October 26, 2012

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

RAGNAROK: THE END OF THE GODS by A.S. Byatt (Grove Press, 2012)
GENRE: Literary - Mythology

I should state up front that A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite authors. Her short story collections are full of small jewels, perfect little things that leave you questioning or haunted or content. Her novels are odd and thoughtful, woven through with references to other authors and other works - not so much that the references swamp the story, but enough to weave a sort of socio-cultural fabric around the story. Done well, it's shockingly effective. Possession: A Romance, for which Byatt won the Booker Prize, is an excellent example of this. Unfortunately, Byatt's most recent offering, Ragnarok, is not.

Ragnarok refers to the mythical battle that ends the reign of the Norse gods. It's a immensely fertile ground and more than one writer has plumbed its depths - Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkein's Fellowship both contain aspects of the myth. What makes these appropriations (adaptation is too strong a word) work, is that Wagner and Tolkein took aspects of the source material and gave them new life in completely separate works, a trick Byatt has pulled off more than once in many of her novels. It is a trick she failed to pull off here. Ragnarok is essentially a straightforward retelling of Ragnarok from Asgard and the Gods. The only nod to a context beyond that of the myth is the fragile frame story about "the thin child" who reads the book, Asgard and the Gods, while her family is evacuated to the countryside during WWII. It's a lovely connection - the fall of the gods set as the backdrop of world war - but Byatt declines to take it further. In fact, she rather declines to take it anywhere at all. The "thin child" reads the book, her father comes home from the war, they all move back to London. Of course, there is more to it than that, but that's what it ultimately comes down to. As a reader, one is left wondering why Byatt bothered with the frame story at all - why not simply publish her own translation of the myth?

In the end, it's a matter of preference. Ragnarok is a beautiful book in that way that all of Byatt's books are beautiful. Her command of language and detail are unparalleled in in their lovely precision, and from that point of view, Ragnarok is a gorgeous success. But I tend to want and expect a chewier narrative from Ms. Byatt and so, unfortunately, Ragnarok left me hungry, not so much for more, but for different. I know many will disagree, but I think that's a fair expectation when something as meaty as a Norse myth is on the menu.

October 4, 2012

Throat-clearing, Or, Finding, Ignoring and Then Using Your Voice(s)

What, exactly, is an author's voice? What does a critic mean when she writes, "Author-with-Potential" has finally found his voice? It seems like an easy question to answer, but it isn't and the prevalence of that statement used to drive me a little nuts. As an writer, it's not something I've ever concerned myself with in a conscious way. My characters sound the way they sound. My narrators narrate and I try to stay out of the way. I've never worried about it and, quite frankly, I tended to think that people who did worry about it could have spent that valuable energy thinking about something else, like plot. Or characterization. Or editing. Or research. Or global warming. Or grocery shopping. Or Whatever. I had found my voice years before, a voice that was fluid, that changed and adapted to suit the material, and I just didn't worry about it. Turns out I was really pretty full of myself and other things...

Take this blog for example. I used to write the "reviews" off-the-cuff, for my own pleasure and amusement (which worked out great because very few people actually read these posts). But then I started to get more formal, because I was using the blog for a class and had an audience whose approval I needed. The reviews became less personal, more professional and perhaps more thorough (read: formulaic), but far less interesting to write or re-read. But I got really nice feed-back from my professors so I kept doing it that way even after the classes ended. Even after that "audience" had checked out, I kept writing for it's approval. I kept ignoring my voice. And there it is. My voice.
In the same way that personalities are not static constructs but rather fluid, adaptable creatures (or maybe that's just me), "voice" is a fluid adaptable thing too. And I had allowed mine to shape itself after the idea of the polished, published review. It sounded authoritative and professional and really fairly hollow, and while it's very legitimately "my voice" it isn't my only voice.

And before you say, "well hold on there missy, my voice is mine and Shakespeare's was Shakespeare's so you can just pipe down", hear me out. You don't speak to your boss the same way you speak to your mother. You have different voices for each situation. I write professional material in one voice, children's material in another, short stories in many voices, and blog posts in what comes closest to my speaking voice - except that I stopped doing that and used the professional voice for what is, ultimately, a blog that I started to please myself (and hopefully the few others who occasionally pop in). Kind of silly. So I started thinking about a writer's voice and I have come to this conclusion:

It is a complicated, oddly personal thing, and not one to be dismissed. It is something to consider, to honor and to pay attention to. And ultimately to leave alone. At least, in the case of my voice(s). Because I have many voices and they're all mine, but they don't all belong in the same place. If one of them invades another's space, context goes out the window and it all loses it's shine. So long live the author's voice - every single one of them.

September 26, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, (Little Brown, 2011).
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
AGE: 15 and up

Though a YA novel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is such an aesthetic pleasure that it has a certain cross-over adult appeal. Though it didn't capture me emtionally to the same degree that Lips Touch Three Times, it is a lovely and formidable title worth of checking out.

Here's the Twisby Review: http://twisbyreviews.blogspot.com/2012/09/daughter-of-smoke-and-bone.html

On a personal note, I'd be envious if Taylor weren't so completely impressive.

September 20, 2012

The Keep

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2007)
GENRE: Literary Realism / Ghost Story (of sorts)

The Keep has been on my to-read list for five years. I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long to read it, but it's left me with a great deal to think about. It's a deceptively simple book, with great and murky depths. And I don't mean "murky" in a pejorative sense. It's simply that there's so very much going on beneath the surface that it seems impossible to sink in deeply enough to touch bottom.

On the surface, it's the story of a man escaping New York to help his cousin renovate an eastern European castle. Danny is an experienced "second" - he's the man who stands beside powerful men and makes things run. Addicted to his cell phone and all other forms of wireless connectivity, he drags a portable satellite dish all the way to the castle, only to lose it to the stygian depths of a ancient pool. It's the first hint of one of Egan's central themes - how much technology is like magic, how very much it makes us like ghosts. About a quarter of the way into Danny's awkward and somewhat fraught reunion with his cousin,  the narrator suddenly introduces himself, exposing the book's second thread, this one concerning the narrator himself, a convict who is penning Danny's story for a prison writing class.

The marriage of these two threads, (Danny's story and the narrator's), should be awkward, but in Egan's hands it works. The narrator is a compelling figure, as compelling, though in a different way, as Danny is. One can't help but feel that the two are viscerally connected. In the climax we learn why and how. The knowledge is both satisfying and inevitable, and strangely touching, given the characters involved -  flawed men living flawed lives, warped and, in Danny's case, occasionally ridiculous. In fact, the book is a symphony of sorts, with various elements playing together in deep harmony - until the denouement.

In the first two sections, the convict narrates Danny's story, inserting asides and moving his own threads forwards as he does. In the final section, his writing teacher takes up the reins, a switch that might have worked were it not so disruptive, so packed with the backstory of a secondary, (though admittedly pivotal), character. I can see why Egan did it - she was able to elucidate certain issues by switching narrators, and it allowed her to tie up loose ends, but overall, it distracted from the final, perfect connection between Danny and the narrator, the thing at the novel's heart. It is The Keep's only real flaw, and one I can forgive, given the structural boldness of the rest. I just can't help but wish for less - less explanation, less backstory, less denouement. With such a well-pitched climax, a brief afterward or epilogue would have functioned to tie the bows. The story stands perfectly without the rest.

September 11, 2012

Knit Your Own Cat

KNIT YOUR OWN CAT by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2011)
GENRE: Craft - Knitting

This book is adorable. Even if you're just figuring out how to purl, it's adorable. Even if you've been making argyle socks since you were 12, it's adorable. It's just adorable, from concept to execution. Here's why. Knit Your Own Cat does something that many concept-knitting books don't do - it engages the reader emotionally. What does that mean, you might ask. Well, it means that even as your knitty juices get all a-flowing, inspired by the detailed, pristine patterns, the wee yarn cats charm with their cocked heads and wispy whiskers and delicately formed paws. Their little faces have a ton of personality as they look winsomely out at you from their understated photographic boxes, as if they were asking you to bring them home from the pound. The amount of feline body language these patterns capture is impressive, from the gently curled figure of a napping Blue Russian to the languidly raised paw of a Devon Rex. It's a little uncanny and very charming.

