Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Review of My Invisible Sister by Beatrice Colin and Sara Pinto

When you're a ten-year-old boy like Frank, life is usually pretty simple. But Frank has a thirteen-year-old sister, which would be enough of a pain if she were normal. It's even worse because Elizabeth has a rare condition called Formus Dissapearus, which essentially means she's invisible.

A lot of the time Elizabeth is not happy, and she uses her condition to make sure her family is unhappy, too. The family has moved almost every single year of Frank's life because whenever Elizabeth decides she hates a place, she causes so much trouble in the form of unpleasant pranks that they must all leave town. But Frank really, really wants to stay in one place and make friends. He wonders if he can help Elizabeth learn to like it here, although that seems practically impossible.

Elizabeth also uses her ability to make her brother look stupid and to frame him for things he didn't do. Being her brother is not easy—something these authors have a lot of fun with! As the family unpacks and Frank tries to make friends with the kid next door, Elizabeth has him tripping, talking to "nobody," and wearing his underwear on his head, for example.

Narrator Frank has a likable kid voice.

You might think I am one of those boys who has everything: a bike, a skateboard (customized, of course), a dog named Bob, and a new house. But it's what you can't see that ruins everything.
I have a sister. "So what?" you might say. "I've got one or two or six myself." Well, I would take your six and give you my skateboard, my bike, and even my dog if you'd take my sister.

The first day of school Elizabeth embarrasses Frank, but the other kids end up thinking it's cool that his sister is an invisible student. On the way home, though, Elizabeth informs him that she hates it here. Frank begs her to cheer up, and his sister says she'll give it a week.

Despite the humor, the authors obviously feel sorry for Elizabeth, who says to her brother, "You have no idea, do you?" and "They keep asking me if I'm wearing any clothes... Like, duh? Do they think I want to freeze to death? Do they think I'm some kind of nudist?"

Frank makes friends with the neighbors and ends up babysitting, which creates more humor as he deals with the infant he's named Smelly Vincent and Vincent's siblings, all under the age of five. One nicely comic scene has Frank being asked by Harassed Mother to take them all trick-or-treating. Frank must make the kids Halloween costumes on the spot, and his own costume, Impaled Airplane-Pilot Crash Victim, isn't quite working. Elizabeth hangs around mocking him, but she steps in when some bullies try to take the Halloween swag from these younger kids. Elizabeth doesn't play ghost; she turns Smelly Vincent into a flying baby ghost!

Colin and Pinto come up with some clever situations, and they're also good at using pouty thirteen-year-old girl behavior at its worst, as amped up by the power of invisibility. Nonetheless, by the end of the book, it looks like Frank and his family will stick around. There's even a hint at the end of the book that Elizabeth's condition might change in a possible sequel.

My Invisible Sister is slim at 119 pages, but it has a fun premise and the authors build on that premise with great good humor. The 9-to-12 crowd will no doubt get a kick out of this new book, especially boys.

A Review of My Invisible Boyfriend by Susie Day

Unlike the sister in the review above, Heidi's boyfriend is invisible because she invented him. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, however, she does a pretty good job of convincing her friends he's real, a long-distance love that she met during the summer break while they were all out of town.

Heidi attends boarding school, though she lives at home—her father works at the school as a night security officer. Now summer has ended, and Heidi is dismayed to find that her cozy little group of fellow students-on-the-fringe has changed: all of them are pairing up except her. Chirpy Ludo, goth Fili, and even former fatman Dai (who's gay) have found love. Leaving Heidi on the outside looking in, with only the parents she calls the Mothership and Dad Man, or, more important, her imaginary friend/crush Mycroft Christie, the main character in a now-defunct TV series that resembles Dr. Who, left on her side.

Heidi also works at a cute little tea-and-pastry shop with a very nice lady and her son, Teddy, but Teddy has a girlfriend and it seems the shop might be closing down. Another subplot deals with Heidi and her friends' involvement with the school's 80's-style production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Heidi has a strong first-person narrative voice that reminds me a little of Georgia in Louis Rennison's series (Angus, Thongs, and Full-frontal Snogging, etc.). Heidi's quite a character, and it took me a few pages to get into this book. But once I did, I enjoyed it. Here's a sample:

Boarding school Dining Halls are not what you imagine. I've seen six, and put all Hogwarty thoughts from your mind. There will be no mahogany paneling, or portraits of old dead guys, or feasting on roasted wild boar by candlelight. The Finch Dining Hall is strip-lit, smells of beans, and looks a bit like a posh McDonald's. The food is just as enticing: Oil Pie, Lettuce in Soup, and the ever-popular Armored Pizza. (If the Mothership's Red Peppers stuffed with Red Lentils, Red Onion, and Red Cabbage don't kill me, their Fish Surprise will.)

Once Heidi invents Ed Hartley, she has to back him up, which includes putting him on the Internet. "Ed" ends up having e-mail conversations with Heidi's friends, which gets a little complicated, especially when Heidi sets out to solve their problems: Ludo and Peroxide Eric are having relationship troubles, Fili is desperately unhappy and won't say why, and Dai keeps doubting rich-boy Henry's love. Then someone who calls himself "E" and "a real boy" starts e-mailing Heidi, saying he knows Ed's a fake and why doesn't she choose him instead? Heidi tries to guess who "E" is, selecting just about everyone in sight and getting it wrong every time.

