Saturday, January 28, 2012

Six Cool Picture Books

I'll admit it: I'm a picture book snob. I go down to my not-so-independent nearby bookstore and look through all the new picture books, turning up my nose at a lot of them because the stories and artwork are too bland or too cutesy. But sometimes I come across treasures. And sometimes I discover treasures elsewhere, most often when they are recommended by other children's book bloggers. So for those of you who told me about these books, thank you!

The Boy Who Cried Ninja, written and illustrated by Alex Latimer

Ever get tired of that Aesop's fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? Silly boy, cranky villagers, right? Well, get a load of South African Alex Latimer's new-fangled take on the tale, with its clean, retro-mod illustrations. When Tim tells his parents the truth about the trouble going on around his house, they don't believe him. A ninja stole the last piece of cake, an astronaut took his dad's hammer, a giant squid—yeah, right. Frustrated, Tim decides to lie, but that doesn't work out too well, either. Finally he comes up with a plan for setting things straight. I will refrain from telling you how virtue is finally rewarded, but you really should get ahold of this subversive, tongue-in-cheek book.

The Camping Trip that Changed America by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein

President Theodore Roosevelt was an outdoorsman, everyone knows that. But did you know he once went camping with John Muir in Yosemite? Why? Because Muir was a famous naturalist, and Roosevelt wanted to know more about America's wilderness. At stake was the potential creation of national parks and forests. The two men traveled by horseback and were caught in a spring snowstorm, but they had a wonderful time, and President Roosevelt worked very hard afterwards to preserve the nation's natural treasures. One word of caution: though notes about the trip were available, they did not include sufficient dialogue, and the author did invent fireside conversations between the two men. I think she's done a marvelous job of writing this important, little-known story; just be sure your students or children understand the ways in which it is, as Rosenstock says in her very helpful author's note, "based in truth." Old hand Mordecai Gerstein illustrates the account with his loose and appealing watercolor style.

Just a Second, written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins

Not since Hazel Hutchins and Kady MacDonald Denton's A Second Is a Hiccup has somebody made such a beautiful book about time. Only, where Hutchins and Denton used analogies from the world of humans, Jenkins not unexpectedly uses the world of animals. So just what can animals do in one second?
A vulture in flight flaps its wings once. A pygmy shrew's heart beats 14 times. A bat makes 200 high-pitched calls. A rattlesnake shakes its tail in warning 60 times. A hummingbird beats its wings 50 times. A bumblebee beats its wings 200 times. A midge, a kind of gnat, beats its wings 1,000 times. A woodpecker hammers a tree with its beak 20 times.

And that's just the first page! Using his signature bright backdrops and collage animals, Jenkins gives us more "one second" examples before going on to talk about what animals—and plants and planets—do in one minute, one hour, one day, one week, one month, and one year. He throws in an extra spread called "Very Quick" for things that happen in even less than a second. I once looked all over the place for information about the speed at which a frog zaps and swallows an insect (and had trouble finding that fact); here Jenkins tells us that the Shasta salamander "can snap up an insect in 1/100 of a second." The author/illustrator also gives us "Very Long," including "an ocean quahog, a clam, [that] lived to be 405 years old...." and he throws in a history of the universe (on one page!), Earth's human population growth from 1750 to a projected 2050, plus an extra chart about plant and animal life spans. Pretty stuff, and pretty fascinating!

The Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

Have you heard about this one? Princess and pig, switched at birth. Call it class warfare if you like, but I call it funny. The way the court treats the pig princess, the reluctance of the human girl to switch back—all a hoot. You will no doubt get a kick out of the way the king and queen justify having a pig for a daughter: "'A bad fairy has done this,' [the king] explained. 'The fairy wasn't invited to the princess's christening, so she's turned the baby into a piglet to get her revenge. It's the sort of thing that happens all the time in books.'" (He holds a copy of Sleeping Beauty in his hands as he says this, natch.) Then again, the farmer's wife gives a similar explanation when a baby girl appears in the back of her husband's cart. It is only years later that the farmer and his wife finally figure out what really happened... The book is made all the more terrific by Bernatene's strong acrylic illustrations, which are a touch cartoonish, but still dimensional enough to give proper heft to this clever piggy tale.

Precious Little by Julie Hunt and Sue Moss, illustrated by Gaye Chapman

I'll be frank: I think this book is mostly for grown-ups. But an artistic, thoughtful child will like looking at the pictures. (Probably for 8 and up.) The story takes us to the circus, where the real stars are the highly decorative illustrations and even the way the words are often turned sideways like contortionists. The plot is slim—a rather uncoordinated young circus-hand named Precious Little wants to fly with the acrobats, the Light Fantastics, but can't seem to get the hang of it. Eventually two kindly clowns help her to fulfill her dream, though readers may feel at that point that Precious is simply dreaming, or that the story has turned into some kind of allegory or fantasy. Don't worry too much about it. Just check out the slightly new agey and very lovely artwork. (Bonus: gold glitter on the cover!)

