.

Freedom Song by Sally M. Walker, illustrated by Sean Qualls (January 3, 2012)

When I saw the full title of this book—Freedom Song: The Story of Henry "Box" Brown—I was surprised. After all, didn't Ellen Levine corner that market with her book, Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad? Illustrated by the brilliant Kadir Nelson, no less? The book even won a Caldecott Honor award!

Then I read Freedom Song and realized that Walker really does have a fresh take on the story, as does Sean Qualls. Trust me, there's room for both of these books on your shelf.

First of all, Freedom Song is written in a poetic style. Here's the first page:
When Henry Brown came into this world, his family sang. Mama blew kisses on his soft, brown belly. Papa named him Henry, held him high to the sky. Sisters and brothers tickled his toes.

Henry grows up singing, despite being a slave. He sings a workday song, a gather-up song, and, at night when no one is listening, a freedom song. "Its freedom-land, family, stay-all-together words soothed Henry's greatest fear: the fear that Master would sell him."

For a time Henry is happy, especially once he's grown and falls in love with Nancy. They soon marry and have children together. Henry is busy singing cradle songs and telling stories to his little ones. "Family songs hushed Henry's freedom song. And Henry's heart was full."

Then the unthinkable happens. Henry's wife and children are sold away from him.
For weeks, silence filled Henry's house. Poor Henry. "No songs left in his heart," said a neighbor, shaking her head. But she was wrong. Henry did still have a song. His freedom song. And its think, plan, take-yourself-to-freedom-land words were getting stronger every day.

Now Henry comes up with the amazing plan of shipping himself to freedom in a box, and the story carries on to its conclusion. Does Henry ever manage to find his wife and children? In an afterword, we learn that he probably does not. But the story is inspiring for all that. It ends with a song of praise and thanks from Henry, who is now free.

Sally Walker's use of the song motif might seem overdone, but it is not; instead it carries the story along with power. The songs feel especially important in light of the history of hope embodied by slave songs and spirituals. I also like the way the author conveys how awful it would be to have your family suddenly taken from you for no reason. Family love permeates this book.

The portion of the story dedicated to Henry's escape is presented in sufficient, visceral detail that young readers will be able to imagine how frightening his journey was and how Henry's courage carried him through. It was horribly uncomfortable for a full-grown man to be in a small box for so long, risking suffocation and discovery at any moment.

Sean Qualls's artwork, like the writing, is stylized, apparently done in collage or mixed media. Blues, browns, and grays give weight to the soberness of Henry's life circumstances and to the threat of getting caught as he works to attain his freedom.

This is a powerful, beautiful book, a second and equally valuable testament to the hope and courage of Henry Brown and others like him.

Note: My thanks to HarperCollins for sending me ARCs. (I have selected the most outstanding ones to share with you!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving wishes from the critters on my bookshelf... ('Cause that's just the kind of mood I'm in!) Good books, family, turkey—what more could I ask on this breezy fall afternoon?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mother Goose in Flight

At least two new Mother Goose books hit the market this year, both of them bringing a fresh take on what you might have thought was a worn-out corner of children's book real estate. The Green Mother Goose: Saving the World One Rhyme at a Time by David Davis and Jan Peck, with illustrations by Carin Berger, goes environmental on the good old goose's tail feathers, while Nursery Rhyme Comics is a compilation illustrated by "50 Celebrated Cartoonists."

The Green Mother Goose by David Davis and Jan Peck, illustrations by Carin Berger

The Green Mother Goose authors replace every well-known rhyme in their anthology with an environmentally oriented version. Here are a few examples.

We read of Old Mother Hubbard:
She markets today
With cloth shopping bags,
And when she gets home
Her dog is all wags!

Little Jack Horner has lost his interest in plums:
Little Jack Horner
Changed bulbs in the corner,
Replacing the old incandescents.
Now the lamps on the sills
Cut his mama's high bills,
'Cause the lights are
all compact fluorescent.

Meet Mary, now two different girls:
Mary, Mary quite contrary,
Refused to garden green.
Her toxic sprays, a choking haze,
Spreading dangers, hurtful and mean.

