Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Review of The Magic Cake Shop by Meika Hashimoto

Emma is a terrible disappointment to her parents, who are what you would get if you crossed Roald Dahl with People magazine. Take a look at how the story begins:
Mr. and Mrs. Burblee were very beautiful. Mrs. Burblee had a delicate chin, dainty earlobes, and a charming smile. Mr. Burblee had a rugged chin, manly earlobes, and a winning smile.

When Mrs. Burblee went for a walk, many a man tripped over his feet in a rush to say hello. If Mrs. Burblee said hello back, the goggle-eyed man usually fell off the sidewalk, sometimes into oncoming traffic.

Mrs. Burblee took this as a compliment.

When Mr. Burblee took a ride on his motorcycle, he liked to grin at the lady drivers at stoplights. They usually fainted. In the past year, Mr. Burblee had been responsible for eighty-two traffic jams.

He liked to keep count.

In between causing traffic accidents, the Burblees spend their time "powdering, perfuming, and polishing." They also sit around and talk about how beautiful they are. Oh, and write odes to Mrs. Burblee's feet.

What they don't talk about is their daughter Emma, who is neither polished nor beautiful. They put her on a diet and everything, but the child is grubby. Also interested in starving children in far-off countries and other topics that have no appeal whatsoever for the Burblees. She even wants to learn to bake fattening desserts! After she embarrasses them at a dinner party supposedly held in honor of her tenth birthday, they send her off to live with her awful Uncle Simon.

Simon has a Roald Dahl pedigree, as well. (Think The Magic Finger.) He loves to hunt and kill small animals. He loves to make Emma's life miserable, too. She has to cook and clean for him. Cooking usually means making "backyard stew," composed of squirrels and songbirds Simon has slaughtered. Except—Emma discovers a wonderful cake shop when her uncle sends her out to get huge amounts of pastries (for him, not her).

To Emma's delight, magical baker Mr. Crackle takes her under his wing. Other people in the town of Nummington also reach out to her with kindness, and Emma begins to feel cared for for the first time. She is beginning to be truly happy when an evil stranger shows up at Uncle Simon's house. He has plans that will make a lot of money, but he intends to use Mr. Crackle for his unpleasant schemes. To protect Mr. Crackle, Emma interferes with their plans, only to watch them come up with a new and more horrible plan that will involve the gifted baker, anyway.

Not that these two villains are a match for Emma and Mr. Crackle—but before they win the day, things will get rather poisonous.

Hashimoto has a clean and upbeat style as she tells a delicious little story of villains and magical pastry making for younger readers. I think 7- to 9-year-olds would be the best audience for this one. Note that bits and pieces of her plot require some extra suspension of disbelief, but who cares? All I know is I want a magic cake shop in my town!

A Review of Pie by Sarah Weeks

Alice's aunt Polly is the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, and when she dies, everyone in Ipswitch is upset. Not only was Polly such a nice person that she gave her pies away rather than selling them, but people were really hooked on her pies. Pie even amped up the town's economy. After all, Polly was a 13-time winner of the national pie contest, the Blueberry. (Someone else entered her pies.) And her shop, Pie, had become a real tourist attraction.

Alice is especially sad because she was very close to her aunt. To her surprise, her aunt leaves her a legacy, her grouchy cat, Lardo. And she has left her award-winning pie crust recipe to Lardo!

Now half the town is baking pies, trying to win the Blueberry. Including Alice's mother, who has envied Polly for years and resented the fact that Polly didn't use her gifts to make a lot of money.

Alice's father doesn't bake; he sneezes. He's allergic to cats.

Alice is not interested in making pies. Her own talent is for songwriting. And now she is trying to get along with Lardo, not the world's sweetest feline. When Lardo disappears from her room, Alice worries that he has been catnapped.

Also, what is magazine reporter Sylvia DeSoto really up to? Let alone Mayor Needleman's wife, or Alice's principal, Miss Gurke?

With a town full of secrets and failed pie crust, Alice and Aunt Polly's shop assistant Charlie set out to play Nancy Drew and one of the Hardy Boys, respectively. Sure, Charlie is good at fixing Alice's uncooperative bicycle chain, but he makes a pretty good friend, too.

Alice is inclined to be self doubting, worrying about all the things she's said and done wrong. It will be clear to readers that what Polly most wanted to leave her niece was not a pie crust recipe; it was simple, everyday happiness.
But happiness seemed as far from Alice's reach as the disappearing pies in her dream. She lay in bed wondering if things would ever change, and that's when she remembered something her aunt Polly had once told her.

