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The Madman of Piney Woods
The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.67
35 used & new from $10.23

5.0 out of 5 stars A 1901 buddy comedy, October 1, 2014
No author hits it out of the park every time. No matter how talented or clever a writer might be, if their heart isn’t in a project it shows. In the case of Christopher Paul Curtis, when he loves what he’s writing the sheets of paper on which he types practically set on fire. When he doesn’t? It’s like reading mold. There’s life there, but no energy. Now in the case of his Newbery Honor book Elijah of Buxton, Curtis was doing gangbuster work. His blend of history and humor is unparalleled and you need only look to Elijah to see Curtis at his best. With that in mind I approached the companion novel to Elijah titled The Madman of Piney Woods with some trepidation. A good companion book will add to the magic of the original. A poor one, detract. I needn’t have worried. While I wouldn’t quite put Madman on the same level as Elijah, what Curtis does here, with his theme of fear and what it can do to a human soul, is as profound and thought provoking as anything he’s written in the past. There is ample fodder here for young brains. The fact that it’s a hoot to read as well is just the icing on the cake.

Two boys. Two lives. It’s 1901, forty years after the events in Elijah of Buxton and Benji Alston has only one dream: To be the world’s greatest reporter. He even gets an apprenticeship on a real paper, though he finds there’s more to writing stories than he initially thought. Meanwhile Alvin Stockard, nicknamed Red, is determined to be a scientist. That is, when he’s not dodging the blows of his bitter Irish granny, Mother O’Toole. When the two boys meet they have a lot in common, in spite of the fact that Benji’s black and Red’s Irish. They've also had separate encounters with the legendary Madman of Piney Woods. Is the man an ex-slave or a convict or part lion? The truth is more complicated than that, and when the Madman is in trouble these two boys come to his aid and learn what it truly means to face fear.

Let’s be plainspoken about what this book really is. Curtis has mastered the art of the Tom Sawyerish novel. Sometimes it feels like books containing mischievous boys have fallen out of favor. Thank goodness for Christopher Paul Curtis then. What we have here is a good old-fashioned 1901 buddy comedy. Two boys getting into and out of scrapes. Wreaking havoc. Revenging themselves on their enemies / siblings (or at least Benji does). It’s downright Mark Twainish (if that’s a term). Much of the charm comes from the fact that Curtis knows from funny. Benji’s a wry-hearted bigheaded, egotistical, lovable imp. He can be canny and completely wrong-headed within the space of just a few sentences. Red, in contrast, is book smart with a more regulation-sized ego but as gullible as they come. Put Red and Benji together and it’s little wonder they're friends. They compliment one another’s faults. With Elijah of Buxton I felt no need to know more about Elijah and Cooter’s adventures. With Madman I wouldn’t mind following Benji and Red's exploits for a little bit longer.

One of the characteristics of Curtis’s writing that sets him apart from the historical fiction pack is his humor. Making the past funny is a trick. Pranks help. An egotistical character getting their comeuppance helps too. In fact, at one point Curtis perfectly defines the miracle of funny writing. Benji is pondering words and wordplay and the magic of certain letter combinations. Says he, “How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh?” How indeed. The remarkable thing isn’t that Curtis is funny, though. Rather, it’s the fact that he knows how to balance tone so well. The book will garner honest belly laughs on one page, then manage to wrench real emotion out of you the next. The best funny authors are adept at this switch. The worst leave you feeling queasy. And Curtis never, not ever, gives a reader a queasy feeling.

Normally I have a problem with books where characters act out-of-step with the times without any outside influence. For example, I once read a Civil War middle grade novel that shall remain nameless where a girl, without anyone in her life offering her any guidance, independently came up with the idea that “corsets restrict the mind”. Ugh. Anachronisms make me itch. With that in mind, I watched Red very carefully in this book. Here you have a boy effectively raised by a racist grandmother who is almost wholly without so much as a racist thought in his little ginger noggin. How do we account for this? Thankfully, Red’s father gives us an “out”, as it were. A good man who struggles with the amount of influence his mother-in-law may or may not have over her redheaded grandchild, Mr. Stockard is the just force in his son’s life that guides his good nature.

The preferred writing style of Christopher Paul Curtis that can be found in most of his novels is also found here. It initially appears deceptively simple. There will be a series of seemingly unrelated stories with familiar characters. Little interstitial moments will resonate with larger themes, but the book won't feel like it’s going anywhere. Then, in the third act, BLAMMO! Curtis will hit you with everything he’s got. Murder, desperation, the works. He’s done it so often you can set your watch by it, but it still works, man. Now to be fair, when Curtis wrote Elijah of Buxton he sort of peaked. It’s hard to compete with the desperation that filled Elijah’s encounter with an enslaved family near the end. In Madman Curtis doesn’t even attempt to top it. In fact, he comes to his book’s climax from another angle entirely. There is some desperation (and not a little blood) but even so this is a more thoughtful third act. If Elijah asked the reader to feel, Madman asks the reader to think. Nothing wrong with that. It just doesn’t sock you in the gut quite as hard.

For me, it all comes down to the quotable sentences. And fortunately, in this book the writing is just chock full of wonderful lines. Things like, “An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and the same can be said of many an argument.” Or later, when talking about Red's nickname, “It would be hard for even as good a debater as Spencer or the Holmely boy to disprove that a cardinal and a beet hadn’t been married and given birth to this boy. Then baptized him in a tub of red ink.” And I may have to conjure up this line in terms of discipline and kids: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, but you can sure make him stand there looking at the water for a long time.” Finally, on funerals: “Maybe it’s just me, but I always found it a little hard to celebrate when one of the folks in the room is dead.”

He also creates little moments that stay with you. Kissing a reflection only to have your lips stick to it. A girl’s teeth so rotted that her father has to turn his head when she kisses him to avoid the stench (kisses are treacherous things in Curtis novels). In this book I’ll probably long remember the boy who purposefully gets into fights to give himself a reason for the injuries wrought by his drunken father. And there’s even a moment near the end when the Madman’s identity is clarified that is a great example of Curtis playing with his audience. Before he gives anything away he makes it clear that the Madman could be one of two beloved characters from Elijah of Buxton. It’s agony waiting for him to clarify who exactly is who.

Character is king in the world of Mr. Curtis. A writer who manages to construct fully three-dimensional people out of mere words is one to watch. In this book, Curtis has the difficult task of making complete and whole a character through the eyes of two different-year-old boys. And when you consider that they’re working from the starting point of thinking that the guy’s insane, it’s going to be a tough slog to convince the reader otherwise. That said, once you get into the head of the “Madman” you get a profound sense not of his insanity but of his gentleness. His very existence reminded me of similar loners in literature like Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson or The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton, but unlike the men in those books this guy had a heart and a mind and a very distinctive past. And fears. Terrible, awful fears.

It’s that fear that gives Madman its true purpose. Red’s grandmother, Mother O’Toole, shares with the Madman a horrific past. They’re very different horrors (one based in sheer mind-blowing violence and the other in death, betrayal, and disgust) but the effects are the same. Out of these moments both people are suffering a kind of PTSD. This makes them two sides of the same coin. Equally wracked by horrible memories, they chose to handle those memories in different ways. The Madman gives up society but retains his soul. Mother O’Toole, in contrast, retains her sanity but gives up her soul. Yet by the end of the book the supposed Madman has returned to society and reconnected with his friends while the Irishwoman is last seen with her hair down (a classic madwoman trope as old as Shakespeare himself) scrubbing dishes until she bleeds to rid them of any trace of the race she hates so much. They have effectively switched places.

