Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Review of Any Which Wall by Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder prefaces her new book with a quotation from one of Edward Eager’s books, Seven Day Magic: “‘The best kind of magic book,’ Barnaby was saying, ‘is the kind where the magic has rules. And you have to deal with it and thwart it before it thwarts you. Only sometimes you forget and get thwarted.’” Any Which Wall is more than just an homage to Edward Eager, it’s a welcome update of Eager’s approach to fantasy.

Snyder does retain the wholesomeness and old-fashioned good cheer of Eager’s books, reminding me a little of writers like Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks) and Eva Ibbotsen (Dial-a-Ghost). We live in an era when young characters on TV and in books don’t always sound like children. Here’s how I explained it in a review of Derek Landy’s book Skulduggery Pleasant on Amazon: “After an early interlude in which main kid Stephanie seems like a relatively normal child, we discover that the rest of the book is written in that dialect known as Banter, herein practiced by a preternaturally adult child character having snippy-snappy conversations with a childish adult character (Skulduggery).” I am happy to report that Any Which Wall is really the best of the old and the new—not one bit of banter, just nice kids having adventures. Furthermore, the adventures don’t involve becoming instant martial arts experts heralded by prophecy on distant worlds in order to defeat the vast forces of evil. They’re ordinary enough that readers can relate to them, yet still extraordinary enough to surprise.

In a post a few months ago, I pointed out that most fantasy requires that parents turn a blind eye on their kids’ adventures or are absent in some way, since the kind of everyday protection that the majority of parents practice would keep children from having the adventures at all. A recent Horn Book article made a similar statement, explaining wryly why mothers are often missing or dead in children’s books. (The issue is lost beneath stacks of books in my office, but as I recall, the marvelous title was something like “Why Mom Is a Buzzkill.”) Laurel Snyder—like Eager before her—creates adventures that can happen without requiring an added layer of suspension of disbelief or the wholesale removal of parents. The author does this knowingly and with good humor. She explains in her introductory note:

Some loud and full of dragons. But that magic is rare, generally reserved for scrappy orphans and misplaced princes. Some magic is mysterious, beginning with the somber tolling of a clock at midnight in the darkest corners of a graveyard. However, that magic is unlikely to include you if you don’t visit cemeteries late at night (which I don’t think you’re supposed to do). There is also magic especially for very tiny children, full of kindly rabbits and friendly old ladies with comfortable laps. It smells like sugar cookies and takes place mostly in gardens or bedrooms the pale colors of spring. But you outgrow it about the time you learn to read.

So perhaps the very best magic is the kind of magic that happens to kids just like you...when they’re paying careful attention. It’s the most common magic there is, which is why (sensibly) it’s called Common Magic.... Common Magic happens to kids who have curious friends, busy parents, and vivid imaginations, and it frequently takes place during summer vacations or on rainy weekends when you aren’t allowed to leave the house. Most important, it always starts with something that seems ordinary.
Two sets of siblings, Henry and Emma and their neighbors Roy and Susan, are pedaling their bikes through a cornfield one summer afternoon when they come across a strange wall. Pretty soon they figure out that the wall is magic, and then they have to work out the rules of that magic. After a few experiments and mishaps, the foursome journeys farther afield, encountering wizards, pirates, outlaws, and even New Yorkers in a series of adventures. As the quote from Seven Day Magic suggests, they don’t always get it quite right, but they do end up having a wonderful time.

I really love that Laurel Snyder chose a wall as a means of making magic—it’s unique and fresh, ordinary and amusing, the perfect example of Common Magic as she defines it. What’s more, the children come up with satisfyingly clever ways of using this particular magic to suit their purposes, even in the most difficult situations.

By the way, the queen Emma meets in a long-ago castle? She’s truly scary in a single brief scene, reminding me that Laurel Snyder is also the author of a deliberately creepy picture book, Inside the Slidy Diner. I also like how six-year-old Emma is allowed to shine in the castle episode.

Leuyen Pham’s illustrations for Any Which Wall are just right. Like the text, they successfully walk the line between old-fashioned and contemporary.

The only distracting thing in the whole book is that one of the characters Learns a Lesson, but the lesson is pretty painless. How many readers are going to argue with a message when it’s basically, “Lighten up and you’ll have more fun”? In addition, the author is a rather chatty presence, no more so than in “A Brief Note on the True Nature of (Fun and) Disaster,” a short chapter late in the book. In some books this technique works, in some books it doesn’t. My own feeling is that Any Which Wall is a breezy, summery book, and the author’s voice is correspondingly cheery and informal, so the occasional remark from her flows fairly well with the rest of the storytelling.

Snyder’s humor is one of the strengths of this book. Perhaps my favorite moment is when the kids have had two days’ worth of magic-related adventures involving ice cream and movies, and then Roy and Susan’s father offers to take the four of them to the movies and out for ice cream. On top of “been there, done that,” the children are on the verge of sneaking off for another magical experiment, so they are a little put out, to Mr. Levy’s astonishment. Begrudgingly, the group manages to enjoy themselves just the same:

Although nobody was exactly over the moon at the thought of another afternoon without magic, when they saw that there was a good movie starting at just the right time (a swashbuckling adventure about a pirate princess), it wasn’t so terrible, and they did manage to eat a large banana split with extra marshmallow sauce, for Mr. Levy’s sake. It was very gracious of them.
I hope that Henry, Emma, Roy, and Susan will be back with further adventures, as a certain wizard implies near the end of the book. I can honestly say that Any Which Wall is better than a large banana split with extra marshmallow sauce, even if, unlike these kids, you have not had a banana split just yesterday.