What Animals Really Like, written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson

Back in November, I reviewed "Picture Books to Look Forward To," and one of my favorites was Bingham and Zelinsky's Z Is for Moose, due out in February. What Animals Really Like has a similar premise, and I like it just as much. Where Z Is for Moose has a zebra directing animals (and other items) in an alphabet book, What Animals Really Like gives us an even more high-strung beaver directing a new song. Each group of animals stands on a stage in concert dress and sings about what their species likes to do. We start off with the following lines:
We are lions, and we like to prowl.
We are wolves, and we like to howl.
We are pigeons, and we like to coo.
We are cows, and we like to...

Page turn, and the cows chorus, "dig," whipping out a bunch of shovels and hardhats.

"Dig?" the baffled beaver director asks, and pretty soon he has a full-scale rebellion on his hands, or rather paws. The warthogs like to blow enormous bubbles and the shrimp like to ski—when the beaver doubts them, they show off photos from their trip to Switzerland. ("Say, you had great weather," remarks a kangaroo, who likes playing Ping-Pong.)

Robinson paces her running joke about being true to yourself with panache, adding small twists and turns along the way. Watch in particular how the animals go from standing stiffly, looking bored, to cavorting enthusiastically as they share their passions. This is a thoroughly excellent concert program, highlighted by straight man and director Mr. Herbert Timberteeth's various states of dismay. Robinson's distinctive style gives What Animals Really Like a fresh look, in pleasing contrast to the many more traditional-looking picture books out there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hans, the Blog Tour

Yep, I'm doing a blog tour for my new picture book, Hans My Hedgehog, pub date right this very day, January 24th. (Woo-hoo!)

I am very pleased that Hans has garnered four great reviews, two of them starred (Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly). In addition, it was featured in a New York Times Book Review, along with two other prickly books.

Thanks very much to all my kind bloggy hosts. I will list the tour schedule for you here, adding the specific links as they come in. That way, you can learn more about the retelling of Grimms' fairy tales in general and my work in particular than you ever thought possible, all in about a week!

Monday, 1/23Interview by Sybil Nelson at The Enchanted Inkpot

Tuesday, 1/24Review and interview by Heidi Grange at Geo Librarian

Wednesday, 1/25Review and giveaway by Linda Gerber at her cool YA author's blog; review by Jennifer Wharton at Jean Little Library

Thursday, 1/26Interview by Jennifer Wharton at Jean Little Library

Friday, 1/27Review by Anamaria Anderson at Books Together Blog

Monday, 1/30Interview by Miranda Paul at her author's blog

Tuesday, 1/31—Author Anastasia Suen spotlights Hans and asks just 3 questions at Booktalking

Thanks also to Charlotte's Library for her post about Google Analytics and hedgehogs, including Hans. Check out the darling baby hedgehog photos!

Here's an intriguing tidbit about urchins and hedgehogs at Children's Literature Network, Snipp Snapp Snute by Lise Lunge-Larsen. She likes the look of Hans.

This post at VoVatia is from last August, but it has some excellent additional "Hans My Hedgehog" art and insights, not to mention a very nice comment from Amy about my then-upcoming book. (Link through if only to see Maurice Sendak's version of Hans.)

A note on Hans's size, which the VoVatia post questions: One of my editors did point out that Hans had to be small enough to ride a rooster, but large enough to dance with a princess. My response was that the story was originally told orally, without illustrations. I'm guessing the size issue slipped right past most of those long-ago listeners! (Except for some smart-aleck kid. There's always one in every village.) I also said, with rather callous accuracy, that the illustrator was going to have to use perspective and other art tricks to make Hans's size work in the book. And he did!

Note: Back to our regular programming this Saturday with picture book reviews.

ALA Book Awards

Yesterday was huge, HUGE! That is, in the world of children's books. I will give a shout-out to Twitter here: it's the fastest way to find out the winners of the ALA book awards, hands-down!

Now, I'll draw a rather snowy veil over the busyness of last night and list some of the winners here this morning. For more honor awards and a few I had trouble finding, please visit the ALA book and media awards page.

If you were expecting Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now to win the Newbery, think again! Jack Gantos won with Dead End in Norvalt. Honors went to Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai and Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin.

The Caldecott Award winner is A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka, though I was pleased to see my personal favorite get an Honor: Me...Jane by Patrick McDonnell. Other Honor books are Blackout by John Rocco and Grandpa Green by Lane Smith. Lovely books, all!

The Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Award for easy readers goes to Tales for Very Picky Eaters by Josh Schneider, with Honors to Mo Willems' I Broke My Trunk, Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back, and Paul Meisel's See Me Run.

The Sibert Award for nonfiction is awarded to Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet. I really want to read that one! The Honor list includes Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene "Bull" Connor by Larry Dane Brimner, Drawing from Memory by Allen Say, Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schauzerand, and The Elephant Scientist, written by Caitlin O'Connell and Donna M. Jackson with photos by O'Connell and Timothy Rodwelland.

The Schneider Family Award, given to outstanding books about kids with disabilities, goes to Close to Famous by Joan Bauer (reviewed here last spring) and Wonderstruck: A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick in the Middle School category. The Teen winner is The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.