Organic Mary, not contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With ladybug smiles and compost piles,
And pretty herbs all in a row.

The collage illustrations are as fresh as organic vegetables, remarkably well suited to this collection of poems. Visit Berger's website for a look at more of her work.

As you can see from the examples, the rhymes are a little uneven. And if you are not up for didacticism, don't bother. The book, which came out in time for Earth Day 2011, is laden with overt messages about environmentalism. If you're an elementary school teacher or parent trying to teach your kids how to save the planet, you might want to add The Green Mother Goose to your repertoire. If, however, you're a big fan of the originals and don't want your nursery rhymes diluted with such a tightly focused message, you might want to give this book a pass.

Nursery Rhyme Comics, illustrated by 50 artists, with an introduction by Leonard S. Marcus

Like The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, which I reviewed last week, this collection strikes me as being just as much for adults as for children, if not more so.

It's a great premise, actually—sign up a posse of renowned comic book illustrators to reinterpret the Mother Goose rhymes. Throw in an intro by children's literature expert Leonard Marcus while you're at it, and you've got a veritable collectors' item.

And you do, truly. But is it a book for what we consider today to be the primary audience for these rhymes, 3- to 5-year-olds? Perhaps not. The small panels and sometimes less-than-cute characterizations would seem to give this book more appeal for the 6-to-8 crowd, frankly. Oh, and for a whole bunch of adults. Yeah, I suspect it's mostly for them!

That said, this is a very cool book. One advantage of getting these illustrators on board, most of them outsiders when it comes to children's literature, is that they bring a fresh eye to material that may be have been overdone by insiders. Not that their takes on the rhymes all work from where I'm standing. But it's a lot of fun to see what the newcomers have done with these iconic rhymes.

For example, when Patrick McDonnell's "donkey, old and gray," begins to "blow [his] horn," he whips out a saxophone, startling a sleeping bird on a branch. Stephanie Yue's "Hickory, Dickory, Dock" mouse turns out to be a medieval-looking critter who runs clear up a clock tower to strike the clock himself. He then descends by using his red kerchief as a parachute. James Sturm's nimble Jack follows the new trend for breaking the fourth wall, addressing his audience angrily in response to the rhyme's apparent directive, "Jack jump over the candlestick.": "What?! You must think I'm pretty stupid! Why don't you jump over a candlestick! Like I would do such a thing." He goes off, muttering, "You're crazy! Putting ideas like that in a kid's head. I'm going home." Then there's a nice twist at the end.

Much of the artwork is stunning. "If All the Seas Were One Sea" has tended to be illustrated rather insipidly in past compilations, but here we get a color-drenched cartoon hemisphere bearing a gigantic lumberjack who wields his axe to fell the world's biggest tree. (The axe and the stars alike have voice bubbles blithely announcing, "Twinkle!" or "Sparkle!")

As you might expect from the comic book crowd, most of these illustrators take full advantage of the storytelling possibilities the rhymes present. Eleanor Davis gives us the tale of "The Queen of Tarts" on a spread with 12 panels that are tied together by their placement in the framework of a large castle and its grounds. Richard Thompson's "There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket" adds a young assistant and a device called an Old Lady Launcher. (I'll bet Acme holds the patent.)

This collection is marvelous; just don't expect it to appeal to the very youngest lap readers. For them, we should take a look at some standout versions over the years.

No, wait—first let's visit the Opies. In case you don't know, Iona and Peter Opie were a husband-and-wife team of British folklorists who studied nursery rhymes and other children's literature. (Peter has passed away, but I believe Iona is still alive, though retired.) Their compilations are considered to be scholarly; some are kid friendly, too. The Opie Book of Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Pauline Baynes (who also illustrated the Narnia series), seems to be designed for 7- to 9-year-olds, perhaps as a classroom read-aloud, but Tail Feathers from Mother Goose: The Opie Rhyme Book is another story, with its gorgeously fun artwork by a number of well-known (mostly British) illustrators. They include Shirley Hughes, Jan Ormerod, Chris Riddell, Colin McNaughton, Angela Barrett, John Birmingham, Marc Brown, Errol Le Cain, Helen Oxenbury, and Quentin Blake, among others. The book is perfect for lap readers and has the intriguing advantage of deliberately focusing on less familiar rhymes. (It was published as a fundraiser for the Opies' large collection of early children's literature, which was donated to Oxford University's Bodleian Library.) See Maurice Sendak's cover illustration, shown above right.

