Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Sad Time for Children’s Books

The last few years have been rough for the field of children’s books—we lost Eva Ibbotson, Brian Jacques, Diana Wynne Jones, and Simms Taback. (See my three posts about DWJ: recent ones about her and her upcoming book of essays plus one from 2009 crowning her the queen of children’s fantasy.) Now, 2012 hasn’t been any better when it comes to this sort of loss. For today’s post, I’m going to list several authors and illustrators who have passed away this year along with some notes about my favorite books they wrote or illustrated. Please leave your own notes in the comments about favorite books by these authors and illustrators and I’ll add your thoughts to the post. Also, let me know if there’s someone I missed that you think should be included.

Jose Aruego—An illustrator whose best-known book is surely Robert Kraus's Leo the Late Bloomer, in which the father tiger spying on his kid has got to be one of the funniest things ever depicted by an artist. Thanks to poet-illustrator Douglas Florian for letting me know about this illustrator's passing. Here is Doug Florian's post about Jose Aruego.

Note that Aruego often worked with fellow illustrator and author Ariane Dewey. He collaborated with her on one of my own favorites, Joseph and James Bruchac's How Chipmunk Got His Stripes, a retelling of an Iroquois legend about bragging and teasing.

Nina Bawden—a British author best known for her book, Carrie's War.

I remember reading her book, The Witch’s Daughter, as a child. I thought it would have a real witch with magic, and it didn’t. I was a little disappointed, but I liked the book anyway!

Jan Berenstain—Everyone's heard of the Berenstain Bears, right? Of course, it feels weird to use Jan's name without her late husband's name, too: Jan-and-Stan. The bear family is cartoonishly appealing and sets out on all kinds of adventures.

I can't say I loved all of the books, mostly because of their didacticism, but when I taught first grade, I really liked one of their simpler books, The Spooky Old Tree.

Remy Charlip—a dancer and choreographer as well as an author-illustrator; he was also the model for Georges Méliès in Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Fortunately is probably my favorite Charlip book with its simple, clever up and down rhythm.

John Christopher—but his real name was Sam Youd. Another Brit, author of the Tripod series and other science fiction.

I remember reading the Tripod books when I was 13 or 14 and being both thrilled and sort of terrified. Aside from Andre Norton’s books, they were the most memorable science fiction books I read as a kid.

Leo Dillon—Here’s my earlier post about the passing of this brilliant illustrator, who worked closely with his wife Diane. They illustrated numerous books and also did many book covers like this one for Garth Nix's Sabriel.

I have lots of favorites, though I’m especially fond of To Every Thing There Is a Season.

Jean Craighead George—who won a Newbery for Julie of the Wolves.

I’m rather partial to My Side of the Mountain, which makes you think surviving in the great outdoors is, well, possible.

Ellen Levine—author of books like Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Stories and Rachel Carson: A Twentieth-Century Life.

I love Levine’s beautiful book, Henry’s Freedom Box, which was illustrated by Kadir Nelson and won a Caldecott Honor award.

Margaret Mahy—a New Zealander and one of the best YA writers ever. Yet she also wrote picture books and funny chapter books.

I’m a die-hard fan of her classic YA paranormal/horror/romance Changeover, but then, her 2009 rhymed picture book, Bubble Trouble, is a laugh-out-loud tour de force.

Jean Merrill—her classic book, The Pushcart War, is out of print, but The Toothpaste Millionaire is still making the rounds in schools. Middle grade fiction about economics and class warfare? Sure!

I know I read The Pushcart War when I was young, but I don’t remember it very well. What I’d love to do is get my hands on a book she wrote called The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars. Wouldn’t you?

Else Holmelund Minarik—Two words: Little Bear. Such a perfectly sweet-but-not-saccharine capturing of what it’s like to be very young. And the series was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, to boot.

I still like the first book best. My copy has been read ragged from the days I taught kindergarten and first grade. Mother Bear is so cool: “But who is this?” she asks Little Bear when he is playing outer space, “Are you a bear from Earth?”

Maurice Sendak—This is my goodbye post to the inimitable Mr. Sendak.

I love Where the Wild Things Are, especially that wonderful last line: “…and it was still hot.” I'm also very fond of the Nutshell Library!

Donald J. Sobol—author of the Encyclopedia Brown books.