The Pura Belpré Award for excellent fiction featuring Latinos is given separately to authors and illustrators. The author winner this year is Guadalupe Garcia McCall for her book Under the Mesquite. The illustrator winner is Duncan Tonatiuh for Diego Rivera: His World and Ours.

The Coretta Scott King Award author award winner is Kadir Nelson for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. The illustrator award winner is Shane W. Evans for Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom.

For teen fiction, our Printz award winner is Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, with Honors awarded to Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up, Christine Hinwood's The Returning, Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones, and Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races. A good year for YA titles!

I was disappointed that Franny Billingsley's Chime didn't win an award, but fantasy is often a long shot at the ALA's. The only one I see here at a glance is The Scorpio Races.

The good news is that we have so many wonderful new books to read!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Queen's Thief Week at Chachic's Book Nook

One of the most intelligent, dimensional, and rewarding MG/YA fantasy series out there today is Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief books: thus far The Thief (a Newbery Honor winnter), The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings. Thanks to Chachic of Chachic's Book Nook, you can read all about it during Queen's Thief Week, jump starting yesterday but officially posting January 22-28.

Her first guest post is by noted fantasy author Sherwood Smith, whose Crown Duel and other books are also favorites of mine. Though there are a few spoilers, Sherwood manages to keep them to a minimum as she gives a brilliant analysis of the four books.

Today's guest post is by Checkers from Sounis. I'll translate that: Checkers is one of the moderators at the series fan blog. Her gift to you is a really great list of SFF books recommended by Sounis participants over the past few years. (I can't even begin to describe how smart this bunch of Queen's Thief fans are!)

For those of you who haven't tried the books, they tend to read like historical fiction with just a touch of fantasy. Well, the world-building certainly qualifies them as fantasy; Turner has created a group of kingdoms centered around a sort of Byzantine Greece, complete with gods who make themselves known occasionally, to the chagrin of people like her main character. The author's greatest gifts are elaborate plots, rich characterization, and a subtle sense of humor. Follow Gen (Eugenides) from prisons to palaces in this complex, challenging, and utterly satisfying series.

Of course, the fun over at CBN will continue for another six days. Thank you, Chachic!

Update: Guest posts by Melina Marchetta, Sarah Rees Brennan, and even Megan Whalen Turner herself! Not to mention posts from uber-fans Holly and Angie, who are also bloggers of note. Don't miss the comments, which include dialogue between Marchetta and Turner about being tourists in Rome, among other cool conversations.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Retellings Beautiful and Beastly

Classifying Fairy Tales

On Tuesday my new picture book retelling of a Grimms' fairy tale, Hans My Hedgehog, is coming out, so I thought I'd tell you a little about its history and a lot about the retelling of a more famous story, "Beauty and the Beast." What is the history of a particular fairy tale, and how did it come to take its current shape?

Folklorists actually classify the stories into types, which make sense when you realize how many variations of the same basic plot can be found in different countries. Stories have traveled the world with traders and immigrants for centuries. For example, you can find Cinderella variations set in China, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, and the American South, among other regions and lands. The most well-known approach to classifying folk and fairy tales is the Aarne-Thompson system, first published by Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne in 1910 and revised more than once by American Stith Thompson.

For example, under Animal Tales, Wild Animals, we have 99 story types, including notable offerings like "Biting the foot" (#7) and "Calling the three tree names" (#9). Some story types are found in more than one country, such as "Search for the lost husband" (#425A), listed under Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband, and found in Romanian, Scottish, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek, and Mexican variations.

"Hans My Hedgehog" also falls under Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband (#441), "In enchanted skin." According to noted folklorist Jack Zipes, the Grimms mostly used a version recounted to them orally by a woman named Dorothea Viehmann, who was married to a tailor and lived in a village near Kassel in Germany. There are other German versions, however, such as "The Wild Boar" and "The Bristly Child." (Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Norton 2001.)

From Apuleius to Cocteau

"Beauty and the Beast" has a more complex history. Did you know it was based on Roman (and therefore, quite possibly Greek) mythology? Now it has an AT classification of #425C (also Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives, Husband), but it first comes to our attention as a story told in a book called The Golden Ass by Roman writer Apuleius (second century AD). The couple in the story are Cupid (Eros) and Psyche. You can get a picture book retelling of Cupid and Psyche by M. Charlotte Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft. (Though you may dislike the theme of "curious girls get in big trouble.")

The story of Cupid and Psyche was reinvented in France by La Fontaine, by Coneille and Molière as a play/ballet, and in at least five variations by Madame D'Aulnoy in the late 1600s. At the time, fairy tale retellings were very fashionable among wealthy Parisians. In fact, Madame D'Aulnoy coined the name "fairy tales" with the publication of one of her books, "Les Contes de Fées" (1697).

Next to adapt the tale was Madame Gabreille de Villaneuve, whose version set the standard for the plot as we recognize it. Three more French adapters tried their hand at the story: Madame Leprince de Beumont, Countess de Genlis—who reinvented it as a play called Beauty and the Monster (1785), and Jean-François Marmontel—who made it the libretto of an opera scored by André Modeste Grétry (1788). (Sources: Zipes again, plus Wiki.) Is this all starting to blur together for you? Suffice it to say, the story was told and retold in literary versions in France for about a century, and this was all back when Walt Disney's twice-great-grandfather was still a twinkle in his thrice-great-grandfather's eye.