Much of what The Madman of Piney Woods does is ask what fear does to people. The Madman speaks eloquently of all too human monsters and what they can do to a man. Meanwhile Grandmother has suffered as well but it’s made her bitter and angry. When Red asks, “Doesn’t it seem only logical that if a person has been through all of the grief she has, they’d have nothing but compassion for anyone else who’s been through the same?” His father responds that “given enough time, fear is the great killer of the human spirit.” In her case it has taken her spirit and “has so horribly scarred it, condensing and strengthening and dishing out the same hatred that it has experienced.” But for some the opposite is true, hence the Madman. Two humans who have seen the worst of humanity. Two different reactions. And as with Elijah, where Curtis tackled slavery not through a slave but through a slave’s freeborn child, we hear about these things through kids who are “close enough to hear the echoes of the screams in [the adults’] nightmarish memories.” Certainly it rubs off onto the younger characters in different ways. In one chapter Benji wonders why the original settlers of Buxton, all ex-slaves, can’t just relax. Fear has shaped them so distinctly that he figures a town of “nervous old people” has raised him. Adversity can either build or destroy character, Curtis says. This book is the story of precisely that.

Don’t be surprised if, after finishing this book, you find yourself reaching for your copy of Elijah of Buxton so as to remember some of these characters when they were young. Reaching deep, Curtis puts soul into the pages of its companion novel. In my more dreamy-eyed moments I fantasize about Curtis continuing the stories of Buxton every 40 years until he gets to the present day. It could be his equivalent of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House chronicles. Imagine if we shot forward another 40 years to 1941 and encountered a grown Benji and Red with their own families and fears. I doubt Curtis is planning on going that route, but whether or not this is the end of Buxton’s tales or just the beginning, The Madman of Piney Woods will leave child readers questioning what true trauma can do to a soul, and what they would do if it happened to them. Heady stuff. Funny stuff. Smart stuff. Good stuff. Better get your hands on this stuff.

For ages 9-12.


Fox's Garden (Stories Without Words)
Fox's Garden (Stories Without Words)
by Princesse Camcam
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.32
34 used & new from $7.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Fox went out on a chilly night . . ., September 22, 2014
Have you ever read a picture book multiple times, enjoying it with each and every read, and then find later that it was wordless . . . and you didn’t even notice? Now THAT is the mark of an effective title. The publisher Enchanted Lion Books prides itself on its “Stories Without Words” series, and deservedly so. They import wordless picture books from abroad, format them into these long, slender books, and subsequently prove to the world that good storytelling is universal. It goes beyond language. The latest in this long line of beauties is, to my mind, the most impressive offering to date. “Fox’s Garden” by author Princesse Camcam (who edges out Sara Pennypacker, Mary Quattlebaum, and Robert Quackenbush in the Best Children’s Author’s Name contest) is ostensibly a very simple story about kindness and unexpected rewards. Combined with remarkable cut paper scenes that are lit and photographed in an eerie, wonderful way, this is a book that manages to simultaneously convey the joy that comes after a simple act of kindness as well as the feel and look of winter, night and day.

On a cold and windy night, when the snow blows in high drifts, a single fox plunges onward. When a warm, inviting village appears in a valley she makes her way there. However, once there she is summarily rejected by the hostile townspeople, at last taking refuge in a small greenhouse. A small boy spots the fox’s presence and goes to offer her some food. When he finds her, he sees that she is not alone. Newborn kits suckle, so he leaves the edibles at a safe distance and goes inside to bed. In the early morn the fox and her brood prepare to leave but before doing so they leap through the boy’s window, planting flowers in his floor so that he wakes up to a wonder of blossoms of his very own.

The fact of the matter is that I’ve seen cut paper work in picture books before, whether it’s the scale models in books like Cynthia von Buhler’s “Who Will Bell the Cats?” or the distinctive Lauren Child style of “The Princess and the Pea”. But books of that sort are part cut paper and part dollhouse, to a certain extent, since they utilize models. Titles that consist of cut paper and lighting alone are rarities. Even as I write this it sounds like such a technique would be some fancy designer’s dream and not something appealing to kids. Yet what makes Camcam’s style so appealing is that it combines not just technical prowess but also good old-fashioned storytelling. The glow that emanates from behind some of the homes in the snowy winter village looks infinitely appealing. You can practically feel the heat that would strike you as you entered through one of those doorways. Even more impressive to me, however, was the artist’s ability to capture winter daytime cloudy light. You know that light I’m talking about. When snow has blanketed the earth and the white/gray clouds above give off this particular winter gleam. I’m used to complimenting illustrators on how well they portray winter light in paint. I’m less accustomed to praising that same technique in sliced up paper.

The shape of the book itself is an interesting choice as well. The publisher Enchanted Lion specializes in these long thin books, so I wasn’t quite sure if the book originally published (under the name “Une rencontre”) in the same format. To my mind it feels as though it was always intended to look this way. Just watching where the gutter between the two pages falls is an interesting exercise in and of itself. The first two-page spread shows the fox struggling, belly low, through snowdrifts. She’s on the right-hand page, the desolate woods behind her. When she spots the village she is on the left page and the town looks warm and inviting on the opposite side. Distant, because of the nature of the layout, but comforting. Interestingly the only time the two pages show two different scenes is when you see people kicking and yelling at the fox. In contrast to the rest of the book the two different images make everything feel tense and angry. Landscapes are calming. From there on in everything is a two-page spread, sometimes presenting a close-up shot (there is an amazing image of the happy fox in the foreground on the left page, while the boy is in the distant doorway of the greenhouse on the right) and sometimes an image of distance, as with the final shot.

It isn’t just the art that had me fail to recognize that the book was wordless. Camcam’s vixen seems to tell whole stories with just a glance here and there. She’s a proud animal. You understand that even as she’s kicked and cursed she’s retaining her dignity. The boy’s act of kindness may be given because he sees a creature in need, but it seems as though it’s just as likely that he’s helping her because she is worth worshipping anear. And though she and her brood do something particularly un-foxlike near the end she is, for the most part, not anthropomorphized. The storytelling sounds so oddly trite when I summarize the book, but it doesn’t feel trite in the least. You could easily see this book adapted into a ballet or similar wordless format. It’s a naturally beautiful tale.

Let’s examine that word for a second. Beautiful. I don’t use it enough when I’m describing picture books. It’s not the kind of word you should bandy about for no reason. If I called every other book “beautiful” it would diminish the importance of the word and I couldn’t use it when something as truly stunning as this. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t feel like anything else you’ve seen or read. True and lovely and entirely unique. A book to borrow and a book to own.

For ages 3-6.