A Review of The Frogs and Toads All Sang by Arnold Lobel

You know how Natalie Cole sang duets with her late father, Nat King Cole, after his passing, which almost seems macabre except that the songs are really very pretty? Well, now we have The Frogs and Toads All Sang, a book of poems and drawings by the late Arnold Lobel, with color added to the sketches by Lobel’s grown daughter, Adrianne Lobel.

There’s a nice story behind the book. We learn in Adrianne’s introduction that a children’s book expert and collector named Justin Schiller purchased a set of small handmade books at an estate auction of Crosby Bonsall (another famous children’s book writer and illustrator, e.g., of Who’s a Pest?). The little books had been created by Arnold Lobel for his friends. Mr. Schiller contacted Adrianne to let her know about his find.

Lobel’s daughter ended up working with publisher HarperCollins to make the sketches and poems into a book, adding watercolor washes. As Adrianne Lobel points out, these sketches are looser than the illustration her father had been doing at the time and seem to have contributed toward his eventual style on the famous Frog and Toad books, which they predate. (Adrianne Lobel is a Broadway set designer, and one of her projects was the musical, A Year with Frog and Toad.)

The Frogs and Toads All Sang is brief, consisting of only ten illustrated poems. But what of those poems? Some are a bit ordinary in spots, but Lobel understood the need for a clever twist in the final line or two. Here’s just one example, the title poem:

“We’re going to have a party,”
The frogs and toads all sang.
“We’ve got lemonade with ice cubes
And paper lamps to hang.”
The ladies wore long dresses,
And the gentlemen wore pants.
The orchestra was ready,
So they all began to dance.
They danced in the meadow.
They danced in the street.
They danced in the lemonade
Just to cool their feet.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but Lobel’s illustrations for the poems are delightful. They are a little less finished than his formal art for picture books, which gives them an endearing softness. The man conveys such personality and humor in a few swift lines, especially with his amphibians’ facial expressions!

The Frogs and Toads All Sang has an unselfconscious charm that makes it a nice addition to any child’s library, and it is an especially good pick for children’s book collectors. Think of it—in its earliest incarnation, the book was meant as a gift for Arnold Lobel’s friends. It may sound a little presumptuous, but I feel there are many of us who care so much about Frog and Toad, not to mention the mouse in Mouse Soup, that we now count ourselves among Lobel’s friends. I like to think this book is for us.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Picture Book Lessons About Being Yourself

“Be true to yourself” is a theme that crops up in a lot of children’s books, and like any theme, it can be obnoxiously didactic when pushed on readers like some kind of designer drug. Themes are especially likely to run amok in picture books, whose very form tempts writers to teach kids nice, compact life lessons. And frankly, many picture books do, whether subtly or not. For example, Where the Wild Things Are and Harold and the Purple Crayon both tell us a child can rove away from his parents for a bit, being angry and/or creative—in any case, an individual—and can then come safely home. A child can have the best of both worlds: feeling free and unique on the one hand, then beloved and protected on the other. The moon shines in the bedroom window, the food is still hot, and the kid has nevertheless expressed himself—or herself.

Ironically, “To thine own self be true” is one of the lessons taught by Shakespeare’s character Polonius, a pompous windbag and politically motivated hypocrite. But perhaps that paradox suits the way the self-esteem movement has suffered in recent years. It seems to be linked to slackers living on their mothers’ couches, CEO bonuses from the hubris-laden disaster of our banking industry, and the entitlement described in Jean M. Twenge’s new book, The Narcissism Epidemic. Okay, so maybe the people living on their mothers’ couches lost their jobs due to said banking CEOs, but you get the picture.

And yet—as Albert Einstein puts it, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Talking about self-esteem should be a two-step process: (1) You’re uniquely valuable, and (2) you need to contribute something to the world with your special strengths and abilities. The four picture books I want to talk about are pretty overt in their message of “Be yourself,” but I think there’s a place for didacticism if it’s done well—for example, if it’s tongue-in-cheek, or if it’s dreamily allegorical.

The Big Orange Splot by Daniel M. Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater’s middle name is Manus, but it could just as easily be “wry” or “tongue-in-cheek.” I came across The Big Orange Splot because a Kidlitosphere blogger recommended it, so thanks! (Sorry I can’t remember just who. Candace Ryan, perhaps?) The book begins, “Mr. Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same.” Everybody is happy about their “neat street” until the day a seagull drops a can of orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s roof. The neighbors urge him to repaint his house, and so he does. But the big orange splot has evidently inspired him; Mr. Plumbean—working at night because it is cooler—paints his house with all kinds of colors. Pinkwater says of the outcome: “It was like a rainbow. It was like a jungle. It was like an explosion.” The design includes paintings of elephants and lions and pretty girls and steam shovels.