"Things do not change; we do."

"Did you make that up?" Alice had asked.

"No, a man named Henry David Thoreau said it. Do you understand what it means?"

"I'm not sure."

"If you want things to be different, you have to start by changing yourself."

Of course, Alice, being a self-doubter, takes this memory the wrong way and decides she should change everything about herself. Stuff like her singing, her imagination, and her hunches. Readers will be quick to realize that Alice's new goal is not a wise one. Sure enough, a few pages and a peach pie later, Alice gets it right. Other characters also grow and change, replacing old perspectives with new ones.

This is a fairly slim book, a cheerful, unintimidating story of adventure and friendship—and pie.

A Review of Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood

The Bliss family owns a magic bake shop in a small town. Not only are their baked goods extra yummy, but they can also act as magical solutions to problems. For example, Mrs. Bliss makes a special recipe to save a small boy who is in a coma after having been struck by lightning.

Bliss is written in the third person, but it is told almost entirely from the point of view of Rose, the Blisses' responsible, too-ordinary, too-plain, and slightly anxious 12-year-old daughter. She's the one entrusted with the whisk-shaped silver key to the magical vault when her parents are called out of town.

Littlewood has fun with her cast of characters. Rose's siblings include 15-year-old athlete and heartbreaker Ty, who's so full of himself and so adored by others that he hardly ever has to do a lick of work; 9-year-old Sage, who's a clown; and 3-year-old Leigh, who mostly makes messes. Rose is the only one in the family with dark hair, and she feels practically invisible—especially around her crush, Devin Stetson. We also get Chip, the laconic, tattooed muscleman who works in the bakery, and an elderly babysitter who smells weird and yells with a Scottish accent.

But the real star of this show is "Aunt" Lily, who shows up about five minutes after Rose's parents leave. It is so obvious that she has come to steal the Bliss family's magic cookbook that you may find yourself, as I did, telling Rose not to be a sucker for pages on end.

However. Lily is a bit more complicated than that. Yes, she's nefarious, and she has put some kind of spell on the kids so they won't tell their parents she is there when the elder Blisses call home.

But in addition to scheming, Lily is actually a lot of fun. In addition to being sneaky, she makes people feel good about themselves. She is charming with a capital C!

Rose and Ty run into trouble when they copy out some recipes from The Cookery Booke and experiment with them, hoping to show off to Lily without letting her into that vault.

A love potion and a truth potion cause all kinds of craziness in town, as does a backwards spell intended to reverse the previous spells.

Littlewood's humor shines brightest when she crosses over into parody, most notably when a dozen or so girls Ty has plied with both the love potion and the truth potion show up at the bakery looking for him. Until now, no one has done a Mean Girl quite like this one.
Out the backdoor, six rabid girls had pressed their flushed faces to the glass. More girls bounced on the trampoline, trying to get a look into the kitchen over the heads of the others. A girl stood on each of the swings—even the baby swing—and one brave girl had climbed on top of the rusty barbecue grate, ignoring the bits of burned hamburger stuck to the grill. Their eyes were bulging out of their heads, big as Ping-Pong balls.

This was scary stuff.

... Then a singular voice rose from the back of the crowd. "If he doesn't come out now, I will rip someone's face off!" One girl, taller and stronger than all the others, was hurtling toward the front of the crowd, throwing shorter girls to the ground as she passed them. That girl was Ashley Knob.

Her long hair had been curled into fancy ringlets so shiny and so blond that you had to squint to look at them directly. Her lip gloss shimmered like an expensive watch. Slung over one shoulder was a bag from which a frightened Chihuahua looked out, clearly wishing he were somewhere else. A ring of space opened up around her. Even in the depths of a spell, the girls of Calamity Falls always knew to make way for Ashley Knob.

Ashley screamed, banging on the window with her fists. "I will set all the furniture from my daddy's store on fire and throw it through this window!"

And that's just one of the results of Rose and Ty's baking!

Little by little, Lily hones in on the coveted cookbook, not to mention the magic ingredients kept in the secret cellar. One of the funniest things in the book is how Lily skewers the way Rose's parents use their magic, pointing out that their side of the family "[has] done nothing with [The Cookery Booke] but squander its power by running popular local businesses in small, eccentric towns." Most kids will miss the fact that Littlewood is sending up fantasy tropes, but older fantasy readers will no doubt enjoy the author's satirical moments.