You, the reader, will probably figure out who "E" is right away, as I did, but it's sort of fun watching Heidi flounder. You might even appreciate her ongoing conversations with "Mycroft Christie," or watching the gingerbread man who represents Ed Hartley slowly going stale. (Um, symbolic much?) This book is very post modern and self-conscious, but it's also very funny. If this kind of style doesn't drive your teenage daughter crazy, she'll probably like My Invisible Boyfriend!

Be sure and check out the book jacket, or rather compare it to the cover—the full jacket shows three couples on a couch, including Heidi with a ghostlike figure, while the cover shows Heidi sitting alone. Nice design.

Note for Worried Parents: There's quite a bit of kissing going on, also teen angst and some mention of teens smoking and drinking.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Review of Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham

Some adult writers make the transition to writing for children smoothly; others don't. Having read a few Grisham novels in my time, I was curious to see how well this author crossed over. I sat down to read Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, only to find myself asking: John Grisham is basically a decent writer, so why didn't his new book for kids turn out better?

But first, an introduction to the plot: Theo Boone is not only the child of two lawyers, he is an aspiring lawyer (or maybe judge) whose friends come to him Encyclopedia Brown-style for legal advice. Theo spends his free time in his own little section of his parents' law office or hanging around down at the courthouse, where he has befriended at least one judge, among various other personnel. Not a bad premise.

This is a small- to medium-sized suburban town, which is meant to explain why it's only had one murder since the 1950s. Now a murder trial is taking place, and Theo unexpectedly gets some inside scoop through his kid connections. The question is, how can he get that information to the right people before a murderer walks, especially since he's been asked not to reveal the identity of the frightened witness?

Troubles with this book:

1. Some of the exposition about legal matters is worked in smoothly, but other times it seems lecturish.

2. Theo, speaking of lectures, is thirteen going on fifty, which doesn't make him the most appealing main character in the world. His love of the law seems beyond nerdy, and he comes across far too often as a dry kind of guy.

3. The cases the kids in the Encyclopedia Brown books bring to the boy detective are generally plausible, but I'm less convinced by the legal questions Theo's peers bring to him.

4. Since the murder case is being tried by and for grown-ups, Theo's involvement is necessarily peripheral, and he must eventually take his troubles to adults for help. (One of the first rules of children's books is that young characters must solve their own problems, or mostly solve them, without adult interference.) This difficulty is due to the basic setup, but it's nevertheless an issue.

5. The bad guy's evil bodyguard eyeballs Theo too often, and too early in the book. Theo really wouldn't draw that much attention till later in the story, and then for specific reasons.

6. Like many adult writers who cross over to writing for younger readers, Grisham sounds a bit stilted—and occasionally condescending—as he tries to write at a level he imagines is more appropriate for this audience.

7. Biggest complaint? A huge cliffhanger, in which Grisham refuses to wrap up the plot we've been following for 250-plus pages. I don't mind some loose threads leading to another story, but I really resent it when an author doesn't deliver on the promise of the main plot, especially when the story clearly could have fit in a book of this size in its entirety. (Add another fifty pages if you need to, Dutton!) I find myself wondering whether the writer couldn't be bothered to come up with a tightly constructed story, or whether he didn't trust us to read the sequel without said cliffhanging. Either way, I was Not Happy when I got to the last few pages and realized what Mr. Grisham had done. (A lawyer might say Trial 1 = Book 1 and Retrial = Book 2, but if you read this, you'll see what I mean from a character-and-plot perspective. The whole book ends up feeling like a setup for the actual story.)

So, good points? Old hand that he is, Grisham tells a decent tale. And some of the secondary characters are intriguing, especially Theo's pseudo-hippy uncle, Ike. I also like Theo's braces and the fact that he named his dog Judge. Details such as these lighten the heaviness of the whole "love of law" theme. Not to mention, Grisham has set up a very cute website for his legal eaglet.

I imagine there are plenty of people who will enjoy this book, but I found myself distracted from the storytelling far too often to recommend Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer. Perhaps Grisham will get more comfortable with the shift to writing for a younger audience in Book Two. (And I will be shocked—shocked, I say—if they don't make this into a movie!)

Poetry Friday: In Times of War

Well, I don't usually post my own writing here, but I happen to have written a handful of poems about war which I submitted for possible inclusion in an anthology on that subject by Lee Bennett Hopkins a few years back. He didn't use any of them at the time, although he later decided to use one in a different, upcoming anthology. But thoughts of Memorial Day on Monday reminded me of those poems, so here are three of them for this weekend... Note that the second one was based on my grandmother's memories of spying on her older cousin, and that the reason the couple was outside in the yard in November was because the family was quarantined due to the terrible flu epidemic that swept the globe that year. I added the third poem because we need to remember those who have come home and the price they've paid, as well. Their memories of being in a war are another kind of memorial, one that should be honored by the rest of us, especially since that experience can change the entire trajectory of a life, sometimes in very sad ways.


My mother had a brother,
my grandma had a son.
He smiles down from the mantel
next to medals that he won.

“Posthumous,” Grandma tells me.
“That means they sent them after.
But I’d give all the medals back
For one minute of his laughter.”

November 5, 1917

Side by side on the backyard swing they sat, breath frosting the air.
It was too cold to be out for long, but neither of them cared—

he had to tell her he’d go to Paris after the war was won
and buy a fancy dress to give her when he came home.

She had to say she’d wait forever, always wearing his ring.
She’d write him every single day and tell him everything.

They could see her little sisters in the yellow window light,
with the war as far away as the moon that last November night.

They sat there for the longest time, both of them shivering,
holding hands and talking, together on the backyard swing.

Before the War

Before the war,
Jamie wanted to be
everything, and he
was as tall as a tree.