Needless to say, the tidy neighbors are aghast: “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stopper,” they say. And that’s before the man adds a clock tower (of sorts) and buys some accessories including baobabs and an alligator. Only—one by one, Mr. Plumbean’s neighbors create their own house art, until the street is unrecognizable, not to mention very happy. The plot and art are plenty of fun, but Daniel Pinkwater’s trademark deadpan delivery and clever choice of details make his story a keeper. I especially like how each house tells us something about the person who lives there. (This reminds me of a more somber, but beautiful picture book called Pockets by Jennifer Armstrong and Mary GrandPre.)

The Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope and Barry Root

In some ways, The Araboolies of Liberty Street is very similar to The Big Orange Splot. A bunch of neighbors live on a street full of uniform-looking houses, and one family changes the look of their home. Only in this case, the uniformity is enforced by an angry old guy called the General and his uptight wife, Mrs. Pinch, who also keep the neighborhood kids from playing outside. The General is constantly threatening to call in the army to enforce his orders.

In Swope’s story, the mavericks are newcomers, a group of outsiders who transform their yard to match the style they bring with them. Essentially, tons of kids and their parents and aunts and uncles and cousins move into the house and put on a non-stop party. They don’t speak English, so they don’t know what the Pinches are screaming about. They bring their pets, which include “anteaters and porcupines. Elephants, walruses and sloths. They even [have] a wok, a few popaloks and a wild barumpus!” Plus the Araboolies come from an island where people not only have different skin colors, but the colors change every day, with shades like blue, pink, yellow, green, and purple.

Of course, when the Araboolies transform their boring house, the General has fits. The neighborhood children, for their part, are charmed, and when the Pinches make good on their long-time threat, the kids team up to turn the tables on them. There’s more plot here than in The Big Orange Splot, although of course Swope’s storytelling lacks that oddly lovable Pinkwater tone. Military families might dislike the implications that a general and his army are the bad guys. There are also pro-immigrant undertones, or even overtones. I’ve read commentary that finds this story too heavy-handed. But I still really like it, and I think you could have some interesting conversations with children after reading this book. I will add that just like the Araboolies themselves, Barry Root’s illustrations are strong and colorful.

Cosmo’s Moon by Devin Scillian and Mark Braught

I have mixed feelings about Cosmo’s Moon. It has a really fun premise, but it also has some schmaltz in spots. I’m not entirely sure which wins out.

Cosmo’s Moon is the story of a boy who talks to the moon, befriending it. Soon the moon starts following him around, even during the day. This causes problems for picnickers, the tides, morning glories, and the neighborhood dogs. Eventually some astronomers show up on Cosmo’s doorstep to ask what the heck is going on. (Mark Braught’s illustration of the astronomers is fantastic!) Cosmo works things out with the moon, and things go back to normal—sort of.

Despite the bits of sentimental text, I like this story. There are moments of humor, and I just appreciate the idea of a boy who has the imagination and character to make friends with the moon. I remember I once brought up the idea of being nice to the school outcasts with a group of twelve-year-olds, and one girl explained, “But if we’re nice to the kids nobody talks to, we’ll become one of them.”

(On a side note, if you’re in the mood for cool moon stories, look for The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon by Nancy Willard and David McPhail, Buried Moon by Margaret Hodges and Jamichael Henterly, The Moon’s Revenge by Joan Aiken and Alan Lee, and of course, Many Moons by James Thurber and either Louis Slobodkin or Marc Simont. The Simont version of Many Moons is the only one of these books still in print, so check the library.)

The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz and Steve Adams

As we discussed children’s books the other day, a teacher at my school told me, “You’re kind of out there, aren’t you, Kate?” I was a little startled, but on reflection, I’ll take that as a compliment! So I shouldn’t be surprised to find that this strange little fable is my favorite of the four books I’m presenting today.

The Boy Who Grew Flowers probably sounds like a book about gardening. But no, Rink Bowagon sprouts flowers all over his body whenever there’s a full moon. Like the family in Ingrid Law’s Savvy (which this book predates), the Bowagons have special talents.

Rink Bowagon was a boy from the deep country. He lived out past where the blacktop road became a dirt road, and the dirt road petered out into a little footpath. The path wound through the ancient trees of a wild forest, hopped Black Bear Creek, headed all the way up Lonesome Mountain, made a right-hand turn and ran smack into the Bowagons’ door.... The townspeople argued as to whether it was because they were such strange folk that they lived there, or whether it was because they lived there that they were such strange folk.
We learn that Rink’s uncle can tame rattlesnakes, and his brothers and cousins are shape-shifters. Rink’s differences are less obvious, however: his mother simply clips the flowers off and he goes to school. Even so, the Bowagons are known to be weird, so the other kids at school avoid Rink. Then a new girl named Angelina Quiz shows up in his class. She has one leg a little shorter than the other, but otherwise seems normal. The rest of the kids warn Angelina to stay away from Rink, but she doesn’t listen. Even so, the two are so shy that they aren’t close friends. Then Rink decides to help her with a problem out of simple kindness. Despite being the child of ballroom dancers, Angelina doesn’t dance, although she would like to. So Rink makes her a special shoe and invites her to the school dance. The story ends with a delightful plot twist.