What's lost here, of course, is the storyteller who told the tale to listeners around the fire before Roman writer Apuleius came along. Though I suspect Madame D'Aulnoy's tale, "The Ram," was at least partly responsible for transforming a hunky Greek god into a misshapen beast.

Keep in mind, then, that when we talk about purity of sources, we are looking at two long series of transformations—one taking place in the oral storytelling tradition (making its way across continents) and the other taking place in the literary fairy tale tradition, exemplified by collectors/adapters such as the Brothers Grimm, Madame D'Aulnoy, Norwegians Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and another famous French reteller, Charles Perrault.

My favorite variant of "Beauty and the Beast" is actually the Norwegian story retold by Asbjørnsen and Moe, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." As another folklorist, Maria Tatar, explains, "'Unlike the French 'Beauty and the Beast,' this tale includes a coda in which the daughter has to undertake a journey, outwit a rival, and demonstrate her domestic worthiness" (Tatar, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, Norton 2002). The quest in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" gives us a more active and determined heroine, even if it does end up with her having a shirt-washing contest with a troll princess. (There's magic and blood involved, which helps.)

Jumping to the 20th and 21st centuries, we find the famous French film version by Jean Cocteau (1946). And of course, a number of picture book and MG/YA retellings.

Beauty and the Beast

MERCER MAYER is best known for his book, There's a Nightmare in My Closet, his Little Critter stories, and his illustrations for John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain Books, but he also illustrated fairy tales, including this one. Mayer does interesting, contemporary things with perspective, cinematically thrusting characters' faces into the foreground in certain spreads. The work is ornate and intense, full of twisted trees and the suffering of a lion-like Beast. The storytelling is detailed and appealing. A classic retelling of the tale, especially as compared to some of the more docile later versions.

British author-artist JAMES MAYHEW illustrated a retelling by PHILLIPA PEARCE. Mayhew's soft-edged style emphasizes the mystery and enchantment of the tale. Like Mayer's, his Beast is leonine, only with a lot more mane. The final spread is especially nice. Pearce's retelling is clear enough to work as a read-aloud for relatively young children.

Yes, it's a JAN BRETT book without decorative borders! This retelling (by the illustrator) is more mannered than some of the others, with nice touches like all of the servants being animals. In a move away from the lion approach, Brett's Beast is a boar, which makes him extra beastly. A single piece of silhouette art about three-fourths of the way in works well. And take a look at those gowns and hairstyles! I found it interesting that the story is told in summary until the merchant steals the rose, when we start getting some dialogue. The retelling is competent, though the illustrations are better.

ANGELA BARRETT is one of my favorite illustrators. Her Beauty and the Beast is retold by Brit Max Eilenberg at some length, entrancingly. The artwork is often small, serving as a backdrop to the text, but when the larger pieces come they tend to be striking. Barrett makes her Beast a narrow, black, cat-like creature with a touch of demon and a sweeping brush of tail. Be sure to look at some of the details of the strange home the artist envisions for the Beast. (See illustration above.)

Well-known middle grade fantasy writer LAWRENCE YEP teamed up with illustrator KAM MAK to give us a Chinese version of the story, The Dragon Prince. The beast here is an enchanted dragon prince and, in a motif that turns up in other folktales, one of the heroine's malicious sisters manages to take her place for a time. Yep is a very good storyteller, of course.

There is also a small edition of the Beauty and the Beast story retold by SAMANTHA EASTON and illustrated by RUTH SANDERSON. (Sanderson is known for painting from live models, ordinary people.) I'm not crazy about the trim size and the retelling isn't particularly amazing, but some of the paintings are quite nice. Sanderson goes with the lion look for her Beast.

BARRY MOSER teams up with Nancy Willard (who won the Newbery in 1982 for her poetry collection, A Visit to William Blake's Inn) to create a novella-length Beauty and the Beast. Moser's stark pen-and-ink pieces give a darker feel to the story than it would otherwise have. Some of them resemble portraits—the Beast reminds me of Mr. Hyde and is the scariest in this entire bunch of books. Naturally, Willard's retelling is masterful.

Recognized paper artist ROBERT SABUDA has done "A Pop-up Book of the Classic Tale," an intricate rendering with a stained glass look.

As for MG/YA versions, Newbery medalist Robin McKinley has retold the story twice, once in Beauty and again in Rose Daughter. Alex Flinn sets the tale in a modern city with her book, Beastly (recently made into a movie), while Donna Jo Napoli chooses a Persian—and then French—setting for Beast, a mature retelling recommended for older teens.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

MERCER MAYER illustrated the Norwegian version of this story, as well, with his wife Marianna doing the retelling. The paintings, one per spread, are rich and show a Russian/Eastern European influence. Some have a slightly static feel, more decorative than active, but others have more drama, and all combine beautifully to do the story justice. Mayer's troll princess is priceless, and his wife's retelling is clear and compelling. I was surprised to note that Mayer deliberately went with part of "The Frog Prince" in the early pages of the story rather than using the more traditional Norwegian bear as an alarming bridegroom.