One thing to note however, is that these cats are not projects for beginners. The average needle size is a 2 and there is a great deal of shaping done on a very small scale, not to mention changing color-ways and piecing the little critters together. The experienced knitter will find this book to be clear as glass and full of fun challenges, but the beginner is likely to get frustrated. That said, Muir and Osborne include a lot of lovely information about each of the breeds, as well as their reasonings for using certain techniques to achieve the desired effects, so it's a friendly, fascinating, educational book, even for knitters who are still working their way up the skill-ladder. Unassuming and quiet, Knit Your Own Cat is a lovely, specific little book that takes full advantage of the natural compatibility between knitters and cats. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

September 1, 2012

Lips Touch Three Times

LIPS TOUCH THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor; illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo (Arthur A. Levine, 2009).

Sometimes I read a book and I don't want to talk about it. It's just too... I'm not sure what words to use. It's an impulse I have to be quiet and hold it to my chest because talking would fail to communicate what it was about the book that resonated so deeply with me. It's an impulse to hand it to people without ever discussing it, because I don't want to know what it meant to them any more than I want them to know what it meant to me. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

Just recently, it happened with Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor, (which was short listed for the National Book Award), a collection of three novellas rooted deeply in fairy tales and mythology, and... yeah. I can't say much more, other than that it surprised me. So, though it is ostensibly a YA title, the stories are fierce and brutal and delicate too, and should not be overlooked based on marketing alone. So please read it, if you are so inclined. It would please me if you did. Then we could not talk about it together....

August 25, 2012

Clockwork Angel

CLOCKWORK ANGEL: The Infernal Devices Trilogy, Book 1 by Cassandra Clare, (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
GENRE: Paranormal Romance / Historical Fantasy
AGE: 14 and up - though I can see adults gobbling this up too.

Though most definitely a YA title, Cassandra Clare's nod to the Victorian novel, Clockwork Angel, is a slightly flawed though undeniably compelling beach read, particularly if you enjoy foggy beaches on the English coast. It's hard to resist a writer who uses the word "ichor"more than once. Don't believe me? Check out my REVIEW at Twisby Hall....

August 20, 2012

A Feast of Ice and Fire

A FEAST OF ICE AND FIRE: The Official Companion Cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer, with George R.R. Martin (Bantam, 2012)
GENRE: Cooking

Allow me to state up front that I'm not a fan of media tie-ins. Wookie Cookies is super cute, but not really my thing and if True Blood came out with a drinks guide, I probably wouldn't crack the spine. That said, A Feast of Fire and Ice, the official companion cookbook to A Game of Thrones is, suffice it to say, an exception.

There is so much about this cookbook that is exceptional, especially for a cooking geek (which I am), or a history geek (MA in medieval lit. here) or a fantasy geek (guilty as charged, though I'm embarrassed to admit that I have yet to read the series that inspired this culinary awesomeness, George R.R. Martin's Game of Fire and Ice). But there's a lot here for those who don't fall into one of these geekdoms too, though a love of food is pretty much required, otherwise what's the point?

Beautifully laid out with photography that begs for roaring fires and malt beer, the book is a visual treat, but it's the recipes that make A Feast and Ice a work of substance, rather than just another pretty face. Thoroughly modern and historically accurate, these dishes are deeply rooted in both the Westeros of Martin's books and the culinary traditions of medieval and Elizabethan Europe. Monroe-Cassel and Lehrer really know their stuff. While I expected the book to be filled with cutesy, Shepherds-pie-shaped nods to faux-Elizabethan cooking, what I found were recipes for everything from pease porridge (part of the "Breakfast on the Wall" menu) to "Dornish Snake with Fiery Sauce".  Every dish in this pristinely researched volume contains two recipes, one a historically accurate version for the cook with the time and resources to roast boar (yes, roast boar), the other a carefully constructed modern update that preserves the spirit of the original while incorporating modern ingredients and techniques. Sample menus are provided, organized by region, and suggestions for viable substitutions are helpfully given, just in case you can't source aurochs in time for your dinner party. An introduction by George R.R. Martin adds a charming touch, as do the quotes that pepper the chapters, which are likewise organized by region, from Winterfell and the Wall in the North to the lands across the Narrow Sea. Most helpfully, perhaps, is the succinct opening chapter on stocking a medieval kitchen and making certain basics, like the pastry dough and sauces that feature in various recipes.

Gorgeous, lush and tempting, A Feast of Ice and Fire really does inspire. It's heads and shoulders the best tie-in anything I've ever read and one of the best cookbooks of the year thus far. My only fear is that it will get overlooked by serious cooks for the same (admittedly snobby) reasons that nearly held me back. All I can do is say, please don't let it. This cookbook stands on it's own and I am officially a fan.

Incidentally, Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer have a fantastic blog devoted to the cooking of Westeros called The Inn at the Crossroads. Check it out here.

August 15, 2012

Wolf Gift

THE WOLF GIFT by Anne Rice, (Knopf, 2012)
GENRE: Literary Horror / Existential Treatise

Anne Rice, the woman who turned the tide of how we perceive monsters with her tortured, sympathetic vampires and her tortured, sympathetic witches, went far afield in recent years, exploring the nature of good and evil in books populated by angels and demons and Jesus Christ. With The Wolf Gift, however, she returns to her old stomping grounds, giving us the existential musings of Ruben, a not-too-tortured but quite sympathetic werewolf.

At the start of the novel, Ruben Golding is a handsome and thoughtful, if somewhat wayward, young man, slouching successfully through the beginnings of a promising career in journalism while the women in his life rev forward in a blaze of professional ambition. But Ruben is destined for greater, stranger things. On a trip up the Mendocino coast to interview the mysterious and lovely Marchent Nideck, Ruben is attacked and bitten by a creature thought to be a wolf. Over the course of the following month, his senses sharpen and he grows physically even more impressive as his metabolism transforms and he becomes, yes, a werewolf. Driven by bloodlust and an instinctual urge to protect and avenge the innocent, Ruben rips through a nice collection of San Francisco's bad guys and, in the process, creates a public sensation in the form of the Man Wolf, a dark, avenging hero. What follows are Ruben's attempts to reconcile the two halves of his nature - the man's and the predator's - while learning about the true nature of lycanthropy, falling in love with a sexy older woman, and trying to uncover the mystery of the previous generation of werewolves before they kill him, all while dodging an Evil Eastern European Doctor (tm) hell bent of eradicating his kind. Needless to say, there's a lot going on.

Sprinkled in and among all of this are plenty of musings on religion, God and the nature of good and evil, (some at such interruptive length that they try the reader's patience). As with Lestat, Rice clearly loves Ruben. She has made him a nearly unbelievable idyll, with an MA at 20, a penchant for existential musings and religious philosophy, and the uncanny ability to quote obscure short stories without a second thought. This is not a bad thing, it's just that one must suspend a great deal of disbelief to buy into Ruben as a character. But, if you let go of the expectation that he could be a real person (lycanthropy or no) and is, rather, simply a construct of Rice's imagination, the entire thing is easier and much more pleasurable to read. Ultimately, The Wolf Gift contains many elements that fans will recognize from the Vampire Chronicles and the Mayfair Witches. For non-fans, the mannered language, tepid climax and mild, cliffhanger ending may fail to work, but for the legion of readers that have been waiting for her to return to her monsters, The Wolf Gift will be a welcome homecoming.

