Monday, February 25, 2013

Happy News

I am so excited! My book of ocean poems, Water Sings Blue, has won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for 2012! In case you're not aware of the award, this is a Big Deal. I'll be flying to Philadelphia in September to accept it. And there will be gold stickers on my book. Gold stickers!

You can read the press release here. To celebrate, I'll show you two spreads from the book. Click on the images to see larger versions. (There are more images in the Amazon preview.) As you can see, Meilo So's artwork is breathtakingly beautiful.

On another nice note, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School is out. Two of my poems are in it. The book is edited by poet Janet Wong and Library and Information Studies professor Sylvia Vardell. It includes focused poetry lessons based on the Common Core Standards.

Now, you may be asking yourself, where, oh where, are the book reviews we've come to know and love here at Book Aunt? Well, hold onto your hats and your britches... this weekend I'll be comparing all kinds of versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. See you then!

Monday, February 18, 2013

New Harry Potter Art

Just a tidbit thanks to Publisher's Weekly: new cover art for the Harry Potter series by Amulet author/illustrator Kazu Kibuishi. (See also my review of Kibuishi's book, Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, which was published last March.)

Here's the first cover, for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. My immediate thoughts are that Hagrid is really the focus of this painting and that thanks to Hedwig, Harry looks like he has angel wings. Love the shadowy blue tone and the choice of Diagon Alley for the setting. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Life, the Universe and Everything

Well, pretty soon I'm off to a complete geek-fest, a sci-fi/fantasy conference appropriately titled Life, the Universe and Everything. I fully expect the answers to, well, everything! (Wasn't it the white mice who knew that? Or their computer did? I guess it was just the meaning of life. That would be sufficient for me, too.)

Anyway, I will be back blogging next weekend. I may even give you some info from the conference! Can't go wrong with workshop titles like "Lloyd Alexander: High King of Fantasy," "Mary Sue and Gary Stu: Avoiding the Dreadful Downfalls of Bad Fiction" (a panel), "Cryptography 101," "Military in Fantasy," "Space Eldritch," "How to Kill a Zombie," (I thought they were already dead!) and my personal favorite, "Everything I Need to Know about Writing I Learned from the Matrix." That's merely a sampler from the first day.

Best of all, the keynote speaker and and sometimes panel member is Megan Whalen Turner, quite possibly the best writer in MG/YA fantasy today. Yep, be envious. Be very, very envious. And read some good fantasy this week!

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Review of Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

This graphic novel is an unabashedly boy book full of adventures, inventions, monsters, and chase scenes—with a bunch of pop psychology mixed in. Also a plot thread about our hero’s dad, who is still grieving over his lost wife. Cam’s dad is out of work, and Cam has to put up with the jerk next door, a rich kid named Marcus who can best be described as drugs, grease, and goth. When Marcus is not sneering, he’s bullying, either that or hanging out with his sidekick and a pet rat.

It’s Cam’s birthday, and his dad buys him a cardboard box from a creepy guy at a roadside toy booth who is obviously one of those magical types whose gifts are bound to backfire. “Wait, there are rules!” the guy tells Cam’s dad, to which savvy readers will instantly respond, “They’re going to break the rules!” Cam and his dad make a goofy-cool boxer that comes to life. Then Cam breaks the rules, Marcus gets involved, and pretty soon a lot of cardboard chaos has broken loose.

I could have done without the whole plot-as-psychological analysis and redemption with regards to Marcus. And possibly without the additional resurrection (or something) of Cal’s dad. This all leaves Cal as kind of a secondary character in his own story. However, I’ll admit there’s more to life than cardboard symbolism, and we do get a lot of great action here. The relationship between Cal and his dad is nice, too.