If you're interested in the history of nursery rhymes, try The Annotated Mother Goose, with notes by William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould is best known as a Sherlock Holmes scholar, but he and his wife published this Mother Goose volume together, and it's just fascinating. (I first ran across it at my grandmother's house. Later I tracked down a copy for myself.) For instance, did you know that Edward Lear attributed his limerick career to a nursery rhyme that's a limerick?
There was an old woman of Norwich,
Who lived upon nothing but porridge;
Parading the town,
She turned cloak into gown,
The thrifty old woman of Norwich.

Then there's the April Fool's tradition. The annotators tell us that it used to be people only played jokes until noon on April Fool's Day. Those who tried it in the afternoon could be told:
April-fool time's past and gone,
You're the fool, and I am none.

You may have heard that some of the rhymes have political meanings, but it turns out "Humpty Dumpty" is not one of them. Instead it is a riddle that may be thousands of years old.

The book divides the rhymes into groups like "Lullabies and Game Songs," "Charms, Auguries, and Nature Lore," and my favorite, ""Some That Came Later That Might Have Come Before." The volume includes many rhymes you probably haven't heard—here's one of the charms, intended to help a bewitched cow give up its milk:
Cushy cow, bonny, let down thy milk,
And I will give thee a gown of silk;
A gown of silk and a silver tee,
If thou wilt let down thy milk to me.

But what about Mother Goose for toddlers, you may ask? Of course, you have a lot of options. The Real Mother Goose, with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright, was first published by Rand McNally in 1916 and has been in print ever since. It's currently available as a Dover edition. (I just discovered I acquired it in its 75th printing, in 1983!) The old-fashioned illustrations seem to fit these traditional rhymes, and there's the comfort factor, as well, since many of us grew up with this edition.

My own favorite version resulted from the happy pairing of the highly esteemed Iona Opie and the greatly esteemed Rosemary Wells, who together created My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose. The books feature Wells' signature bunnies and kitties and the rhymes are set in a nice big font. The artwork itself is large and simple, yet active and engaging. In short, these are the perfect books for toddlers and kindergartners. I am especially fond of the use of pure, simple colors and textured elements.

By the way, you may have heard that a Boston woman named Elizabeth (or Mary) Goose was the origin of the Mother Goose figure, but the tradition actually goes back farther than that, and into different countries. According to the great Iona Opie, this story is simply that—another story associated with the rhymes.

A few other Mother Goose editions are worth mentioning: Mary Engelbreit's, which I find stiff and decorative, though the strong colors are a plus; Gyo Fujikawa's, which is delightful, sweet without being saccharine; Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever, which has the best "Jack Be Nimble" ever, among other great renditions; and Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose, illustrated by Scott Gustafson, which has a classic feel, lovely and placid.

An actual classic would be Kate Greenaway's 1881 edition. Yep, it's still in print. See art above right (presumably Miss Muffet).

Or look for the Jesse Willcox Smith edition from 1914, which is available to this day, as well. Her illustrations sometimes cross the line from sweet to saccharine, but they're very pretty nonetheless.

Jumping back to the present, I will just mention two additional variations on the Mother Goose tradition. In 2009, boy book expert and children's book author Jon Scieszka came out with Truckery Rhymes, in which the characters in the Mother Goose tradition all become trucks and cars. This book is associated with the Trucktown series, illustrated by David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon. See my review here. Suffice it to say, little boys will probably get a kick out of this one. (I remember back in the days when my younger brother was one or two—he used to pound my dad's shoulder when we were out driving, pointing at every truck or car in sight and shrieking "Beece! Beece!" Which meant "bus," of course.)