August 13, 2012

On the Abrupt and Sudden Need for Order

Up until now, this blog has pretty much functioned as a reader's catch-all. Most of the posts are informal reflections on whatever it is that I've read with plenty of gaps and non-posting in between. The most recent posts are reviews of picture books that I did as part of a project for a collection development class. The end result is that The Foggy Foot Review is a bit of a mess and the obsessive, organizational maniac in me cannot let this rest. So... I'm splitting things up into two blogs.

This blog will continue to be what it originally was - a mostly informal collection of mostly informal reviews (critical yes, with opinions and analysis aplenty, but with a fair bit of silliness and whatever else thrown in). I also reserve the right to post random stuff related to the written word here too. The other blog, Twisby Hall, (which I'm really pretty excited about), will focus entirely on material for young people, fans of young people and people who love young people and want them to read neat and exciting things. The occasional picture book might, on occasion, show up, but the focus will mostly be on materials for tweens and teens. The reviews are likely to be a little more serious (though scintillating and fascinating and never, ever stuffy), with a more professional focus, mostly because I'm trying to develop it as a professional resource for myself and for other librarians when the time comes.

And now I know return myself to the STACK of work that's gotten ignored in the name of blog clarity. I feel better now.

July 4, 2012

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things

Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh (Oni Press, 2002)
Graphic Novel / Contemporary / Horror

 Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is the first volume in the three volume series that chronicles the not-so-normal everyday life of a loner girl who learns magic from her mysterious uncle and uses it to navigate a world of school bullies and bloodthirsty goblins and adolescent peer pressure. Throughout her adventures, Courtney displays ingenuity and intelligence, qualities that see her through some truly strange things (a good-girl doppelganger, goblins stealing a baby she’s sitting, etc). But though she is independent, strong and loyal, Courtney is far from perfect – she’s sarcastic and grumpy too, making her a fantastically real adolescent heroine. The world she inhabits is, by turns, normal to the point of banality, as well as gothic and creepy. Thanks to Neifeh’s clean, expressive illustrations (everyone but Courtney, Uncle Aloysius and select Night Things have vacant, empty eyes – a nice commentary on how Courtney feels about “normal”, suburban life), it’s a world that the reader can’t help but want to enter.

 Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things is excellent on several levels – the stories are fast-paced, engrossing and easy to read, making it a great selection for reluctant readers; and the subject matter veers elegantly between the fantastic (spells gone wrong) to the very real (bullying and isolation). It’s simply too good not to have in a library’s tween collection. Excellent recommendation for reluctant readers or tweens with an alternative vibe, great addition to any graphic novel display, particularly with other, darker / alternative stories like Gloomcookie and any of Neil Gaiman’s work.

Love That Dog: A Novel

. Love That Dog: A Novel by Susan Creech (Scholastic, 2001)
Contemporary / Poetry

On September 13, Jack writes down in his notebook that he does not want to write poetry, because “boy’s don’t write poetry. Girl’s do.” By the end of the book, on June 6th, Jack writes a letter thanking Walter Dean Myers for writing the poem, “Love That Boy” and for coming to talk to his class. Jack’s evolution over the course of the year is moving and inevitable and Creech reveals worlds of emotion through his changing relationship to poetry and his ability to write it. By weaving in snippets of, and references to, canonical poems, (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “Red Wheelbarrow” among others) Creech hints at a deeper world and poetry’s ability to transcend resistance and grief. That said, the narrative is the opposite of stuffy, and Jack is a compelling but typical kid. His growth over the course of the year is not miraculous. It is natural. But that manner in which he experiences it is true poetry. 

Creech tells the moving story of a boy’s relationship to his dog and his growth over the course of a year with a spare, poetic grace. Structurally, Love That Dog could not be more sound, mixing prose and poetry seamlessly and effectively to communicate story, emotion and the accessibility of poetry with simple, stunning efficiency. I realize that I’m gushing, but I was simply blown away. And the back matter Creech includes at the end only deepens the reader’s appreciation for, and understanding of, the topic. It’s a fantastic discussion book and would do well as a quick book club selection or intro to a unit on poetry. Would also do well in a poetry display with Robert Frost, Walter Dean Myers and William Carlos Williams, among others. 


By Roald Dahl; illustrations by Quentin Blake (Puffin Modern Classics, 1988)
Humor / Fantasy

Matilda is an exceptionally gifted five year-old, able to read and do mathematics well above her grade level. She is also the daughter of two exceptionally rotten parents, but despite her less-than-ideal home life, she is sweet, unassuming and surprisingly wise. The book Matilda, though charming in its own right (as most of Dahl’s work is), is in-and-of-itself exceptional, because of it’s exceptional heroine. As Matilda good naturedly sets out to do everything from read the classics to avenging her beloved teacher, Miss Honey, the reader is propelled along by a compulsion to see how Matilda will handle herself. And one is never disappointed.
 Matilda occupies a territory that is difficult to define – it is humorous without being expressly funny and it passes fluidly back and forth between the realistic and fantastic – and yet, Dahl never falters. The story is seamless and his heroine is a delight from start to finish. Though younger adolescents may get more out of reading it with an adult (some of the vocabulary and phrasings may prove challenging), most will gobble the story up as Matilda gets hers over the wretched Wormwoods and the horrific Miss Trunchbull. Matilda would be a great suggestion for a summer reading program. It would also do well in a display of books that celebrate reading (along with the Inkheart series, etc.)

June 25, 2012

The Aviary

The Aviary by Kathleen O'Dell (Knopf 2011)
Historical / Mystery

Eleven year old Clara lives in the once magnificent Glendoveer mansion, (the family home of a great magician) with her mother, the housekeeper, the magician’s aging widow and an aviary full of exotic birds. The birds respond to Clara as they respond to no one else – squawking, shrieking and eventually talking – as they enlist her help in solving the mystery of the five Glendoveer children, who were murdered fifty years before. It is a mystery that Clara is, unknowingly, at the very heart of.

The Aviary is a well paced, if slightly predictable, juvenile take on the Victorian gothic novel. The Glendoveer mansion is a gorgeous crumbling mausoleum, complete with locked rooms and drafty halls, in which Clara is essentially confined due to a “weak heart”. Her connection to Mrs. Glendoveer and the feathered inhabitants of the aviary is both genuine and touching, grounding her in her cloistered world, even as she longs to break free of it. The mystery at the heart of the novel – who killed the five oldest Glendoveer children and kidnapped the youngest – is interesting enough to drive the plot, though it does, at times, verge on the slightly ridiculous as it nears the inevitable climax. Overall, a quick-reading love note to period fiction of the Victorian age with just enough creepiness and mystery to keep young readers on their toes. Pair with other ghost stories in a library book club, or include in a classroom reading list with “Turn of the Screw” or “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a fun novel and a good way to introduce tension and mood. 

June 13, 2012

Death Cloud

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)
Historical / Action / Mystery

The first in Lane’s new series, Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins, Death Cloud follows a fourteen-year-old Sherlock as he embarks on his first investigation – one that begins with two grotesquely swollen corpses and ends with a plot to topple the British Empire. Lane’s command of the material is impressive as he weaves in multiple threads and details that hint at the man the boy will become. The fast-paced, energetic plot is both fun and informative (semaphores and the Crimean War are deftly explained) as Lane pushes the young Holmes through teenage alienation, a first-crush and multiple attempts on his life, at break-neck speed.
Death Cloud is a solid book and will no doubt appeal to boys between the ages of 10-14. Lane’s Sherlock is a compellingly flawed protagonist (just as Doyle’s original is). My only complaint is that some of the action felt superfluous – a bit more deduction and bit less scrapping would have given the remaining action more punch. The climactic swordfight also verged on the preposterous with Sherlock battling an evil Baron whose movements are controlled by a series of ropes and pulleys. However, these complaints are small, and the elements in question will no doubt fail to offend Lane’s intended readership. A good introduction to a classic character, as well as to the concept of deduction and the Victorian era, Death Cloud would be a strong edition to a classroom list of elective titles or a unit on Victorian history.

