Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not Your Grandma's Picture Books

It's true. Picture books don’t have to be about pink princesses who live sugarishly ever after…

The Conductor by Laëtitia Devernay

I found out about this French illustrator’s book when it won the Society of Illustrator’s Original Show: Children’s Book Illustration gold medal this year. Then I learned that Devernay won a major British award for the book as well, top prize from this year’s V&A Awards. (I looked high and low to figure out what V&A stands for. It’s Victoria and Albert—the museum. Of course.)

Here's a plot summary: A conductor conducts the leaves on trees, which turn into birds and fly around a bit before coming back to the trees to be leaves again. This summary does not do the wordless book justice, however. Each spread has its own design and beauty, evoking Escher a little and, for children’s literature fans, the scene in which Milo conducts a sunrise in The Phantom Tollbooth—or rather, when he sees sunset conducted the night before.

Devernay illustrates the entire book using a couple of greens, a very pale yellow and black. There’s a whole lot of white space going on, as well. The trim size is unusual: it’s about 5 and ¾ by 13. (I measured.)

The Conductor has something to say about music, about trees, and about birds, but in a way it’s about none of these things. It’s only about them as they interact, creating something new. Perhaps I don’t care much about green lollipop trees with an almost paisley pattern or a little conductor in a black coat and striped pants. Maybe birds don’t move me, either. But when the conductor lifts his baton and the leaves begin to transform, rising into the sky—then I care very much. That is the magic of Devernay’s book.

I’m not going to tell you about the spread where the conductor takes his bow, or what he does with his baton. You really should find out for yourself.

I will say that the book may be too subtle for many young readers. This book certainly might appeal to an artsy, thoughtful child, though. And artsy, thoughtful grown-ups, too.

Note: As for the other winners of the Society of Illustrators' Original Show in the children's book category, we’ve got silver medals for The Beetle Book by Steve Jenkins and This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, with a Founders Award to The Insomniacs, illustrated by the Brothers Hilts (author Karina Wolf).

Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty? by David Levinthal, illustrated by John Nickle

This book is so much like the movie Hoodwinked in certain respects that at first I looked all over to find some kind of credit. After all, that movie is about a land of fairy tale creatures in which a big bad wolf turns out to be an investigative reporter. He gets some help with crime solving from Little Red Riding Hood and a debonair frog P.I. in a fedora—Nicky Flippers.

For its part, Levinthal’s book is about a land of fairy tale creatures in which a debonair frog solves crimes. Oh wait—I stand corrected. Officer Binky is “a toad in a fedora,” according to the flap copy. So let’s move on.

Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty? gives us five fairy tale cases: a break-in at the home of the Bear family, the case of the death of a witch who lived in a gingerbread house, the title case, the case of a beauty pageant involving Snow White and the Queen, and the case of Jack and that beanstalk.

The book is more of a read-aloud for kids as young as 7. It’s really more geared towards the 8-to-10 crowd. Not only is the text small (usually an easy way to guess a picture book’s intended audience), but the whole thing’s a satire. Satire goes right over the heads of most younger readers.

However, that said, I really liked this book! Here’s how it begins:

There are eight million stories in the forest. This is one of them.
It was a typical Sunday morning for the Bear family. They had gone out for a walk while their porridge was cooling.
I was working the robbery detail out of the Pinecone Division. My name’s Binky. I’m a cop.

As always, John Nickle’s illustrations are just right. (Allow me one fairy tale pun!) I especially like the page on which Officer Binky is taking notes from the three Bears. He’s standing in front of a layered tower of bears—so all in one shape we have Binky (back to us) in front of Baby Bear, who’s in front of taller Mrs. Bear, who’s in front of taller Mr. Bear. All three bears are frowning and pointing one accusing clawed paw in the direction of the page on the other side of the spread. That page is divided in four. The first three frames contain the following clues: A strand of blond hair, an empty porridge bowl, blue cloth on a broken chair, and a rumpled quilt. The last frame shows Binky driving off. (He’s barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel.) He says, “I’d heard that story before. It could only be one dame: Goldilocks! I nabbed her trying to make her getaway.” The perp has an excuse, but she ends up in jail just the same.