Like Cosmo’s Moon, this allegory is a kind of obvious, but it is also so strange and beautiful that I don’t think you’ll mind a bit. Steve Adams’s illustrations are especially lovely, adding to the air of magical realism.

In considering these four books, I feel that a message can be a fine thing as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the storytelling. In these examples, we see that humor, creativity, and good illustrations help keep a theme under control. Sometimes writers ask me if they should try to teach children lessons in their books, and I always say no. But I add that any writer will naturally teach lessons through plot and character because each of us brings our values to the pages, whether we like it or not.

Finally, the idea of being true to yourself reminds me of Alice Miller’s book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, which postulates that all children are gifted. It is what people decide to do with their gifts that matters. I believe in teaching kids that yes, they should be themselves—unless that means being infantile and cruel. Then they should go rummage around in the basements and attics of their hearts for better qualities. I guess what I like most about these picture books is the way they show us that being unique can translate into acts of kindness and joy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Picture Book Gallery

Before I put up my regular post this weekend, I want to refer you to an annotated Listmania list that I’ve posted on Amazon (and just updated by adding Bob Graham’s How to Heal a Broken Wing) called Simply Beautiful Picture Books. Fuse #8’s wonderful Top 100 Picture Books of All Time poll reminded me that many of you, like me, are over-the-moon in love with children’s books. (That would be the moon from Goodnight Moon, of course.) While I come from the writing side of things, I feel my picture book collection is also the equivalent of an art gallery. This list is my homage to some of that tremble-inducing beauty!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Review of The Curse of the Ancient Mask and Other Case Files by Simon Cheshire

This book makes no bones about following in the footsteps of Encyclopedia Brown. Saxby Smart, Private Detective even has a shed out in the backyard where he solves cases and awaits clients. Since Encyclopedia Brown is arguably dated, I can see a need for a new approach. The question is, how well does Saxby Smart fill the great boy’s shoes?

British Saxby informs us that all of his middle names come from famous fictional detectives; his entire moniker is Saxby Doyle Christie Chandler Ellin Allan Smart. “The Allan is from Edgar Allan Poe,” he explains. Saxby addresses his readers, inviting them to help him solve the cases: “Unlike some detectives, I don’t have a sidekick, so that part I’m leaving up to you—pay attention, I’ll ask questions.” Personally, I like being invited to be the sidekick!

The format for involving readers is different than in the Encyclopedia Brown series. Instead of providing end-of-chapter solutions, Saxby just stops the story midstream and, as he has warned us he will do, asks a question. I was pleased to see that Saxby sometimes goes down the wrong path and has to backtrack, which he readily points out to his sidekick reader. He also acknowleges when he acquires a piece of useful information by sheer good luck. (Teachers will find that this book promotes critical thinking!)

As our story begins, Saxby alludes to his earlier work on cases such as “The Adventure of the Misplaced Action Figure” and “The Case of the Eaten Cookies.” But now he’s moving on to the big time, three cases worthy of a real sleuth. The first, “The Curse of an Ancient Mask,” is about the theft of ideas from a high-tech company where Saxby’s friend Jasmine’s father works. Ever since Jasmine’s father brought back an ornate mask from Japan, his best inventions have been stolen by a rival company. Having been warned when he bought the mask that it was cursed, Jasmine’s father believes the curse is coming true. But when Saxby is brought in as a consultant, he looks for a more scientific explanation.

The other two cases in the book are “The Mark of the Purple Homework” and “The Clasp of Doom.” All three cases are recounted in a friendly, contemporary way, with new characters who are well defined and sometimes colorful—especially the villains. Watch out for a smirking Harry Lovecraft in Case Two and the unpleasant Mrs. Eileen Pither in Case Three. The clues and mysteries are just the right speed for second or third graders, and the addition of pages from Saxby’s notebook add to the fun. A couple of plot points were less credible than others, though. For example, would Jasmine’s father really believe in a curse? Given his work, he’d probably solve the mystery much the same way Saxby does. But this example simply highlights an aspect of the series that is also taken from the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown: the kids are smarter than the grown-ups.

The illustrations are just right, by the way. R.W. Alley’s cheery line drawings perfectly support the text and give us a very appealing Saxby.

Apparently The Curse of the Ancient Mask is the first Saxby Smart book, and a second book came out in February of this year: The Eye of the Serpent and Other Case Files. No one can ever completely take the place of Encyclopedia Brown, but Saxby Smart is shaping up to be a worthy successor to the boy who sits in a battered chair in his backyard office, solving other kids’ mysteries.

A Review of The Niña, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure by Jill Santopolo

Meet Alec Flint, Super Sleuth, another contender for the young detective throne. Self-proclaimed sleuth Alec takes his work seriously, and like Encyclopedia Brown, his father is a police detective. Unlike Encyclopedia, Alec spends an entire book solving just one case.

I would love to tell you this is a promising series start, but unfortunately, it’s kind of a shaky debut. Alec seems like a nice kid, and the basic premise of two converging subplots—a missing Christopher Columbus museum exhibit and the disappearance of an art teacher from Alec’s school—is a winner. I also really liked the inclusion of a secret code introduced by Alec’s new friend and partner, Gina. And I got a kick out of the way the author describes Alec’s bouncy neighbor, Emily.