Not anymore.

Now Jamie seems
kind of small,
and he wants to be
nothing at all.

--Kate Coombs, 2010, all rights reserved

Note: Poetry Friday is being hosted at The Miss Rumphius Effect today. Please link through to read dozens of poetry-related posts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Nonfiction Monday ˗ The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Richard Egielski

Note: Host Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes has challenged bloggers to come up with unusual book reviews for this week's Nonfiction Monday. Readers are then asked to vote on their favorites tomorrow. Visit the roundup at his site so you can link to reviews of nonfiction children's books in the form of cartoons, videos, and crossword puzzles, among other innovative efforts. Mine is an attempt at channeling Gilbert and Sullivan! (To be sort of sung—frenetically—to the tune of "Modern Major General.")

It was a quarrel comical and terrible and tragical
between two men so talented they came across as magical.
Now Jonah Winter tells their tale and R. Egielski illustrates
what happened when these famous men most infamously butted pates.
You see, it turns out Sullivan was really very serious,
while Gilbert was so funny he was practically delirious.
And Sullivan told Gilbert he was sick of writing silly stuff.
He quit on Gilbert, flouncing out, announcing he had had enough.
So playful operatic kingdom Topsy-Turvydom shut down,
a cause of sorrow for the whole of 1800's London-town.
Poor Gilbert, he was baffled, hadn't known his partner felt that way
and walked the streets, bemused, until he saw a small Kabuki play.
Inspired, he hurried home to write an opera about Japan,
then went with trepidation to his lost pal, Mr. Sullivan.
To his relief, the guy was charmed by everything that he had done
and started writing music, letting bygones be completely gone.
Which gave the world Mikado, and a partnership beloved again,
thanks to a moment in the street, a handful of Kabuki men.
Remember, even the most loyal, brilliant kinds of buddies can
disagree, like Mr. Gilbert and his partner Sullivan.
My thanks to two new partners, Jonah Winter and Rich Egielski,
for giving us a story so delightful, yes melodically
and visually the very model of a modern picture book—
please venture to your bookstore or your library to take a look!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Trouble with Sci-fi/Fantasy Villains

I am hosting a discussion on "Defeating the Undefeatable Villain" over at the Enchanted Inkpot if you want to stop by to see what some of my fellow writers have to say about this issue. You know, when Everykid must save the world from a terrifyingly powerful foe with a name like, say, Dr. Evil or Voldemort... It's not easy to write a book where this scenario feels credible, so how do writers handle it?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Review of Zebrafish by Peter H. Reynolds, Sharon Emerson, and Renée Kurilla

Peter Reynolds may be best known to you as the illustrator of the Judy Moody books and the creator of zen-like picture books such as Ish and The Dot, but he is also the founder of a children's media company, Fablevision, dedicated to producing "stories that matter, stories that move." While I am usually leery of didacticism, I was pleased to come across Reynolds' latest work, a graphic novel called Zebrafish. Reynolds came up with the concept, Sharon Emerson did the writing, and Renée Kurilla created the art for this graphic novel aimed at tweens. [Warning: spoilers below!]

The book is partly sponsored by Children's Hospital Boston, especially their organization, Generation Cures, which is "a philanthropic movement that teaches tweens to use their powers for good." I like the sound of that! (Some of the proceeds from this book go to fund research for the hospital.)

Now, just because a book supports a good cause doesn't mean it's a good book, but this one has definite appeal. The premise is a kick, for example—Vita Escolar tries to start a rock band, but she keeps getting volunteer bandmates who don't actually play instruments. She tries another round of sign-ups, but the same people show up. That's when Vita starts to go with the flow, coming to appreciate her odd little team of air guitarist Plinko, cool techie Jay, quiet artist Walt, and Walt's environmental activist sister Tanya. Rounding out the cast is Vita's older brother, Pablo, who appears to be raising her for some reason. There's a nice ethnic mix here, too.

We gradually learn that Tanya is in treatment for leukemia, a fact that she hides from the kids at school. But Vita is over at the hospital a lot because recent college grad Pablo works in a lab there, and she runs into Tanya and finds out the truth. It turns out that Vita's mother died of cancer. And Pablo's research department needs money to help them with their cancer experiments on zebrafish, the fish which inspires the name of Vita's sort-of band...

A couple of things struck me about this book. First, the cancer element could have been handled badly, and it isn't. One reason I picked up Zebrafish is because I am currently teaching sick kids in their homes for the L.A. school district, and a lot of my students are in cancer treatment. So I know whereof I speak. For example, I can tell you that kids with cancer worry about being bald, and a lot of the time they'd rather talk about any- and everything other than their illness. Kids with cancer are just—kids. Which is how they're presented in this graphic novel.

Though the cancer is never addressed in a sloppily sentimental way, do look for a couple of poignant moments involving Walt's drawings of his sister while she is curled up, hurting. It reminded me with a sharp blow of going to see a 6-year-old student of mine who has trouble getting up in the morning to meet with me. She has lost an eye to cancer, and one morning when I got there, she was curled up in a little heap, looking like a bony birdling with that dandelion fluff which is all that remains of her hair. (I madly rearranged my schedule to see her later in the day after that!)

Yet... watch for Vita's unexpected take on Walt's drawings. I also like how the zebrafish is used to good effect as a central symbol.

The style of Zebrafish was a tad off-putting at first in the sense that the narrative feels somewhat disjointed, in part because it skips over entire months at a time. These shifts are signalled, but are still jarring in spots. I eventually became accustomed to drawing lines between the dots, however. Then the bits and pieces started to jell for me, and I decided I really liked the book.