Of course, in the case of any parody variation, it's a good idea to read the original rhymes with your children or students first. Then they'll be in on the joke.

One interesting recent offering is Mother Goose: Numbers on the Loose by Leo and Diane Dillon. This famed husband-and-wife pair of artists anthologized nursery rhymes with numbers in them, illustrating them beautifully, as always.

Then there are the books I want to get my hands on: Salley Mavor's fabric relief variation, Pocketful of Posies; Kady MacDonald Denton's A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Have you seen her illustrations for Bonny Becker's A Visitor for Bear?); and Sylvia Long's Mother Goose (Her illustrations for Dianna Hutts Aston's books An Egg Is Quiet, A Seed Is Sleepy, and A Butterfly Is Patient are really something.).

But if you can only get one Mother Goose book for an actual child who's three or four, stick with My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells or Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever. The facial expressions of the characters alone are worth the price of admission!

Note: I requested a copy of Nursery Rhyme Comics from the Amazon Vine program.

Update: I found
James Marshall's Mother Goose at the library today, as well as a third (smaller) Opie-Wells collection of more obscure rhymes, Mother Goose's Little Treasures.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Thousand Words

Thank you, Brian Selznick. Well, actually, I'm sure I can't ascribe the relatively recent ascendancy of graphic novels and other books with important visual elements entirely to him, or rather to his award-winning, about-to-be-a-movie The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but it sure as Dante's Inferno didn't hurt. Shaun Tan helped, too, I'm sure of it. Oh, and Marvel Comics. Don't forget them. Plus Marjane Satrapi and Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale. Not to mention Jarrett J. "I Can't Spell His Name without Looking but at Least I Can Spell Scieszka" Krosoczka. At any rate, we're seeing some really wonderful graphic novels and variations thereof.

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Rebecca Guay

One that has been received with less fanfare than I would like is The Last Dragon. Apparently Jane Yolen had a great time creating Foiled (2010) because she's back with another GN, though it has a very different style. Foiled was low fantasy, but The Last Dragon is good old, glorious high fantasy, complete with village blacksmiths and herbalists and that titular dragon. The book has been published for the adult fantasy market, by the way, but it has definite YA appeal—and nothing in particular to worry parents of teens, if you don't count the baby who gets eaten by a dragon (offstage).

Despite the book's traditional trappings and its lush look, created by Rebecca Guay, it is not your great-grandmother's fairy tale. Oh, it reads like a fairy tale, but Yolen throws in some semi-scathing ideas about what makes a hero, or how a real hero might be made: from encouragement, foolhardiness, and kite strings.

Our story begins in a far-off land, on the island known as Meddlesome, where, unbeknownst to humans, the very last dragon's egg has stirred and begun to hatch. Meanwhile, a village herbalist is raising three daughters—practical, dour Rosemary; beautiful, empty-headed Sage; and talented, disobedient Tansy, who is a trial to her mother.

When Tansy and her father discover a plant called fireweed or flamewort, they dismiss the legends that say it only grows when dragons are around. Then Tansy's father disappears, and Tansy wonders if the legends might be true. At last the dragon is sighted; it has quickly developed a taste for humans and their beasts. The villagers gather rather hopelessly to plan their defense. One strategy is to send some of the village boys by boat to the mainland to fetch back a hero.

Naturally, the boys find all sorts of liars and thieves. At last they find a man who looks like a hero, but it's up to Tansy to shape this con artist into the real thing. And there is still the dragon to be defeated, one way or another.

Yolen's text is well paced and well written, as always. Guay's artwork flows beautifully around the words, burnished in dull golds and greens with touches of red throughout, so that the whole thing appears to have been painted on parchment.

Here's an excerpt from early in the story:
The isles ran red and dark with dragon blood till all of them were gone.

Or so the humans believed.

Two hundred years later:

At sunset the low tide scrapes the beach, pulling cold fingers through the sand and rock.

One great mother tree, older than the long-ago dragons, feels her roots loosening. Slowly, like a mountain, she falls with a crash into the water, giving up her adopted child, the egg she has cradled for so long.