Two things didn’t work for me, though. One is the way the main characters don’t always sound like real kids thinking or talking, more like the way grown-ups imagine kids thinking or talking. It doesn’t help that in spots the dialogue just seems wooden. And in more than one instance, we’re given just a few bland lines, followed by more action or description. As a friend in one of my writing groups was pointing out, dialogue should move the story forward. It should also enrich your understanding of the characters.

Here’s a sample of Alec talking in the book, explaining his plans to Gina:

“Well,” said Alec Flint. “I think I already have an important mystery to solve. It’s about a missing Christopher Columbus exhibit at the museum. I’m helping my dad. But he’s not a super sleuth—he’s a police officer, which is sort of like a super sleuth but a little bit different.”
On a related note, the child characters often seem younger than they are supposed to be. One example that distracted me from the story was when Alec and Gina couldn’t reach the top of a copy machine without standing on a stool. Supposedly these kids are fourth graders, but when I saw that I went back and checked—were they actually second graders? Then I realized that they were talking like second graders part of the time, too. Even C.B. Canga’s illustrations make the young characters seem different ages, as they appear to be thirteen or so in several of the drawings.

The other key concern I have is the mystery, which turns out to lack credibility. Suffice it to say that the way the villain sets up the theft is absolutely outside the realm of possibility at an actual museum. (Ironically, the art heist in Elise Broach’s Masterpiece is more realistic, despite the beetles who act like little people!)

The Niña, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure is a pleasant book, even amusing in spots, but it made me uncomfortable because it condescends to kids, though I’m sure without meaning to. I hope that the author gets into the swing of things with her next offering, since Alec Flint has potential. But the boy needs to sound like a real fourth grader and address mysteries which are a bit more convincing.

A Review of Nana Cracks the Case by Kathleen Lane

It seems a guy named Cabell Harris (great name!) came up with this concept and Kathleen Lane ended up writing it, with Sarah Horne doing the illustrations. I’m not sure who made these arrangements, but Lane takes the ball and runs with it.

Did I say runs with it? Actually, Lane takes the ball, paints it purple, dribbles it down the aisles of the grocery store while the paint’s still wet, and then lobs it through a neighbor’s window. Next she chortles.

Every once in a while a children’s book author presents a little old lady (or, less often, a little old man) as a sort of pseudo-kid or pseudo-adult—both, really. Considering how small, brilliant, and mischievous my own grandmother was clear into her nineties, this makes perfect sense to me. Here’s how the back cover puts it:

Nanas, you see, are not supposed to become backhoe operators or marine biologists or circus performers (actually Nana did not join the circus, she only substituted while the trapeze artist recovered from a broken leg), and they must never—because they are so very fragile, you see—become detectives.
More important, you should know that Nana has a book on her kitchen table called The Joy of Napping. The book jacket is a fake: it’s there to fool her highly anxious daughter, the mother of her grandchildren. Beneath the false cover is Nana’s real reading material, say, a book about tightrope walking. A lovely touch from our publishers is that if you turn the cover of Nana Cracks the Case over, you will see The Joy of Napping jacket, complete with yawner quotes like this one from Dusty McThud: “I can’t believe I wasted so much time striving for excellence when I could have been napping instead.”

Nana’s grandchildren, Bog and Eufala, know her secret. Like Nana, the two kids devote a certain amount of energy to keeping their worrywart mother from worrying. And like Nana, they are highly talented troublemakers. For example, one of their mother’s numerous rules is never to open the front door. So we read:

And that is why Eufala and Bog did not open the front door. Never in a million years would they have so much as touched the doorknob of the front door.

Anyhow, why open the front door when the kitchen window worked just as well—and, they had found, was much less likely to draw the attention of the neighbors?
Nana’s new goal of becoming a police detective soon intersects with her grandchildren’s latest activities, and shenanigans happily scramble across the pages for the rest of the book. One of the funniest things about Nana is that she continues to be a little old lady. She keeps forgetting things, never taking the direct route anywhere, a trend highlighted by the discrepancy between the author’s words and the illustrations. And watch for how Nana handles the reporters at the crime scene.

There’s a touch of Lemony Snicket here if you listen for it. But the book’s humor stands on its own, giddily over the top.

I will tell you that Nana Cracks the Case is less invested in its mystery than the books reviewed above; the author is having far too much fun with Nana and her devious grandkids for that. But it is easily the best of the three in terms of sheer enjoyment. Edgar Awards, Schmedgar Awards—if I had to pick just one, this would be it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Review of Animal Aha! by Diane Swanson

Most of the nonfiction I read as a child bored me. The only nonfiction books I remember liking were the World Book Encyclopedia, which I sometimes read randomly to entertain myself, and some books called Animals Do the Strangest Things, Birds Do the Strangest Things, and Insects Do the Strangest Things. In fact, I wondered why, if animals and birds and insects were out there doing such strange things, more of the books in the library couldn’t talk about that, instead of what they did say, which seemed like a whole lot of blah-blah to me.

I’m still more hooked on fiction than nonfiction, but I am happy to report that children’s nonfiction has improved tremendously since I was young. Simply having more photos—and having them be in color—is a great start. The advent of the Eyewitness series has also upped the ante. As a teacher, I love bringing those books to my students, especially reluctant readers. Like my childhood encyclopedias, their pocket-sized pieces of text and wonderful photographs draw kids in. I know some have objected to the way they jump around, but then, science is often sold to us in schools as lists of facts, so what’s the difference?