Zebrafish is apparently the start of a series. I hope the next book manages to achieve the same impressive balance between message and appealing storytelling. Kudos, not only to Reynolds for this project, but to Sharon Emerson for her mastery of off-the-nose dialogue and to Renée Kurilla for his cute-yet-hip artwork.

Speaking of Emerson, the humor here is fantastic. For instance, when Vita begs her brother for a dog, he suggests she borrow the dog next door. Vita does, and we find out that the dog is incontinent and wearing a diaper. But Vita still takes him for a walk, and she discovers a lost dog along the way. Then there are lines like "Want to grab some free-range fries?" or "I hear prison orange is the new salmon." And this exchange:

Where's Tanya?
At the game.
What for?
She skipped a meeting to watch JV soccer?
Nooo. She skipped a meeting to watch Kyle.
Isn't that the kid with the beard?
I thought that was Gary.
Gary moved on to mutton chops junior year. Kyle stands alone.
Note that Tanya, despite her medical situation, still has crushes on boys and worries about clothes. When she tells her brother that Kyle "asked her out" to his soccer game, Walt says, "Oh. So...on this date, you'll be one hundred feet apart? And half the time he'll be running away from you?" You see? Genius from our girl Sharon. I even loved her jacket flap bio—look for it! And look for this book, which brings something new to the world of tweens, graphic novels, and children's book publishing.

Note: Zebrafish is listed for ages 10-14. Here are links to the Zebrafish website, where you can find a book trailer and webisodes, also the Fablevision website and the Generation Cures website.

Water, Water Everywhere

Sometimes when I drink a glass of water, I'm struck by how amazing water is, how great it is that I have access to nice, clean water, and how my body is made up of such a large percentage of water. As you may recall from science class, water is one of the key factors promoting life on our planet. In fact, research regarding life on other planets begins by looking for evidence of the presence of water. So today's post is a celebration of watery books—one nonfiction lead and a handful of picture books—slightly obscure, cool ones, my favorite kind!

Water by Trevor Day (2007)

Another gorgeous offering from the nonfiction folks at DK publishing (makers of the Eyewitness series). Day and a team of graphic artists treat us to a myriad of facts about nature's finest ingredient in this page-turning nonfiction extravaganza. Yes, it would make a good source for a school report on water, but anyone with an ounce of curiosity will find themselves intrigued by some of the material here. For example, did you know that an adult female human is 50% water, an adult male is 60% water, and an infant is 70% water?

Besides the obvious, well-presented spreads about things like the water cycle and weather, we find out about sewer robots in Germany; the amount of water required to maintain livestock versus oranges, rice, and wheat; the reason Baikul in Russia is the only major lake that isn't being silted out of existence; and how a freshwater pumping station can be located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea for boat traffic. There's also a timeline of key events in water history, ambitiously starting 4 billion years back before jumping to a more modern 9,000 BCE.

You'll get a nod to global warming and its relationship to the world's water, a gorgeous fold-out illustrating the water cycle, and my favorite graphic, a drawing of the globe that repositions all of the water on one end and the land on the other, including a breakdown of fresh and saltwater and glaciers. Did you know that the equivalent of 350 billion Olympic-sized swimming pools evaporates from Earth's surface daily?

For a user-friendly look at our watery world, track down this book. I'd recommend it for ages 8-12 as well as interested adults.

The Old Woman and the Wave, written and illustrated by Shelley Jackson (1998)

Essentially a parable, this book is the story of a cranky old woman whose house is haunted or maybe stalked by an enormous wave which simply curves high above the roof, dripping. The old woman covers her roof with large umbrellas and yells at the wave to go away, but it persists in hanging around. Then a passing stranger admires the wave, the old woman's dog goes for a swim in the wave, and she can ignore it no longer. She ends up making peace with the wave, which willingly takes her on an epic journey into the unknown. I'm pretty sure this book is about taking risks, but it could be about a lot of things. The mixed-media art is unusual and lovely, and children will probably giggle at the idea of that giant wave even as they enjoy following the old woman's transformation.

The Whale's Song by Dyan Sheldon, illustrated by Gary Blythe (1991)

Despite the realistic style of the paintings, this is a magical book, or perhaps we should call it magical realism. The Whale's Song begins:
Lilly's grandmother told her a story.
"Once upon a time," she said, "the ocean was filled with whales. They were as big as the hills. They were as peaceful as the moon. They were the most wonderful creatures you could ever imagine."
Grandmother goes on to hint to Lilly that if she goes to the end of the pier and gives the whales something special—"A perfect shell. Or a beautiful stone."—they might sing for her. Naysayer Great-uncle Frederick scoffs at all of this, but Lilly creeps out by night to try her grandmother's suggestion. After her initial failure and more discouragement from Frederick, she goes back home, but then something magical happens. (I hope that you, like me, will ignore the implication that Lilly might be dreaming at this point!) The illustrations are particularly beautiful, as is this book's magical take on the giants of the sea.

Water Boy, written and illustrated by David McPhail (2007)

When a boy hears at school that he is mostly water, he worries that he will dissolve in the rain, among other things. He was already a reluctant bather, and now he decides to avoid water diligently. But his mother comforts him, so he gradually makes friends with water. In fact, water makes friends with him, too! It starts to follow him around, especially after he asks his grandmother to make him a sweater "the color of the ocean on a cloudless afternoon."
Strange things began to happen. One evening, as he was helping with the dishes, the water from the faucet curled into letters that spelled his name.
The boy becomes capable of all kinds of watery feats, and then the water asks for his help. At this point, we get a gentle lesson about fighting pollution. Water Boy meanders like a brook, but it is a charming tale, with lovely, watery illustrations and an engaging young hero. The jacket design is especially nice.