This book is more for the fantasy lover than for the comic book crowd, though hero Lancot is deliberately drawn in ironic imitation of all those chesty superheroes. Overall, The Last Dragon is rendered as if it were a retelling of a lost fairy tale. The first few pages evoke medieval manuscripts, in fact. It's a beautiful book, and it's going on the shelf with my growing collection of excellent graphic novels.

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

This YA graphic novel is garnering starred reviews right and left, and no wonder. Anya's Ghost is a perfect rendering of what it means to be an outsider, or at least, to feel like one, which is more to the point. The book also has fascinating things to say about crushes and being true to oneself.

Anya is a Russian immigrant who's trying very hard not to come across like one. Having arrived in the U.S. in kindergarten, she has dropped her accent and learned to blend in. She tries very hard to avoid a more recent Russian immigrant, Dima, hoping she won't be lumped in with him.

After an embarrassing incident at school, Anya flees into a little wooded area and falls into a deep hole. At the bottom, she isn't just frightened by her predicament; she discovers a skeleton and meets the ghost of another girl who fell down the hole and was never found.

It will give you an idea of Brosgol's humor to learn that when Anya's shouting brings a teenage boy to the top of her prison and she yells, "HEY, GET HELP! GET SOMEBODY! I'M HURT!" he calls down, "Are you a hot chick? You kind of sound like a hot chick." Anya makes a priceless face and then replies, "Incredibly hot. You cannot even begin to imagine."

Thanks to a little bone that has somehow gotten in her backpack, Anya's ghost follows her home. At first the ghost seems sweet, telling Anya her sad tale of a soldier boyfriend lost in the war, a vicious attack on her family, and that fateful fall down the hole. Emily begins to help Anya with her tests in school and with getting the attention of Anya's crush, a basketball player. She even pushes Anya to get invited to a party where Sean will be and helps her pick out an outfit. A really slutty outfit.

Huh? Is this simply a matter of bad taste? Well, no. Let's just say that Emily is not quite the person she said she was, and it may not be easy to get rid of her. Watch out, Anya—you've been haunted!

I don't know which I like more, the ghost plot or the way the rest of Anya's life is portrayed, from her mother studying for the citizen test to her quarrel with best friend Siobhan and her fears about being fat. No, wait, I love Brosgol's depiction of the horrors of high school gym class!

Anya's Ghost is a fresh and perfectly aimed story about teenage fears. I'm sure someone could have a field day with the symbolism of the ghost as the dark side of any girl, let alone Anya, but you don't need to go all "literary analysis" to enjoy this terrific graphic novel. Just relish the storytelling. And make sure there aren't any finger bones in your backpack.

Note for Worried Parents: There is quite a bit of smoking in this book, also a teen party and a boy who obviously uses girls sexually. Everything is handled tastefully, however, with a positive message about not caving to peer pressure or trying to please a boy.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and a bunch of illustrious writers

As Lemony Snicket explains in his introduction, for many years, teachers have used The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg as a set of great story starters. The book is a collection of marvelous illustrations, each with a cryptic sentence or two that just begs for more.

Here, in this new volume, is the more. That is, some bright soul got the idea of having a group of well-respected authors write short stories to go with the mysterious illustrations. The writers are, in order of appearance in the book, Lemony Snicket (introduction), Tabitha King (Stephen's wife), Jon Scieszka (told you I could spell it), Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, M.T. Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg himself, and Stephen King.

The phrase "a veritable who's who" comes to mind.

Now, it's been my experience that short story collections tend to contain 1-2 great stories, 4-5 good stories, and several that don't cut it. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick beats this trend to some extent. There aren't any truly rotten stories in the book. However, there are certainly some standouts. The other thing I noticed is that at least half the stories seemed better suited to an adult audience than to kids. Here is a brief commentary on each one:

"Archie Smith, Boy Wonder" by Tabitha King—It may take a few pages for the reader to realize that the narrator is a special needs child, perhaps a boy with Down's Syndrome. This is a lyrical story about baseball, the moon, and imagination, but its beauty may not be appreciated by children as much as it will be by adults.