Fortunately, there are alternatives. After you’ve gotten children involved with books like Eye Wonder and Eyewitness, you can introduce them to some books that don’t, in fact, jump around. Another thing I’ve noticed while teaching is that kids are inclined to think of science as a done deal, with all of those facts conquered and ordered and laid out in boxes beneath pins for their perusal. To show them that science is actually ongoing and constantly changing, we need books along the lines of Animal Aha! Thrilling Discoveries in Wildlife Science. Here’s how the introduction puts it:

Scientists work hard to uncover some of the amazing things that animals do. They spend thousands of hours planning experiments, making observations, spotting patterns, and analyzing results. Their efforts call for plenty of patience and loads of persistence. But that all pays off big time when they discover something new—something no one has ever seen before. As you might imagine, finding an AHA in research is a big thrill.
This book has five short chapters, one for each discovery. The discoveries are told in story form, letting young readers share in the scientists’ aha moments. Further facts and explanations and a history of the research leading up to the key observation follow. For example, the first chapter tells about the discovery of a gorilla using tools, adding that previously, among the great apes, only chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans have been seen doing that. In this case, a female gorilla crossing a swampy area in the Congo rainforest was observed breaking off a tree branch and using it, not only to support herself, but to check the depth of the water as she went.

Animal Aha! provides an appealing array of animals and discoveries: we go on to read about elephants looking at themselves in mirrors, dolphins demonstrating simple math skills, parrots speaking with meaning, pythons growing bigger hearts in order to digest their prey, and cockroaches learning better at night than in the morning—kind of like some people. Perhaps most intriguing is finding out how the scientists set up viable experiments for verifying things such as animal thought processes. I especially like the way the elephant research illustrates how a poorly designed experiment can yield inaccurate results: Earlier attempts to find out if elephants could recognize that they were being reflected in mirrors had used smaller mirrors so that elephants could only see their faces. Once scientists offered the pachyderms jumbo-size mirrors, the elephants quickly conducted their own experiments and concluded that they were seeing themselves.

Each chapter in Animal Aha! begins with a small sidebar of summary points titled Fast Facts and includes plenty of nice photos of the subject, some from the actual experiments. Each chapter then ends with a sidebar called Fun Facts. The book has an index, as well. My two favorite Fun Facts are “Like your fingerprints, a gorilla’s noseprints are unique” and “An elephant’s ear can weight as much as a slim woman, about 50 kilograms (110 pounds).”

Besides offering up active science about intriguing topics, Animal Aha! is written in a friendly, clear way at a second or third grade level. Diane Swanson is apparently the author of many other nonfiction books, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for them. For now, I am happy to report that animals are still doing the strangest things!

A Review of Secret of the Singing Mice...and More! by Ana Maria Rodriguez

Secret of the Singing Mice has one of the coolest titles ever, but how does it compare to Animal Aha? The books are very similar in design, actually. This one also presents five cases of animal research in five small chapters. The title chapter is especially compelling. Like bats, whales, certain insects, and a few other rodents, mice make some sounds that are so high-pitched humans can’t hear them. These songs are produced by male mice when they meet female mice, and scientists recorded them and were able to play them back and analyze them at a lower decibel. To their surprise, they found out that a mouse’s “love song” isn’t just a single note, but a little pattern—and each male mouse’s song is unique. (I’m picturing American Idol for mice now.)

Three of the five chapters in this book are about animal sounds. Like the mice, Richardson’s ground squirrel sometimes makes ultrasonic noises. The calls are part of the ground squirrel’s repertoire of warning signals, and the book details how scientists figured out when these calls would be advantageous to use—or not, depending on how near a predator might be. The third chapter about animal calls also focuses on an animal that can make ultrasonic noise: bats. It turns out baby bats “babble,” playing with sounds the way human infants experiment with vowels and syllables before learning to make words and sentences.

The two chapters which aren’t about sound give us case studies involving smell and vision. The star-nosed mole is already a bizarre creature, but it turns out to have an intriguing habit discovered by scientist Kenneth Catania: while looking for food underwater, the bat breathes bubbles out of its strange nose to touch potential food in the murky water, then snorts the bubbles back in to check them for smells. The chapter about vision introduces us to a little rodent called the degu that can see ultraviolet light—but what for? The answer has to do with the degu’s urine, which is bright with UV rays!

I was a little thrown by this book’s emphasis on sound in three of the five chapters. Part of me wanted to see a chapter for each of the five senses. But then, describing three sound experiments gives students the opportunity to compare different scientists’ approaches to similar questions, which is certainly valuable.

Singing Mice is written on a second or third grade level. The book offers us various sidebars, though some contain information that could have been worked into the text. I especially liked the idea of sidebars called Meet the Scientists, but was disappointed by their lack of detail. The font size in this book is quite small, which might be overwhelming for reluctant readers. Some chapters seem a little short on photos, as well. I was pleased to discover experiments at the end of the chapters until I realized that only chapters one and five had them. Of course, it would have been nice to see an experiment for each chapter. In addition to an index, Singing Mice provides chapter notes at the end of the book, giving us specific sources for the information in the text. This is not only useful, but is also good modeling for students being asked to document their own report writing. The book is part of a series called Animal Secrets Revealed, and I’m going to try to track down some of the other titles, particularly Secret of the Puking Penguins...And More.

