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Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan
Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan
by Christine Mari Inzer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.28
15 used & new from $4.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Homeward bound, December 5, 2014
There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the reviewer when it comes to self-published books. Horn Book Magazine makes a point of not reviewing self-published fare of any sort. Kirkus, in contrast, makes quite a penny off of doing precisely that. And bloggers? Bloggers make their own rules. Some eschew anything but the professionally published while others are open to all comers. I fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, you should always be open to self-published books because once in a while you’ll find a diamond in the rough. It might take a while to find them but they’re out there. I receive roughly 2-3 requests to review self-published fare a day, on average. I don’t review books not originally published in the current year and I don’t review books that are only available in an ebook form. That knocks out roughly 60% of the requests I receive right there. I also don’t review YA, so when I was contacted about Christine Mari Inzer’s illustrated memoir “Halfway Home” I sent a politely regretful email saying I’d be unable to review the title. As it happened, the book had already been sent to me in the mail so I figured I’d just hand it over to the YA specialist in my office and be done with it. Then I saw it firsthand. You know, when folks like Jeff Smith (Bone), Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time), and Kate Williamson (A Year in Japan) are blurbing a high school senior’s memoir of a time spent in a foreign country, you know something’s probably up. Funny and smart with a personal journey that’s infinitely relatable to young readers everywhere, Inzer’s first foray into publishing will leave readers wanting something very specific: more.

Meet Christine. In the summer of 2013 she had a chance to spend a whopping eight weeks in Japan with her maternal grandparents. Born in America with a Japanese born mom, Christine hadn’t visited Kashiwa, a small city outside of Tokyo, since she was ten. Now she’s traveling by herself and recording it all. From crepes and ramen to Kashiwa Matsuri and 6 a.m. sushi, Christine records everything with wit and a surprising amount of acumen. By the time she returns home she’s older, wiser, and more self-assured, though she misses Japan like crazy even before she’s home. But as the quote in the front of the book says, "Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home" - Matsuo Basho.

It’s hard to get perspective on your life when you’re 30, 40, even 50 years of age. Now imagine that you’re a senior in high school and you’ve managed to define for yourself what it is to straddle two very different cultures, both of which you love deeply. Near the end of the book Christine is traveling on a train back to the airport to leave Japan once more. She writes, “What was most painful was when the train doors closed, and Baba was standing outside. And also, the scenery outside the window. Old house rooftops and rice fields and everything, so vivid with color, and I was passing by all of it for the last time.” She concludes eventually that being split between the two countries, she can only be halfway home at any given time. Though the book could be read as a graphic novel, it's the author's written passages like this that give it heft and weight. You're not reading fluff when you read "Halfway Home". You can get something out of it and apply it to your own life.

To be honest, when I saw the blurbs the book had received I found them interesting but it was Inzer’s artistic style that actually put my mind to rest best. The book is drawn like an artist’s sketchbook, only it has a coherent narrative present throughout. Inzer alternates between pages where the text and images cohabit together to panels to simple images of architecture or food. Photos are also meshed into the final product and help it enormously. The end result is a book that will inspire as many teen readers as it will amuse.

To my mind, all the great cartoonists have one thing in common: if they are writing a memoir then they consistently make themselves less attractive in their comics than they are in real life. This makes perfect sense. If you’re being honest about your life and how you live then often you’ll draw yourself as the “you” that you feel matches the “you” inside your skin. So while the pronounced eyebrows do their best to render Christine heavy browed, you get the distinct sense that she’s just drawing the “Christine” that best represents her inner self. It’s a sophisticated choice on her part. One you’d expect from a cartoonist far older than her scant 17 years.

And it’s funny! Honestly really very funny. Yet not primarily in an “isn’t it funny how they do things in Japan” way. Plenty of books go that route and it’s honestly the easiest way to write a travel manual. I-went-here-and-saw-this-crazy-thing will only get you so far when you’re trying to write a serious book. Fortunately, Christine mixes things up. Because the book has a sketchbook style to it, you really do feel like you’re with Christine every step of the way. And while she’ll milk humor from enormous corner condom stores, toilets, and bathtime, she also knows how to work in situational humor (her Baba’s conversation with a monk is classic), flights of fantasy (imagining Tyra Banks hosting “Japan’s Next Top Maiko”), and everyday moments (flight woes, being eaten alive by deer, etc.). She even uses tropes that I enjoyed greatly, like having her 10-year-old self interact with her present day self (very “Hark, a Vagrant”).