As for the artwork, TenNapel knows his stuff. He keeps the action going with strong ink lines—lots of slashing diagonals and forward motion. His palette tends to be a bit dark, with blacks, browns, olives, rusts, and grays set of by touches of brighter colors. TenNapel not only shines when it comes to large-scale action, but his way with posture and facial expressions make his characters’ personalities strong. Cam’s dad is a wonderful sad sack, while Marcus is kind of hideous outside as well as in—you can’t turn your eyes away! Cardboard is really the story of Marcus, this pathological liar that only a rat could love. (And the rat bites him.)

Still, even though TenNapel may get carried away with the symbolism, his book is so brash and over-the-top that he pretty much pulls it off. I’m guessing the 10-year-old boy you hand this one to will completely miss the psychology and just enjoy the action-packed storytelling. 

A Review of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez

What this graphic novel points out with classy in-your-face power is that we really don’t know what it’s like to grow up in China. Or rather, in the China of the late 1970s. Little White Duck succeeds on so many levels I’m not sure where to begin. We watch a little girl named Da Qin learning and growing just by seeing the moments of her life. We understand more about what it means to be part of a great country where people don’t walk around saying, “Oh dear, we’re communists!” No, this is their life, their worries, their pride. We experience all of this through focused language and rich, strong artwork in a book that reminds me, subtly, of Sandra Cisneros’s A House on Mango Street.

I remember when North Korea’s leader died year before last, we here in America were inclined to believe that the crowd’s tears were fake. Maybe some of them were—but maybe not. In Little White Duck, Da Qin wants to know why her parents are so sad, why her mother is weeping. “Grandfather has died,” they tell her, and they mean Chairman Mao.

Aside from showing us life in China, the book gives marvelous little life lessons through Da Qin’s experiences—such as when she insists on wearing her best coat to visit the village of her father’s mother. She is baffled and upset by how mean her grandmother is, and by the way the children in this impoverished place treat her. But she is also changed somehow.

There’s humor, too. For example, at one point Da Qin and her sister don’t want to eat their vegetables, and their mom gives them a hair-raising version of our culture’s “But there are children starving in Africa” speech. Then there’s the rat-catching incident…

To revisit the artwork, Booklist says it “evokes both traditional Chinese scrolls and midcentury propaganda posters.” We are even given a spread of such posters, with translations provided at the end of the book. The colors, the lines, the style all combine to make this book as art, worthy of a coffee table or a better still a gallery exhibit.

Little White Duck is an amazing book, truly. My only question is whether it’s really for kids. Well, I would read it with the 10-and-ups. And I would read it with high school students. It’s a good accompaniment to a study of world history and of other cultures. Or US history and the Cold War. It could prompt conversation as a set of moral tales, or it could prompt writing about what our experiences teach us.

Whether you’re 10 or 40, this book from husband-and-wife team Martínez and Liu is a work to enjoy and ponder. Or, as Aristotle would no doubt put it, Little White Duck both delights and teaches.

A Review of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson

I am always puzzled by people who dislike even a well-done adaptation of a book to film on the grounds that it doesn’t contain every bit of the book. A book and a film are two different formats, with a film clearly being a tighter format than a book. While I realize a graphic novel is a book in one’s hands, it is nevertheless limited in much the same way a film is by its visual elements and its very immediacy. (Ironically, the current move towards present-tense narratives in YA and even middle grade fiction can be seen as an effort to capture the immediacy of film.)

A graphic novel, even if it is an adaptation, must be understood as a compact narrative. I was wondering how well this famous, beloved book would translate to the graphic novel format… Of course, it depends on who is doing the translating. Hope Larson does a very, very good job.

I’m thinking of a contrast that highlights Larson’s effectiveness. Take the graphic novel of Twilight. Although I liked it on some levels, the choice to go with a manga style gives us really sweet-looking characters. I think it would have been more effective with a grittier style.