The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee
The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee
by Barry Jonsberg
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.74
40 used & new from $1.27

5.0 out of 5 stars ABC, easy as 123, September 19, 2014
It often takes a while to figure out when you’re falling in love with a book. A book is a risk. You’re judging it from page one onward, informed by your own personal prejudices and reading history. Then there’s this moment when a shift takes place. It might be a subtle shift or it might be sudden and violent but all of a sudden it’s there. One minute you’re just reading for the heck of it, and the next you are LOVING what you’re reading, hoping it never has to end. Happily, that was my experience with Barry Jonsberg’s The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee. Lots of books promise you that you’ll fall in love with their odd characters. They’ll say something along the lines of “You won’t like her – you’ll love her.” And usually that’s untrue. But in this case, I really do love Candice. How can you not? She wants to turn her fish atheist, for crying out loud. And on that note . . .

In Candice’s own words, her family could not be considered, “front-runners for Australian Happy Family of the Year.” Her baby sister died years ago, her mother is depressed, her father is angry with his brother (sure that the man got rich on one of his ideas), and her Rich Uncle Brian is a lonely cuss. She’s kind of an odd kid in and of herself. The kind that doesn’t have a lot of friends but doesn’t mind the fact. There are other problems, of course. She worries that her fish has set her up as a false god. She worries that her friend Douglas, who seriously believes he’s from another dimension, intends to throw himself into a gorge. But at least she has her pen pal (who has never written back, but that’s no problem) to write to. And as Candice says, “I want to pursue happiness. I want to catch it, grab it by the scruff of the neck, drag it home, and force it to embrace all the people I mentioned above. I’m just not sure how to accomplish this. But I am determined to try.”

The thing you have to admire about Candice is that she’s a remarkably proactive protagonist. When she’s sick and tired of the broken state of her family she sets out to correct their problems (sometimes with odd results). When she thinks there’s a possibility of a friend doing something stupid she will put herself in harm’s way (or at least, annoyance’s way) to help him out. She’s smart as a whip, a fact that no one around her notices. And Candice is also a relentless optimist, but not in an annoying way. She has no interest at all in what you think of her. Early in the book she mentions that she has lots of friends as far as she’s concerned but that, “As far as everyone else was concerned, I didn’t have a friend in the world. Does that make a difference? I’m not sure.” Kids have so many bully books these days that it’s a huge relief to read one where the mean girl teases Candice and the words have absolutely zippo effect on her whatsoever. Like Teflon in a way, is this kid. Bullied kids make for dull reading. Candice is never dull.

She’s also not autistic. I feel like that kind of statement shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is. Heck, it’s practically self-explanatory. We’re so used to kids on the autism spectrum in our children’s literature these days that we have a hard time remembering the ones that are just plain old weird. But they exist. In fact, Candice self-diagnoses as weird. When she was young she witnessed her beloved baby sister’s death from SIDS and it mucked her up in a couple ways. Not as many ways as her mother and father, but a lot of ways just the same. So there’s a wonderful scene where a friend’s mother makes the assumption that Candice is autistic. When she says that she is not the friend’s mom asks, “Then what are you?” “I’m me.” That could come off as cute. Here, for whatever reason, it does not.

I’ve already heard a couple people compare this book to Holly Goldberg Sloan’s book Counting By 7s which is understandable, if somewhat misleading. There are some major differences at work. First off, there’s the language. There’s a distinct deliciousness to Candice’s speech patterns. When her uncle wins her a stuffed toy at a fair that “might have been a gnu or a camel with severe disabilities” she tells him in no uncertain terms that it is “vile”. And then the descriptions in the book are also out of his world. A forced smile is described as “one of those smiles when someone has pointed a camera at you for half an hour and neglected to press the shutter.” Her friend Douglas is described as, “His eyes crowd toward the middle, as if they are trying to merge together but are prevented from doing so by the barrier of his nose, which is larger than you’d wish if you were designing it from scratch.” Her mother’s bedroom where she spends much of her time when depressed “smelled of something that had spent a long time out of the sunshine.”

Candice’s problems don’t just disappear miraculously in a puff of smoke either. By the end of the book she’s figured out how to mend some of the bigger problems that have been undermining her family’s happiness, but her sister is still dead, her mother still has depression, and her father still resents his brother. Things are significantly better, but there’s a long road to hoe. It is amazing that a book with this many potentially depressing subplots should be as upbeat, cheery, and downright hilarious as this. Jonsberg’s writing gives the book a skewed one-of-a-kind view of the world that is unlike any other you might encounter. You’ll like this book AND love it. And for what it’s worth, kid readers will too.

For ages 9-12.


At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui
At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui
by Sarah S. Brannen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.90
57 used & new from $7.67

4.0 out of 5 stars Death be not proud, September 15, 2014
When I say the word “mummy” what springs into your mind? Movies starring Brendan Fraser? Egypt and scarabs and rolls of crumbling papyrus? Absolutely. But what if I told you that recently the best-preserved mummy in the world was found? And what if I told you that not only was she a woman, not only was she surrounded by treasure, but she was also Chinese. Now I’ve known about mummies in South America and frozen on mountains. I know about bog bodies and bodies that were dried out naturally in deserts. But I had no idea that there even was such a thing as a Chinese mummy. In "At Home in Her Tomb" author Christine Liu-Perkins breaks everything down for you, bringing us a story that’s part forensics, part history, part family story, and all interesting.

Same old story. One minute you’re happily munching muskmelons. The next you’re dead and your corpse has been interred with miniature servants, silk paintings, scrolls, and countless other treasures. And the story might stop right there, except that in two thousand or so years nothing changes. Your body does not rot. Your treasures stay complete and unchanging. So when archaeologists excavated the tomb of Lady Dai, they can be forgiven for being completely astonished by what they found. In “At Home in Her Tomb” author Christine Liu-Perkins takes you not just into the mystery surrounding Lady Dai’s astonishingly well-preserved body, but also into ancient China itself. A more complete and exciting (and I use that word sparingly) glimpse into Qin and early Han Dynasties for children would be difficult to find.

Why do we love mummies as much as we do? I think it might be a mix of different reasons. Maybe we’re so attached to our own bodies that we find a weird bit of hope in the fact that they might last beyond the usual prescribed amount of time allotted to an average dead carcass. My husband, I should note, hasn’t been completely thrilled with the fact that I leave this book lying about as much as I do. As he rightly points out, what we have here is a bloated corpse book. He’s not wrong and it’s not a particularly attractive dead body either. So why the fascination? Why should I care that her joints were still movable when they found her, or that her fingerprints and toe prints were clear? I can’t rightly say, but it’s a curiosity that kids share with adults. We want to know what happens beyond death. The next best thing, it seems, is to find out what happens to our bodies instead.

There was a time when the television show "C.S.I." inspired whole waves of kids to dream of jobs in forensics. Naturally the real world applications are a lot less fast-paced and exciting than those on television. At least that’s what I thought before hearing about forensic anthropology. Author Liu-Perkins brings it to vivid, fascinating life. It’s not all that’s alluring about this title though since the layout of the book is rather clever as well. Rather than just stick with a single narrative of the discovery of the body and tomb, the author punctuates the text with little interstitial moments that talk about what everyday life for Lady Dai might have been like. Liu-Perkins allows herself a bit of creative freedom with these sections. Obviously we have no idea if Lady Dai “sigh[ed] in weariness” while tending her silkworms. To eschew accusations of mixing fact and fiction without so much as a by your leave, Liu-Perkins begins the book with an Introduction that sets the stage for the interstitial Lady Dai moments. She writes how the artifacts from the tomb caused her to imagine Lady Dai’s life. From there it seems as though the historical fiction sections are directly tied into this statement, clearly delineated in the text from the longer factual sections. Authors these days struggle with making the past live and breathe for their child readers without having to rely on gross speculation. This technique proves to be one answer to the conundrum.