P.J. LYNCH has done some beautiful illustrations for classics such as A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi and for fairy tales such as The Snow Queen and The Steadfast Tin Soldier. (His artwork for Amy Hest's When Jessie Came Across the Sea is also lovely.) Note that the retelling is straight from Asbjørnsen and Moe, or at least, from the 1859 translation by Sir George Webb Dasent. It's a more detailed rendition than we might expect to see today, but it's very well done. There's a rather pensive feel to Lynch's heroine, and his North Wind practically storms off the page. I also like the striking use of the polar bear and an illustration that shows the lassie alone in a dark wood. As for the troll princess, she actually gives Mayer's troll a run for her money. Watch for the shirt-washing scene, where the spread is positively overflowing with hideous trolls.

BARRY MOSER worked with Nancy Willard again on this story, or rather play. The little-known script in book form is 61 pages long and could, of course, be acted out by a school class. Some of the dialogue is written in rhyme. It's a quirky but well-crafted version of the tale.

GISELLE POTTER illustrated a Greek variation of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" that I've mentioned on Book Aunt in the past, Mr. Semolina-Semolinus. The retellers are Anthony L. Manna and Christodoula Mitakidou. After a unique start which completely bypasses the beast section—replacing it with a princess named Areti who cooks up her own boyfriend out of semolina, sugar, and almonds—we get the last section of the Norwegian story, more or less. Areti goes on an arduous quest to save her beloved from the selfish queen who has stolen him. This clever, slyly funny and rollicking tale makes a few words go a long way.

LAUREL LONG and JACQUELINE K. OGBURN tell the story with a twist, too, in The Lady and the Lion, illustrated by Long. (See also their previous collaboration, a gorgeous tale called The Magic Nesting Doll.) Lush, Middle Eastern-inspired paintings complement a story in which an evil enchantress kidnaps the lion after he is turned back to a man. The lady rescues her prince in a rather truncated version of the quest and confrontation from the Asbjørnsen and Moe version. You'll find that Ogburn's retelling is more spare than some of the others in this pleasing take on the Beauty and the Beast story. (See illustration above.)

Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, East by Edith Patou, and Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George are three notable MG/YA versions of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."

And So...

Traditionally, the story of Beauty and the Beast has been used to teach girls to be self-sacrificing or to stifle their curiosity. The Romans and then the French certainly seemed to appreciate those lessons. In our day, we emphasize Beauty's loyalty to and patience with an unappealing, unhappy young man. The meta-lesson has been said to be about the so-called gentle sex taming the rougher one, but ultimately, I think we as a culture love the story for reasons of simple human kindness. And don't forget Beauty's courage!

As for Hans My Hedgehog, he's a close cousin to Beauty's Beast, only his story includes more peasant humor and class conflict. (The original shows a king tricking Hans because he can't read.) What kind of girl would marry a young man who is half hedgehog? An honorable one. And the princess's integrity pays off when the spell on her prickly husband is broken.

All of us feel like beasts sometimes, and all of us hope to be loved for our hearts, for the truth of who we are. Perhaps any time two people form a match, the answer for men and women alike is to look for beauty within the beast.

Update: Two more books have come up in the comments. Thanks to Rebecca Donnelly for reminding me of a Barefoot Books version of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" (with two other tales mixed in) called The Princess and the White Bear King, retold by Tanya Robin Batt and illustrated by Nicoletta Cecolli. And Megan tells us about East of the Sun & West of the Moon, retold and illustrated by László Gál, which she says is very colorful and dreamy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Review of Snow in Summer by Jane Yolen

We begin with a description of an old photograph showing a little girl named Snow in Summer on the day of her mother's funeral. Her father is oblivious to the existence of his seven-year-old daughter, devoured by his grief. Only Cousin Nancy is aware of Summer and her needs. She holds the little girl by the hand, offering comfort.

Jane Yolen's retelling of the Snow White story is eerie and immediate. The Appalachian setting adds both simplicity and strangeness as we watch the child's life changed, first by her mother's death and her father's withdrawal and later by the menacing incursion of the woman who marries her father.

Snow in Summer is almost a horror story when it comes to the wicked stepmother. Although the child named Summer suffers when her father ignores her, at least she has Cousin Nancy, who continues to care for her, stopping by the house each day to get her ready for school and cook her meals.

Most of the chapters in Yolen's story are told by Snow in Summer herself, but some are memories recounted by Cousin Nancy and even Stepmama. When Snow (as Stepmama names her) watches her father snared in a graveyard by the woman from up the mountain, there is clearly dark magic involved. In Stepmama's first memory chapter, we learn that the woman was trained by a great conjurer. We also find out that Stepmama can increase her personal magic by taking someone else's years. She plans to get Snow's father's property for herself and sell it to the railroad company, something he has always refused to do. Then she will use her magic to steal seven years from Snow. (She also toys with the idea of making Snow her apprentice.) But she claims she won't make Snow and her father suffer—too much. As she tells herself, "After all, I'm not a wicked woman."