Oh, you know you did it, too, tried to figure out the solution and then sneaked a look in the back of the book for the answer. And then there’s the Moriarty to Encyclopedia’s Sherlock: Bugs Meany. (Actually, Bugs was no match for our boy detective.)

Again, please leave your comments about these authors and illustrators along with anyone I may have missed. We can only hope that's it for 2012and be glad for the legacy of the books that such generously creative people have left for us.


I guess we always have our favorites, and I didn't know about Else Holmelund Minarik. Little Bear books are still being read in my house, now to grandchildren. And I love all the Elizabeth Craighead George books; she is a treasure of making us love the earth and all creatures in it. There are many memories here. 
—Linda at Teacherdance

Unfortunately you have to add the talented Jose Aruego to your list. He created more than 60 picture books, many for Greenwillow, where I had the honor and pleasure to meet him. I posted about him on August 22nd at the Florian Cafe:
His work, mostly with Ariane Dewey, was fresh, original, and very funny. [Ed. See addition above.]

Douglas Florian

Seeing all these authors and illustrators together brings both sadness at their loss and appreciation for the role their works have played in my life.

I remember the John Christopher books vividly; I read them several times and still own my childhood copies (from the '70s.) Like you, I found them thrilling and a bit unnerving; they served as a gateway to Norton, Heinlein juveniles, and more grown-up SF later on.

At a younger age, I went through an Encyclopedia Brown phase, reading every book I could find (which wasn't that many.)

My Side of the Mountain remains a favorite; I read it to my class as a teacher, then to my daughter's class when she was around 4th grade. In addition to, as you say, conveying the sense that wilderness survival is possible, Sam also provides a great model of capability, self-reliance, and independence.

And I still love Minarik's Little Bear books. Her gentle prose and Sendak's whimsical illustrations are a perfect match. I enjoyed them as a child, and read them to my daughter; we also watched the delightful animated series based on the books.

I will miss all these authors/illustrators, but I'm so thankful their work remains to delight another generation.


Ah, it was Margaret Mahy I was thinking of this weekend. When Jerry Nelson died (don't think he ever did anything directly with children's BOOKS), I kept feeling like, "MORE PEOPLE NEED TO CARE AS MUCH ABOUT THIS LOSS AS ME!" and then I remembered that I'd felt the same way about one of the many KidLit losses this year but couldn't remember who it was (it wasn't Sendak. EVERYONE remembered Sendak), but it was Mahy. I felt so "OH NO MARGARET MAHY!" and everyone else was all "Who's Margaret Mahy?" and I was all "HOW CAN YOU ASK THAT QUESTION?!?!" *ahem* anyway...

—Amy of Amyslibraryofrock

Sigh... My Side of the Mountain is an all-time favorite of mine. (Now a librarian myself, I have a renewed appreciation for the librarian who helped Sam!) And, I remember my mother teaching me how to read rhyme aloud without sounding sing-song via The Berenstain Bears' Almanac.

Much loss, to be sure.


*There are more nice comments, so check them out. I've just put the ones in the body of the post that commented about specific books or about someone I missed.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Review of A Strange Place to Call Home by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Ed Young

The cover of this book says that it was written by “Renowned Poet Marilyn Singer” and illustrated by “Caldecott Medalist Ed Young.” Absolutely true on both counts. I was a big fan of Singer’s poems in her books Footprints on the Roof, Crossing the Pond, and Central Heating even before she won kudos for her astonishingly cool book, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse. And Ed Young is an elder statesman when it comes to picture book illustration, having won the Caldecott for Lon Po Po and Caldecott honors for two more books, The Emperor and the Kite and Seven Blind Mice, among many other awards. So of course I was looking forward to seeing this collaboration.

The premise is equally intriguing. Singer has written a collection of poems about animals that live in what the introduction to the book calls “[e]xtreme environments such as deserts, glaciers, salt lakes, and pools of oil.” She begins with Humboldt penguins that live, not in Antarctica, but on the coasts of Chile and Peru. “Where they have to dig burrows/with bills and with legs,/so the scorching sun/won’t hard-boil/each precious clutch of eggs....” Then we’re off to visit the snow monkeys, “submerged in a hot spring, taking a bath.” Spadefoot toads, ice worms, blind cave fish, flamingos, tube worms, mountain goats, limpets, camels, mudskippers, dippers, petroleum flies (really!), and urban foxes complete the list. After which we find five pages of endnotes about the creatures and another page about poetry forms—very gratifying!