I won’t tell you much about the other cases, but they are presented with panache, too. Hansel and Gretel’s encounter with the witch is told after the fact using sepia illustrations, a nice touch. The Humpty Dumpty mystery has an un-egg-spected solution. (Make that two fairy tale puns.) Setting the Snow White story in a beauty pageant gives the tale a whole new twist. And then there’s Jack. I’ll bet you think you know where that one’s going, but you’re probably wrong.

Meet Binky. And read his case files. You'll like them.

The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat

I’ve been looking forward to this one. Just check out Dan Santat’s book trailer. The whole concept makes me laugh. There have been a lot of fairy tale parodies out over the last 10–15 years, but The Three Ninja Pigs gets off to a much funnier start than most. Just read the title!

Oh, all right, I suppose I’d better open the cover and look inside. Let’s pause at the front jacket flap:

Why do wolves think they can come to town and blow all the houses down? These three pigs just aren’t going to take it!
The first starts aikido lessons—he’ll make mincemeat out of that wolf!
His brother learns a little jujitsu—he’ll chop that guy to pieces!
But when the wolf actually appears, it turns out these two pigs aren’t quite ready after all. Good thing their sister has been training every day to master some serious karate moves. KIYA!

Yep, that’s my new favorite thing about this book: the third pig is a girl. Plus she’s a better ninja warrior than her brothers. (That would be because they don’t practice.)

Forgot to mention: the story is written in rhyme. I'm generally not fond of this choice for a narrative picture book, but I've decided to get over it for the moment in order to enjoy these ninja piggies.

Dan Santat’s illustrations are just as funny as the premise. For one thing, he delivers on the martial arts action. Well, perhaps not for the two pig brothers. I like the way Santat shows aikido practice—including the first little pig snoozing on the floor while an irritated instructor looks down at him. The teacher in Pig Two’s jujitsu class is a classic mentor. I think he's a water buffalo, but he reminds me of Obi Wan Kenobi. “Excellent progress,” he says, “But Pig-san, you MUST study more.” To which Pig Two replies, “No way! Sayonara, Sensei.”

In contrast, Pig Three studies karate diligently. After she gets better and better, she even breaks boards “by performing a perfect pork chop!”

Pigs One and Two don’t do so well with the wolf. Not even when Two yells, “Retreat! Or you’ll suffer defeat by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” But Pig Three isn’t joking when she says, “I’m a certified weapon.”

I think you’ll like the wolf, who wears red karate clothes, does that “bring it” move like in Karate Kid, and says to Pig Three, “Yo, Bacon,” at least until he sees her moves. Then he rethinks the idea of taking her on.

Of course, I agree with critics of spoofs like this one that kids should read the original first. Once they’ve done that, it's time for the porcine ninjas!

Note: A glossary at the back explains terms like sensei and provides pronunciations.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Super Middle Grade

All four of these books are about legacies. Three of them are about secret societies to which the kids’ parents belong—two of those societies being questionable—and one is about the unlikely inheritor of super powers. It feels kind of like Harry Potter, only with adventure instead of magic. The winds of children’s fiction seem to be blowing in the direction of suspense, conspiracies, and secret societies. I think you’ll like riding this next gust.

Capture the Flag by Kate Messner

I’m catching up on Messner's book, which came out in July. It’s a locked-room mystery in the sense that a bunch of people is trapped in an airport because of a snowstorm. Among those people are four kids who, after initial disinterest, team up to solve a mystery: someone has stolen the historic American flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each of the kids has some sort of connection to the flag. To start with, all four of them were at a museum reception for the flag exhibit the evening before—and the flag was stolen that night. Anna’s mother is a newscaster and her father is a Senator. She sees herself as a budding news reporter. José’s mother worked on restoring the flag. Henry’s aunt is a history buff, though Henry would far rather play video games. Sinan is the son of two members of an orchestra from Pakistan that performed at the exhibit—an orchestra that is eventually accused of stealing the flag. Sinan is the owner of a rambunctious poodle named Hammurabi, too.

Anna tries to get an interview with Senator Snickerbottom, who is also in the airport. He’s leading up to a campaign for president. Then there’s Snake Eye, a man with an odd tattoo who acts suspiciously. Throw in a couple of thugs while you're at it. Pretty soon Anna and her friends are sliding and hiding in the luggage area, where a lot of chase scenes in the book take place. The secret society thing comes up later.