Admit it. A lot of booksellers and librarians are going to be able to hand sell this book to their customers and patrons by playing up the gross factor. Just show that shot on page 24 of the corpse of Lady Dai and a certain stripe of young reader is going to be instantaneously enthralled. Maybe they’ll take it home for closer examination. Maybe their eyes will then skim over to the text where phrases like “her eyeballs had begun falling out” lead to the factors that explain why the decay in the body stopped. They may then flip to the beginning and start reading front to finish, or they might skim from page to page. Honestly, there’s no wrong way to read a book of this sort. When you’re dealing with a title about the “best preserved body in the world” you’re already in pretty awesome territory. Credit then to Christine Liu-Perkins who gives the subject matter her full attention and presents it in such a way where many children will willingly learn about Chinese history in the process. A beautiful book. A heckuva mummy.

For ages 9-12.


El Deafo
El Deafo
by Cece Bell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.40
46 used & new from $6.53

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To the rescue!, September 14, 2014
This review is from: El Deafo (Paperback)
We appear to exist in a golden age of children’s graphic novel memoirs. Which is to say, there are three of them out this year (El Deafo, Sisters, and The Dumbest Idea Ever). How to account for the sudden tiny boom? If I were to harbor a guess I’d say it has something to do with publishers realizing that the genre can prove a profitable one (hat tip then to Smile). We’re beginning to enter into an era where the bulk of the gatekeepers out there, be they parents or teachers or librarians, are viewing comics not as a corrupting influence but rather as a new literary form with which to teach. Memoirs are particularly interesting and have proven to be a wonderful way to slowly ease kids into the big beautiful world of nonfiction. That said, not everyone’s youth is worthy of a retelling. To tell a memoir well you need to have a narrative arc of some sort. One that doesn’t feel forced. For CeCe Bell, her first foray into graphic novels is also telling the story of her youth. The result, El Deafo, is a remarkable look at a great grand question (What to do when you can no longer hear and feel different from everyone you know?) alongside a smaller one that every kid will relate to (How do you find a good friend?). Bell takes the personal and makes it universal, an act that truly requires superhero skills.

Until the age of four CeCe was pretty much indistinguishable from any other kid. She liked her older siblings. She liked to sing to herself. But a sudden bout with meningitis and something changed for CeCe. All at once her hearing was gone. After some experimentation she was fitted with a Sonic Ear (a device that enabled her to hear her teacher's voice) and started attending classes with other kids like herself. A family trip to a smaller town, however, meant going to a new school and trying to make new friends. When faced with problems she reverts to her pretend superhero self, El Deafo. With subtlety Bell weaves in knowledge of everything from reading lips and sign language to the difficulties of watching un-captioned television. At the same time the book’s heart lies with a single quest: That of finding the absolute perfect friend.

The rise of the graphic novel memoir of a cartoonist’s youth with a child audience in mind really hit its stride when Raina Telgemeier wrote, Smile. That dire accounting of her at times horrific dental history paved the way for other books in the same vein. So where did my library choose to catalog that graceful memoir? In the biography section? No. In the graphic novel section? Not initially, no. For the first year of its existence it was shelved in nonfiction under the Dewey Decimal number 617.645 T. That’s right. We put it in the dental section. So it was with great trepidation that I looked to see where El Deafo would end up. Would it be in the section on the hearing impaired or would the catalog understand that this book is about so much more than the Sonic Ear? As it happens, the book appears to be primarily cataloged as a memoir more than anything else. Sure the information in there about the deaf community and other aspects of living as someone hearing impaired are nonfiction, but the focus of the story is always squarely on CeCe herself.

The real reason I found the book as compelling as I did was due in large part to the way in which Bell tackles the illogical logic of childhood friendships. So many kids are friends thanks to geographical convenience. You’re my age and live within a certain radius of my home? We’re besties! And Bell’s hearing impaired state is just a part of why she is or is not friends with one person or another. Really, the true arc of the story isn’t necessarily CeCe coming to terms with the Sonic Ear, but rather how she comes to terms with herself and, in doing so, gets the best possible friend. It’s like reading a real life Goldilocks story. This friend is too bossy. This friend is too fixated on Cece’s hearing. But this friend? She’s juuuuuust right.

So why bunnies? Bell could easily have told her story with human beings. And though the characters in this book appear to be anthropomorphized rabbits (reminding me of nothing so much as when guest stars would appear on the children’s television program Arthur) there is no particular reason for this. They never mention a particular love of carrots or restrict their movements to hop hop hopping. They are, however, very easy on the eyes and very enticing. This book was sitting on my To Be Reviewed shelf when my three-year-old waltzed over and plucked it for her own perusal. The bunnies are accessible. In fact, you completely forget that they even are bunnies in the course of reading the book. You also fail to notice after a while how beautifully Bell has laid out her comic panels too. The sequential storytelling is expertly rendered, never losing the reader or throwing you out of the story. One librarian I spoke to also mentioned how nice it was to see that the dream sequences with El Deafo are always clearly delineated as just that. Dream sequences. Fantasy and reality are easily distinguishable in this novel. No mean feat when everyone has a twitchy little nose.

Maybe we’ve peaked. Maybe we’re seeing as many graphic memoirs for kids as we’ll ever see in a given year. But that can’t be, can it? We all have stories to tell, no matter what our upbringing looked like. There’s always some element in our past that’s relatable to a wide audience. It’s the clever author that knows how to spin that element into a storyline worthy of a younger audience. There isn’t a jot of doubt in my mind that CeCe Bell’s book is going to be vastly beloved by nearly every child that picks it up. Engaging and beautifully drawn, to say nothing of its strength and out-and-out facts, El Deafo is going to help set the standard for what a memoir for kids should be. Infinitely clever. Undeniably fun. Don’t miss it.

For ages 9-12.


Brown Girl Dreaming
Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.74
53 used & new from $8.64

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hold fast, September 11, 2014
This review is from: Brown Girl Dreaming (Hardcover)
What does a memoir owe its readers? For that matter, what does a fictionalized memoir written with a child audience in mind owe its readers? Kids come into public libraries every day asking for biographies and autobiographies. They’re assigned them with the teacher's intent, one assumes, of placing them in the shoes of those people who found their way, or their voice, or their purpose in life. Maybe there’s a hope that by reading about such people the kids will see that life has purpose. That even the most high and lofty historical celebrity started out small. Yet to my mind, a memoir is of little use to child readers if it doesn’t spend a significant fraction of its time talking about the subject when they themselves were young. To pick up brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is to pick up the world’s best example of precisely how to write a fictionalized memoir. Sharp when it needs to be sharp, funny when it needs to be funny, and a book that can relate to so many other works of children’s literature, Woodson takes her own life and lays it out in such a way that child readers will both relate to it and interpret it through the lens of history itself. It may be history, but this is one character that will give kids the understanding that nothing in life is a given. Sometimes, as hokey as it sounds, it really does come down to your dreams.