The book gives us a couple of twists and turns before the Bliss parents come home, as well as a cliffhanger ending that sets readers up for a sequel. I am not a fan of such endings, but Bliss is nevertheless a clever, fun read for the middle grade crowd.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from HarperCollins. It will be coming out on February 14.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What Are You Rereading?

I've heard from fellow readers (e.g., at Sounis!) that they find the Christmas holidays are a good time to curl up with books they're already read and want to re-experience. A cup of hot chocolate doesn't hurt!

This week I reread A Wrinkle in Time because I'm going to be writing a poem about it for the February blog tour celebrating its new reprinting. I also reread a few books by Sherwood Smith: Court Duel, The Trouble with Kings, and Wren's War. Next I'll reread the other two books in the Wren trilogy, no doubt.

I find myself wondering what makes me want to read certain books over again. It's easy to say that they're the best ones, but I've read some marvelous books I have no intention of ever rereading. Books I reread are certainly well written, but I think they have a "comfort food" quality, as well. The sort of story you can sink into as if it were a big, soft armchair (to switch metaphors from food to furniture).

What about you? Are you a rereader, especially during the winter break? What have you been rereading? Let us know in the comments!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Review of Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry

If you will scan the shelves of your local bookstore in December for great Christmas picture books, I think you will find that the pickings are pretty slim. Other than The Polar Express, a couple of nice versions of the nativity story, and maybe a Night Before Christmas, the books aren't amazing or even particularly fun. For that we must go back in time... in this case to 1963, when the delightful Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree first came out. The book was reprinted in 2000 and is currently available, thank heavens.

This is a cumulative tale, all based on the rather unlikely repeated coincidence of a Christmas tree that's just a little too big for its designated space having the top chopped off and tossed—only to provide a tree for someone else. It's literally a tall tale (then a shorter tale, an even shorter tale, etc.)!

We begin following the tree when it is cut down on the page before the title page, hauled down from a mountaintop on the title page, and driven past a bear and a couple of rabbits on the publisher's info page to land on page one with the following text:
Mr. Willowby's Christmas tree
Came by special delivery.
Full and fresh and glistening green—
The biggest tree he had ever seen.

Mr. Willowby, with his large white mustache, dances around as the tree is put up, he's so excited. Then he notices that the tree doesn't quite fit.
Baxter, the butler, was called on in haste
To chop off the top, though it seemed quite a waste.

Baxter proceeds to take the top of the tree to Miss Adelaide, who is Mr. Willowby's upstairs maid. She sets up a table-top tree, but the top of the tree bends against her gable room ceiling. When she clips it off and throws it out, it is picked up, trimmed, and passed along repeatedly, making its way to one more human and three festive animal households before ending up with a tiny mouse family who lives in Mr. Willowby's house not too far from the original Christmas tree.

What makes this book so appealing? It's not the rhymed text, which ranges from adequate to slightly less so. No, it's the outrageous trail of adopters and choppers, along with the wonderful artwork. Each new tree acquisition is greeted with enthusiasm by an intriguing new set of characters. I especially like Barnaby Bear and his family, perhaps in part because they are given extra page time. (Barry must have liked them, too!)

Mama Bear is clearly in charge of this household. When Barnaby suggests slicing the tree off at the bottom because it won't fit on the mantel, "...Mama Bear just shook her head/And sliced the treetop off instead." Barnaby looks a tiny bit dismayed and Baby Bear seems surprised as Mama wields a large and shining knife with sturdy confidence. These subtleties of character are played out differently in each of the homes we visit so quickly. The best illustrators have a knack for capturing personality, and Robert Barry is no exception.

Each new incarnation of the Christmas tree is its own little story, like a miniature chapter in a longer book than this one. We don't get to hang around to see all of the different approaches to tree decorating, but in the Bears' home, it's "bells and honey rings,/Some berries, and tinsel, and popcorn on strings." At the very end, we learn that the Mouse family puts a star made of cheese on top of their tiny tree.

This is a goodhearted, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek Christmas story, and young readers will thoroughly enjoy finding out where the increasingly small Christmas tree ends up next. It's almost as if the tree were a character, making its way from house to house like a slowly melting snowman. There's a message in here somewhere, but it's not entirely obvious. More than anything, Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree captures the joy of families gathering to celebrate the season.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Poetry Friday: Water Magic

I'm counting down till my first poetry collection, Water Sings Blue, comes out. Once more, I'll share with you a few poems that didn't make the cut. These poems were left behind because we decided to stick to real ocean life. Of course, being primarily a fantasy writer, I composed some magic-tinged ocean poems along the way...