The creepy little details are actually more striking than the things Stepmama tells us in her chapters. The way she has one green eye and one blue eye. The way she must have Snow's permission to enter the house, like a vampire. The terrible spell she casts on Snow's father. The glass bottles of potions.
"They could make you very sick, Snow," she cautioned, clinking a long red fingernail against the glass of the darkest bottle. Something almost seemed to stir in the depths, something with hands and feet and closed eyes. Something like a dead baby.

That's even before Stepmama takes Snow to the church with the snake handlers. And before Snow learns that there are worse things than snakes.

This well-crafted story gradually builds in dread. (Though the seven dwarfs—well, six plus a brother off at college—provide a bit of comic relief.) The intense, atmospheric storytelling breathes new life into a tale we all think we know. Yolen's best character is Stepmama, who makes the Disney villains look insipid by comparison. You may be a little disappointed when the story is over and things get better for Snow. No more dread. Sigh—The End.

Here's a Reading Rocket interview with Jane Yolen from March 2010 and her website.

Note for Worried Parents: Amazon lists this book for ages 10 and up. There are references to Snow in Summer getting her period, and you get the feeling she's going to be raped at one point, though it turns out she's (only!) going to be murdered instead. The emotional content and some child abuse make me want to say this is a fairly mature read, but then, it probably depends on the kid.

A Review of Winterling by Sarah Prineas

Grand-Jane is always trying to keep Fer in the house, to keep her hidden from a nameless something that apparently lurks outside. But Fer can't bear to be inside. The outdoors calls to her, and she runs from the house often, incurring Grand-Jane's wrath.

One day Fer comes across a strange scene in the woods by a mysterious pool: three wolves tormenting a dog. Fer picks up a stick and helps the dog, only to have him turn into a boy. When Fer brings the boy home so Grand-Jane can patch him up with her herbs, Grand-Jane is furious. But she finally relents and tells Fer the truth: Fer is from another world, or at least, her mother is. Grand-Jane is pretty sure her son and his otherworldly wife are dead. She has tried all these years to protect Fer from whatever enemy took her son from her.

Fer is not only fascinated, but she is also determined to visit that other world and find out what happened to her parents. (She knows she shouldn't trust the dog-boy, Puck, but she kind of does.)

This is the last of the scene with Puck and the wolves:
Fer held her ground and gripped her branch tightly. "Go away!" she shouted, and with her free hand felt in her jacket pocket for her bag of spelled herbs. She pulled it out and kept it clutched in her hand. One wolf lunged toward her and Fer stepped up to meet it, bashing her club across its muzzle. Fer swung the branch back and caught another wolf in the ribs, then jabbed the jagged end of the branch into the face of the third wolf. Still holding the spell-bag, she shouted, "Go away!" again, then a third time, and the wolves flinched back as if her words had more power than the club she swung, watching her from the corners of their eyes, fading back into the shadows.

What Fer doesn't realize is that she has already opened a gate between the two worlds with her rescue efforts, and trouble will follow. Soon enough she travels to the other side and meets its so-called queen. The Lady casts a spell on Fer, a glamor that makes Fer want to help her. But Fer keeps seeing through the spell. As she travels with the Lady's retinue, Fer begins to befriend the Lady's followers and uncover her secrets. There's a reason the Lady's followers are wilding and spring won't come. Fer's heritage gives her the strength to defeat the Lady—if only she can figure out who to trust.

Some of the story is told from the point of view of the puck, Rook. Especially while Fer is under the wicked queen's glamor, this allows us to see what the Lady is really up to and to root for Rook and his fellow slaves to be free. It also makes us even more worried about Fer, who is basically in her enemy's grasp. The Lady is trying to figure out how best to use the girl, whether to simply manipulate her or to strip her of her power altogether.

Meanwhile, Fer keeps saving Rook's life. It's almost a running joke how often she does it. His oath to the Lady, for mysterious reasons of his own, keeps him in the enemy camp, but readers will wonder whether Rook will manage to help Fer just the same.

I like Prineas's use of Irish legends in this book. For example, the Lady is also called the Mór, which is clearly another name for the Morrigan, the goddess of battle, strife, and fertility. In Winterling, the Lady marks her followers with crow's feathers, and the Morrigan is associated with crows. In fact, the crow is one of her forms. The shape-shifting Phouka/Puck is another figure from Irish legend, though he may make you think of Shakespeare.

The plot of Winterling doesn't twist and turn much, and the cast of characters is perhaps too limited: we're basically talking Grand-Jane, Fer, the Lady, Rook, and a bunch of miserable minions. I can't say Winterling is an amazing read, but it is a pretty good one. If you have an avid middle grade fantasy fan in the house, put this book on your list.

Take a look at the book trailer or visit the author's website. And here's an interview with Sarah Prineas at The Enchanted Inkpot.

A Review of Ravenwood by Andrew Peters

In Ravenwood, Andrew Peters gives us a world in the treetops. Either these are really gigantic trees, or people have shrunken. I'm pretty sure it's the former, despite the presence of creatures like monster ravens and worms.