Her father wanted to name her “Jack” after himself. Never mind that today, let alone 1963 Columbus, Ohio, you wouldn’t dream of naming a baby girl that way. Maybe her mother writing “Jacqueline” on her birth certificate was one of the hundreds of reasons her parents would eventually split apart. Or maybe it was her mother’s yearning for her childhood home in South Carolina that did it. Whatever the case, when Jackie was one-years-old her mother took her and her two older siblings to the South to live with their grandparents once and for all. Though it was segregated and times were violent, Jackie loved the place. Even when her mother left town to look for work in New York City, she kept on loving it. Later, her mother picked up her family and moved them to Brooklyn and Jackie had to learn the ways of city living versus country living. What’s more, with her talented older siblings and adorable baby brother, she needed to find out what made her special. Told in gentle verse and memory, Jacqueline Woodson expertly recounts her own story and her own journey against a backdrop of America’s civil rights movement. This is the birth of a writer told from a child’s perspective.

You might ask why we are referring to this book as a work of historical fiction, when clearly the memoir is based in fact. Recently I was reading a piece in The New Yorker on the novelist Edward St. Aubyn. St. Aubyn found the best way to recount his own childhood was through the lens of fiction. Says the man, “I wanted the freedom and the sublimatory power of writing a novel . . . And I wanted to write in the tradition which had impressed me the most.” Certainly there’s a much greater focus on what it means to be a work of nonfiction for kids in this day and age. Where in the past something like the Childhood of Famous Americans series could get away with murder, pondering what one famous person thought or felt at a given time, these days we hold children’s nonfiction to a much higher standard. Books like Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s No Crystal Stair, for example, must be called “fiction” for all that they are based on real people and real events. Woodson’s personal memoir is, for all intents and purposes, strictly factual but because there are times when she uses dialogue to flesh out the characters and scenes the book ends up in the fiction section of the library and bookstore. Like St. Aubyn, Woodson is most comfortable when she has the most freedom as an author, not to be hemmed in by a strict structural analysis of what did or did not occur in the past. She has, in a sense then, mastered the art of the fictionalized memoir in a children’s book format.

Because of course in fiction you can give your life a form and a function. You can look back and give it purpose, something nonfiction can do but with significantly less freedom. There is a moment in Jackie’s story when you get a distinct sense of her life turning a corner. In the section “grown folks’ stories” she recounts hearing the tales of the old people then telling them back to her sister and brother in the night. “Retelling each story. / Making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low . . . / Then I let the stories live / inside my head, again and again / until the real world fades back / into cricket lullabies / and my own dreams.” If ever you wanted a “birth of a writer” sequence in a book, this would be it.

At its heart, that’s really what brown girl dreaming is about. It’s the story of a girl finding her voice and her purpose. If there’s a theme to children’s literature this year it is in the relationship between stories and lies. Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener and Margi Preus’s West of the Moon both spend a great deal of time examining the relationship between the two. Now brown girl dreaming joins with them. When Jackie’s mother tells her daughter that “If you lie . . . one day you’ll steal” the child cannot reconcile the two. “It’s hard to understand how one leads to the other, / how stories could ever / make us criminals.” It’s her mother that equates storytelling with lying, even as her uncle encourages her to keep making up stories. As it is, I can think of no better explanation of how writers work then the central conundrum Jackie is forced to face on her own. “It’s hard to understand / the way my brain works – so different / from everybody around me. / How each new story / I’m told becomes a thing / that happens, / in some other way / to me . . . !”

The choice to make the book a verse novel made sense in the context of Ms. Woodson’s other novels. Verse novels are at their best when they justify their form. A verse novel that’s written in verse simply because it’s the easiest way to tell a long story in a simple format often isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Fortunately, in the case of Ms. Woodson the choice makes infinite sense. Young Jackie is enamored of words and their meanings. The book isn’t told in the first person, but when we consider that she is both subject and author then it’s natural to suspect that the verse best shows the lens through which Jackie, the child, sees the world.

It doesn’t hurt matters any that the descriptive passages have the distinct feeling of poems to them. Individual lines are lovely in and of themselves, of course. Lines like “the heat of summer / could melt the mouth / so southerners stayed quiet.” Or later a bit of reflection on the Bible. “Even Salome intrigues us, her wish for a man’s head / on a platter – who could want this and live / to tell the story of that wanting?” But full-page written portions really do have the feel of poems. Like you could pluck them out of the book and display them and they'd stand on their own, out of context. The section labeled “ribbons” for example felt like pure poetry, even as it relayed facts. As Woodson writes, “When we hang them on the line to dry, we hope / they’ll blow away in the night breeze / but they don’t. Come morning, they’re right where / we left them / gently moving in the cool air, eager to anchor us / to childhood.” And so we get a beautiful mixing of verse and truth and fiction and memoir at once.

It was while reading the book that I got the distinct sense that this was far more than a personal story. The best memoirs, fictionalized or otherwise, are the ones that go beyond their immediate subjects and speak to something greater than themselves. Ostensibly, brown girl dreaming is just the tale of one girl’s journey from the South to the North and how her perceptions of race and self changed during that time. But the deeper you get into the book the more you realize that what you are reading is a kind of touchstone for other children’s books about the African-American experience in America. Turn to page eight and a reference to the Woodsons connections to Thomas Woodson of Chillicothe leads you directly to Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Page 32 and the trip from North to South and the deep and abiding love for the place evokes The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. Page 259 and the appearance of The Jackson Five and their Afros relates beautifully to Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven. Page 297 and a reference to slaves in New York City conjures up Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Even Jackie's friend Maria has a story that ties in nicely to Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano. I even saw threads from Woodson’s past connect to her own books. Her difficulty reading but love of words conjures up Locomotion. Visiting her uncle in jail makes me think of Visiting Day as well as After Tupac and D Foster. And, of course, her personal history brings to mind her Newbery Honor winning picture book Show Way (which, should you wish to do brown girl dreaming in a book club, would make an ideal companion piece).

It’s not just other books either. Writers are advised to write what they know and that their family stories are their history. But when Woodson writes her history she’s broadening her scope. Under her watch her family’s history is America’s history. Woodson’s book manages to tie-in so many moments in African-American history that kids should know about. Segregation, marches, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One thing I really appreciated about the book was that it also looked at aspects of some African-American life that I’ve just never seen represented in children’s literature before. Can you honestly name me any other books for kids where the children are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aside from Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers I’m drawing a blank.

The flaws? Well it gets off to a slow start. The first pages didn’t immediately grab me, and I have to hope that if there are any kids out there who read the same way that I do, with my immature 10-year-old brain, that they’ll stick with it. Once the family moves to the South everything definitely picks up. The only other objection I had was that I wanted to know so much more about Jackie’s family after the story had ended. In her Author’s Note she mentions meeting her father again years later. What were the circumstances behind that meeting? Why did it happen? And what did Dell and Hope and Roman go on to do with their lives? Clearly a sequel needs to happen. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this.

I’m just going to get grandiose on you here and say that reading this is basically akin to reading a young person’s version of Song of Solomon. It’s America and its racial history. It’s deeply personal, recounting the journey of one girl towards her eventual vocation and voice. It’s a fictionalized memoir that nonetheless tells greater truths than most of our nonfiction works for kids. It is, to put it plainly, a small work of art. Everyone who reads it will get something different out of it. Everyone who reads it will remember some small detail that spoke to them personally. It’s the book adults will wish they’d read as kids. It’s the book that hundreds of thousands of kids will read and continue to read for decades upon decades upon decades. It’s Woodson’s history and our own. It is amazing.