"Under the Rug" by Jon Scieszka—The mastermind behind the Guys Read project gives us a humorous horror story with unapologetically gruesome boy appeal. It's about a boy, his grandma, and a lump beneath the rug. Also about the way kids clean house, which is to say, not very diligently. Fun suspense with a twist. (See guy wielding chair, below left.)

"A Strange Day in July" by Sherman Alexie—The brother and sister twins in this story aren't at all nice. In fact, as the author points out often, they are strange. But these budding sociopaths, the terrors of the community, may just get their own when they invent another sister. I wouldn't share this tale with anyone under the age of 10, but it is creepy-cool.

"Missing in Venice" by Gregory Maguire—Magical realism blossoms into fantasy in this satisfying story of a boy adrift in Venice, at the mercy of his money-hungry stepmother and her scorpion of a lawyer now that Linus's father has died. When Linus meets the Queen of Gingerbread and steals something from her, everything changes.

"Another Place, Another Time" by Cory Doctorow—An old-fashioned story about a boy whose father goes to sea. It is also about the physics of space and especially time. The science dialogue feels a little dry, but the discovery of the old handcar, which Gilbert and his friends christen Kalamazoo, adds wonder and adventure to the narrative.

"Uninvited Guests" by Jules Feiffer—I wasn't in love with this story of a children's book illustrator whose creations come to life after his wife leaves him and his house catches on fire. What starts out as Alice in Wonderland ends up being about death, with a very adult sensibility.

"The Harp" by Linda Sue Park—I found the message in this one distracting, but maybe kids won't notice. A girl and her sister are trapped in the woods by a wizard who wants to teach them to stop bickering. One of them is turned into a frog, and she has to learn to play the harp. Of course, she can only do this with her sister's help. The other plot strand tells of a very angry boy who has lost his mother.

"Mr. Linden's Library" by Walter Dean Myers—The author does a nice, slow build here. Carol Jenkins visits an old man who lets her borrow his books, but what she really wants to get her hands on is the strange book he is reading. This story may be too quiet for some kids, but I liked it. I was especially pleased by the way Myers wrapped up the story, yet kept the spell of suspense going, just as Van Allsburg's mysterious illustrations do. (See sleeping girl with book, below right.)

"The Seven Chairs" by Lois Lowry—Another one that may read a little older, but a well-told tale for all that. We learn of a group of baby girls who float in their cribs in the year 1928. Only one of them keeps it up, honing her craft over the years. But the most interesting thing about Mary Katherine ("MK") Maguire is that she discovers seven chairs which have the ability to join her in floating. It's odd and fun to follow her as she finds each one. Years later, MK visits a Gothic cathedral. Is there a reason she studied French?

"The Third-Floor Bedroom" by Kate DiCamillo—Again, I feel like this story is for adults or at least for more sophisticated readers. However, it really got me; it's one of my favorites in the collection. We read a series of letters from a girl called Pearlie to her soldier brother. Pearlie is a passionate, angry child who has lost both her parents and feels abandoned by her brother. She stares out the attic window and looks at the birds on the wallpaper, wishing they could fly away. Wishing she could fly away. And then she gets sick. I suppose I wouldn't go so far as to call Pearlie an unreliable narrator, but her shifting perspective sweeps us along in a wonderfully well-crafted way.

"Just Desert" by M.T. Anderson—No, that's not a typo. It's a play on words from Van Allsburg. Anderson's story is thoroughly engrossing and takes a twist I really didn't see coming. But then, we are talking about one of the most creative minds in children's fiction! The ending is pleasingly chilling.

"Captain Tory" by Louis Sachar—A subtly well made and touching story. Captain Tory visits the doughnut shop down by the wharf every morning for a cinnamon doughnut and a cup of coffee. Captain Tory is a ghost. Then one morning he visits the hardware store instead, which pleases Paul. One of the best in the collection, in my opinion.