Secret of the Singing Mice gives us a clear picture of how five science teams conduct their animal research. Again, these science stories are powerful examples for students who might not otherwise understand how all those “science facts” they encounter in school are generated. In the midst of recent talk in the news regarding problems with education in the United States, I’ve read that pursuit of careers in the hard sciences is on the wane. Good nonfiction showing kids dynamic, creative science engagement should be part of the solution.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Word I Looked Up This Week

pompatus--Yes, after hearing Steve Miller’s song, “The Joker,” on the radio and wondering about the line, “I speak of the pompatus of love” for the zillionth time, I finally remembered to look it up!

According to Wiktionary, we’ve got a noun meaning a pompous person, or a verb meaning “to act with pomp and splendor.” Apparently it’s a real, though faint, entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. (Faint pompatuses? Fainting pompatuses?) Of course, I’m also having a little trouble with the conjugation: “William pompatused throughout the meeting” sounds weird to me. Maybe I’d better stick to the noun in my many upcoming uses of this word...

Which reminds me: did you know that there are a mere handful of words in the English language that are entirely made up rather than derived from older/other languages? Most of them come from brand names like Xerox. The exception--and my personal favorite--is copacetic, which is said to have been invented by Bojangles Robinson!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Blog Award from Charlotte's Library

Thanks to Charlotte of Charlotte's Library for giving my site the beauteous “One Lovely Blog Award”! I will note that Charlotte seems to be a fellow fantasy fan and posts reviews of so many books I’ve either read or am wanting to read that I feel like reading her blog instead of working on my own posts. However, I beg to differ with Charlotte’s About Me, formatted as “X by day, Y by night.” You see, traditonally the X would be something mundane (e.g., Clark Kent’s day job), while the Y would be something a bit odd (e.g., Clark Kent’s night job). Yet Charlotte’s About Me reads, “Archaeologist by day, president of the Friends of a small New England library by night.” Setting aside the fact that “Friends of a small New England library” sounds like an Illluminati-type secret society, how cool is that? “Archaeologist by day!” Now I'm wondering what slice of history Charlotte studies, of course.

In thinking about passing the award along, I quickly realized that Laura Salas has been adding to my personal joy with her 15 Words or Less Poems--I really like reading everyone else’s poems, as well as adding one myself every so often. (And where does she get those intriguing photos?) Her other posts are also a delight. It’s official: Laura Salas has created “One Lovely Blog.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Book Trailer for The Runaway Dragon

While the purpose of this blog is to review children’s books and riff about the world of children’s literature, I will share any key news from the writing side of things. In this case, I am very excited to have created my first book trailer! It’s for The Runaway Dragon, a funny fantasy due out on September 1, 2009, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book is a sequel to The Runaway Princess, an ALA Notable Book in 2007.

Here’s the YouTube link for the book trailer.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Review of Bloodhound (Beka Cooper Book Two) by Tamora Pierce

Is bibliophilia contagious, like swine flu? (Sorry, pig farmers: like 2009 H1N1?) Take a look at the evidence in a recent case study I’ve inadvertently conducted. It started with my sister asking to borrow my children’s books. She began leaving the TV off and making her way through my large library. Next she wanted gift cards to bookstores for Christmas so she could get her own copies of her favorites, and she was unwilling to relinquish my copies until they’d all been replaced. Now she’s waiting with me for certain books to come out, most notably the sequel to Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, apparently expected in 2010.

The point is, I gave up my brand-new Beka Cooper, Bloodhound, about five seconds after I finished reading it because Krista had been waiting for it just as breathlessly as I had. No matter my protests that I planned to review it for my blog this weekend—the girl is relentless! All I can say is thank heavens for appendices. I printed out a copy of Tamora Pierce’s six-page list of characters, four-page glossary of local terms, and one-page list of dog commands before handing over the book, so I’m armed and ready.

For those of you who keep up with Pierce’s action-fantasy series, Beka Cooper is an ancestor of George Cooper, Alanna’s pirate husband in the Song of the Lioness Quartet. For those of you who watch TV shows like Law and Order, you’ll recognize the Beka Cooper books as police procedurals.

The cops in Corus, the capital city of Tortall, are called the Provost’s Dogs in this era, with supporting slang referring to their barracks as kennels and trainees as puppies. Besides being a lot of fun, these designations give us the book titles and deliberately apt metaphors for Beka: Terrier and Bloodhound.

Beka comes from the streets, so she’s mildly accepting of bad behavior in a “you’d better not do that where I can see you” kind of way—note that her housemates include Corus’s slightly moral Rogue or crime lord, Rosto, who has a cranky crush on Beka. But mostly Beka is completely, pigheadedly determined to uphold justice and catch the bad guys, even if that means putting herself in extreme danger and stirring the pot of city politics. I’ll just mention that Beka reminds me of a young (and sober) Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, with maybe a little Captain Carrot thrown in, to boot.