The Siren

The siren’s singing opera,
the siren’s singing rap,
the siren’s singing country songs,
and jazz and blues and tap.

The siren’s singing loudly,
so plug your ears and frown,
‘cause whatever she sings, the siren
deeply wants to see you drown.

Ghost Ship

Ghost ship, where are you going?
Bearing cargo from ancient lands,
jewels and spices, perfumes and tigers,
silks and contraband.

Ghost ship, where are you going?
Navigating your way by stars
that climb the heavens strangely,
with different names than ours.

Ghost ship, where are you going?
You’re sailing west and north,
but the only way to deliver your goods
is to land at the ghost of a port.

Sea Witch

The sea witch’s hairs are tentacles,
the sea witch’s arms are eels.
The sea witch stirs up tsunamis,
spinning the oceans like wheels.

The sea witch’s teeth are clamshells
and her eyes are wave-worn glass.
Beware the sea witch’s lair of bone,
for she will not let you pass.

Art: "Siren" by John Waterhouse and "The Little Mermaid" by Harry Clarke, also "Ghost Ship" by an unknown photographer.

And now, let's hear it for Poetry Friday! I'll be posting your poetry links early in the morning and again at noon and in the early evening, MST. (Can you tell I have to work?)

—Heidi Mordhorst leads off with talk of her family's Christmas tree plus a lovely Christmas picture book featuring the words of an e.e. cummings poem: Little Tree. Deborah Kogan Ray is the illustrator.

—Wordsmith Steven Withrow of Crackles of Speech joins us with his lovely poem "The Buck."

—Robyn Hood Black brings us an interview with the most excellent David L. Harrison and a preview of his new e-book collection of poems, Goose Lake.

—Over at Poetry at Play, Charles Ghigna ("Father Goose") shares poems about poetry; I can't decide which one I like best!

—And at Teaching Authors, the talented April Halprin Wayland has a poem called "First Books," along with a literacy fundraiser for that you can help by commenting about the first book you remember reading.

—Myra Garces-Bacsal of Gathering Books invites you to join a reading challenge; she goes on to share a poem by Joel M. Toledo, "Persona," that is beautifully illustrated by a collage photo of Myra's daughter.

—At The Drift Record, Julie Larios shares the very fun Index poem she wrote for a Poetry Stretch at The Miss Rumphius Effect: "Index to the History of the Hiccup." Try to read it without getting the hiccups!

—Tabatha Yeatts of The Opposite of Indifference posts two intriguing poems by Marilyn L. Taylor, "The Geniuses Among Us" and "Aunt Eudora on Having Outlived All of Her Friends."

—Mary Lee of A Year of Reading uses Howard Nemerov's "To David, About His Education" to launch a thoughtful conversation about education. Can cookie making be as important as literature? I agree with Mary!

—Welcome Jeff Barger of NC Teacher Stuff, who reviews a poetry collection by Mordicai Gerstein, Dear Hot Dog. You may know Gerstein simply for his illustrations, but take a look at his poems!

—At A Teaching Life, Tara posts "two extraordinary poems about the ordinary" by George Bilgere: "The Table" and "Corned Beef and Cabbage." With a shout-out to Garrison Keillor, even.

—And speaking of shout-outs, over at Carol's Corner, we've got a reminder of the power of books that spotlights a collection of poems edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins, I Am the Book. The poem Carol shares is Naomi Shihab Nye's "Who's Rich?"

—Librarian Andi Sibley talks about the Edublog awards at A Wrung Sponge. Julie Greller's post, "34 Websites for Teaching Poetry," led her to Magnetic Poetry for Kids. Great stuff!

—Where else but at Jama Rattigan's delectable Alphabet Soup site would you find a celebration of Jane Austen's birthday that includes one of the author's poems, "Oh! Mr. Best You're Very Bad," and a family bread pudding recipe?

—Did you know that the author of A Wrinkle in Time wrote poetry? Ruth of There Is No Such Thing as a God-forsaken Town shares a Madeleine L'Engle Christmas poem, "First Coming."

—Welcome to the prolific Diane Mayr, who shares a Ginger Andrews poem about the mulleygrubs at Random Noodlings, her own "A Letter Obsession" at Kids of the Homefront Army, Kay Ryan's "Every Painting by Chagall" at Kurious Kitty's Kurio Kabinet, and a quote from Ryan at Kurious K's Kwotes.