The four kids are likable, each with his or her quirks. For example, as he learns English, Sinan keeps a notebook in which he draws pictures to help him remember expressions like “full of beans” and “killing time.” These pictures are included in the book. Anna is intrepid, José is sweet but sturdy, and Henry is sucked into things against his will but proves helpful in the end.

Quite a few characters in the book are not what they seem.

This is a very kid-friendly book, with exciting yet ultimately non-perilous peril. I can easily see it being turned into a movie. I'll just end by saying that the book's title deserves to be in the Clever Title Hall of Fame.

First line: They never should have unlocked the door.

Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung

We begin the book at ground level, where the members of fan clubs and the public in general rush outside to watch whenever their hero, Captain Stupendous, battles a villain in the skies overhead or even in the streets out front. As our boy Vincent tells us, “So when a giant robot came to town and picked a fight right outside Spud’s Pizza, you can guess how psyched I was.”

But something goes wrong, and Captain Stupendous goes silent. Then when he does show up, he doesn’t fight the way he normally does. Vincent and his buddies Max and George wind up being the only ones to find out the truth: their hero has been replaced by someone’s who’s not only inept, but who really doesn’t want the job. It’s up to Captain Stupendous experts Vincent, Max, and George to train the new hero and come up with strategies for defeating the new super villain in town.

Of course, I’m avoiding some intriguing spoilers having to do with Vincent’s friends and family.

The best thing about this book is the awesome geekdom of Vincent and his buddies, who throw themselves into their new challenge with verve and reckless abandon. Frequent moments of humor give the book a dimensionality that would be lacking if it were just straight suspense.

Villainous activities in the book range from mild taunting by the irritatingly studly members of another fan club to the evil machinations of the super villain—who ends up being something of a geek himself, along the evil inventor line.

Jung is a talented writer whose storytelling never falters. Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities thoroughly holds its own in this crop of suspense and secret identity books for middle grade.

First line: There are four Captain Stupendous fan clubs in Copperplate City, but ours is the only one that doesn’t suck.

Mike Jung wrote a funny and yes, geeky song about the book and being an author. Here’s a video of him singing it.

The Cloak Society by Jeremy Kraatz

This book reminds me a little of Mark Walden’s H.I.V.E. (Higher Institute of Villainous Education) and sequels as well as Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius and sequels. It starts out with an explication about how super villains get their start and how tough it can be to be one. Normally I don’t like books to start with explication, but this riff is genuinely funny in a straight-faced, tongue-in-cheek way.

Alex was born into a family of super villains, members of a group known as the Cloak Society. He has been training all his life to ensure world domination and defeat the society’s archenemies: superheroes called the Rangers of Justice.

It’s time for Alex’s first mission, stealing a diamond called the Excelsior from an impregnable bank. He’s one of the young crew, Beta Team, assisting the older members of the society. All of them have super powers. Alex can create a blue light that he uses for telekinesis, but it doesn’t always work quite the way he wants it to. On this mission, Alex makes a nearly unforgivable mistake when he impulsively saves a young member of the Rangers of Justice from being killed.

Alex is punished, his loyalty is questioned, and he is put on probation for the forseeable future. Then he runs into the girl whose life he saved and begins meeting her secretly, telling himself he will recruit her and/or kidnap her in time. Only Alex is being tempted by the dark side, AKA the light side, depending how you look at it. And that’s not going to turn out well.

After reading the other two books I mentioned, I thought I might not get hooked in by a new one with a similar premise. However, Kraatz makes us care about Alex—about his sneaking around, his unacceptable soft heart, and his giant dilemma.

Secondary characters such as Alex’s sneery rival and a younger girl who follows Alex around like a lost puppy add to the mix, as do his tower-of-evil-power parents, especially his mother.

Join Alex on his coming-of-age journey as the scion of a family of super villains.

First line: You don’t just fall into supervillainy.

In this video, Kraatz talks about the book, growing up a comic book fan, and his internship at Marvel Comics.

The Secret Prophecy by Herbie Brennan

This one caught my attention because it’s by Herbie Brennan, who wrote an excellent series called the Faerie Wars.

Em (E.M. for Edward Michael) loses his father, a scholarly geek who has been trying to find a lost prophecy of Nostradamus. At the funeral, Em sees strangers, including men with guns who begin to follow him. Then his mother is tossed in an insane asylum for no real reason, and his uncle Harold starts acting like he might be a traitor.