Up, written and illustrated by Jim LaMarche (2006)

Before there was a Pixar movie, Jim LaMarche created this book. It's mostly the story of a boy whose father and older brother think he's too little to help, but the conflict is set on the shore, and the help has to do with work on a fishing boat. Tired of being called Mouse, Daniel exerts his exasperation and develops an ability to lift objects with his mind.

But rather than going all sci-fi with this, the author/illustrator is more subtle; Daniel doesn't advertise his newfound power, which at first can only lift small things very slightly. Eventually, he uses it to assist in saving a beached whale, although only his father suspects Daniel's gift, and even he's not sure. What he is sure of is that Daniel is old enough to go out on the fishing boat. Like Water Boy, Up is notable for truly stunning artwork. It should also prove comforting for kids in the 5-to-7 range who feel that the world doesn't take them seriously enough.

So perhaps you've been longing to go to the beach or at least longing for a nice tall glass of water: have a book while you're at it! Please feel free to list other watery books in the comments.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Review of The Recruit by Robert Muchamore

I was perusing the new YA books in my local bookstore when I noticed a shiny new hardcover edition of Robert Muchamore's The Recruit and had to smile: I've read eight of the books in the Cherub series and ordered the last two books from England before they came out in paperback in the U.S. Why? Because this is the only kid spy/adventure series that can hold its own against the Alex Rider books. In fact, in some ways, I like this series better—and your son or daughter might, too.

As our series begins, James and his sister Lauren live in a rough neighborhood with their obese, alcoholic mother and her jerk of a sort of ex-husband Ron (who is Lauren's father). James is always getting in trouble in school, and this time it's a doozy: he shoves a girl who insults his mother and she ends up cutting her face on a nail protruding from the wall. When people start talking assault charges, James leaves campus.

He goes home thinking he'd better confess what happened to his mother, who, we learn, is the leader of a group of thieves. So James has every tech toy known to man and there's a lot of money in the safe. The brother of the girl he has hurt comes over and beats James up. A little later, James's mother has a heart attack and dies. He is put in a foster home, while his sister—who would rather stick with him—is picked up by her father, Ron. But James manages to get to the contents of the safe before Ron does.

In the foster home, James is befriended by his roommate, Kyle. James also falls in with some thuggish older boys at school and gets trapped in a liquor store robbery situation by one of the boys. He's about two inches away from jail when he wakes up in a new place and finds out he's being recruited for a secret organization of young spies called Cherub.

James has an incredible mental mathematical ability, but he's out of shape and doesn't know how to swim. He also has an anger management problem, along with poor impulse control. But the teachers and older students of Cherub push James to undertake the demanding task of transforming himself, culminating in a kind of basic training where he nearly blows the whole thing. (The final stage of that training is a three-day hike through snake-infested waters in Malaysia.)

James finally gets to go on his first mission, where he lives in a tent city, pretending to be the nephew of a member of a group of radical ex-hippies and environmentalists who are planning to bomb a big international conference. One of the key themes of this part of the book is that the bad guys aren't all bad and can seem sympathetic. James also has a heady brush with romance.

As an added bonus, later in The Recruit Ron gets himself thrown in jail and Lauren shows up at Cherub, to James's delight. Each book in the series is a new mission, and we watch James continue to grow and have setbacks along the way. We also follow some of Lauren's adventures.

One of my students, a 15-year-old video game-playing boy who's basically uninterested in reading, blazed through The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, after which I was wracking my brain trying to think of what books to give him that would have a similar adrenaline level. Cherub to the rescue! He is now thoroughly enjoying Robert Muchamore's series. He got through the first book so fast that he had to wait a few days for me to come back with the next one. When he saw that I had brought both books #2 and #3, he got a far bigger smile than boys his age generally permit themselves to display.

As for the advantages over Alex Rider, the ensemble cast is a lot of fun compared to lone wolf Alex (or lone wolf Young Bond, for that matter). The fact that the kids are less wealthy and more down-to-earth might make them more accessible to the average reader, as well.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Cherub books are well paced, with timely adventures and villains who are more nuanced than you usually find in a spy series. James is a likably flawed hero, and his sister is cheerfully tough and a little conniving. As a group, the young spies of Cherub have their share of interpersonal dramas, friendships and romances, quarrels and pranks—all while saving civilization from terrorists as well as arms and drug dealers. There's some kid humor in the mix, too. Muchamore is the kind of author who makes his characters and their lives seem real and compelling, regardless of the fantastical nature of their organization and its missions. James and his fellow spies aren't at all cherubic, but your young reader might be in heaven reading these books.

Note for Worried Parents: The Cherub books are for teens and are on the gritty side. The heroes are the kind of kids who get in trouble in school and sometimes wind up in juvie. I think I recall the boys noticing the girls' breasts once or twice, and there's some kissing. Also plenty of violence of the spy-adventure and fistfight variety. Some of the places James and his friends infiltrate are pretty rough, speaking of juvie (for example). But overall, Muchamore's series is surprisingly wholesome, considering what I've just said. Meaning, they're not dark and edgy in the way some of the YA titles for older teens are these days. And the kids' friendships and loyalty give the series a sort of Hogwarts feel. I'd say these books are a good fit for most middle school as well as high school readers, especially boys and reluctant readers.