Singer doesn't just stick to one poetry form in this book; she includes free verse, rhymed poems, and several specific, formal poems: a triolet, a haiku, a sonnet, a cinquain, a villanelle, and a terza rima (as her endnote explains).

My favorite poem in the collection is about limpets:

On the Rocks

In the intertidal zones,
     where waves are prone
to be forceful,
     where the waters rush
to batter, buffet, crush,
     dislodge, displace, fling,
a limpet is resourceful.
     Its fine construction
employs suction.
     In other words, its thing
is mightily to cling.

Ed Young has illustrated the poems with cut-and-torn-paper collage. I’m guessing he made some of the paper himself, and dyed and/or painted it, as well. The variable textures and edges work beautifully with the natural forms the artist depicts. The only spread I had a little trouble figuring out is the camel's—but then, the animal is in a sandstorm! And check out the wings on the petroleum flies. Or the crazy angle of the mountain goat. Not to mention the leg-driven spread accompanying the flamingo poem.

A Strange Place to Call Home is a double whammy, since it functions as both a poetry book and a look at a weird little corner of natural science. I’ll end with the subtitle, which I forgot to give you earlier: "The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals that Call Them Home.” Can’t beat that!

Note: Thanks to Chronicle Books for sending me a review copy of this book.

A Review of In the Sea by David Elliott, illustrated by Holly Meade

True confessions—one reason I wanted to get my hands on this book was to check out the competition since my own collection of ocean poems came out about the same time. But not to worry; I quickly fell in love with David Elliott’s collection for its own sake.

Let’s start with Elliott’s dedication: “To the Gulf of Mexico and all that depends on it.” Nice, right? Then you read the poems. As a reviewer of a previous book put it, Elliott’s work is “pithy.” My own word for the poems is “concise.” Here is “The Shark” in its entirety:

The Shark

The fin,
the skin,
the brutal grin…

The terror
of the dark within.

Which pretty much says it all. In fact, in a positive homage to brevity, on one spread Elliott gives us four one-word poems for the urchin, the sardine, the mackerel, and the shrimp. Or rather, since the words in the poems all rhyme, this is a four-word poem—or maybe four linked poems. I’ll let you discover them for yourselves.

Some of my other favorites are “The Clown Fish,” with its commentary on the fish’s relationship to the anemone and on friendship in general; “The Moray Eel,” with its strong adjectives and two excellent metaphors; and “The Chambered Nautilus,” with its philosophical spin. The book ends with a marvelous poem about the blue whale that begins on a full spread and then departs in dramatic fashion in a single word on the very last page.

The illustrations are just as strong, done in woodblock prints (black ink) and watercolor. The printed black lines not only outline, but highlight details, as you can see on the cover image of a sea turtle. It’s a striking combination.

I was happy to discover that In the Sea is the third book in a series of sorts; the first two are On the Farm and In the Wild. Look for them, too—they’re just as beautiful, also illustrated by Holly Meade.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Questioning Charlotte’s Web

In Betsy Bird’s recent poll at A Fuse #8 Production, the top picks for picture book and middle grade fiction were not surprising: once again, Where the Wild Things Are and Charlotte’s Web took top honors. But what does that really mean?

Much as I love E.B. White's Charlotte’s Web, I have certain suspicions about its dominance. Consider the following:

w I once taught a fourth grade student, a girl who was a reluctant reader and very much interested in sports. She really liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but thought Charlotte’s Web was too slow. Boring, in fact.

w The people voting for Charlotte’s Web and all the other books in the poll are grown-ups, many of them librarians, teachers, and writers.

w It’s traditional for third or fourth grade teachers to read Charlotte’s Web to their classes. I think the kids appreciate it, and well they should. But the book is basically imposed on them.

w My officemate said to me the other day, talking about Charlotte’s Web, “I remember I cried back in fourth grade when Charlotte died, but now? I’m all for squishing spiders.”

The book is brilliantly crafted and the characters are delightful. I guess what I’m questioning is its current dominance as a top pick in 2012—for better or for worse.

Now, we might argue that it’s the job of people like those aforementioned third or fourth grade teachers to read kids books that are brilliantly crafted, thus helping kids appreciate the good stuff. I can testify that, as a first grade teacher, I used to fight not to roll my eyes when the kids brought in their own books for me to read, usually badly written movie or TV tie-ins. (Why Disney can’t afford someone good to write those Winnie the Pooh knock-offs is beyond me!)