"Oscar and Alphonse" by Chris Van Allsburg—This one has been anthologized previously. Oscar and Alphonse are caterpillars who spell out words, but only for Alice. Meanwhile, her older brothers and her father are trying to solve a great physics problem, the Farkas Conjecture. Parts of this story may be over young readers' heads, but they'll like the way Alice and her caterpillars are wiser than the grown-ups. The ending hangs rather, but that's what you would expect from the guy who made all those mysterious Harris Burdick illustrations in the first place. (See photo of Allsburg, below left.)

"The House on Maple Street" by Stephen King—I was never a big horror fan, so I didn't get into King's books. Then I read On Writing and was very impressed. So I wasn't surprised by how real this story felt, how odd and enthralling it was. Four children discover something strange about their house in between worrying about their mother's migraines and their stepfather's cold heart. Then oldest boy Trent comes up with a plan to make everything better.

I should mention that The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is beautifully designed, heavy and luxurious. Each story is introduced by a sort of monogrammed HB followed by a smooth book plate version of the illustration. The designer capitalizes on those great brown tones from the original. It's one of the prettier books you'll see this year.

Teacher/Writer Stuff

I have a new day job writing teacher's guides for elementary history books, so I've got curriculum on the brain... Then again, maybe this is more of a writer thing. But it occurs to me that besides using the Harris Burdick pieces as writing prompts with the words, you could get rid of the bits of text and come up with your own. The following are mine, but see if you can write some, too. Or try this with your class!

Warning: Also, don't let your students read the stories in Chronicles if you want to use the Mysteries as writing prompts. Share the new pro stories only after letting kids come up with their own, or they may get derailed.

"Archie Smith, Boy Wonder"—When they were big enough, his dreams escaped.

"Under the Rug"—I tried aiming for the little table, but I couldn't see anything, and the man kept yelling horribly.

"A Strange Day in July"—"They said no fireworks," I reminded her. "That's alright," Lindsey told me, "Watch."

"Missing in Venice"—Grandma couldn't get a building permit.

"Another Place, Another Time"—Henry blew on the sails, and the handcar began to move.

"Uninvited Guests"—Someone had taken the sign down, but I remembered what it said.

"The Harp"—Last time it was a clarinet made from a giant's toe-bone.

"Mr. Linden's Library"—So that's where the briars came from. She kept her eyes shut.

"The Seven Chairs"—Sister Ascenza Ignatius was allowed to float on Tuesdays. This was a Friday.

"The Third-Floor Bedroom"—The first snowflake wandered down from the sky, not to be mistaken for the last bird, which still hadn't arrived.

"Just Desert"—It isn't easy carving a carriage.

"Captain Tory"—"If I call the ship," he asked, "will you tell them Gasche lost the key?"

"Oscar and Alphonse"—When I opened my hand, the magic beans had turned into caterpillars.

"The House on Maple Street"—It was the best Christmas, and the last.

You see? The mysteries continue to call to us. Used the right way, a piece of art can paint words in the air. We may be a little worried about the state of the picture book these days, but never fear: there are people in the world of books who are doing new and wonderful things with pictures.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Review of If You Give a Dog a Donut by Laura Numeroff

Numeroff and Bond are back with their eighth "If You Give" book, not counting related books with the same characters. Every time Numeroff publishes one of these babies, the question is asked: Has she exhausted this format? This—in essence—franchise?

The answer is, no. Why not? Because Numeroff doesn't repeat herself. She doesn't need to repeat herself. The dog in this book (who, we are told, first made a cameo appearance in If You Give a Pig a Pancake) asks for things, like the mouse, moose, pig, and cat before him, but his requests are unpredictable. Random, even.

This should remind you of something: that's how little kids are. "Oh, look! A butterfly! Oh, wait, there's a school bus! And a piece of paper! And a grandma! And..." You see? This dog's meandering requests and momentary interests are not only delightful because they are surprising, but because they are an accurate representation of the flittering thoughts of small children. One more example: When I was teaching first grade some years ago, I remember leading two straight lines toward our classroom from the playground, only to have a child cry, "Look! A ladybug!" And suddenly 20 little bodies were clustered around her, trying to see this amazing sight.