Em figures out that people are looking for his father’s notes on the lost prophecy. Together with a friend named Charlotte and the mysterious Victor, Em tries to find answers and evade his followers. He ends up going on the run, aided by Charlotte and Victor.

There’s a lot of chasing here, sometimes reminiscent of the Alex Rider books (the first one also starts with a death and strangers at the funeral). Trust me when I tell you that double and triple crosses are the name of the game in The Secret Prophecy.

I mean, why exactly does Victor want Em to break into a dangerous secret facility in the United States? Is Victor a good guy or a bad guy? Why should Em keep trusting him?

I liked Em, who acts from his gut, which often turns out to be right. Sure, he thinks through certain problems, but when action is required, he's already in motion.

The meaning and importance of the prophecy is also constantly in question. This is an old-fashioned chase-and-suspense book in a lot of ways, but it takes some new-fangled twists and turns that readers will appreciate. It’s clear that Brennan is a pro.

First line: The stairs were narrow, but Em was used to carrying the tray by now, so he managed not to spill the orange juice.

Note: Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me review copies of The Cloak Society and The Secret Prophecy. The latter will be available on October 30th; the other three books are already out.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Picturing History

It’s been my observation that children’s nonfiction has improved about 600% in the last 20–30 years. These three books help to prove my point, if not my math.

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

How do you teach children about labor history? If they remember anything about Labor Day, it is that it’s a day off. Yet the day actually celebrates people like Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish factory worker in the early 1900s.

At first the book seems to be a typical tale about an immigrant family. But it isn’t. Here’s how Markel begins:
A steamship pulls into the harbor, carrying hundreds of immigrants—and a surprise for New York City. [page turn] The surprise is dirt poor, just five feet tall, and hardly speaks a word of English. Her name is Clara Lemlich. This girl’s got grit, and she’s going to prove it. Look out, New York!
Clara’s father can’t find work, but she does, as a worker in the garment industry. Markel does a good job showing us how hard the girls were expected to work. And we get things like this: “There are two filthy toilets, one sink, and three towels for three hundred girls to share.”

The illustrator also does a good job with this material. After scenes of Clara’s family arriving in New York, we come to a page looking down at the garment workers from the top: rows and rows of girls sitting at sewing machines sewing, looking more like a geometric pattern than people. Sweet works mostly in blues and yellows with touches of red. She softens her palette to subtly invoke the sepia look of old photographs. Sweet uses mixed media for her backgrounds on some pages: fabric with stitches and bias tape.

We follow Clara as she learns the rules of working in the garment industry: The girls lose half a day’s pay for being a few minutes late, can be fired for a pricking their fingers and getting blood on the fabric twice, and are locked into the factory from morning to night.

Clara wants to protest the terrible working conditions, especially after male union workers encourage her. She urges the other girls to strike, and finally they do. Clara is beaten, and she is arrested 17 times, but she keeps going.

The book just gets better from there. This is a story of power from the people who together make the wheels of society turn. It is all the more effective because it’s about a young immigrant girl who refuses to back down. Well told, well illustrated—Brave Girl is a story kids really should hear. In a day when unions are sometimes thought of as a problem, it’s good to be reminded that things like an 8-hour day and a five-day work week came about because of the efforts of ordinary people like Clara Lemlich.

Note: An author’s note gives additional information about the garment industry and labor strikes in other cities.

Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr., illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Did you know that some of the workers who built the first White House were slaves? This book is their story. The slaves were rented out by their masters for the project.

Black hands,
white hands,
free hands,
slave hands.

Slave hands dig,
and break stone,
laying the foundation
for the president’s house.

Rented as property,
slave hands labor
as diggers of stone,
and bricklayers.

Smith describes these events poetically, in simple, strong language like the sound of hammers striking stone. The lines rhyme occasionally for emphasis, but not throughout:

Slave hands saw
twelve hours a day,
but slave owners take
slave hands’ pay.

Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are done mostly in shades of brown, with a blue sky every so often that makes me think of hope. Sometimes the faces in children’s book illustration are simple or cute, but not in Brick by Brick. Cooper depicts these faces, mostly slaves but a few masters, with a kind of softened realism and with great feeling and character. I’m not sure how the illustrations were done—perhaps with watercolor washes and then colored pencil on textured paper. This is a very lovely book, and one filled with understated yet powerful emotions.