But. Still. Which of our classics would make the top of the list if the list were controlled by, I dunno, a committee made up of kids and teachers? Or something like that. And if we were to pick a book that both kids and teachers could agree on, what would it be? Or if we were to just ask for a top book written in the last 20 years? Maybe Holes? Or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Perhaps The Lightning Thief? Of course, the Cybils are supposed to find that happy medium, but I guess I’d like to speculate a bit on my own here.

What do the kids themselves like? Take a look at the Children’s Choices this year, based only on books published in 2011. This joint effort of the International Reading Association and the Children’s Book Council is a list selected by 12,500 young readers. I was intrigued to see that three graphic novels scored high: Sidekicks by Dan Santat, Squish #1: Super Amoeba by Jennifer Holms and Matthew Holms, and Doug TenNapel’s Bad IslandLost and Found by Shaun Tan and Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt were also big hits.

Looking over the list of Newbery medal and honor books for the last 15 years, I picked out a sampling I think have more kid appeal than the others:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010 winner)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2009 winner)
Savvy by Ingrid Law (2009 honor)
Princess Academy (2006 honor)
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo (2004 winner)
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen (2003 honor)
Joey Pigza Loses Control (2001 honor)
Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 winner)
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1998 honor)

Of course the others on the Newbery list are good books, even great books, but by whose standards? Grown-ups. It’s an ongoing question, I know. I’m bringing it up again because I find myself wondering whether the tide of children’s books has permanently changed. Whether children’s tastes have changed, making many of the classics of the last century, as the publishing industry puts it these days, "too quiet."

I will, however, leave Where the Wild Things Are alone. It worked then, it works now, probably because it’s slyly subversive as well as magical and compelling. For that matter, perhaps that’s why Roald Dahl’s books still continue to charm even reluctant readers like my fourth grade student.

What do you think?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Witches, Ghosts, and Graves, Oh My!

A quartet of spring/summer books that aren't very sunny at all. Instead they take us into cursed villages, haunted houses, haunted sleepovers (really!), and graveyards. Not to mention dungeons. And watch out for the terrible, horrible bra shopping!

The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser

This is actually a Pied Piper retelling, with the Pied Piper being an assistant to the dreaded witch who lives on the mountain. Our hero is a boy named Rudi Bauer who makes the mistake of picking up a gold coin high up on the mountain that belongs to the witch. When he gets home to his little village, he is followed by a curse. The coin sings to him and he dreams strange things. His grandmother knows the old ways. Rudi denies taking something from the witch, but his grandmother cleverly cautions him just the same:
Then Oma shook a finger at him, and the fire flared on the hearth. “But I’ve seen her messenger. And by the saints, to this day I wish I’d seen the Devil instead. That thing you did not take? Get rid of it. Carry it back up the mountain and leave it there. Do it today. Better yet, do it now. The weather is turning, and once the snows begin, no one will be venturing up that mountain until spring. You don’t want to be haunted every night from now until spring, do you?”
A chastened Rudi tries to return the coin, but loses it in the snow far up the mountain. When the dreams stop, he thinks he’s okay, but then the village is invaded by rats. The villagers pay a rat catcher whose work is overturned, and next a creepy guy with a pipe shows up demanding the very gold coin Rudi used to have as payment for his work. Now what will Rudi do?

One of the most interesting things about The Brixen Witch is the different villagers and the way they interact. For example, we learn that the village has spent all its money paying an ordinary rat catcher, which is why they have trouble coming up with the gold the Pied Piper demands. Another nice twist is the strange piper's relationship with the witch.

DeKeyser includes some authentic historical rat catching details, which may engage young readers or make a few of them gag.

This is an uncomplicated, very much middle grade tale, a relief from the many angst-ridden YA fairy tale retellings of recent years, to tell you the truth. I was a little thrown by the climax and events surrounding it, but overall, I found the book quite likable. Just right for the third through sixth grade crowd as a late summer or back-to-school read.

And it sounds like Rudi will be back for another fairy tale-based adventure in DeKeyser's next book!

Watch this very nice news interview, in which author Stacy DeKeyser explains that she wanted to give the old story of the Pied Piper a happy ending.