Update: I took a look at some of the later books in the series, and there is some talk about condoms and sex, though the girl Cherubs mock James for being "randy" and he gets into trouble on one of the missions over his willingness to follow any pretty girl who comes on to him. Now that he's 15 or 16 (I believe he was 12 in the first book), James is sexually active, which is clear in the books, though the author doesn't dwell on it. I'd better call this series a PG-13.

A Review of The Billionaire's Curse by Richard Newsome

Gerald Wilkins's parents drag him away from a planned ski trip with a friend during the winter break in his home in Australia to his Great-aunt Geraldine's funeral in England. The lady was a billionaire, and now the Roald Dahl-type family members are circling the coffin, eager to hear the reading of the will. And Gerald has been given a secret letter, which just might have something to do with the giant diamond stolen from the British Museum in the prologue.

Then the will is read, and everyone goes nuts. Because Geraldine has left her entire fortune to twelve-year-old Gerald. What the others don't know is that she has also asked him to find and punish whoever it was who murdered her.

Gerald's mother quickly sees that she and her husband will be able to control the money till Gerald is of age, so she dumps him in the care of a surly butler and goes off with Gerald's father to explore the old woman's holdings, which include a yacht and a Caribbean island.

Thanks to the paparazzi and his great-aunt's prissy lawyer, Gerald is essentially trapped inside his new mansion. But he soon finds a way out and goes to the British Museum, where he begins to investigate the theft of the diamond and his aunt's murder. Best of all, he meets a couple of kids who are in London on vacation and are happy to help him with his quest—Sam and Ruby.

Danger threatens our young heroes, of course, most notably in the form of a spider-like man, a thin, black-clad villain who is sure Gerald has information relating to the missing diamond. As Gerald and his friends close in on the answers, the author throws in magical elements. It turns out the diamond is more than just a giant gem. In its proper setting, it leads to a supernatural treasure. (And Gerald seems to have a touch of psychic power the author hints about here and there.)

This book is a lot of fun, so I can see why it won a publisher's writing contest. The Billionaire's Curse begins with just about any child's daydream of a premise and moves fairly quickly, interspersed with humor. The storytelling is weakened in spots by an overreliance on coincidence and the occasional cliché, however, not to mention a glaring example of trusting exactly the wrong person at the worst possible moment (after Gerald and Co. have been relatively cagey for chapters on end). I also found it odd that when Gerald inherits the money, he scarcely reacts except to dislike the crush of angry cousins. He doesn't think about how he can now take his buddy back home skiing in the Alps, for example, or buy a new skateboard. I realize he's supposed to present a contrast to his relatives, but he could have at least smiled at some point in response to the news!

Newsome's first novel is clearly the start of a series. I keep wondering if he's going to have Gerald's horrible parents die in a boating accident. Watch for that in Book 2... And watch for this to be turned into a movie. It would make a good one.

Note: I requested a copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program. The Billionaire's Curse is due out on May 18, 2010.

A Review of The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan

Hooray, it's out! "It" being the first book in The Lightning Thief author Rick Riordan's new series based on the Egyptian gods and magic, The Red Pyramid. If your offspring loved the Percy Jackson series, you may already have this new book in your hot little hands. If not, what are you waiting for?

And of course, we have to ask ourselves, just how does the new book stack up?

On the one hand, I could argue that there's a whole lot of setup and explaining going on in The Red Pyramid. On the other hand, all of that is needed, and Riordan does a pretty good job of making the info dump a natural part of his storytelling as we discover things together with our young main characters.

Fourteen-year-old Carter Kane is the book's hero, along with his sister Sadie. After their mother's mysterious death, Sadie was sent to live in London with her maternal grandparents, while Carter traveled the world with his archaeologist father. Let's just note here that Carter is a little older than Percy Jackson when those stories began, which reminded me that the movie version made Percy older (so Riordan got smart about the age thing!). What I really like is that Carter and his sister are black—or at least, their father is black and their mother was white. I live in L.A., and mixed-race kids feel like a nice representation of our modern world. This also allows Carter and his sister to be connected by blood to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, which ends up being an important plot point.

It's Christmas Eve, and Julius Kane is more nervous than usual. He takes his children to the British Museum, where he hopes to "make everything right," apparently by releasing a helpful Egyptian god. Unfortunately, he releases an evil Egyptian god named Set while he's at it and ends up trapped in a magic coffin which takes him away, leaving Carter and Sadie behind in the midst of what looks like a bombing. They are brought to their grandparents' house and interrogated by police who cast suspicion on Dr. Kane, then picked up by their father's wizardly brother Amos, who spirits them away to New York City to protect them from the newly unleashed Set. Because yeah, Sadie and Carter have powers, and they're part of something world-changing. And yeah, they need to save said world from Set's destructive plans.

Sadie and Carter find out more about Egyptian magic, their own heritage, and a group called the House of Light—protectors of Egyptian magic who would just as soon kill the two kids as have to deal with them. There are questions of who can be trusted, also who's possessed by an Egyptian god (for good or for ill). We get various adventures, including monster attacks, and some of the author's trademark humor along the way, with a cheery little side trip to the land of the dead. Riordan has Sadie and Carter take turns narrating, which is sometimes helpful and other times confusing. (Riordan even throws in some talk that makes the reader feel like he/she is not only being addressed by Carter and Sadie, but is being recruited to their cause.) This book is what they call uneven, but I have a feeling that, with all of the setup out of the way, Riordan will shine in the second and following books of the Kane Chronicles.