So yes, Numeroff's new book works. I found some of the choices particularly appealing—when throwing an apple reminds the dog of baseball, he wants to play. And later, when he gets wet in the birdbath and is dried off with the boy's bandanna, he leaps to the idea of using the bandanna to play pirates.

In fact, this offering is perhaps the most clearly oriented toward boys of the entire series. Though girls can and do participate in all of the activities listed, they seem to have a certain amount of boy appeal.

Felicia Bond's artwork continues to charm, as well. Her dog makes you want to rush out and buy a puppy, or maybe give birth to a child, one of the two. Her sprinkle donut might make you hungry, and her kite is especially lovely, apparently made out of the color comic section of the newspaper. As always, Bond's style consists of simple lines with white backdrops. Visually, it should be easy for any toddler or kindergartner to follow.

I'll admit I was a bit cynical when I saw this one, but Numeroff and Bond have done it again: If You Give a Dog a Donut can stand in its own right as a book with strong kid appeal plus a dash of humor for moms and dads.

Note: HarperCollins sent me an ARC of this book.

Book Update and Awesome Man

I have some fun news about my own books, not to mention a review of Michael Chabon's picture book, which turns out to be related.

First, I'll just remind you that my retelling of the Grimms' tale, Hans-My-Hedgehog, will be out on January 24 and is already up on Amazon. John Nickle is the very talented illustrator. At the moment, my website designer Barb Aeschliman and I are busy working on a hedgehog page (much like my frog and squirrel pages).

Second, I now have cover art for my collection of ocean poems, Water Sings Blue, which is also up on Amazon and has a pub date of March 14. Isn't it pretty? Meilo So is the illustrator, and her interior artwork just knocks my socks off. Interesting note: Meilo lives in the Shetland Isles. (I discovered this while trying to FedEx galleys when they wound up at my house instead of hers!)

Third, I have had a picture book manuscript waiting for an illustrator at Atheneum for quite a while now, and voilĂ ! The Tooth Fairy Wars will be illustrated by Jake Parker. Check out his website. You can expect this book in late 2013 or early 2014.

Jake is known for his comic series, Missile Mouse, and for his work on animated films like Horton Hears a Who and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. His most recent project is Michael Chabon's picture book, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man, which came out on September 6.

In case you haven't seen it, this book tracks the adventures of a superhero and his sidekick, Moskowitz the Awesome Dog. Here's how the story begins:
Hi! I'm a superhero. My name is Awesome Man.

I have a cape as red as a rocket, a mask as black as midnight, and a stylin' letter A on my chest.

I'm just basically awesome.

The superhero goes on to list some of his superpowers (shown in application in the illustrations) and to recount his adventures with villains such as mutant talking Jell-O from Beyond the Stars, Professor Von Evil, and the hero's arch nemesis, the Flaming Eyeball.

But our superhero has his down moments, and we see him returning to his Fortress of Awesome under the Arctic Ocean to try and get a grip.

Parker's comic style art suits this superhero story. He even uses dot backgrounds like old newsprint comics in some of the early spreads. I like the way his fortress, while under the sea and the eye of a passing whale, is a suburban home beneath a set of glass domes. Despite the smoothness of the rendering, Parker can show his square-jawed hero sulking as well as preening.

As for Chabon's text, it's a tad tongue-in-cheek—watch, for example, for a supervillain named Sister Sinister. The wording has a nice casual tone, as in this excerpt:
I fly west. I fly east. I fly eight times around the earth and all the way to the heart of the sun. (The Flaming Eyeball hangs out there sometimes.)

Chabon is, of course, best known for his adult fiction, e.g., Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but he has also written a YA (upper MG) novel, Summerland, which I quite liked.

I noticed that some Amazon customer reviewers were complaining that Chabon's new picture book doesn't have a stronger plot, but I think they're missing the point: this one is intended to be a profile of the superhero, not Die Hard 3. (If you want more plot in a picture book along these lines, try Barnett and Santat's Oh No! Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World.) I will say, the ending of The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man isn't quite my cup of tea, but young readers will probably like it. For the kid who's a bit too young for Vordak the Incomprehensible, Chabon's new book may be just right.