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.)