I got a kick out of the author's nod to his Olympians books, by the way. When Amos first takes the kids to the mansion, we read:

"So you can't live in Manhattan?" [Sadie] asked.
Amos's brow furrowed as he looked across at the Empire State Building. "Manhattan has other problems. Other gods. It's best we stay separate."
"Other what?" Sadie demanded.
I should mention that one feature of Amos's mansion is a baboon named Khufu who's a huge fan of the L.A. Lakers. Other secondary characters include the helpful if unpredictable cat goddess Bast and a beautiful young girl named Zia from the House of Lights, whose loyalties are torn between her assigned duties and her desire to help Carter and Sadie. (Read: future sidekick/love interest comparable to Annabeth in The Lightning Thief.)

In a nice twist, late in the book Riordan has Carter make a really interesting decision about his potential for a powerful future. It's also intriguing to see how the author handles the issue of the missing Julius Kane.

A perfect read? No. But The Red Pyramid is nevertheless a good series start. If you're a Percy Jackson fan, read this one and then join me in looking forward to smoother sailing (preferably in a narrow reed boat with eyes) in Book 2.

Winners of the How-Did-I-End-Up-with-Two-Copies-of-This? Book Giveaway, Part 2

We have a winner! We even have a second place winner, since I discovered I have a second, pristine copy of the classic fantasy, Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, as well.

--Caroline has won copies of The Magic Thief: Lost by Sarah Prineas, Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus by R.L. LaFevers, and A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce.

--Sydney has won a copy of Tom's Midnight Garden, winner of England's Carnegie Medal.

I've heard from Caroline, but Sydney, you need to send your snail mail address to my author's e-mail address (see link to my website above right). Then I can send out your book.

Happy reading!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fantastical Beasts

When I saw A Dignity of Dragons on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, I was overcome by book lust. Not only do I love the idea of a collective nouns book about magical creatures, but I already admired Jacqueline K. Ogburn's books (e.g., The Magic Nesting Doll and The Lady and the Lion) and Nicoletta Ceccoli's artwork (e.g., for Kate Bernheimer's The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum or the jacket art for Joseph Helgerson's Horns and Wrinkles).

Here Ogburn takes the already fun idea of collective nouns—such as a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, or an army of frogs—and applies it to mythical beasts. She makes good choices, to say the least: I especially like the play on words in an "amazement of minotaurs" and the nicely allusive "pandemonium of fauns." Ogburn groups the creatures by type, so that, for example, mermaids, sea monsters, sea horses, and sea serpents share a spread with "a continent of kraken." And we get quite a selection of were varieties on another spread.

In amongst the more common of these uncommon creatures, you'll find some unusual ones from a variety of cultures, like the Mexican Quetzalcoatls, the Australian rainbow snakes, and the Chinese Chi'lins. An author's note at the back gives a brief description of each entry's place in mythology.

There is something completely frivolous about this book, but that's part of its charm. The settings are appropriately atmospheric, with many a mist and mystery. Italian artist Ceccoli's beasts are rendered with a slightly antique look, and of course, the ones with human faces share the sweet, stylized features that characterize all of her work.

A Dignity of Dragons seems meant for fantasy aficionados young and old; it could also act as a project starter with 4th or 5th graders who could compare these collective nouns to those describing real animals and then invent their own. (Collective nouns may be more of a poetic than a scientific device, but aren't they marvelous?)

Speaking of mythical beasts, this seems like a good time to point you to a couple of encyclopedias focused on exactly that. As a writer of fantasy, I've had reason to refer to such a book in the past, so I can recommend a couple. A recent acquisition is The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John and Caitlin Matthews. A quick count shows 79 entries for the letter A alone, including gods, beasts, and fairies from around the world. Here's a sample of an entry for the Kappa:

In the Shinto religion of Japan, the Kappa are water spirits who pull children into the water and drown them, and who also attack travelers. They are unable to survive for long on land since they must keep their heads wet. They are described as having long hair, the body of a tortoise, scaly limbs, and an ape-like face. They live on a diet of cucumber and blood and they fly on enchanted cucumbers which sprout wings like dragonflies.

The other resource I own comes in two volumes, Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth and Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia, both by Carol Rose. The monster one has been of most use to me. It has 190+ entries for the letter A alone, so it covers a little more ground than the Matthews book. Here's the entry for Kappa:
These are aquatic monsters in the mythology and folklore of Japan. They are variously described as being small and in the shape of monkeys, with scaly skin and webbed fingers, or as having the body of a tortoise with the head of a monkey. Whatever the description, they are reputedly green, and their heads have a depression in the top of the skull in which there is a fluid that gives them their life force. The Kappa, also known as Kawako, which means "Child of the River," as the name implies, inhabits ponds and rivers. They are particularly malicious and entice humans and animals into the water, where they devour their victims and drink their blood. If a human is clever enough to negotiate with the Kappa, he may keep his life, and if befriended by offering the preferred cucumbers as food, they may teach the person about medicine. If, however, the Kappa is intent on consuming his victim, its potency may be drawn from it by making a low bow, which must be returned; in doing so, the liquid, which is the source of the Kappa's power, will drain from his head. ...See also Buso, Jenny Greenteeth, Llamhigyn y Dwr, Peg Powler
Unlike most encyclopedias, each of these volumes provides a table of contents, as well.

I've always loved the fact that kappas keeps their soupy life essence in the bowl-shaped tops of their heads and that you can trick them into spilling it by bowing so they'll bow back. I'm glad that's clear in this entry. It isn't apparent in the Matthews entry—but then, this is just one example. Even if the Rose books seem more detailed and scholarly overall, the Matthews book is still a friendly, handy volume that includes some nice storytelling here and there.