Ella Enchanted

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 1997)
Fantasy / Fairy Tales / Romance

When Ella of Frell is born, the fairy Lucinda bestows a gift upon her – the gift of obedience – which turns out to be a terrible curse. As a result, Ella must find ways to assert herself despite the constant threat of obedience (if someone told her to cut off her head, she would have to). Ella’s naturally independent nature grows stronger with every challenge, despite, or perhaps because of, the curse. A clever, genuinely funny adaptation on the Cinderella tale, Ella Enchanted is the story of a cursed girl who becomes a woman capable of saving herself.
This is a wonderful book for reluctant YA and tween readers – especially girls. The story is just recognizable enough to feel familiar to anyone who has heard of Cinderella, but it deviates substantially from the classic girl-as-victim plot, giving the reader a spunky, empowering heroine she can relate to. The humor, romantic elements, and first-person narrative make it a truly accessible, charming read.

June 4, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (Random House, re-issue 2005)

Winner of the Newberry in 1963, A Wrinkle in Time is the rare sort of book that manages multiple threads on multiple levels seamlessly while following a perfectly linear arc. The book opens on a “dark and stormy night” with misfit Meg Murry having hot chocolate with her mother and brother, Charles Wallace, an uncanny four-year-old savant. When a stranger comes in from the storm, the stage is set for what becomes an extraordinary journey through time and space to save Meg and Charles Wallace’s missing astrophysicist father. On one level, A Wrinkle in Time is a beautifully executed, if unsettling, adventure featuring a disturbing set of antagonists, including a repulsive, disembodied brain with the power of mind control. On another level, it is the story of Meg’s coming of age as she realizes that her beloved father is not omnipotent, and that she herself is more capable than she realizes. It is a sophisticated masterpiece with science, mathematics, philosophy and religion sprinkled throughout. L’Engle expects much from her readers and more than rewards the effort. The first in L'Engle's celebrated Time Quintet, A Wrinkle in Time is celebrating it's 50th Anniversary this year. It deserves quite a party, I think. 

A Visit to William Blake's Inn

A Visit to William Blake's Inn:
Poems for Innocent and Experienced 
By Nancy Willard
Illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen
Harcourt Brace, 1981

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn has the rare honor of being the recipient of both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor, and for good reason. The fifteen poems and epilogue tell the tale of a child’s stay at William Blake’s inn, where dragons bake the bread and angels make the beds. While there, he meets Blake’s famous Tiger, as well as the King of Cats, the Marmalade Man and Blake himself, among many others. Willard’s poems owe themselves to Blake in structure and style, but the whimsical imagery and gentle, absurd humor are original and entirely beguiling. These are not simple, nursery rhymes but real poems with pleasingly complex meters. Yet, what could be a frustrating challenge to young readers is rendered playful fun as Blake takes his guests on a tour of the Milky Way and the Wise Cow eats a cloud on buttered bread. There is just enough non-sense sprinkled throughout (hints of Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot) to keep any child entertained. Even more importantly, it is a wonderful and playful introduction to a more sophisticated poetic form for older readers. Alice and Martin Provensen's odd and delicate gauche illustrations are the perfect counterpoint to Willard's poems, encouraging the reader to fully engage and believe in William Blake's magical inn and very much want to visit themselves.

May 17, 2012

Mirror, Mirror
By Marilyn Singer
Illustrated by Josee Masse
Primary Dutton 32 pp.
978-0525479017 Hardcover $16.99
Fiction / Poetry

Marilyn Singer plays with an interesting concept in Mirror, Mirror. The poems are all distillations of familiar fairy tales - very nice so far - but the verse is "reversible", which is where things begin to get dicey. The concept of reversible verse is a good one. The poems are meant to have different meanings, depending on whether or not one is reading them front to back or back to front. To aid in this exercise, Singer presents the two versions of each poem side by side as mirror images of the other. Some of these reversals are quite successful, (Rapunzel and Cinderella particularly stand out), but others, (like the Red Riding Hood poem among quite a few others), work well enough in one direction but become forced and nonsensical in the other. Given that the reversibility of the verse is the book's foundation, this flaw in execution undermines the whole. That said, Josee Masse's illustrations are lovely, with lush colors and pleasingly rounded, clean lines. Each story receives an illustration and each illustration captures the essence of both the original tale and Singer's poem with charming efficiency. As distillations of well-known stories, the poems are easy to enjoy. Overall, Mirror, Mirror is worth reading and selections would make a nice addition to storytimes for older children, so long as you cherry-pick a handful rather than through the whole.

May 4, 2012

And Then It's Spring

And Then It's Spring
By Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Erin E. Stead
3-4 Preschool Primary
Roaring Brook 32 pp.
978-1596436244 Hardcover $16.99

 And Then It's Spring very quietly took me by surprise. After a long winter, a boy and his dog are tired of brown, ("First you have brown, all around you have brown), so they decide to plant a garden. They plant seeds in the brown dirt and watch the garden for signs of growth through sunshine and rain, always keeping an eye out for a little green. Slowly, the brown becomes a more "hopeful shade of brown" until the garden blooms under their nurturing care.

On the face of it, And Then It's Spring is a straight-forward story about anticipation rewarded. It's the prosaic and visual journey Fogliano and Stead take us on to get to the blooming garden that makes it special. Fogliano's prose is poetic and rhythmic and whimsical without ever losing its grounding in the story, so that when the boy, concerned that the seeds are not growing puts up a sign that says, "please do not stomp here - there are seeds and they are trying," (it's aimed at bears and other stomping creatures), the reader is charmed by his quirky earnestness while never losing sight of his very serious goal. Stead, who won the Caldecott last year for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, gives And Then It's Spring the same meticulous treatment, gradually altering the tone of the browns so that they become lighter and more "hopeful" the closer they get to spring.

There is so much I could say about And Then It's Spring, so many reasons why it's such an excellent book, but interest of brevity, I will simply say that it is a book that rewards slow readings and careful eyes, (look for details like a turtle wearing a red hat that matches the boy's). It is a book that takes a reader by quietly by surprise - like the first, tiny glimpse of green after months and months of brown.

The Red Book

The Red Book
By Barbara Lehman; illus. by author
3-4 Preschool Primary Houghton Mifflin 32 pp.
978-0618428588 Hardcover $14.99

Barbara Lehman won a Caldecott Honor for The Red Book, a wordless picture book that weaves elements of magical realism and post-modernism successfully into a simple story that simply works. A girl picks up a mysterious red book as she walks down her snowy urban street. When she opens it, the book narrows in on a picture of an island on which there is a boy. The page turn reveals the boy discovering his own red book in the sand. The two watch each other over the course of the day through their respective red books. When school gets out, the girl buys two huge bunches of balloons and floats away to meet the boy on the island. In the process, she drops the red book, ensuring that someone else will find it and continue the story.

Lehman's graphic illustrations are straight-forward and modern. There is little embellishment beyond shading, and even that has a sort of practical, no-nonsense quality to it. You would expect these pictures to illustrate an equally straight-forward story, which is why they communicate the fantastical elements of Lehman's story so well. Of course a red book can show you a different place! Of course a bunch of balloons can take you to an island! It's a wonderful juxtaposition of realism and magical realism and it makes both elements work in the service of the story. The Red Book is a delightful read. While toddlers might have a hard time grasping the self-referentiality of the illustrations, preschoolers are just old enough to buy in and enjoy on their own or with their parents.

Stella's Dancing Days

Stella's Dancing Days
By Sander Asher
Illustrated by Katheryn Brown
No Illustrator Website
1-4 Preschool Primary Harcourt 32 pp.
978-0152016135 Hardcover $16.00

Stella's Dancing Days is a quiet book suited to cozy chairs and a parent's voice. It's the story of Stella, a kitten who loves to dance. She delights the Tall One (a boy who wears a cowboy hat) with her grands jetes, so he brings her home, where she charms the Tall One's younger sister, the Gentle One with pirouettes, and when the Littlest One (the baby of the family) won't stop crying, she makes him laugh by waltzing with her ball. But as Stella grows up and finds bugs to stalk and window sills to sit in, she dances less and less. While the children (also pictured as older) miss her dancing days, Stella does not - she's preoccupied with the important business of preparing for her own kittens, three boys and three girls, all of whom love to dance.