For ages 9-12.


Greenglass House
Greenglass House
by Kate Milford
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.37
27 used & new from $11.20

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clue meets The Westing Game, September 8, 2014
This review is from: Greenglass House (Hardcover)
When I was a kid I had a real and abiding love of Agatha Christie. This would be around the time when I was ten or eleven. It wasn’t that I was rejecting the mysteries of the children’s book world. I just didn’t have a lot to choose from there. Aside from The Westing Game or supernatural ghostly mysteries sold as Apple paperbacks through the Scholastic Book Fair, my choices were few and far between. Kids today have it better, but not by much. Though the Edgar Awards for best mystery fiction do dedicate an award for young people’s literature, the number of honestly good mystery novels for the 9-12 set you encounter in a given year is minimal. When you find one that’s really extraordinary you want to hold onto it. And when it’s Kate Milford doing the writing, there’s nothing for it but to enjoy the ride. A raconteur’s delight with a story that’ll keep ‘em guessing, this is one title you won’t want to miss.

It was supposed to be winter vacation. Though Milo’s parents run an inn with a clientele that tends to include more than your average number of smugglers, he can always count on winter vacation to be bereft of guests. Yet in spite of the awful icy weather, a guest appears. Then another. Then two more. All told more than five guests appear with flimsy excuses for their arrival. Some seem to know one another. Others act suspiciously. And when thefts start to take place, Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to turn detective. Yet even as they unravel clues about their strange clientele there are always new ones to take their places. Someone is sabotaging the Greenglass House but it’s the kids who will unmask the culprit.

To my mind, Milford has a talent that few authors can boast; She breaks unspoken rules. Rules that have been dutifully followed by children’s authors for years on end. And in breaking them, she creates stronger books. Greenglass House is just the latest example. To my mind, three rules are broken here. Rule #1: Children’s books must mostly be about children. Adults are peripheral to the action. Rule #2: Time periods are not liquid. You cannot switch between them willy-nilly. Rule #3: Parents must be out of the picture. Kill ‘em off or kidnap them or make them negligent/evil but by all means get rid of them! To each of these, Milford thumbs her proverbial nose.

Let’s look at Rule #1 first. It is worth noting that with the exception of our two young heroes, the bulk of the story focuses on adults with adult problems. It has been said (by me, so take this with a grain of salt) that by and large the way most authors chose to write about adults for children is to turn them into small furry animals (Redwall, etc.). There is, however, another way. If you have a small innocuous child running hither and thither, gathering evidence and spying all the while, then you can talk about grown-ups for long periods of time and few child readers are the wiser. If I keep mentioning The Westing Game it’s because Ellen Raskin did very much what Milford is doing here, and ended up with a classic children’s book in the process. So there’s certainly a precedent.

On to Rule #2. One of the remarkable things about Kate Milford as a writer is that she can set a book in the present day (there is a mention of televisions in this book, so we can at least assume it’s relatively recent) and then go and fill it with archaic, wonderful, outdated technology. A kind of alternate contemporary steampunk, if there is such a thing. In an era of electronic doodads, child readers are going to really get a kick out of a book where mysterious rusted keys, old doorways, ancient lamps, stained green glass windows, and other old timey elements give the book a distinctive flavor.

Finally, Rule #3. This was the most remarkable of choices on Milford’s part, and I kept reading to book to find out how she’d get away with it. Milo’s parents are an active part of his life. They clearly care for him, periodically checking up on his throughout the story, but never interfering with his investigations. Since the book is entirely set in the Greenglass House, it has the feel of a stage play (which, by the way, it would adapt to BRILLIANTLY). That means you're constantly running into mom and dad, but they don't feel like they're hovering. This is partly aided by the fact that they’re incredibly busy. So, in a way, Milford has discovered a way of removing parental involvement without removing parental care. The kids are free to explore and solve crimes and the adult gatekeepers reading this book are comforted by the family situation. A rarity if ever there was one.

But behind all the clues and ghost stories and thefts and lies what Greenglass House really is is the story of a hero’s journey. Milo starts out a soft-spoken kiddo with little faith in his own abilities. Donning the mantle of a kind of Dungeons & Dragons type character named Negret, he taps into a strength that he might otherwise not known he even had. There is a moment in the book when Milo starts acting with more confidence and actually thinks to himself, “And I didn’t even have to use Negret’s Irresistible Blandishment . . . I just did it.” Milo’s slow awakening to his own strengths and abilities is the heart of the novel. For all that people will discuss the mystery and the clues, it’s Milo that holds everything together.

Much of his personality is embedded in his identity as an adopted kid too. I love the mention of “orphan magic” that Milford makes at one point. It’s the idea that when something is sundered from its attachments it becomes more powerful in the process. At no point does Milford ever downplay the importance of the fact that Milo is adopted. It isn’t a casual fact that’s thrown in there and then forgotten. For Milo, the fact that he was adopted is part of who he is as a person. And coming to terms with that is part of his journey as well. Little wonder that he gathers such comfort from learning about orphan magic and its potential.

I’m looking at my notes about this book and I see I’ve written down little random facts that don’t really fit in with this review. Things like, “I did wonder if Milo’s name was a kind of unspoken homage to the Milo of The Phantom Tollbooth. And, “The book’s attitude towards smuggling is not all that different from, say, Danny Champion of the World’s attitude towards poaching.” And, “I love the vocabulary at work here. Raconteur. Puissance.” There is a lot a person can say about this book. I should note that there is a twist that a couple kids may see coming. It is, however, a fair twist and one that doesn’t cheat before you get to it. For the most part, Milford does a divine job at writing a darned good mystery without sacrificing character development and deeper truths. A great grand book for those kiddos who like reading books that make them feel smart. Fun fun fun fun fun.

For ages 9-14.


Hug Machine
Hug Machine
by Scott Campbell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.74
37 used & new from $7.99

14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look upon his hugging ye mighty and despair, August 31, 2014
This review is from: Hug Machine (Hardcover)
Do you remember that old Shel Silverstein poem “Hug O’ War”? This may be considered sacrilege but did you ever notice how the guy could do something brilliant one moment, like “Sister For Sale” and then turn around and do something just doggone maudlin like “Hug O’ War” the next? Here’s a taste of what I mean: “Where everyone hugs / Instead of tugs / Where everyone giggles / And rolls on the rug”. You get the picture. The trouble is that hugs are hard. Adults love ‘em. Kids love ‘em. But writing about them inevitably drops you into sad saccharine territory where even great men like Silverstein find themselves inextricably mired in goo. It takes a sure and steady hand to navigate such territory. For that reason I think you need to take a close look at what Scott Campbell’s done with Hug Machine. There’s nothing wrong with writing a sweet picture book so long as it’s smart and/or funny. It’s harder than just pouring sugar in there and hoping people go along for the ride, which may explain why the market is glutted with schmaltz. Forget the “cute” picture books that make obvious overtures for your heartstrings. Opt instead for something that comes by its adorableness honestly. Hug Machine, man. It’s just the best.