The Whispering House by Rebecca Wade

A ghost story that starts out scarier than it ends, which is probably just as well for its middle grade audience. Or rather, this is a mystery that’s also a ghost story. Apparently the two main characters, Hannah and her friend Sam, have teamed up before, in a mystery called The Theft and the Miracle. Now Hannah’s family has temporarily moved into an old, hard-to-rent house across town, and the creepy happenings start piling up.

It seems a little girl named Maisie used to live in the house, and she died as a child, perhaps killed by witchcraft. Locked rooms, an old calendar page, a book of fairy tales, bad dreams, a weirdly marked doll, poltergeist-type activities, and Hannah’s own drawing of the dead girl combine to make Hannah jump and worry—and try to solve the mystery of what really happened to Maisie. The weirdness escalates and escalates until Hannah and Sam have their own haunted encounters with Maisie. Then they really do figure out what’s going on and lay the ghost to rest. Here’s a description of the doll:
The blue ribbon was a problem, however, and it took a lot of coaxing before the tight little knot yielded at last. Then Mom unfastened the dress and gently pulled it over the doll’s head. “Oh!” The exclamation came from both Hannah and her mother at once. They stared at the cloth body, naked save for the black boots. “What’s happened to her?” asked Hannah. “Don’t ask me!” All over the back, stomach, arms, and legs were dark yellowish-brown stains. Each was roughly the size of a small coin, and they were evenly spaced.

As I mentioned, the pacing of this book is intriguing. The tension builds and builds in a truly shivery way. I was well and truly creeped out as a reader, and then the author took the story in an unexpectedly sweet direction. The story works, certainly, just not the way you think it will. And Wade draws on an intriguing bit of history in creating her resolution.

A nice ghost story for kids who like to be scared, but ultimately comforted rather than left scared. And an early Halloween contender, though of course you can read it any time of the year. I can see looking for Hannah and Sam’s first adventure and watching out for their next one.

Small Medium at Large by Joanne Levy

A rollicking story about a girl who is struck by lightning and can then talk to dead people. No, it’s not Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series, it’s a middle grade book from newcomer Joanne Levy.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this cheerful story. For one thing, main character Lilah Bloom and her BFF are Jewish, as is Lilah’s crush, Andrew Finkel. For another, in many ways this is a middle school story about the daily adventures of an ordinary girl. It just happens to have a few ghosts thrown in.

Levy has some clever ideas about what to do with her premise. There’s Lilah’s grandmother, Bubby Dora, who brings along a fashion designer from the early twentieth century. The funniest scene in the book is when these two ghosts insist on taking Lilah bra shopping. And of course, she winds up dropping her bag o’ bras on the mall floor right at Andrew’s feet.

We wind up getting experiments in kissing from Lilah (no tongue, we're assured) and experiments in dating for her hapless father. Apparently Bubby has mostly stuck around to play matchmaker to her depressed divorced son.

You’ll find that this book sometimes reads like a TV sitcom, as in the following scene:
“Dad!” I said again. He turned back toward me, abandoning the juice. “What is it, Lilah?” It was like he had completely forgotten what I had said. “You do need to be dating. I hate to be mean, but look at you, Dad. You’re thirty-eight, single, and you spend every evening at home, drinking your tomato juice and either playing Scrabble with your daughter or watching TV by yourself. You’re in a rut. You need to get out there before it’s too late.” “I like playing Scrabble with my daughter.” He almost sounded pouty. But it was a good thing; it meant he was actually listening.

A more poignant part of the book is that Andrew has lost his father, and he’s not about to believe Lilah when she starts hearing from Mr. Finkel and trying to pass the guy’s messages on to his son. Lilah also runs into trouble with a mean girl and then a mean ghost, but friendship, sleepovers, and girl talk solve these problems in the lead-up to a school fashion show.

So yes, there are ghosts, but mostly Small Medium at Large is a fun girl book for middle schoolers. This upbeat tale will probably go over well with readers in grades four through seven. Oh, and do keep an eye out for a clown ghost. Because who wouldn’t like to have a ghostly clown making balloon animals at her birthday party?

Check out the author's book trailer!

The Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton

This book reads like a fantasy adventure. And in fact, Canadian author Stratton throws in allusions to the Greek myths, Shakespeare (at least two plays), The Wizard of Oz, Oliver, and even the New Testament. Though there are very few actual fantasy elements in that Everything Is Explained, the story feels picaresque, macabre, and fantastical throughout.