And there’s a certain sweetness to Hope Larson’s artwork for A Wrinkle in Time. Charles Wallace would be pretty darling if he weren’t scary smart. I wasn’t sure what to think of him in this book. You may not even realize you have a picture of what Meg looks like, or Calvin, or the three “witches,” until you see how Larson has envisioned them. For example, in Larson’s book, Calvin has a crooked nose. I checked in the original, and he doesn’t, not that the author indicates, anyway. So the nose threw me off a little, though I think the adapter-illustrator wanted to make Calvin more accessible, especially to Meg.

There’s a lot of handholding going on, with a light suggestion of romantic interest between Meg and Calvin. Actually, Larson makes the hand holding into a theme for Meg, and it does pop up on occasion in the original book. For example, when Meg goes back to save Charles Wallace, Mrs. Who says, “I ccannnott hholldd yyourr hanndd, chilldd.” And Charles Wallace is holding Meg’s hand tightly when they land in the broccoli patch after their escape. L’Engle is certainly wise enough to imply that Meg must grow up and act for herself, without having her hand held at the most terrifying moment of all. And Meg's love for Charles Wallace saves him, so that handholding makes sense. I do feel that Larson did more with the idea than L’Engle—see for yourself how you think it works.
Now, one challenge of illustrating the story is that IT was always going to be more scary in the reader’s imagination than in an illustration—in fact, reading about IT without giggling is sometimes hard to do. It’s easy to make SNL-type jokes about a giant blob of brain sitting on a platform. But the story sweeps us along, and the brain isn’t that bad. In fact, Larson handles the problem by outright acknowledging the absurdity. On page 286, she sets up the coming visual of IT with a series of shots of Meg’s little crew reacting, looking a tad like McCauley Culkin in that famous Home Alone pose. Oh, the horror! Then on page 287 we get, “—a brain.” And Larson throws in some sound effects coupled with visual effects, all in voice bubbles: “Quiver.” “Glorp.” “Gurgle.” “Squish.” “Ooooooze.” After which we move immediately to Charles Wallace succumbing still more to IT, his eyeballs starting to twirl on page 288.

Any fan of the original Wrinkle in Time may have the movie adaptation reaction I mentioned above. But flex your thinking a little, and I suspect you’ll find that Hope Larson’s graphic novel does justice to L’Engle’s wonderful book.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Taking on the Classics

HarperCollins sent me a couple of new books that were bound to make me think of some major classics. Can it be that a new generations of authors and illustrators will hold their own against the big guys? Kind of like in professional wrestling? We shall see!

Taking on Richard Scarry

Who dares to challenge Richard Scarry, he of the busy world, cute-without-being-irritatingly-adorable characters, and lots of cars and trucks?

That would be Brian Biggs. I missed his first outing, the 2011 title Everything Goes: On Land. And I’m lacking his forthcoming easy readers, such as Everything Goes: Henry in a Jam. But I’m sitting here looking at Everything Goes: In the Air—with its nice big 10x12 trim size—and I also have two board books under the Everything Goes banner: Stop! Go! A Book of Opposites and 1 2 3 Beep Beep Beep! A Counting Book.

Granted, in Biggs’s book you will find fewer narratives, especially those mini stories Scarry was so fond of telling, e.g., in Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, the Pig Family gets sprayed by a street washer with a broken nozzle and then, on the next page, a load of oranges gets dumped on them and their car because Mrs. Rabbit was yelling instructions to Mr. Rabbit.

Biggs does something similar, though it isn’t as intricate. For example, in Everything Goes: In the Air, the main narrative is following a family that is going on a trip in an airplane The emphasis is on the family’s son, who appears to be six or seven years old. But other things are happening in the airport. Most notably, a woman pushing quintuplets in a stroller loses all five, and readers must help the worried mother find her active babies (who may remind you of the escaped baby in Hilary Knight’s Where’s Wallace).

The young main character asks questions about the airport and planes, and his parents answer. The questions and answers are useful and clear. Airplane history is included, as on the spread showing planes like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Red Baron, and an early passenger plane. One early plane is shown on another spread with the parts labeled. The pilot is labeled, plus there’s a label saying, “Nice mustache” of the pilot’s facial hair. On another page, a stunt plane that’s flying upside down is labeled upside down.