Just call this kid a hugaphiliac. If there’s something out there he can wrap his arms around, he’s going to hug it. In fact, he’s so incredibly good at hugging that he has dubbed himself a “Hug Machine”. “No one can resist my unbelievable hugging,” says he, and he’s right. And what does the Hug Machine do on an average day? Well, it might hug everyone on the street. It might hug animals that are easy (turtles) and animals that are hard (porcupines). What does it eat? Pizza. And what does it hug? Everything! But when the day is done and the Hug Machine can hug no more, it takes a special set of arms to get the Hug Machine back in business again.

Some folks just take to the picture book form like a duck to water. I wish I could say that every cartoonist out there has the knack, but it just ain’t so. Many’s the time I’ve picked up a book from an artist I admired, hoping against hope that the transfer from adult to children’s books was seamless, only to find they just didn’t have what it took to speak to the small fry. Now the nice thing about Scott Campbell is that he’s sort of eased his way into the form. Under the name “Scott C.” he has penned many a grand book for grown-ups, like The Great Showdowns. Now we see his picture book authorial debut in Hug Machine. The verdict? I’m happy to report that all is well and right with the world. Here is a man who knows how to pack humor and heart all within a scant 40 pages.

This isn’t Campbell’s first time at the rodeo, of course. The man has tackled the wide and wonderful world of picture books before. If he wasn’t drawing romance stricken zombies on the one hand (Kelly diPucchio’s Zombie in Love) then it was Bob Dylan lyrics (If Dogs Run Free) or, my personal favorite, dragons with conflict resolution issues (Robyn Eversole’s East Dragon, West Dragon). What do these all have in common? Probably just the simple fact that Campbell was doing the art on these books. Not the writing. And in at least one or two cases the art clearly outshone the texts. So how does he fare when he’s doing his own book? Magnificently, I’m happy to report. Because while I loved the art here, it was the text that made it work. Consider, for example, the section where The Hug Machine (there really isn’t any better term for him) encounters a porcupine. The porcupine laments, “I am so spiky. No one ever hugs me.” Turn the page and the boy has outfitted himself in a catcher’s mask, pillow on the middle, and oven mitts. The text reads, “They are missing out!” It is a wonderful phrase and not one you’d necessarily expect to see in a picture book. For whatever reason it reminded me of the wonderful wordplay of fellow picture book author/illustrator Bob Shea. To my mind it takes a special kind of talent to pluck just the right words out of the ether and to apply them at the perfect moment.

I mentioned earlier that Campbell, under the name of “Scott C.” created such amusing fare as The Great Showdowns. A bit of that aesthetic comes to mind when you check out the endpapers of this book. It necessitated an explanation to my three-year-old about what exactly a checklist is. You see, on the front endpapers of Hug Machine you see a range of different characters, each next to a little box. Turn to the back of the book and on these endpapers each character has been checked off. A child reader could easily spend hours matching each character to its appearance in the book. By the same token, kids could also have a great deal of fun just counting the number of hugs in this book in total.

I’ve little doubt that there will be an adult out there who is disturbed by the notion of a kid hugging complete strangers. I would point out, though, that we don’t actually know whether or not the people he’s hugging are strangers or not. For all we know he lives in a small town and is knows every person’s name, from the picnickers to the joggers to the construction workers. And that pretty much encapsulates any possible objections I could possibly find to the book. It would be an ideal readaloud for storytime (I’m jealous of the librarians and booksellers who will get to use it) to say nothing of reading it one-on-one. A real keeper. Share it with your own resident hug machine today.

For ages 3-6.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 1, 2014 3:50 PM PDT


Bad Bye, Good Bye
Bad Bye, Good Bye
by Deborah Underwood
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.67
57 used & new from $2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving on up!, August 28, 2014
This review is from: Bad Bye, Good Bye (Hardcover)
As a mother who recently spent the better part of twenty hours in a car with a three-year-old and a three-month-old baby, I feel a special kinship with parents who have also engaged in the ultimate endurance sport: travel with children. If you feel no particular sympathy for those engaged in this activity that is because you have not experienced it firsthand yourself. But even when my daughter was projectile vomiting regularly and even when the breast pump tipped to one side spilling milk all over my pants and EVEN WHEN I found myself wedged in the backseat between two car seats trying to change my son’s diaper on my lap while parked, I could still feel grateful because at least it was just a vacation. It wasn’t like we were moving to a new town or anything. Because if I’d had to deal with the abject misery of my three-year-old on top of the vomit/milk/diapers I don’t know how my sanity would have remained intact. And yet, other parents do it all the time. Every day someone somewhere packs up all their worldly possessions, their pets, and their miserable offspring and heads for a whole new life. It’s daunting. You can’t help but admire their guts. And boy, you’d sure like to hand them a book that they could use to show their kids that as scary as a move like that can be, ultimately it’s going to be okay. Enter a book so sparse and spare you’d never believe it capable of the depth of feeling within its pages. Deborah Underwood lends her prodigious talents to “Bad Bye, Good Bye” while artist Jonathan Bean fills in the gaps. The effect is a book where every syllable is imbued with meaning, yet is as much a beautiful object as it is a useful too.

“Bad day, Bad box” says the book. On the page, a boy wrestles with a moving man for possession of a cardboard box, doomed to be loaded into the nearby moving van. The boy, we see, is in no way happy about this move. He clearly likes his home and his best friend, who has come with her mother to bid him goodbye. On the road he and his little sister pitch seven different kinds of catfits before sinking into a kind of resigned malaise. Time heals all wounds, though, and with the help of a motel swimming pool, diners, and multiple naps, they arrive in their new town in the early evening. As the family and movers pile boxes and other things into the new house, the boy meets another kid who just happens to live next door. Together they collect lightning bugs and star gaze until that “bad bye” at the beginning of the book morphs into a far more comfortable “good bye” when the new friends bid each other goodnight.

This isn’t Underwood’s first time at the rodeo. The art of the restrained use of language is sort of her bread and butter. Anyone who has seen her work her magic in “The Quiet Book” is aware that she says loads with very little. I sincerely hope someone out there has been bugging her to write an easy book for kids. The talent of synthesizing a story down to its most essential parts is a rare one. In this book there is a total of 57 words (or so). These usually appear in two word pairs and by some extraordinary bit of planning they also rhyme. We begin with all “bads”. It goes “Bad day, Bad box / Bad mop, Bad blocks / Bad truck, Bad guy, Bad wave, Bad bye.” The book then slips into neutral terms as the initial misery wears off. Then, as we near the end the “goods” come out. “Good tree, Good sky / Good friend, Good bye.” Such a nice transition. You could argue that it’s pretty swift considering the depths of misery on display in the early pages, and that’s not too far off, but kids are also pretty resilient. Besides, motel swimming pools do indeed go a long way towards modifying behavior.

Jonathan Bean’s one to watch. Always has been. From the moment he was doing Wendy Orr’s “Mokie & Bik” books to the nativity animalia title “One Starry Night” to all those other books in his roster, he proved himself a noteworthy artist. Watching his work come out you have the distinct sense that this is the calm before the storm. The last minute before he wins some big award and starts fielding offers from the biggest names in the biz. In this book I wouldn’t necessarily have said the art was by Bean had I not seen his name spelled out on the cover. It’s a slightly different style for him. Not just pencil and watercolors anymore. A style, in fact, that allows him to try and catch a bit of Americana in the story’s pages. When Underwood writes something like “Big hair, White deer” it’s Bean’s prerogative to determine what that means exactly. His solution to that, as well as other sections, is layering. Time and landscapes are layered on top of one another. America, from diners and speed limit signs to windmills and weathervanes, display scenes familiar to traveling families. A great artist gives weight and meaning to the familiar. Jonathan Bean is a great artist.