Brown's watercolors have a soft, nostalgic feel, as if we're peering back in time with a slightly hazy lens. The children, the magnificent oak tree and Stella herself occupy their world with a natural, soothing ease, one that suits Asher's story to a tea. Though Stella's kittenish antics are described in dance terms, she is pictured as very much the realistic cat, so while it looks like she's performing grand balletic moves, we know she's just being a kitten, (the one exception to this realism is when the children dress her in a skirt and blouse as seen on the cover, but it's for a tea party and so explained). The story progresses gently to its natural conclusion, a conclusion that is comforting and perfect in its predictability. In the process, Stella's acceptance of each new stage of her life is a wonderful introduction to the idea that things change, and that, while you can miss the past (Stella's dancing), the present and the future have promise too, (Stella's kittens). It's an important message, one embedded deeply in a lovely, gentle story. Highly recommended. My bet is that Stella will charm you too.

May 2, 2012

Red Sled

Red Sled
By Lita Judge
1-4 Preschool Primary Atheneum 40 pp.
978-1442420076 Hardcover $16.99

Lita Judge's Red Sled is both simple and unexpected - simple because of the nearly wordless story (a bear "borrows" the red sled of the title from the child in the red hat) and unexpected because the few words that do appear, (Gadung, Gadung, Gadung and fluoomp...ft are my favorites), are marvelous and onomatopoetic and crazy in their accuracy. Anyone who has sledded down a bumpy, snowy hill knows exactly what Gadung, Gadung Gadung feels like. Even better, Gadung, Gadung, Gadung gives those who haven't had the pleasure of sledding down a bumpy hill a terrifically accurate sense of what it feels like to do so. Nowhere in this book does Judge fall back on old standards like "bonk" or "whoosh". She makes up words that capture, with uncanny accuracy, the very real sound of feet crunching through snow, (scrinch, scrunch), not to mention the made-up sound of a bear, a rabbit, a moose, a mouse, two raccoons, a porcupine and an opossum landing at at the bottom of the hill after their sled ride. For those unfamiliar with this sound, it's the fluoomp..ft, I mentioned above. 

Judge's illustrations match, tone for tone, the old-fashioned magic of her minimalist text. The child in the red hat is cherubic and pudgy in her big winter coat as she scrinch, scrunches back to the tiny cabin toting her red sled. This is a visual world in which bears would surely borrow that sled and take it for a spin with his woodland friends. Even better, it's a world in which the red-hatted child would wonder at the animals prints leading to her sled, and then join the bear and friends the next night. Red Sled is a simply lovely book - a real example of the magic a few well chosen words and thoughtfully rendered pictures can work.

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?

How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?
By Jane Yolen
Illustrated by Mark Teague
No Illustrator Website
3-4 Preschool Primary Blue Sky 40 pp.
978-0439241007 Hardcover $16.99

Second in the popular How Do Dinosaurs... series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague, How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? follows the same format that worked so well in the original, How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? And indeed, the question / answer pattern does draw the reader in. What does a dinosaur do when he catches the flu? Does he behave badly, whining as he tosses tissue and medicine all over his room? The answer is no. A dinosaur drinks his juice and gets rest and takes his medicine - just like a human kid should when he's not feeling good. It's a nice guide to behaving well while sick without reverting too heavily towards didacticism.

The dinosaurs are clearly child stand-ins, and they do the job with personality and comedic pizzazz, thanks to Teague's illustrations. Massive next to their human parents, the dinosaurs convey an air of child-like crankiness that resonates emotionally while still being funny. Especially cute is the Shakespearean drama with which they blow their noses, (especially nice is the Styracosaurus who gets forcibly dragged to the doctor by his mom). A nice touch, as always, is the variety of dinosaurs Teague uses. You'll find old, familiar stand-bys like Brachiosaurus in addition to a nice selection of lesser known dinos, like Gallimimus and Carnotaurus. The featured dinos also make a cast appearance on the endpapers with names clearly labeled beneath them. Yolen's rhyming text is fun and accessible, though a bit awkward at times, especially towards the end. Still, it doesn't detract from the overall success of the book, which will surely appeal to preschoolers, both sick and well, at story times and at home. As an added bonus, How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon? will likely appeal to parents who recognize their own children in the book's cranky protagonists.

April 30, 2012

Brave Charlotte

Brave Charlotte
By Anu Stohner
Illustrated by Henrike Wilson
No Author / Illustrator Website
2-4 Preschool Primary Bloomsbury 32 pp.
978-1582346908 Hardcover $16.95

Winner of NY Times Best Illustrated Book Award, Brave Charlotte is the story of a very un-sheep-like sheep named Charlotte. Charlotte is ready for adventure. She climbs trees, leaps over riverbanks and performs feats of daring-do, all while the other sheep in her flock look on with a mixture of disapproval and disbelief. Still, Charlotte continues to do her own thing, and when the old shepherd falls and breaks his leg, her bravery saves the day as she is the only one able or willing to travel the long distance to the farmer's house to get help.

Brave Charlotte is a well-constructed story with a timeless moral - sometimes the outsider, the one who doesn't follow the flock, is important to the whole precisely because she does not quite fit in. This lesson is underscored by the fact that each thing Charlotte does that garners disapproval, (climbing rocks and trees, jumping rivers and crossing roads) is part of her climactic journey to the farmer's house. Far from moralizing however, Stohner's text is natural and charming, with sweet touches like a trucker picking up Charlotte for the last leg of her journey and the farmer recognizing her as she peers in the farmhouse window. Wilson's illustrations are irresistibly appealing with Charlotte pictured as both intrepid and sweetly vulnerable as she sets out on her own. She is a truly appealing heroine, one that fully engages the reader just by being herself. A lovely story beautifully illustrated, Brave Charlotte won't fail to win the day, whether at storytime or at home.

Picture This...

Picture This...
By Alison Jay; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Dutton 40 pp.
0525463801 Hardcover $15.99
Non Fiction (that draws on Fiction)

On the face of it, Picture This... is a simple word book with each page featuring a sight word and its illustration, but a second glance shows a surprising amount of depth, with each picture making a visual reference to the seasons, nursery rhymes, fables and / or the pages that either precede or follow it.

Picture This... begins with a "clock", but the clock Jay illustrates is no simple timepiece. Pictured on its face are panels depicting each of the four seasons while a mouse peers over the top in a clear reference to "Hickory Dickory Dock." The next page features the word "dog" with an illustration of a dog jumping after the ball in a spring meadow. The careful reader will notice that this illustration mirrors the spring panel on the clock, and that the mouse is now watching the dog from the stem of a daffodil in the meadow.  And so on it goes, with the well that is pictured in the background of "dog" taking center stage on the next page for "hill" and a couple, presumably Jack and Jill, going up the hill with a bucket while a dog runs up ahead of them. The thoroughness with which Jay weaves this collective tapestry from the details in each image is truly impressive. Just as impressive is the manner in which she takes the reader through the seasons shown on the clock without making the progression feel forced or even particularly central to the book's purpose, (to present a word and an associated image).

Picture This... is a festival of detail, but what makes it work for its intended audience is its subtlety. Toddlers can look at the word "cat" and associate it with the very clear picture of the cat without having to worry about the little red airplane that will show up in the next illustration, but for preschoolers, the details make the book an interactive puzzle. With its inventive storytelling hidden within the guise of a traditional concept book, Picture This... rewards multiple readings over several developmental stages, making it a lovely, long-term addition to any collection.