The Dendrans' religion has to do with the goddess Diana, though it has been largely overtaken by a newer, more militant belief system represented by a group of Dendrans known as the Holly Woodsmen. (Peters gets a little carried away with tree puns. For example, Buddy Holly's name is used here, and the word "holly" acts both as "holy" and as a reference to hell.) Here's a glimpse of the leafy world of Arborium:
He ignored the fast-food stall, shoehorned into a dark alcove of the trunk, and wearily trudged on down the steps toward the lower levels. This way took him past the inner doors and windows of apartments hollowed out into the heartwood: prime property for the rich, but far out of reach of a plumber's income. The steps continued, winding down and down the central trunk, and the crowds eventually began to thin as he descended to the lower levels. Finally, a poorly patched-up gate swung open, revealing his local branch line. He stepped out into a land of shadows. The twilight had problems reaching this far. Night came earlier for the poor.

Our hero, Ark, short for Arkorius Malikum, has the inglorious job of apprentice plumber. This means he has a lot of interactions with poop, known herein as "squit." Ark is on a plumbing job when he has a run-in with an old enemy from his school days, Petronio, who is studying to be a surgeon, though he seems more interested in being an assassin. Unfortunately, while Ark is working on the pipes he overhears the boy's father, Counselor Grasp, talking with an enemy spy from Maw about his treasonous plot against the king. Moments later, Ark is fleeing along the branches of his treetop town with Grasp's two favorite minions right behind him, intent on his death.

Ark tricks the guards and gets home, but his life as he knows it is over. He must hide from Counselor Grasp and his men, leaving his job and his family behind. He wants to warn the king, but how? Ark enlists the help of a burly co-worker named Mucum and sets out to save the kingdom of Arborium from the would-be invaders. Along the way, he meets a group of low-dwelling Dendrans called the Rootshooters and discovers the true nature of his own heritage.

But the author doesn't just follow Ark's quest; he also gives us the journey of Ark's opposite number, Petronio. Grasp's son is quickly sucked into the treacherous plots of the spy from Maw, a woman named Fenestra. She represents a country across the sea that has no trees at all and covets the wealth of the Dendrans' wood. Fortunately, the trees have their own defenses. Unfortunately, Fenestra has plenty of evil plans up her sleeve.

Boy readers in particular will probably enjoy the frequent fights and chase scenes, not to mention the even more frequent close encounters with squit.

I have mixed feelings about Ravenwood. On the one hand, Peters does an amazing job of world-building in his book, which you'll swear is fantasy in the first half and suspect is dystopian science fiction in the second half. But I didn't fall completely in love with the characters. I also had a little trouble with things like the dialect used by the Rootshooters, some of the creatures randomly thrown into the mix, and a section of the book that positively blurs by, leaving Ark with semi-superpowers afterwards for somewhat unclear reasons.

I also noticed that two of the four villains appeared to get away in the end. (Despite talk of their probable death, their escape is remarkably parallel to one of Ark's many narrow escapes earlier in the book.) So—we are clearly gearing up for a sequel.

Yep, I'm quibbling. There are a lot of fun things going on in this book, not the least of which is the use of Ark's baby sister's hair-raising scream as a secret weapon. I'm hoping the next book flows more smoothly and that I find myself warming up to Ark and his buddies just a little more.

Here is Andrew Peters reading a selection from the book. You can visit the website he shares with his wife to find out more about Ravenwood.

A Review of The Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet

This story begins with a prologue, and a Gallic-sounding one at that.
It was his own grandmother who fed Henri-Pierre to the Cabinet of Earths, long ago when he was only four. Don't misunderstand! It happened like this....

When Grandmother asks Henri-Pierre what is kept in the bottles, he laughingly guesses things like lemonade. But she corrects him, whispering in his ear: "In our bottles we keep Time."
So Henri-Pierre knew what Time must look like: black grains of earth, straining like something hungry against the bottle glass.

"It wants to get out," he said once, and his grandmother moved him another pace away from the Cabinet (which he must never, never touch).

Nesbet uses the prologue to lay out the terrible nature of the Cabinet, not to mention the terrible nature of those in the family who abuse the magic's privileges. Years pass, and then Chapter One begins—with the coming of a girl from California named Maya Davidson.

Maya is utterly unimpressed about being in Paris. She's too busy missing her friends back in California. Then she meets a boy named Valko who shows her how to be a kid from somewhere else.
"Still, I'll never fit in," she said (but already more cheerful about it).

"Very possible," said Valko. "Likely, even. But you don't have to fit in to be okay. Believe me! I am the not-fitting-in world expert. I have not fit in in maybe five different countries so far. I am homelandless.... But it's no big deal, not really....."

The other people Maya meets are much stranger from upbeat Valko. There's a too-beautiful man with purple eyes who takes an odd interest in Maya and her obnoxiously charming little brother James. There's Cousin Louise, who is so nondescript she is practically invisible. And there's a very old man named Henri-Pierre, who has a marvelous, dangerous, and seductive cabinet.