Now the cover of this book is also well worth noting. I don’t say that about a lot of picture books either. Generally speaking a picture book’s cover advertises the book to the best of its ability but only occasionally warrants close examination. Jonathan Bearn, however, isn’t afraid to convey pertinent information through his cover. In fact, if you look at it closely you’ll see that he’s managed to encapsulate the entire story from one flap to another. Begin at the end of the book. Open it up. If you look at the inside back flap the very first thing you’ll see underneath the information about the author and the illustrator is the image of the boy in the story straining against his seatbelt, his face a grimace of pure unadulterated rage. Now follow the jacket to the back cover of the book and you see the boy crying in one shot and then looking miserably back in another. The weather is alternating between a starry night sky and a windy rainy day. Move onto the front cover and the rain is still there but soon it turns to clear skies and the boy’s attitude morphs into something distinctly more pleasant. In fact, by the time you open the book to the front flap he’s lifting his hands in a happy cheer. The attitude adjustment could not be more stark and it was done entirely in the span of a single book jacket. Not the kind of thing everyone would notice, and remarkable for that fact alone.

People are always talking about “the great American novel”, as if that’s an attainable ideal. We don’t ever hear anyone talk about “the great American picture book”. I don’t know that “Bad Bye, Good Bye” would necessarily fit the bill anyway. This is more the picture book equivalent of “On the Road” than “To Kill a Mockingbird”, after all. It’s a road trip book, albeit a safe and familiar one. For children facing the frightening prospect of the unknown (and let’s face it – adults hardly do much better) it’s good to have a book that can offer a bit of comfort. A reassurance that no matter how things change, good can follow bad just as day follows night. They are not alone in this uprooting. Somewhere out there, in another car, with another family, there might be a kid just as miserable as they are and for the exact same reason. And like all humans this knowledge ends up being comforting and necessary. Therefore give all your love to “Bad Bye, Good Bye”. It has necessary comfort to spare.

For ages 3-6.


Issun Boshi: The One-Inch Boy
Issun Boshi: The One-Inch Boy
by Icinori
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.02
34 used & new from $12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Smaller isn't necessarily the lesser / Guts can come in any size, August 3, 2014
In the past, determining a bias in the publication of folk and fairytales was a fairly straightforward business. Too many European maids of hair as fair as the silk of corn on your shelves? Bias. But now we’re in the thick of a downturn in the publication of folk and fairytales. We not only need diverse fairy and folktales but we need more fairy and folktales at all! If you can find more than twenty published in a given year, that’s considered a good year. But desperation can lead to poor choices. A librarian might clutch at straws and snap up any such story, just so long as it fulfills a need. In the case of the latest adaptation of the story of Issun Bshi to the picture book format, however, put your mind at rest. You rarely find such a meticulous combination of stunning art and melodic text as located here. Adapted from a Japanese folktale, “Issun Bshi” by Icinori is a stunner. Regardless of whether or not you collect fairy and folktales, you need this on your shelf. Stat.

“We’d like a little boy, any size at all. / We’d like him little, we’d like him small. / We’d love him tiniest of all.” Be careful what you wish for? Not really. When a childless peasant and his wife sing this song on their walk to and from the fields where they toil they are nothing but delighted when the wife gives birth to a kid that would give Stuart Little a run for his money. A clever fellow, Issun Bshi (for so he is named) grows up and when the time comes he sets off to seek his fortune with just a needle and a rice bowl to his name. Along his travels he is waylaid by a fowl and tricky ogre. Issun Bshi leaves him and continues further, but when a nobleman’s daughter is taken by that same sneaky demon, it is Issun Bshi and his incredible size that saves the day once and for all.

Think of all the great fairytales and folktales that involve little people. You’ve your straight fairytales like Thumbelina and Tom Thumb. Your tall tales like “Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life” and folktales like “Pea Boy”. That’s not even mentioning all the tales of elves and dwarfs and what have you. It hardly matters what culture you’re in. Little people, ridiculously little people, are a storytelling staple. I suppose tiny people make for instantaneous identification. Haven’t we all felt insignificant in the face of our great big world at some point in our lives? Wouldn’t we love it if we could overcome our shortcomings (ha ha) and triumph in the end? One of the interesting things about Issun Bshi is that by the end of the tale he does attain tall status but only as a last resort. When offered height earlier in the tale he shows no interest whatsoever. Sure, he’d like to prove to the nobleman’s daughter that he’s more than a living doll, but as the ending of the book notes, “People say that Issun Bshi sometimes misses being small.” Read into it whatever you want (missing childhood, missing the simple life when you’ve become “big” in the world, etc.).

The art of the picture book translation is such that as an American who essentially speaks just one language, I am in awe. I’ve also read enough stilted, awkwardly translated books for kids to know when a book is particularly well done. All we know about the translation of “Issun Bshi” is that the publication page says “Translation of French by Nicholas Grindell & Co. (Berlin & Ryde)”. So who knows whom the genius was who worked on this book! Whoever it was, it was someone who knew that this folktale would have to be read aloud many times, often to large groups. Heck, the very last line of the book is so beautiful and subtle that I’ve gone back to it several times. It reads, “People say that the nobleman’s daughter has taken a different view of Issun Bshi and that their story is not yet over.” I vastly prefer that to a romantic ending or even the old standard “and they lived happily ever after.” This ending suggests that there could be more adventures to come and that their fate is not as fixed as your standard folktale would assign. Heck, we don’t even know for certain that they become romantically involved.

Text text text. What about the art? Because it seems to me that in this world you’re often only as good as the pictures that accompany your tale. The author/illustrator of this book is listed only as the mysterious one-namer “Icinori”. Naturally I had to learn more and so in the course of my research (research = looking up information about the publisher) I discovered that Icinori actually two artists. On the one hand you have Mayumi Otero, a French illustrator. On the other you have Raphal Urwiller, a graphic designer and illustrator. No word on who precisely was responsible for the wordplay here. All we really know is that for this book the art appears to consist of beautiful prints. The Japanese artistic influence is clear, though Icinori has come up with a very distinctive look of their own overall. The primary colors in the palette consist of blue, orange, and yellow. Best of all, there’s time for two-page silent spreads of pure unadulterated beauty. For example, once Issun Bshi has set out to see the world the story slows down enough for you to witness a gorgeous river landscape, the water and sky a pure white while all around vegetation and animals vie for your eye. I love too how Icinori isn’t afraid to shift scenes between a busy city street scene and the tri-colored drama of Issun Bshi being dropped down an ogre’s gullet.

There is a sense of relief that one feels when a book turns out to sound as good as it looks. Covers can be misleading. A title that looks like a gem on the outside can yield particularly dull or overdone results inside. “Issun Bshi”, I am happy to say, never disappoints. It skips, it hops, it dives, it sings. It entertains fully and leaves the reader wanting more. It does not, therefore, ever come across as anything but one of the finest folktale adaptations you’ve ever seen. High praise. Great book. Must buy.

For ages 4-7


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