Babybug Magazine

Babybug Magazine
Publishers of Cricket
0-3 Preschool Cricket 22 pp.
1 year subscription $33.95

From the publishers of Cricket magazine and Ladybug magazine comes Babybug magazine, a publication especially for for babies and toddlers (ages 6 months -3 years). The recipient of multiple awards, including the 2012 Parents' Choice Silver Honor, Babybug features stories, nursery rhymes, poems and illustrations from some of the world's best children's writers and artists, including its own serial entitled "Kim and Carrots" about a little girl and and stuffed rabbit, Carrots. All of the content is designed to be read aloud by parents and grandparents, while the extra-heavy pages, non-toxic ink, rounded corners, and staple-free binding make Babybug safe for little ones to explore on their own. Babybug does not contain the games and activities featured in many magazines for slightly older toddlers and preschoolers - its content is entirely literary, specifically designed to provide toddlers and their caregivers with a variety of illustrated stories and poems to share. It is literally a baby's first literary magazine and a great introduction to short stories, as well as a source for light, age appropriate material.

April 27, 2012

Press Here

Press Here
By Herve Tullet; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Chronicle 56 pp.
978-0811879545 Hardcover $15.99
Non Fiction

Recipient of more starred reviews than one can count, Herve Tullet's groundbreaking picture book, Press Here, could very well be the most interactive book of 2011 based solely on the tacit agreement between its author and the reader - follow these instructions and things will happen! And they do. Without pull tabs, flaps or batteries, Press Here illustrates the power of cause and effect as one yellow dot becomes two when the narrator instructs the reader to "press here and turn the page". More instructions follow, paired with more dots and a lot of positive reinforcement (the narrator wisely "responds" to the reader's successful pressing, rubbing and shaking with many a well-placed "perfect!" and "excellent"). Dots expand and contract, get blown to the top of the page and shaken down, and all the while the unspoken agreement between author and reader holds firm - do this and the book will respond. Therein lies the magic that belies picture book technologies like iPhone apps and electronic adaptations. Therein lies the magic that brings children back to their favorite books again and again: Do This. Read Me. I Will Respond. It's a wonderful thing to see it done so inventively and with such exuberant force. Press Here is so innovative in its simplicity, so true to what picture books can do, that it's an almost overwhelming read from this adult's perspective. From a child's perspective however, it's a game pure and simple, and that perspective is certainly the most important of all.

My First ABC

My First ABC
The NY Metropolitan Museum of Art
0-3 Preschool LB Kids 32 pp.
 978-0316068178 Board $8.99
Non Fiction

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had great success with Museum ABC, an alphabet book featuring each letter of the alphabet paired with a quartet of famous works containing a word associated with that letter. It's a beautiful book, but one more suitable to older preschoolers and kindergartners already familiar with the alphabet and able to grasp the sometimes abstract concepts pictured in the artwork (light, zigzag etc.). My First ABC is a simplified version of Museum ABC, with artwork specifically chosen to illustrate the letters to children just learning their ABC's. Each letter is shown in both capital and lowercase forms next to the representative word, so that connections between the images and letters are easy to make. Instead of the panel of four paintings for each letter featured in Museum ABC, My First ABC features only one image per letter making it visually easier to see and distinguish each object. But though the format is simplified, My First ABC is not dumbed down - famous works by Cezanne (A for apples) and Matisse (D for dancers) share space with ancient Egyptian paintings (H for hair), exposing even the littlest ones to the artwork and culture on display in the museum. My First ABC is a beautiful book and an excellent adaptation of Museum ABC well suited to the cognitive capabilities of very little ones. Highly recommended, it teaches the ABC's to modern toddlers with style and classical grace.

From Head to Toe

From Head to Toe
By Eric Carle; illus. by author
2-4 Preschool Primary Harper Collins 32 pp.
978-0590222020 Hardcover $17.99
Non Fiction

Animals do a lot of things with their bodies, from the simple to the complex. Penguins turn their heads. "Can you do it?" the penguin asks. "I can do it!" the boy on the opposite page replies. And so it goes, with animals performing physical acts and children mimicking their movements. The movements become progressively more challenging with a giraffe turning its head giving way to a cat arching its back and a donkey kicking its legs, but always the response to the question, "can you do it?" comes the answer, "I can do it!" It's an enthusiastic invitation to the reader to jump in and kick, wriggle and stomp with the animals, as well.

From Head to Toe is pure interactive fun, but there is a lot of education occurring within its patterned framework. The reader is introduced not only to a variety of animals, but to specific physical actions and body parts. The interactive text asks that children listen and follow directions, and practice both fine and gross motor skills while imitating the animals. A nice additional touch is the repeated declaration of "I can do it!" as part of the call and response, and as usual, Carle's collage illustrations are exuberant, appealing and hard to resist. A great choice for story times and group settings, From Head to Toe also works at home, being adaptable to siblings in a wide variety of ages.

April 25, 2012

Dear Zoo

Dear Zoo: A Lift the Flap Book
By Rod Campbell; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Little Simon 18 pp.
978-1416947370 Board $6.99

Dear Zoo is 25 years old. In honor of its silver anniversary, Rod Campbell refreshed and updated the original illustrations. Happily, they remain as classically appealing as the originals, (nothing substantial was changed). The patterned text is simple and almost universally appealing to toddlers and preschoolers. An unseen narrator, (presumably a child), tells the reader that he wrote to the zoo to send him a pet. So the very obliging zoo-keepers send him a series of animals, each hiding behind a flap. There are clues on each flap as to which animal is in the box, (the elephant's box is labeled "very heavy", the lion is partially visible between the slats, etc.), while below the illustration is the reason that each particular animal won't do, (the giraffe is too tall, the monkey too naughty, and so on). Finally, the zoo sends the perfect pet - a puppy - which the narrator happily keeps.

Dear Zoo is a classic example of an interactive book for toddlers and preschoolers. Great for storytime at libraries or at home, it provides pre-verbal listeners with the opportunity to manipulate the flaps and reveal the surprise of each animal, while slightly older toddlers and preschoolers can guess at the occupant of each box, read the simple text and practice their animal sounds. A classic for a reason, the reissued board book is sturdy enough to withstand the repeated readings and constant handling it will no doubt (deservedly) receive.

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens
By Denise Fleming; illus. by author
1-4 Preschool Primary Henry Holt 32 pp.
978-0805057454 Hardcover $17.95

Mama Cat has three kittens, two of whom - Fluffy and Skinny - follow in her footsteps as she washes her paws and walks the stone wall and engages in a number of other classically feline endeavors. Boris, the third kitten, naps... until Mama Cat, Fluffy and Skinny curl up to nap too. Then Boris comes alive, washing his paws and pouncing, (if only to his next napping stop, this time with his Mama and siblings).

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens is a visually beautiful book. Fleming, an obvious cat lover, captures feline body language and behavior with surprising ease. Her use of deeply saturated colors on handmade paper gives the illustrations a textured look that works especially well on the cats, with their bold colorations and nuanced expressions. As an added bit of charm, Fleming adds trios of other creatures to each spread (bees, ants and beetles, etc.), as well as one intrepid Mama Mouse, (the purpose of whose foraging is revealed at the end). Unfortunately, the text falls flat beside the vibrant pictures. While there is nothing particularly wrong with the narrative, it's pattern feels unfulfilled when, after napping through his family's long series of activities, Boris wakes only to pounce once and nap again. Rather than vindicating the little one who lags behind or marches to his own drum, Boris, though made a central figure throughout by Fleming's repetition of "Boris naps" fails to ever take on a dynamic quality of his own. A small thing, but one that contributes to the slightness of the story. That said, very young readers will appreciate the bold font and simple vocabulary, while pre-readers will respond to the illustrations and love playing "find-the-mouse". A solid book overall, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens fails only in that it could have been more than solid - it could have been great.