Which just goes to show that the humor is likely to grab you, especially if you’re the parent reading this with a child. A man in the airport holds a sign for an incoming passenger and the name is “Murgatroyd.” Arrivals and departures are listed, but along with ordinary city names we get Dullsville, Outtatown, and Big Apple. Certain characters speak with alliteration: one man says into his cell phone, “Honolulu was heavenly,” and on the next page another man says into his, “I said, ‘I’ll see ya’ll in Yellville!’” Yelling, of course. A stand full of brochures has a sign up top that says Tourist Traps. A pirate at security is told he can’t take his sword on the flight, though apparently he can take his parrot. My favorite funny detail is when a news helicopter is show flying and a reporter looks over, saying, “That’s not a bird or a plane.” A superhero is standing on top of a skyscraper off to one side. The author nicely balances airplane and airport information with humorous details. We even get a nod to feminism with a remark about an airplane pilot.

The board books are similar in style. Their plain colored backgrounds will make it easier for toddlers to interpret what they see. We get touches of humor and cheery, creative renditions of concepts using all kinds of vehicles. For example, one spread in the opposites book shows MANY motorcycles coming up behind a FEW (three) unicycle riders. One of the unicyclists looks back with a worried expression at the onslaught of motorcylists. Then there's the counting book that starts off with 1 bus and 2 RV’s before working its way up to 9 race cars and 10 bicycles. But best of all is the last spread, which shows 1 BIG traffic jam.

Biggs’s artwork is cheery and fun, though it’s not as engaging as Scarry’s work. The style is different, with simpler, larger shapes and stronger lines. The characters are appealing in general and do funny things, but they lack the strong individual personalities of characters like Scarry’s famous Lowly Worm, Officer Flossy, and Mistress Mouse. One reason might be that the characters’ facial expressions are somewhat uniform, particularly the eyes, which are black dots and don’t do much.

I definitely recommend the Everything Goes books for today’s kids. But hang onto your Richard Scarry books. With their marvelous characters, their fine print, their eloquent illustrations, and their diminutive narratives, they make the perfect follow-up to Brian Biggs’s vehicular world.

Taking on P.D. Eastman

Who’s taking on P.D. Eastman, creator of the best dog book ever? We’re talking Go, Dog. Go! here, people.

His name is Horvath. James Horvath. In case you aren’t sure about the challenge being on, check out the title: Horvath’s book is actually called Dig, Dogs, Dig. All right, with a subtitle: A Construction Tail. The name matches Eastman's even if the punctuation doesn’t. (How many of you will admit you’ve looked up the title of the Eastman classic at one time or another to figure out if it’s one sentence or two?)

Moving right along, let’s check out Horvath’s construction worker dogs. I like that the author-illustrator introduces his dogs on the front endpaper: supervisor Duke (who carries a bullhorn) and crew members Roxy, Buddy, Max, Spot, and Spike. Then our story begins. We see the aforementioned dogs plus several more in their beds. There's even a cat. Duke calls to them from the doorway:

“Wake up, dogs.
You’re going to be late.
The sun is up.
There’s no time to wait.”

The next spread shows the dogs leaping out of their beds, ready to get to work. Which is an obvious homage to pages 48–51 of Go, Dog. Go! Pages 48–49 show a bunch of dogs asleep in a large bed and tell us that night is not the time for play. But the next spread shows the same room in the morning. Dogs are leaping out of bed, and a dog in charge with a bullhorn calls:

“Now it is day.
The sun is up.
Now is the time
for all dogs to get up.
‘Get up!’
It is day.
Time to get going.
Go, dogs. Go!”