I once worked the children’s reference desk just a floor below a very active teen library. Since my floor had the nearest bathrooms, we were constantly fielding an array of rather adorkable YA readers. Those that always fascinated me the most were the ones obsessed with Japan. They’d been introduced to it via manga and that obsession had turned into a full on love affair. They learned the language. They read everything they could about it. For them, “Halfway Home” would read like a How To manual of everything they’ve ever wanted in life. But its appeal stretches far beyond those kids already fixated on the topic. Humor and heart are difficult things to invest in any YA title. You usually either get one or the other. Inzer gets both in a book that feels professional and reads beautifully. Recommended heartily and with a MOS Burger lifted in thanks.

For ages 12 and up.


Lulu & Pip
Lulu & Pip
by Nina Gruener
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.46
40 used & new from $6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pip pip hooray!, November 28, 2014
This review is from: Lulu & Pip (Hardcover)
To what do we credit the distinct increase in children’s books containing photography this year? I posed that very question to a group of children’s book photographers not that long ago and the answers were telling. In the past, creating a book of high quality color photographs cost beaucoup de bucks. Plus children’s books illustrated with photos were in black and white. Yet as color photography became more and more ubiquitous, publishers found that folks were unwilling to buy children’s books that were black and white. The era of “The Lonely Doll”, “J.T.”, and others was over. Yet prohibitive costs kept photos in children’s books minimal. Then came the rise of digital photography and cheaper printing techniques on the part of publishers. The floodgates consequently opened and what we’re seeing now is a variety of different types of children’s books that use everything from handmade models to wildlife to cut paper techniques. Few of these really harken back to the 1950s and 60s big books of photography. Few, that is, but “Lulu and Pip”. A companion of sorts to the author/artist’s previous book “Kiki and Coco in Paris”, the book shouldn’t work as well as it does. Yet all the elements align so perfectly that there is nothing to say except that it is undoubtedly the most charming work of pure photography in a children’s book format that I’ve seen in years.

Meet Lulu. She’s a girl. Meet Pip. She’s a doll. The two are inseparable and that’s a good thing since living in a big city like San Francisco can be intimidating. Then one day the two pack up their things. Today they’re leaving the city for a campout in the wild and that means leaving behind all the toys, except Pip. Once there Lulu adjusts to the differences. She’s wary of the donkey they meet and she realizes that she may have brought too much stuff. Still, next thing you know the twosome are cooking their food on a fire and getting a glorious view of the universe above. The next day it’s all fishing, swimming, and exploring. But when Lulu and Pip get lost without a clue how to return to their campsite, they find help from an unexpected source.

I was in a wonderful independent bookstore when I first spotted this book. Because of the nature of my job I don’t usually buy children’s books all that often, but there was something unique about this title. The size, for one thing. Coming in at an impressive 9.8 x 12.8 inches, the book stands just slightly taller than the other picture books on your average bookshelf. It distinguishes itself. Then there’s the arresting cover. Photography is too often the last bastion of the sentimental. Whether we’re talking Anne Geddes or the art in the style of Nancy Tillman, there are those that believe that photography only works when its used in the service of the easy aww. The jacket image seen here of a little girl kissing a donkey would seem to support that belief, but that’s a textbook case of judging a book by its cover. I had only to open the book to see that this wasn’t the usual fare. Not by half.

First and foremost, the star of this book is photographer Stephanie Rausser who carries a particular talent for photographing kids and lifestyle types of images. The red-haired moppet that is her subject is a charmer. Cute but not cloying. The shots of her that pepper the book are carefully selected and cropped. As for the photos themselves, I took great joy in them. There’s a shot of Lulu and Pip’s feet in a stream, the sunlight filtering through the water that socks it to you. In books of this sort I’m not a huge fan of images that feel staged. I’d rather go about believing that the photographer is some kind of guerrilla-style rebel than a professional who sets up her shots. Still, because she has the lifestyle background, Rausser gets very natural shots out of her young muse. Only the occasional image (peeking around a tree, exiting her tent, etc.) feel like you’ve accidentally picked up a copy of Parents Magazine or something. For the most part, Rausser keeps it real.

What also struck me as remarkable on a fifth or sixth reading was how well the design of the book incorporates the text into these images. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser took them while thinking in the back of her head about where the text was supposed to go. Illustrators are very keen on such matters, so photographers should be just as vigilant. As it stands, the book does a very good job of breaking the images into more than just full-page bleeds. Some pictures will appear only on the left or right hand side of the page. Other times the pictures will fill both pages in long horizontal spreads. Because of the nature of the shots the text changes from black to white and back again depending on the levels of contrast to be found. In spite of that, the book is easy to read and visually stimulating.