In this fantasy series, Beka has a couple of magical tools at her disposal: she can hear the talk of the ghosts that sometimes ride the city’s pigeons, and she can also hear the scraps of conversation hoarded by the city’s dust devils. These are lovely creative touches from Pierce. A magical cat has been helping her, as well, though he steps out of the picture for much of the current book.

Did you know that flooding an economy with false coin can bring about rampant inflation, starvation, and riots? After one such riot in Corus, Beka heads south to Port Caynn, the suspected source of the counterfeit coins. She accompanies Corporal Guardswoman Clara Goodwin, whose partner has been badly injured in the riot. Beka’s other companion is a scent hound named Achoo Curlypaws that she has rescued from an abusive new handler. Achoo is a terrific addition to these books and obviously shares title character rights with Beka.

As a not-so-undercover cop in Port Caynn, Beka gets involved with a group of gamblers who seem to know something about the counterfeiting, eventually taking a lover named Dale Rowan from among them. Unfortunately, she’s afraid he’s one of the counterfeiters, so she can’t completely trust him.

Beka quickly runs afoul of the City Rogue, a crude and terrifying crime boss named Pearl Skinner. Beka being Beka, she’s not that shaken up about becoming Pearl’s enemy. She even plays an especially brazen trick on the woman while on the run late in the book.

Bloodhound is full of jargon and street slang, which may throw some readers off a little. Just keep in mind that a cove is a man, a mot is a woman, and a cole is a false coin; the rest will follow after a few chapters. You may also be alarmed by the sheer size of Pierce’s cast of characters: a quick count gives us 83. And this is a pretty big book, 560 pages long.

I found that the slang and the page length and the number of characters simply weren’t a problem because Tamora Pierce is what people call a consummate storyteller. The tale just keeps pulling you along as you look forward to finding out what Beka will do next, how she’ll survive it, and of course, how the counterfeiting ring operates.

In answer to my previous question, yes, bibliophilia is contagious. And Tamora Pierce’s writing is particularly virulant, so read it with full awareness that you might very well become infected.

Note for Worried Parents: This is a Young Adult book, and it’s also a cop book, so there’s plenty of violence and a little sex, too. Though not presented in a really offensive way, they’re not oblique, either.

A Review of Fortune’s Folly by Deva Fagan

My favorite character in this book is Fate—or perhaps Dame Fortune, as the title would imply. In a near-Shakespearian convolution, author Deva Fagan has her main character, Nata (short for Fortunata) make a prophecy, then scramble to bring the prophecy to pass, thinking guiltily all the while that she is a cheat and a fake. But Nata’s father—and the reader—will be inclined to believe that the fortune Nata tells is true, and that her desperate efforts are part and parcel of Fate’s plans for the girl.

Nata’s adventures begin while she is trying to sell some of her father the shoemaker’s hideous shoes. Ever since her mother died, he has been incapable of making the once-glorious shoes he was known for. (There’s a nod to the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” in this part of the narrative, the first of several fairy tale allusions.) Nata tangles with the diabolical Captain Niccolo, winning in the short term but losing in the long term. She concludes that she had better leave the city before the man exacts some kind of revenge against her. And indeed, we haven’t seen the last of Captain Niccolo.

While on the road, Nata and her father fall into the clutches of another villain, a traveling con artist and player named Ubaldo who brazenly steals Nata’s donkey and forces her to work for him. Unfortunately, Nata’s father is ill, so she goes along with Ubaldo’s injustice in order to protect him. She also befriends Ubaldo’s fortune-teller, Allessandra, who offers to teach the girl her trade.

A third villain is yet to be encountered—or rather, villainess. After Allessandra escapes, Ubaldo forces Nata to tell fortunes for him. When they reach Domo, he brings Nata to the queen, who is searching for a true fortune-teller to create a royal prophecy and quest for her son, Prince Leonato. But the queen’s sister Donata is manipulating events so that the prince will fail and she can take control of the kingdom. Soon Nata and handsome stutterer Leonato are launched on a quest involving a sword in a stone, a missing jeweled slipper, the defeat of a witch, and the rescue of a princess of Sirenza. Of course, most of these tasks are nearly impossible, and the prince’s aunt is working to assure that he fails no matter what. If he does fail, Nata’s father will be executed.

I liked watching Nata’s behind-the-scenes attempts to ensure the prince’s success. Since he seemed to be falling in love with her, I was especially curious to find out how she could turn into a princess of Sirenza—especially after a fair-haired princess who appeared to be the real deal was discovered languishing in a tower.

At first glance, it might seem that the author of Fortune’s Folly is telling us we are at the mercy of our fates. In light of Nata’s hard work, however, it seems more likely Fagan is suggesting that our best efforts will make our fates. This is a very fun story, not to mention an auspicious beginning for Deva Fagan’s career as a children’s fantasy writer. I do recommend you join Nata on her journey. Then the next time you order Chinese food and read the little fortune inside, you can decide if you want to invest yourself in the hard work of making it come true.

Note for Worried Parents: Ubaldo and his virtual enslavement of Allessandra and Nata are a little scary. For most kids, it’ll be like a lot of what they see on TV, but if your child is on the young end of the book’s 9- to 12-year-old range or is easily spooked, you might want to wait a year or two for this one.