If anything, Horvath’s book was inspired by page 34 in Go, Dog. Go! There we find three dogs at work. It’s a great little scene involving a shovel, a pickaxe, and a jackhammer. (See also page 18.) That said, Horvath jumps off and does his own thing. His dogs really are construction workers, and unlike Eastman’s dogs—who show up everywhere from a ski slope to the top of a giant tree—Horvath’s crew goes to the site and builds, builds, builds. It’s a nice focus. When the dogs get to work, we get a page showing the different machines they will use. The machines pop because they are all yellow with some black on a green background. Each is labeled as part of the text:

“Start up the loader,
dump truck,
and grader,
and excavator.”

The work goes on with a great twist—as the dogs dig, they discover a huge T-Rex bone! What will they do with it? And why is there a truck full of ducks heading their way?

Horvath rhymes his text, which could have been distracting. But most of the rhymed phrases flow smoothly, and that’s pretty hard to do. Dig, Dogs, Dig is very fun stuff. Like the Everything Goes books, it has great boy appeal. What’s interesting is that I have a similar quibble with Horvath’s artwork. The illustrations are cartoonish, colorful, and active, which is great. However, the dogs are less personable than one might hope. Even on that front endpaper, all of them have their mouths hanging open the same way and—we’re back to the eyes, in this case black ovals with white dot pupils. Look at how someone like Kevin Henkes does eyes and facial expressions and I think you’ll see what I mean. Let's face it: now that more illustrators are using computers to create picture books, this may continue to be an issue.

Still, I can happily recommend Dig, Dogs, Dig. It has real verve, and I think young readers (especially boys) are going to like it. Try pairing it with its mentor and predecessor, Go, Dog. Go!

Note: The dogs in this book complete the whole construction project in just one day. You might want to point out to your child that a construction project normally takes months and months.

Taking on Dr. Seuss (sort of)

Who’s up against Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss?

Well, no one, actually. Not with the full list of superpowers: crazy-funny drawings, successful rhymes that shouldn’t be, the occasional social commentary, easy readers that made Dick and Jane run for cover, and a generally mad take on life. (Five hundred hats? An elephant sitting on an egg like a chicken? A green guy who’s the anti-Santa Claus?)

We do have contenders when it comes to certain Seussian factors, however, so let’s take a look at them.

The first name that comes to mind is Mo Willems—especially his Elephant and Piggie books. They’re the new classics in easy readers, and I can see why. Humor, not to mention melodrama of the kind appropriately associated with frustrated 5-year-olds, is the name of the game. Elephant and Piggie are marvelous personalities, as is Pigeon. The situations are more commonplace that the ones you will meet in Dr. Seuss’s books, but that makes the humor all the more impressive. It’s like Seinfeld for kindergartners.

Rhyme-wise, who can we go to? It’s very hard to write a great rhymed narrative. The only person I can think of who has pulled it off recently—and in quite a different style—is the late, supremely talented Margaret Mahy with her poem-turned-picture book, Bubble Trouble. Here’s my review from April 2009.

We’ll have to move beyond the easy reader category to find any further comparisons to the great Geisel. How about our latest Newbery award winner, Jon Klassen, with his hat trick duo, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. Story pacing, an odd and unique illustrative style, and an equally nutty sense of humor? Klassen, in his own way, has a certain kinship to Seuss. Though for writing, I'm more inclined to select an off-the-wall collaborator of Klassen's, Mac Barnett. Just take a look at Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, for example.

The new Seuss, ironically, can’t be too much like the old Seuss. It’s been said that no one can successfully imitate Dr. Seuss, and I agree. So maybe Mo Willems really is the new Dr. Seuss. Maybe Jon Klassen can stake a claim, or even Mac Barnett. But let's remember that one of the best things about children’s literature is that it accumulates. "The more the merrier" definitely applies. We have more great books for kids now than we did 20 years ago, and more 20 years ago than we had 30 years before that. I should say instead that children’s books are cumulative—like the refrains in some of the best ones. Say, for example,

“I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”