Tails Are Not For Pulling

Tails Are Not For Pulling
By Elizabeth Verdick
Illustrated by Marieka Heinlein
1-4 Preschool Free Spirit 24 pp.
1575421801 Board $7.95
Non Fiction

Part of Free Spirit's Best Behavior series, Tails Are Not For Pulling is as straightforward as the title suggests. Verdick's approach to introducing little ones to the proper way of treating pets is simple. As the foundation of her approach, she asks the reader, "if pets could talk, what do you think they'd say?", introducing the concept that meows, barks and squeaks are the primary way that pets communicate. She then goes on to ask the reader, "but what does that mean?" before positing pet-friendly answers, like "fur is for petting" and "tails are not for pulling". She also mentions that pets, unlike stuffed animals, have feelings and can often get scared or angry. She advises the young reader to watch and listen to pets when they hiss or growl, because this is how animals warn you to stop. Finally, the text ends by reminding the reader that "pets are for loving, not teasing" a message underscored by an illustration of a boy and a girl snuggling with their obviously happy dog and cats. As an added bonus, the final two-page spread contains "Tips for Parents and Caregivers" on how to use the book (interactively) and how to help children be good friends to animals.

Verdick's message is clear, transcending the sometimes clunky prose and rocky rhyme scheme. Heinlein's illustrations are simple and appealing, with broad-faced kids interacting with expressive, sympathetic looking pets. Though a bit moralizing in tone, it remains an effective introduction to the proper treatment of animals and a good way to broach the topic of how animals communicate with toddlers and preschoolers.

Two Homes

Two Homes
By Claire Masurel
No Author Site
Illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton
2-4 Preschool Primary Candlewick 40 pp.
978-0763619848 Paperback $6.99

The word that most came to mind as I was reading Claire Masurel's Two Homes was "comforting". Regardless of the circumstances, whether friendly or hostile, divorce is a life altering experience for a child, one that cannot be soothed away with trite, authorial reassurances. Given this, Masurel makes a nice choice in having Alex, the protagonist of Two Homes, address the reader directly as one who's arrived on the other side of divorce and survived with both relationships intact. The narrative's dual structure helps reinforce the strength of his relationships to each parent. Each home balances the other - "I have two rooms. My room at Daddy's. My room at Mommy's." Both are shown as being equally important to Alex, while the illustrations picture Alex being equally happy in both.

The list of things Alex has two of - favorite chairs, toothbrushes, front doors etc. - are comforting in their everyday-ness, making it clear that, though Alex has two homes, both are very stable. Kady MacDonald Denton's illustrations add to that sense of well-being. Both parents are portrayed as warm and engaged, while Alex is never pictured as being upset, confused or missing the parent that isn't there. In fact, he seems like a very well-adjusted kid with artwork of both parents up in both homes. The story is tremendously reassuring. It feels like a kid addressing another kid, until the end when both parents in, one voice, tell Alex that they love him wherever he is. A simple, satisfying message in an honest, lovely book - the best on divorce that I've come across for this age group.

April 24, 2012

The Good-Bye Book

The Good-Bye Book
By Judith Viorst
No Author Site
Illustrated by Kay Chorao
3-4 Preschool Primary Atheneum 32 pp.
978-0780788572 Hardcover $16.25

The Good-Bye Book is not so much a story, as a child's reaction to being left with a sitter while his parents go out to dinner. The boy, illustrated by Kay Chorao with just the right blend of vulnerability and stubbornness, does not want his parents to go to a French restaurant. He begs, wheedles, yells and even offers to go to the restaurant with them rather than be left at home with a dreaded sitter, whom he imagines as an old lady with too much make-up who makes him eat vegetables and watch boring TV. When that doesn't work, he decides that he's sick, ("I mean, maybe I'm dying") and asks for "one more book. Okay, half a book. A poem?" Meanwhile, his parents continue to get dressed, (though the sting of this is softened by their concerned looks and patient expressions). Finally, the boy refuses to say good-bye just as the sitter, (a young man with a stack of picture books) arrives. The boy begins to smile and ends up waving good-bye to his parents, perched on his sitter's shoulders.

The Good-Bye Book is interesting in that it's written entirely in the 2nd person, with the boy addressing the soliloquy to his parents. It makes the situation feel very immediate, mimicking the immediacy of his distress. Viorst allows her young protagonist to run the entire emotional gamut without ever going over the top so that, while funny in places, (the boy imagines being attacked by the celery the sitter might force on him), his distress always rings emotionally true. Just as important is the fact that his turn-around in the face of the real sitter feels organic and unforced. The end result is a book that acknowledges the difficulties of saying good-bye, while allowing the protagonist (and the reader) to naturally conclude that it will be all right. A reassuring message made all the more reassuring by the voice of the boy and the strength of his initial worries at being left at home.

April 23, 2012

Where Are Maisy's Friends?

Where Are Maisy's Friends?
By Lucy Cousins; illus. by author
0-3 Preschool Candlewick 12 pp.
978-0763646691 Board $5.99
Non Fiction

Where Are Maisy's Friends? invites toddlers and preschoolers to play a game of hide-and-seek with Lucy Cousins's famous mouse. The book features Cousins's standard illustrative style with bold primary color acrylics outlined in black on clean white backgrounds. Meanwhile, the text follows a pleasantly predictable question-answer pattern. The book begins with an explicitly stated invitation to play, so that young readers know exactly what to expect when they turn the page, and the repetition of the phrase "Who's that hiding [under the bed, in the closet, etc.] provides beginning readers with a narrative foundation on which to build their understanding of the text. Even pre-readers will benefit from hearing the repeated words and sounds followed by the surprise of discovery. All of the characters are hiding in easily recognizable household objects, (under tables and beds, in closets), and the flaps are sturdy enough to withstand rough handling. The exclamation points that accompany the discovery of each of the hiding characters ("it's Charley!"; "It's Eddie!" etc.) gives the book a sort of real life Surprise!!! quality that kids will no doubt love. A good, interactive title for pre-readers and beginning readers, Where Are Maisy's Friends? offers developmentally appropriate fun for these young seekers.

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime
By Myra Wolfe
Illustrated by Maria Monescillo
No Author / Illustrator Sites
3-4 Preschool Primary Harcourt 32 pp.
978-0152061500 Hardcover $16.99

Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime is a fabulous read, with a feisty protagonist and a straightforward but cleverly executed message.  Charlotte Jane is born into a family of pirates. Even as a baby her parents could see that she has lots of "oomph," a fact born out by the illustration of her parents (dad has an eyepatch and mom a saucy bandana) smiling over the howling Charlotte. Charlotte Jane grows and so does her oomph. Soon both are sturdy and bold, and bent on getting "all of the juice" out the day. But sleep is not juicy, so she battles bedtime until one night, she doesn't go to sleep at all. The cost of her victory is high - as a result, Charlotte Jane loses her "oomph". Though her parents look everywhere, including the neighbor's recycling bin, her oomph remains missing. But then, while glaring at her bed, Charlotte Jane realizes that sleep might be "for landlubbers" but dreams, particularly piratical dreams, can be "rip-roarers," so Charlotte Jane dreams and wakes up with her formidable oomph in tact.

There are a lot of elements that make Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime so good. The dialogue sprinkled with pirate-isms is just plain fun (Charlotte Jane refers to her parents as "me buckos" and her father calls her his "little doubloon"), the illustrations are clever, (Charlotte Jane and her parents live in a boat-shaped house in an otherwise regular neighborhood, hinting at the possibility that Charlotte Jane's imagination may be at work on the pirate theme) and the story is well-paced and tight. Especially nice was the fact that Charlotte Jane finds the solution to her problem by herself - she learns that sleep feeds her oomph and that "hearty" dreams are a good excuse to sleep - without authorial moralizing. Charlotte Jane Battles Bedtime is one of the most original bedtimes stories I've recently read. Great for storytime and bedtime and any time in between, this is one story with formidable oomph.