So if you find yourself dreaming about unicorns, perhaps longing for a little magic in your life, look for A Dignity of Dragons—and maybe even one of these encyclopedias, which, frankly, would make a very fun bathroom book even if you don't need it for research purposes.

Note for Worried Parents: Some of you may want to know that a few of the mermaids and sphinxes in A Dignity of Dragons have their smallish breasts showing, though it's not one of those things that really leaps to the eye when you're reading.

Off the Beaten Track: Creative Picture Books You May Have Missed

There are a lot of cute, middle-of-the-road picture books on bookstore shelves these days, but I love finding the ones that venture out into the wilds to explore the creative possibilities. Here's a sampling of slightly unusual books published in the last decade or so. (See also my previous post, "Picture Books with Bite.")

Thea's Tree by Alison Jackson, illustrated by Janet Pedersen (2008)

Alison Jackson pokes fun at adult expertise in this epistolary picture book. Our girl Thea keeps writing letters, trying to get answers about her science project, an unusual seed she has planted in her yard. The seed grows into a giant plant that readers will recognize as Jack's beanstalk. The best thing about Thea's Tree is the disconnect between Thea's experiences and the adult determination to categorize them properly, as everyone from botanists to bank managers weighs in on the plant and associated findings. Another plus is the story second and third graders will be able to read between the lines, based on additional clues Thea discovers. Throughout, Thea is cheerful and persistent, just as a young scientist should be. (In a nice nod to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the author sets her story in Kansas.)

Down the Back of the Chair by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar (2006)

If you enjoyed last summer's lovely, rollicking Bubble Trouble from Mahy and Dunbar, you might want to look for their earlier work, Down the Back of the Chair. Mahy—who is perhaps best known for her thoughtful YA fiction—takes the idea of items getting lost down the back of a couch or armchair and runs with it, predating Mini Grey's inspired use of a similar hiding place in Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog. The story starts out with Dad's money troubles, and little Mary suggests diving for change in the big flowered armchair. Where else but in kidlit can a voracious piece of furniture solve a family's problems? You'll be amazed by just what's down the back of the chair, which turns out to be your basic cartoon hammer space. This book is written in rhyme, which doesn't always work out in picture books, but Mahy is plenty good enough to pull it off. (For another manic furniture-based adventure, see Diana Wynne Jones's "Chair Person" in her story collection, Stopping for a Spell.)

Badly Drawn Dog, written and illustrated by Emma Dodson (2005—out of print)

Badly Drawn Dog was "scribbly, scrawly, and sketchy around the eyes. He looked like one big smudge." That would be because his artist is a kid. Tired of being badly drawn, BDD goes out looking for a more skillful artist to draw him, or rather redraw him. But he discovers drawbacks [no pun intended, but I'll keep it!] to his new look and tries another style, then another. None of them seem to suit, so BDD concludes that being badly drawn isn't so bad, after all. Look for homages to artists like Picasso and Van Gogh in BDD's new styles. This book is so high concept it's out of sight, like an escaped helium balloon, but your child will probably get the basic joke, or at least BDD's desire to look better, a typical wish in our society.

What! Cried Granny: An Almost Bedtime Story by Kate Lum, illustrated by Adrian Johnson (1999/2002)

More theater of the absurd for the younger crowd as Patrick goes for a sleepover at his Granny's. Of course, we all know a grandma will do just about anything for a beloved grandchild! So when Patrick points out that he doesn't have a bed at her house, Granny goes out and chops down some trees to make one. Pretty soon she is out in the henhouse collecting feathers to make a pillow, and the adventure continues—all night! The Pre-K crowd will be amused by this one, and you'll no doubt appreciate the ultra-capable grandmother.

White Nineteens, written and illustrated by David Christiana (1992—out of print)

Christiana is an interesting guy, and this strange not-quite-fairy tale is a good example of his creativity. Pocket-sized fairy Buttercup gets up one morning to put on her favorite wings, her White Nineteens, but finds they have been stolen. She goes out hunting for them, given directions by an assortment of potential witnesses such as an owl, a queen bee, and some Texas-style worms called the slithering suzies. Buttercup eventually finds the thief and gets caught herself, whereupon she is taken to the thief's frightening owner, a troll. But why would a troll want a tiny pair of wings? And could the White Nineteens help Buttercup escape? The story is fairly simple, but the illustrations are marvelously otherworldly. (Best for slightly older children, as the troll and the thief are a bit scary.)

The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin: Being an Explanation of Why the Streets Are Not Full of Happy Dancing People, written and illustrated by David McKee (1987—out of print)

When Veronica first starts playing the violin, she's so bad that her first violin teacher moves to China. But Veronica keeps practicing, and she gets so very good that she can make every single person in her audience weep. After the girl becomes world famous, she decides she needs a break and travels to the deepest jungle, relying on her music to tame the savage beasts. And it does, or, sort of does. This book is completely satirical, so it blithely avoids a happy ending. But it is very funny! Note, for example, that when Veronica plays her violin on an ocean liner on her way to the jungle, the ship's pumps must work night and day to deal with the tears of the passengers. McKee makes fun of basic literary tropes, Horatio Alger stories, and the power of the arts in this sly and clever offering.

Note: See Seven Imp's wonderful discussion about "slightly demented picture books," "Straight Talk about the Food Chain," from a few years back. Thanks to author Boni Ashburn for the reference. Or try MotherReader's Weird-Ass Picture Book riffs and awards, which really go a-rambling!