—Poet Laura Salas honors the season with "Ring Out, Wild Bells" and invites us to visit this week's 15 Words or Less poems, too.

—At A Poem a Day from the George Hail Library, Maria Horvath spotlights the poet Alice Meynell and shares her sonnet, "Renouncement."

—Susan at Chicken Spaghetti is experimenting with dictionary found poems and invites us to join in! Her "Rhymes with Fascinating" and "Rhymes with Fascinating II" are terrific models.

—TeacherDance's Linda is missing summer, as expressed in her poem, "Pantry Stores."

Kenn Nesbitt's poem, "December 26," ends with the perfect twist. Thanks to Debbie Diller for sharing it!

—The folks over at The Stenhouse Blog share a teaching tip from Anne Marie Corgill's book: how to create a class poetry anthology.

—Today at Joyce Ray's Musings we have a timely topic, a tribute to Russell Hoban and his poetry. Did you know that the creator of Bread and Jam for Frances passed away this week?

—Karen Edmiston of The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title offers us a sublime poem from Thomas Merton, "Advent."

Okay, folks, I have to go to work. Any additional comments will be linked during my lunch hour. But just look at all the great stuff we've got so far!

Today at The Poem Farm, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater posts a thoughtful poem for two voices, "Finding Answers."

—Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader shares nearly a dozen of her marvelous Christmas poems. Thanks, Elaine!

—Over at The Write Sisters, Barbara Turner gives us a poem about cats and curiosity by Alastair Reid.

—Liz Scanlon posts about running and the poem "Marathon" by E. Ethelbert Miller at her blog, Liz in Ink.

—David Elzey joins us with some seasonal haiku and other thoughts on once again failing to send out holiday cards.

—Welcome to Poetry Friday, Jim Hill! Today he offers us a poem about the awkwardness of adolescence, "Sometimes."

—Lorie Ann Grover has posted "My Soul Lights," a haiku about love, over at On Point: Writing Through Life.

—Miss Erin chimes in with an original poem called "Alone, and Happy." What a nice thought! Not everyone knows how to do that.

—In a fitting conclusion to our December day of poems, Janet Squires of All about the Books reminds us of a marvelous collection that talks about winter and its various celebrations: Winter Lights: A Season in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines.

Merry Everything! And thanks for participating!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Website News

My author's website is nothing if not sprawling, and it has just grown again: I've put up pages for my upcoming picture book, Hans My Hedgehog, and for my upcoming poetry collection, Water Sings Blue. Thanks to my website designer, Barb Aeschliman of Jaleroro Web Designs, for all her hard work!

Check out the Hans book page and a page of hedgehog facts, plus the Water Sings Blue book page (with the title poem) and a seashell gallery (from my own collection).

I'm especially happy because Hans My Hedgehog has garnered two starred reviews in the past few weeks, one from Kirkus and one from Publisher's Weekly. Of course, a lot of the credit goes to illustrator John Nickle, whose artwork is just amazing!

Happy sigh...

Note: I am also exploring the wonders of Twitter, if you'd like to check it out. My username is KateCoombs13.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

YA Holiday Extravaganza

Okay, none of these are Christmas books (except maybe Bradley's)! But you might want to buy a couple as Christmas gifts.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

In short: If Sherlock Holmes were an 11-year-old girl
and a mad scientist to boot, he would be drawn into the mystery of a murdered actress, too.

I know, these books are being sold to the adult mystery market. But The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, A Red Herring without Mustard, and Bradley's latest are some of my current favorites and do star a child. Flavia de Luce is at once poignant in her loneliness and hilarious in her ruthlessness. She lives in a crumbling British manor house with her depressed, stamp-collecting father and her often-cruel older sisters. (The year is 1950/1951.) Is it any wonder Flavia falls in love with chemistry, particularly poisons? In this fourth book, a film crew comes to make a movie, but a blizzard and a murder turn the film shoot into a mystery for Flavia to solve.

Why do I include the Flavia de Luce mysteries in a YA roundup? Because, as any YA editor worth her salt will tell you, Young Adult fiction is all about voice—and Flavia's voice is marvelous. My favorite passages are about her interactions with a war-damaged family retainer named Dogger (who seems to be the only person keeping an eye on this crazy kid):
"As you know, Miss Flavia, my memory is not what it once was."

"Never mind, Dogger," I said, patting his hand. "Neither is mine. Why, just yesterday I had a thimbleful of arsenic in my hand, and I put it down somewhere. I can't for the life of me think what I could have done with it."