At first it's just little things, like the way the salamander on the door knocker of The Society of Philosophical Chemistry seems to turn its head to look at Maya. Then she learns that she and James are somehow related to both old Henri-Pierre and the man with the purple eyes, who apparently arranged to bring them to France. But why? Maya also learns about a group of children who have gone missing over the years and tries to find out what has become of them.

The author plays with the idea of heritage and with the jarring meeting of magic and science as Maya finds out more of the secrets of the Cabinet. Along the way, Maya learns that her worries about school and not fitting in are far less important than saving herself and her brother from those who want to use the two children for their own ends. The fantasy plot includes a nice riff on the wonderful awfulness of family in our lives, along with our human tendencies towards both selfishness and selflessness.

Nesbet clearly sets things up for a second book—something to look forward to. In the meantime, you can bask in her Paris, which manages to be moody and evocative, tinged with the dark longings represented by the Cabinet of Earths.

You can check out this interview with the author at The Enchanted Inkpot, or take a look at her website here.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Oh, the Thrill!

Just so you know, the #1 thrill moment when you're an author is when your author copies arrive from the publisher and you open the box, then turn those pages for the first time. I had a great week: both of my sets of author's copies came at once! That would be Hans My Hedgehog, due out 1/24, and Water Sings Blue, due out mid-March.

I took some photos so you can get a feel for what it's like. (Pride, joy, bliss, disbelief...)

First I'll show you the box of Hans books, above right.

Here's one of the spreads, with Hans up in a tree playing his fiddle. That's King #1 down at the bottom, yelling.

I really like the spot art.

The ocean poems came Fed Ex. I think my favorite spread is the jellyfish.

But the title page is also really pretty.

So yes, I've been semi-delirious the last couple of days. (I won't show you a photo of that.)

Oh, and the #2 thrill? When a kid likes your book and tells you so, or sends you an illustrated fan letter. Then again, maybe I should call it a tie!

Good Stuff

Kidlitosphere—and maybe even the whole Blogosphere—is really hopping! Here are a few fun things you might want to take a look at...

—The Cybils finalists have been posted! Children's books (and apps) from 2011 in nearly a dozen categories have been selected by teams of dedicated Kidlitosphere judges. (My only complaint so far: What happened to Franny Billingsley's Chime?) These annotated lists make a fantastic resource for finding books you may have missed last year.

—Betsy Bird has posted "Announcing the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing: Children's Books 2011" at the NY Public Library blog. Another excellent reference.

—Yonmei of Feminist SF—The Blog! has some things to say about the Mary Sue trope. She is riffing on a great post from Adventures of Comic Book Girl. (A "Mary Sue" is a female main character in SFF who is considered too powerful, too attractive, too etc.)

—The 2011 Comment Challenge began yesterday! I still say you should sign up. Your goal? To post 5 comments a day for 21 days, with check-ins on Thursdays. Here's the sign-up at MotherReader. Lee Wind of I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? is the co-host.

—As for how the Newbery/Caldecott race is shaping up, Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes has a cool analysis.

—Or check out Jonathan Hunt's starry survey at SLJ's Heavy Medal blog.

Update: Chachic is hosting a Queen's Thief Week at her blog, Chachic's Book Nook, the week of January 22. I am a huge fan of Megan Whalen Turner's series and pretty much think everyone else should be, too. So if you haven't already read the books, this is a good chance to jump in. (The series consists of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings. So far.) Read more about the event at Chachic's site!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Thanks, Adriana!

Gotta love an avid teen reader, especially when she starts a book blog. That would be Adriana of She's Got Books on Her Mind, who stopped by to give me the Versatile Blogger Award.

What's more, Adriana is another fan (pretty much) of the delightfully devious and unique Flavia de Luce. Here's her review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

So thank you, Adriana!

Here are the rules:
  • Thank and link to the blogger who bestowed the award.
  • Share seven random facts about yourself (see below).
  • Spread the love by passing the award to five other bloggers--and be sure to let them know.

7 random facts about me:

—When revising my shark poem for Water Sings Blue, I spent hours trying to replace just one word. I believe I tried 40+ words. (The winner? "Rumor.")
—I have a green thumb when it comes to houseplants. I already have 16 plants in my new place, and 4 more at work.
—My grandfather fought in both WWI and WWII.
—Deer frequent my backyard, eating crab apples.
—Having recently moved from CA to UT, I now own 3 winter coats (heavy, medium, and light), 4 scarves, 2 pairs of boots, and 2 pairs of gloves.
—I played the oboe when I was a teenager, even making my own reeds.
—I used to live in Argentina. I'm still pretty fluent in Spanish.

As for cool bloggers, I will pick a few favorites from my lengthy blog roll to receive the Versatile Blogger Award in their turn.

Ms. Yingling Reads (Pragmatic, succinct middle school teacher who really gets kids)
Random Musings of a Bibliophile (Bright, articulate homeschooling mother and book collector)
Jean Little Library (Wisconsin librarian extraordinaire)
My Juicy Little Universe (Poet, educator, philosopher)
The Cath in the Hat (Writer, editor, Cybils judge)