We read that in time, the slaves learned skills that qualified them to be paid one shilling a day. They saved the money towards buying their freedom:

Slave hands count shillings
with worn fingertips
and purchase freedom
earned brick by brick.

By the time you reach the last page, you know something important: The president’s home is beautiful, but it is not as beautiful as the promise of freedom.

Note: Brick by Brick includes an author’s note that explains why slaves were used to build the first White House. Also, the illustration on the left shows the construction project from a different perspective. It is not from the book.

Nelson Mandela, words and pictures by Kadir Nelson

Right now the talk is all about Nelson’s recently released I Have a Dream, a wonderful book about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech. But I’m holding an ARC of his next picture book in my hands: Nelson Mandela. The front cover is simply a portrait of Mandela, no title. You can find the title on the back cover.

Where I Have a Dream captures a moment in time, Nelson Mandela is very much a biography. Most pages have about a paragraph of text, though a few have more. The book would make a good read-aloud for about 3rd-5th graders.

We begin with a boy named Rolihlahla. Already he is being changed by the world around him:
Rolihlahla played barefooted on the grassy hills of Qunu. He fought boys with sticks and shot birds with slingshots. The smartest Madiba child of thirteen, he was the only one chosen for school. His new teacher would not say his Xhosa name. She called him Nelson instead.
The first spread is done almost entirely in silhouette, with the boys and the hill they are playing on shown in black. The sun has just barely risen over the hill behind them, and a small slice of green plain and blue mountain is seen off to the left. A few houses sit on the plain. It’s a stunning image, and something of a departure from Kadir’s expected human figures. The wide-angle painting makes a poignant introduction to the next spread, where we read that 9-year-old Nelson is being sent miles away to live with a powerful chief after his father’s death. The image is a close-up of two people in profile, with Nelson’s mother on the left and a young Nelson on the right. She holds his unhappy face, staring into his eyes.

In his new life, Nelson listens to stories told by the elders of old Africa. We read that he grew up and attended school in Johannesburg, “where Africans were poor and powerless.” Nelson became a lawyer and began to help his people.

The story continues, showing the experience of apartheid and Nelson’s activism and long imprisonment. “His children grew up. Relatives passed away. South Africa began to fall apart… Nelson snuck a message to the people: ‘I will return.’”

And he did return. At last Nelson was free. Apartheid ended, and Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s storytelling is clear and powerful. His illustrations capture the souls of his subjects, especially Nelson Mandela. Many of the pages in the book are quite dark in tone, but the last two spreads are bright with color and sunshine, lifting like a song. A striking book that you can read and treasure.

An author’s note gives additional information about Mandela and apartheid in South Africa.

It’s been said that children in our day lack real heroes, reduced to looking up to pouting pop stars, millionaire athletes, and fictional superheroes. Give them these three books and others like them. Give them heroes.

Note: Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me review copies. Brick by Brick will be out in December. Nelson Mandela and Brave Girl will be out in January.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Getting Ready for Halloween...

I did not get my blog written, though I have some very nice picture books picked out for you that I will end up talking about this next weekend. But since it's that time of year, let me ask you a couple of questions instead:

What's your favorite Halloween book for kids?

Also, can you think of a time when someone gave you a real scare on Halloween?

Please share your book picks and/or stories in the comments and I will add them to the post!

My own favorite is Shake Dem Halloween Bones by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrated by Mike Reed. It is positively rollicking, not so much as story as a song. Basically, you get famous fairy tale figures like Red Riding Hood rocking out at a Halloween party. Kids love to join in on the refrain. This one's a good pick for the 4 to 8 crowd.

I will refer you to two of my previous Halloween posts as well, one about scary Halloween poems by Eve Merriam and the other an overview of witch books.

Recommendations from the Comments:

I just wrote a brief review of Zen Ghosts by Jon Muth, found it beautiful to see and to think about-more than just a Halloween story, but it is that too! And I found Sheep Trick or Treat by Nancy Shaw, read it to my granddaughter (3), but certainly it would fit up to 8 years at least-so funny. --Linda at Teacherdance

My kids like not-too-scary books about ghosts especially The Ghost's Dinner by Jacques Duquennoy and Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara. --Brimful Curiosities

Hallo-weiner by Dav Pilkey is one of my favorites. I also love Dragon's Halloween by the same author. And thank you Brimful Curiosities! I had forgotten about The Ghost's Dinner and I love that book! --Jennifer