We begin as we should, with a baby adrift in a jeweled chest:
Years ago, in the Archduchy of Waldland, on a night when the wind was strong and the waves were high, a boy washed ashore in a small wooden chest. The chest took refuge in a nest of boulders at the foot of a cliff. It swayed there for hours as the surf crashed on either side, threatening to sweep it away to be gobbled by the deep. The boy in the chest was a babe, scarce a year old. He wore a white linen cap and nightshirt, and was bundled tight in a fine woolen blanket. The sound of the waves was a comfort to him after the screams he’d heard before the chest had been sealed. Now, as the surf threatened to destroy him, the infant dreamed he was rocking in his crib.
 The baby even has a birthmark shaped like an eagle on his shoulder. But the man who finds him shrugs it all away. He is inclined to leave the baby to die and just take the chest. But instead it occurs to Knobbe—scavenger and grave robber—that this child can grow up to work with him and then care for him in his old age. Knobbe won’t admit that the baby has won his soft heart. And so the baby begins a new life as Hans, the grave robber’s apprentice.

Hans makes an okay grave robber’s helper when it comes to digging and all, but he balks at actually touching the bodies. Knobbe, who feeds, clothes, and yells at the boy, tells him it’s time for Hans to rob the graves completely. Hans is torn.

Meanwhile, we read about the trials of a girl named Angela Gabriela von Schwanenberg, “the Little Countess.” She loves to put on plays, and she includes Hans as a character called “the Boy.” But she is horrified when she and her parents are thrown in a locked carriage and taken to Archduke Arnulf’s castle. The man is a regular Bluebeard, marrying young wives and then having them murdered after a few weeks or months. Angela is next on the list, and her parents are supposed to give Arnulf all their wealth as a dowry. Naturally.

In planning her escape, Angela introduces us to a villain who’s just as bad or worse than Arnulf—the Necromancer. He is blind and looks like he’s half dead. He surrounds himself with a herd of awful little boys he calls Weevils. When push comes to shove, he will take care of himself first, betraying anyone who gets in his way. Including Angela.

Eventually Angela and Hans go on the run together, with Arnulf and the Necromancer hot on their heels. They meet the Wolf King, the Hermit, and a band of circus performers and their bears. Angela is determined to rescue her parents from Arnulf, while Hans is determined to help Angela.

This book is written by a guy, and it includes a lot of gruesome stuff that 10-year-old boys are likely to relish, such as the following:
The Necromancer floated into view, feeling his way with a long wooden staff. A wraithlike creature, hairless and pale, his willowy frame was draped in a dirty velvet shroud. His wears were withered; his nose and lips rotted. He had no teeth; no eyes. His empty sockets were empty caverns rippling with shadows from the lamplight. “How long have you been there?” Angela whispered. “Since the moment you thought of me,” the Necromancer replied. With long, bony fingers, he withdrew two bird eggs from his dirty shroud and placed them in his eye sockets. “I’ve been watching you since you left your castle, my crow’s eyes circling the night sky.”
Later, after Angela gets away, the Necromancer hunts for her, flicking his gray, lizard-like tongue, catching her scent in a graveyard. Another striking line is this bit near the end of the book: "We'll stuff him in a bone barrel, gagged with a dead rat." There's really quite a lot of this sort of thing.

Although Stratton very deliberately explains away as much magic as he can, there are over-the-top and creepy things going on, just the same. Much of it is exhilarating, such as when our hero and his allies escape from an attack by tobogganing in coffins or when the bears help them exit Arnulf’s dungeons.

On a side note, I was very pleased with how Knobbe is kept in the story and even honored for his rough but dedicated attempts to raise Hans. In a departure from most storytelling, Han’s somewhat repulsive adopted father isn’t limited to being a one-dimensional villain.

This is a colorful tale, full of adventure, horror, comedy, and heroism. Not to mention a prophecy that echoes Macbeth’s doom, though this one may be even more satisfying, considering it involves a sea of bones. Elements like Hans’s identity are given away well in advance, but I don’t think you’ll care much. You’ll be too busy following Hans and Angela at a breakneck pace as they flee the Necromancer and the evil archduke.

Watch the author's book trailer here.

Note for Worried Parents: This book is recommended for ages 10 and up. The gory elements, especially the way Arnulf slaughters and memorializes his child brides, are pretty horrific. Yet you’ll find that The Grave Robber's Apprentice is funny and playful at the same time.