April 22, 2012

But Not the Hippopotamus

But Not the Hippopotamus
By Sandra Boynton; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Primary Little Simon 12 pp.
978-0671449049 Board $5.99

It's easy to feel out of step with the world, especially when you're a shy hippopotamus. Once again, Sandra Boynton addresses a serious topic - in this case, feeling left out - in terms of such fun and silliness that toddlers will have their emotional horizons gently broadened without even realizing it's happened.

The eponymous hippopotamus looks on alone as different pairs of animals engage in variety of activities. "A hog and a frog to a dance in the bog" and "a moose and a goose together have juice" and on and on. But just when it seems that she is destined to loneliness simply because it's hard to rhyme "hippopotamus", the other animals come back and say, "hey! Come join the lot of us!" And after a moment's hesitation, the hippopotamus does... but "not the armadillo."

The rhyme scheme and illustrations make But Not the Hippopotamus a solid choice, even for pre-verbal babies. Though rhythmically less predictable than some of her other stories, But Not the Hippopotamus scans poetically and is, if anything, more interesting because its rhymes don't fall into the sing-songy pattern of many baby books. Meanwhile, the titular key phrase guides the reader through and provides an element of narrative structure. The way that Boynton ends up rhyming "hippopotamus" with "the lot of us", (thus ensuring her hippo's inclusion), is nothing but terribly clever.

As with many of her books, Boynton uses humor a vehicle for genuine emotion. Her hippopotamus looks lonely and unsure, garnering the sympathies of young readers and engendering a sense of relief when she's finally included - but only if a child is emotionally mature enough to do so. But Not the Hippopotamus works on multiple levels. For younger toddlers, the tale is just funny, which is fine too, and even very little ones will enjoy hearing the rhythms and seeing the pictures. But Not the Hippopotamus is silly and funny and surprisingly deep. A lovely surprise of a book, it has as much to offer a baby as it does a toddler, and will grow with a baby as the baby grows up.

Global Babies

Global Babies
By The Global Fund for Children
0-2 Preschool Charlesbridge 18 pp.
 978-1580891745 Board $6.95
Non Fiction

Global Babies is simple in its message - that babies, regardless of culture, are united by the fundamental fact that they are loved - and straightforward in its presentation. Taking into account that babies love to look at faces, particularly the faces of other babies, Global Babies features 17 color portraits of babies from around the world, (in many cases wearing the traditional garb of their countries). Each portrait is also labeled with the baby's country of origin, places that range in diversity from Greenland and India to Rwanda and the United States. The accompanying text is likewise straightforward, ("wherever they live, wherever they go[...] babies everywhere are beautiful, special and loved"), just patterned enough to be rhythmic without feeling false or forced. Unlike many board books that are really picture books for older children mushed into board book form, Global Babies is specifically designed with infants and toddlers in mind. It is a beautiful and colorful introduction to the idea that there are many different kinds of faces and people, but that, while the faces may be different, love is still the fundamental connection between them all.

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling?

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling?
By Tad Hills; illus. by author
0-4 Preschool Schwartz & Wade 22 pp.
978-0375846298 Board $6.99
Non Fiction

Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling? is the third installment of Tad Hills's popular Duck and Goose series. This time, the duo is back in board book form to address the subject of feelings. Unlike the previous two Duck and Goose books (Duck and Goose and Duck, Duck, Goose), How Are You Feeling? does not feature a plot. Rather, each page contains a one-word feeling ("selfish", "angry", "happy") and an illustration modeling that emotion. It's a well-used conceit and one that mostly works here. I say mostly because, though effective with concrete emotions like "scared" (Duck and Goose huddled together in the dark during a thunderstorm), it is less effective with abstract emotions like "hopeful" (Duck and Goose staring at a tiny green plant with their bills open, presumably watching it grow). Toddlers will undoubtedly recognize feelings like "happy", "frustrated" and "sad", all of which Duck and Goose model well, but emotions like "hopeful" and "selfish" may be slightly beyond their conceptual reach. That said, there's no harm in introducing the concepts and using the pictures to talk about them.

Though Duck and Goose, being water fowl, have a limited repertoire of facial expressions, Hills  illustrates them in such a way that they manage to communicate a wide variety of feelings. He also uses the trick of making the environment mirror the featured emotion, ("sad" features a cloudy day, "happy" has sunshine and butterflies), providing the reader with even more context - especially helpful for toddlers just learning to recognize and name emotions. It also serves as a nice beginning reader for preschoolers, as sight words, ("sad" and "happy") appear with challenging words, ("loving") and all are paired with illustrations designed to interpret the words. Overall, Duck and Goose: How Are You Feeling? is a friendly introduction to the complicated territory of feelings and one that will likely appeal.

April 20, 2012

The House in the Night

The House in the Night
By Susan Marie Swanson
No Author Site
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
2-4 Preschool Primary Houghton Mifflin 40 pp.
978-0618862443 Hardcover $17.00

Here is the key to the house. In the house burns a light. In that light rests a bed. On that bed waits a book. In that book flies a bird.

The heart of The House in the Night is its cumulative narrative structure, one that has been made familiar by nursery rhymes and stories ("The House that Jack Built" and "The Keys to the Kingdom") for generations. It is dangerous territory that Swanson treads with this structure. Done badly, it can render a story sing-songy and trite. But done well - and Swanson does it very well - it leads the reader compulsively on, into the house, to the light and into the book where the bird flies. From there the narrative expands as the girl imagines herself flying on the bird's back into the starry sky past the smiling moon and into the cosmos. Then, with expert control, Krommes contracts the narrative focus, bringing the reader back to earth,  back to the house in the night.

Swanson's prose and use of structure place the book in the company of traditional tales, even as she lays the foundation for Krommes's inventive scratchboard illustrations, (for which she won the Caldecott Medal in 2009). The freshness and balance of Krommes's pictures, all black and white save for judicious dollops of gold, place The House in the Night in an aesthetic category all its own while Swanson's seemless narration provides the guiding light. Together, they create a book of enduring resonance that will likely becomes a classic. The House in the Night is a rare thing - a picture book that is both traditional and unexpected. A beautiful bedtime story, it soothes with language that ebbs and flows and illustrations that are, quite honestly, too perfect to be sufficiently described. It is a book that reassures little ones that, while the universe is mysterious and large, there is a place in it for them, in their room, and their bed and their house in the night.

Rosie and the Nightmares

Rosie and the Nightmares
By Philip Waechter; illus. by author
No Author Site
3-4 Preschool Primary Chronicle 32 pp.
978-1593541156 Hardcover $15.99

Rosie is a bunny beset by horrible dreams. She puts on her red coat and goes to visit a dream specialist who declares that she has a "clear case of fear of monsters." He prescribes a book (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Monsters), which the very proactive Rosie goes  out and reads. She learns many monster-handling skills, (how to be a "calming influence," how to do an incapacitating throw, and how to run in emergencies), all lovably pictured with Rosie and a fanged paper bag. Finally, Rosie tests herself at the amusement park's Tunnel of Fear. She drives her little red car into the fanged entrance an proceeds to meet the monsters head on, pouncing and attacking and kissing the most gruesome on the nose. Triumphant, Rosie leaves the amusement park and, after treating herself to ice cream and jasmine tea, falls asleep to happy dreams.

Though a book worth reading, there are a few problems with Rosie and the Nightmares. Waechter's prose is tends to be a bit overwritten, and it's not entirely clear that Rosie had to attack the monsters in the Tunnel, (it may have been more effective to simply show her facing her fears and having a great time on the ride rather than acting the aggressor unprovoked). That said, Waechter's illustrations are worth the price of admission. His monsters are more silly than fearsome - theoretically scary but not enough to actually disturb young readers - and Rosie is a take-charge charmer in her little red coat. With a slightly New Yorker quality to them, and well-chosen details paired with plenty of white space, Waechter's pen and ink watercolors are an emotionally vivid treat. As a not-so-subtle metaphor, Rosie and the Nightmares succeeds, modeling a proactive approach to facing ones fears and showing little ones that, even though something scares you, you can help yourself learn how to handle it.