"I found it in the butter dish," Dogger said. "I took the liberty of setting it out for the mice in the coach house."

"Butter and all?" I asked.

"Butter and all."

"But not the dish."

"But not the dish," Dogger said.

Why aren't there more people like Dogger in the world?

And who else but Flavia would try to prove the existence of Father Christmas scientifically by laying a trap for him? Who else would set off rockets on the roof while solving a crime, for that matter? No wonder the local police inspector is both aghast and fascinated by this child.

I mean, I almost don't care what the mystery is: I just want to see more of Flavia!

Liar's Moon by Elizabeth Bunce

In short: A young thief tries to clear her aristocratic friend from charges of murder and discovers a morass of intrigue while war threatens.

This sequel to Starcrossed finds Digger back in the city, where she is arrested and thrown in a cell with her friend Lord Durrel Decath, who once saved her life. It turns out Durrel has been accused of murdering his wife. Once released, Digger investigates out of a mixture of loyalty, compassion, and curiosity. The investigation moves rather slowly, but then, clues don't drop out of the sky in real life, do they? Digger eventually uncovers troubles having to do with the smuggling of Sarists (illegal magic makers), even as she tries to decide for herself whether Durrel is guilty or innocent. The book ends with a really great twist.

Liar's Moon is a little akin to Tamora Pierce's Mastiff (see below) in that it features a dogged young investigator trying to get at the truth. Digger is tough, impatient, and thoroughly likable. While I sometimes feel that events move Digger in this book more than Digger moves events, she does find herself in the middle of some very big actions on the part of major players. And no matter what, Digger keeps working away at the mystery of the murder Durrel has been accused of committing.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

In short: Everyone believes Jack the Ripper has returned to London in the present day, and only Rory seems to see him as he stalks his victims.

Rory moves to London to attend a boarding school when her parents get a sabbatical abroad. She is in the midst of adapting to roommates and major British exams when she notices a strange man on the street—and learns that someone is replicating Jack the Ripper's murders one by one, each on the date of the original murders. But the someone doesn't appear to be human. Has the ghost of Jack the Ripper returned?

I got this book because I really like Maureen Johnson's writing, though I'm not big on Jack the Ripper as a topic. Johnson certainly knows her way around a story. Our girl Rory turns out to be a special kind of ghost whisperer. She isn't the only one, either.

There are a lot of books like this series start out there right now, but Johnson happens to be a better writer than most. In her hands, a tattered genre takes on a fresh feel. I look forward to Book 2 in the Shades of London series.

Possess by Gretchen McNeil

In short: Bridget can banish demons, not a life skill she was really hoping for. She joins a team of exorcists, but starts to suspect she is being used.

I was a little hesitant to read this book, I have to say. On the one hand, it's by a cool fellow author from the Enchanted Inkpot blog, Gretchen McNeil. On the other hand, I'm one of those people who never did and never will watch The Exorcist. Ya know?

Fortunately, this book is more of a paranormal suspense book than a horror story (though there are a few horror elements). I like how main character Bridget Liu is not happy about her ability and the subsequent pressure from Catholic priests to exercise it for the good of the community. This seems more normal to me than all those books where the teen is either blasé or thrilled about having supernatural powers.

And of course, Bridget trusts all the wrong people, or distrusts the right people. I think most readers will be way ahead of her on that one, but it's still fun to watch her figure things out. Bridget is a piece of work, and her tough 'tude makes for a more interesting story. Subplots with her males buddies and her mom's potential boyfriends add to the ups and downs of Bridget's life. I want to see more of this girl!

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

In short: A defiant deaf girl becomes the manager of a high school band named Dumb and learns through trial and error what music is really about.

Five Flavors of Dumb is now out in paperback, having debuted in November of 2010 and won the 2011 Schneider Family Teen Book award. That's the award given for the best book of the year about a young person with a disability.

Both at home and at school, Piper must deal with people who are uncomfortable about her deafness. On the home front, her parents have raided the college fund her grandparents left her to pay for an operation to make Piper's baby sister hearing rather than deaf. This sends all kinds of painful messages to Piper, whose father seems especially uncomfortable with her deafness.

At school, Piper stumbles into being the manager of a band named Dumb and makes them an outrageous promise she feels compelled to keep. Even with the help of an aging rocker and her guitar-blessed little brother, she struggles to make things work. It doesn't help that she has a crush on the lead singer, or that he has a crush on what appears to be a stereotypical rich mean girl. But nobody is quite what they seem in this immediate and well-told story. John brings the pieces of his tale together beautifully. You'll want to listen to all your favorite music before, after, and during Five Flavors of Dumb.

Mastiff by Tamora Pierce

In short: Beka Cooper's back, called on to find the king's child after he is kidnapped in an absolute bloodbath tainted by dark magic.

I've been waiting breathlessly for this one! I liked Pierce's Alanna and Kel series (Song of the Lioness and Protector of the Small). I also enjoyed the Immortals series. I'll admit that I wasn't too crazy about the Circle of Magic books. However, I really like the Beka Cooper books, which combine police procedural with magic. Beka is a member of the Provost's Guards, a tough and dedicated group of cops in the fantasy land of Tortall. (Think late Middle Ages, only with magic.)

When the young prince is kidnapped, Beka and her partner Tunstall set out in hot—or rather, methodical—pursuit. They are accompanied by Beka's scent hound, Achoo; her occasional companion Pounce, a powerful being in the shape of a cat; a mage named Master Farmer who is less of a bumpkin than he seems; and Sabine, the lady knight who is Tunstall's lover. The people they are after leave ugly spells behind to stop the "dogs." The kidnapping is, of course, highly political.

Beka herself is persistent, honorable, and courageous. She also has a few tricks up her sleeve. My favorite is that she can talk to whirlwinds and to the spirits of the dead who sometimes hover for a brief time within the bodies of pigeons.

We also get a growing attraction between Beka and the exasperating Master Farmer. Plus some great twists and turns in the plot. After all, very few writers can make a story and its characters seem as real and intriguingly complex as Pierce can. I recommend you get the first two books and read all three in order. Immerse yourself in Beka's world!

Supernaturally by Kiersten White

In short: In this sequel to Paranormalcy, Evie has a normal life at last—and she's bored. Soon she's sucked into helping the International Paranormal Containment Agency again.

It's hard to write a second book, especially when the first book is full of action and suspense. Where do you go next? What we get is Evie sneaking out to work for the IPCA again without 'fessing up to boyfriend Lend, who is off at college and can't keep an eye on her the way he did before. Evie worries a lot about something she's realized about Lend, but doesn't tell him what she knows. Meanwhile, her missions for the IPCA throw her together with a strange, puckish boy named Jack. He is supposedly a fellow agent, but readers will guess within moments of meeting him that he has his own agenda.

Evie does encounter creepy-cool fairy Reth again and even travels to the fairy world. She also tries to figure out who is sabotaging the IPCA's work. Oh, and she reluctantly applies to college.

So now we're up to three guys more-or-less vying for Evie's attention: Lend, Reth, and Jack. Sort of. Reth's still got that fairy stalker thing going, Lend is gone for much of the book, and the author's characterization of Jack simply screams "untrustworthy."

I will say that White does a good job of re-imagining a couple of key characters, sending the series in a slightly new direction. This book doesn't flow as well as the first one, and Evie whines a bit too much, but it's not bad. I figure, hang in there; Book 3 is sure to pick up steam!

Virals and Seizure by Kathy Reichs

In short: Temperance Brennan's niece Tory and her three buddies acquire super senses while solving the mystery of some rogue science in the islands off Charleston. Book 2 is about pirate treasure.

I talked about the Virals books in my recent post about crossover writers, or adult authors writing books for teens. I'm a fan of the TV show, Bones, as well, so I thought I'd give the books a try.

Reichs is an accomplished storyteller, and both books are fun to read. In Virals, Tory and her three guy friends infiltrate the island lab where their parents work to rescue a half-wolf pup that has disappeared from the woods. The puppy is sick, but parvo isn't communicable to humans, so it's okay, Tory reasons. Only, the pup isn't sick with an ordinary virus...

Redheaded Tory is the queen bee here, at least in her little group of science geeks. There's moody possible-love-interest Ben; technical guru Shelton, who's African American, thank you; and chunky Hi (Hiram), who's Jewish. Tory also deals with jealous, rich mean girls at school and a hunky rich guy who sometimes pays attention to her. And then there's her father's girlfriend, who wants to turn tomboy Tory into a Southern debutante.

Tory and her team investigate the growing mystery on Loggerhead Island. They discover a corpse and get shot at, but ultimately lack the evidence to convince their parents that something is really wrong. Oh, and there are monkeys. Don't forget the monkeys!

The second book finds Tory and Co. with enhanced abilities. As they deal with the unnerving changes, they also search for pirate Anne Bonny's treasure, hoping to save the research facility where their parents work. The first book is pretty good, but Seizures is better paced and hangs together better than Virals, which suffers from a mild case of scene-setting.

This budding series reminds me of those old books about the Three Investigators, only dialed up several notches. Tory would be Jupiter Jones, with the three boys as sidekicks. Keep in mind that first and foremost, Reichs' new stories for younger readers are adventures. They are definitely an entertaining read.

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin

In short: Anya is the daughter of a dead crime boss in a future New York City in which caffeine and chocolate are illegal. Did she really try to kill somebody with poisoned chocolate?

Think Prohibition. For that matter, think the drug wars. Zevin postulates that whatever is illegal will be bought and sold by crime families. In her future New York City (2083), that would be chocolate. Coffee and chocolate. Anya deals with her life as best she can: she goes to school, avoiding her idiot ex; tries to keep her brain-damaged older brother out of trouble; looks after her little sister; cares for her grandmother, who is slowly dying; and tries to keep a lid on her awful cousin. Then someone uses her family's chocolate stash to poison said idiot ex, framing Anya for the crime. Anya is thrown into a juvenile facility, where she is treated very badly. When she gets out, she must deal with the fallout from a recent development—a new boyfriend who's the assistant DA's son. (For some reason, his father isn't very happy about that.) Furthermore, Anya gets in a fight with her best friend, and she still has to figure out who really poisoned Gabe.

I like Anya a lot. Here she talks about dressing up for a party. Note that many things are scarce in her day.
I went to my bedroom to find something to wear other than my old bathrobe. Nana once told me that, in her day, the way we dressed was called vintage. New clothing production had all but ceased a decade ago, and a sartorial concoction like Scarlet's required a lot of effort and planning. Unlike my best friend, I hadn't put any thought into my outfit for that evening. I threw on an old dress of my mother's—red jersey, short and swingy but with a modest neckline. It had a hole in the armpit but I wasn't planning on doing a lot of hand-raising anyway.

The pieces of the story may seem familiar, but Zevin makes them new, and not just because of her dystopian world building. Zevin has a knack for putting the reader inside the soap opera that is Anya's life without being too over the top. These days, you'll find dystopian books all over the place, many of them much harsher. But All These Things I've Done is the one I suggest you track down and read.

Note for Worried Parents: Virals and Seizure are okay for older MG readers. (Amazon lists them for 12 and up.) The rest feel more mature—they are books for teens, of course. Mastiff and Liar's Moon both allude briefly to sex. Then there's All These Things I've Done, which has a character refusing to sleep with her boyfriend because, she tells him, she's too young, she doesn't love him, and she wants to wait till marriage because she's Catholic. Possess and Mastiff have some strong violence. Possess is about demonic possession and exorcism.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Very Blustery Week

Well, we had a huge windstorm on Thursday and lost power for two days. When I went to work, I counted 66 semis parked along a ten-mile stretch of highway, 8 of them knocked over on their sides by the wind. And that was just the northbound side. At our house, there was this bizarre intermittent shrieking sound that we finally figured out was like running your wet finger around the rim of a wineglass, only it was super loud. The wind was running its fingers over our kitchen windows!

A great many large pine trees fell in my neighborhood, though fewer hit houses than you might expect. Finally we got our power back and yesterday everyone got out their chainsaws to clean up. My two brothers played lumberjack to get the tree off our backyard deck. We were told to stack all the pine branches along the curbs.

Aaand this morning we learned that there's another windstorm coming tonight, which might turn all those stacked-up branches into projectiles! So they canceled church and everyone in the neighborhood is going to try to get the branches to the dump. (There are big piles of pine branches and logs in front of a fourth to a third of the houses, depending which street you're on.)

I had no Internet this morning, but it's back on now. Still, with a nod to Winnie the Pooh's very blustery day, I think I'll wait and post book reviews next weekend! (I have some pine boughs to help load on my brother's pick-up.)

Note: The blustery day piece was actually a cartoon short from Disney, compiled from three different episodes in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. It was later incorporated into a longer film.

Update: I should have shared the poem I wrote about the windstorm. Here you go:


Wind shakes the house
by the shoulders, sobbing.
I do not know
what you want, Wind.
I cannot help you.

--Kate Coombs, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas Books Revisited

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

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

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

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

"Did you want to see me?"

"Not very bad," admitted the Ugly Child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Picture Books to Look Forward To

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

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

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

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

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

But there is always extra yarn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hahahahaha! (That's basically my review.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an amazing, funny, perfect book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mother Goose in Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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