Full credit where credit is due to author Nina Gruener too. I don’t know the background behind this book. I don’t know if Ms. Rausser, in her capacity as a photographer, took these images first and then they were handed to Ms. Gruener to cobble together into some kind of story. If that was the case then she is to be commended. Such assignments often come off as feeling forced or false. Not so here. Gruener keeps the tone light and the storyline frisky. It is equally possible that Ms. Rausser was handed the text first and then took the pictures to match, of course. Or perhaps it was a bit of a combination of both. Whatever the case, the book reads very nicely. It’s not swimming in purple prose or anything but neither is it austere or simplistic. It tells the story it has come to tell and tells it well. Nuff said.

Because my daughter is a city kid I was much taken with the plot of a urban child’s first rural campout experience. As odd as it sounds, camping isn’t a common activity in children’s picture books. Not realistic camping sans bears anyway. And though the book does eschew the issue of mosquitoes, it’s realistic in its portrayal of campfires, smores, tents, night sounds, hiking, and star filled skies. It fills a gap in library and bookstore sections everywhere and will be of great use to those parents trying to excite their kids with the prospect of sleeping beneath the stars. Mind you, it may raise expectations of certain kids a bit far. If they’re hoping to bag a gigantic rainbow trout on their first fishing trip then they are bound to be woefully disappointed.

Perhaps “Lulu & Pip” marks the beginning of something. Maybe we’ll be seeing large format picture books of fictional stories featuring real kids a lot more in the future. Maybe. Certainly Rausser takes care not to include much of anything that will significantly date this book. Technology and gadgets are nonexistent and Lulu herself is dressed in contemporary children’s fashions that, with only a few exceptions (sneakers, etc.) won’t be dated anytime soon either. There’s a lot to love about this one-of-a-kind little book, and a lot to enjoy. With any luck, Rausser and Gruener will continue their partnership of creating great books and we the readers will be the lucky beneficiaries. Marvelous unique stuff.

On shelves now.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 30, 2014 12:41 PM PST


Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands
Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California's Farallon Islands
by Katherine Roy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.23
39 used & new from $8.32

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I think we're gonna need a bigger review, November 19, 2014
When you’re a librarian buying for your system, you come to understand that certain nonfiction topics are perennial favorites. You accept that no matter how many copies you buy, you will never have enough train or joke or magic books. And the king daddy topic to beat them all, the one that leaves a continual gaping hole in the Dewey Decimal area of 597.3 or so, is sharks. Kids can’t get enough of them. Heck, adults can’t get enough of them. Between Shark Week and movies like Sharknado, sharks haven’t been this pop culturally relevant since the good old days of JAWS. And sure, we’ve plenty of truly decent shark books on our shelves already. What we don’t really have are books that combine the blood and the facts with the beauty of full-color, wholly accurate paintings. We’ve never truly had a shark book that’s as accomplished and stunning as Katherine Roy’s “Neighborhood Sharks”. It’s crazy to contemplate that though shark books are never unpopular, only now did someone take the time and effort to give them a publication worthy of their terror and wonder.

A single great white shark cuts through the waters surrounding San Francisco’s Farallon Islands “just 30 miles from the city”. Prey comes in the form of a fine fat seal and before the mammal realizes what’s happening the shark attacks. What makes a shark the perfect killer? Consider its weapons. Note the body, covered in “skin teeth”, capable of acting like a warm-blooded fish. Observe its high-definition vision and five rows of teeth. Did you know that a shark’s jaws aren’t fused to the skull, so that they can actually be projected forward to bite something? Or the method by which you would go about actually tagging this kind of creature? With candor and cleverness, author/artist Katherine Roy brings these silent killers to breathtaking life. You may never desire to set foot into the ocean again.

It’s hard to imagine a book on sharks that has art that can compete with all those shark books laden with cool photographic images. Roy’s advantage here then is the freedom that comes with the art of illustration. She’s not beholden to a single real shark making a real kill. With her brush she can set up a typical situation in which a great white shark attacks a northern elephant seal. The looming threat of the inevitable attack and the almost Hitchcockian way she sets up her shots (so to speak) give the book a tension wholly missing from photo-based shark books. What’s more, it makes the book easy to booktalk (booktalk: a technique used by librarians to intrigue potential readers about titles – not dissimilar to movie trailers, only with books). There’s not a librarian alive who wouldn’t get a kick out of revealing that wordless two-page seal attack scene in all its horror and glory.

The remarkable thing? Even as she’s showing an eviscerated seal, Roy keeps the imagery fairly kid friendly. Plumes of red blood are far more esoteric and even (dare I say it) lovely than a creature bleeding out on land. You never see the shark’s teeth pierce the seal, since Roy obscures the most gory details in action and waves. There are even callbacks. Late in the book we see a shark attacking a faux seal, lured there by researchers that want to study the shark. Without having seen the previous attack this subsequent wordless image would lose much of its punch. And lest we forget, these images are downright lovely. Roy’s paintbrush contrasts the grey sea and grey shark with a whirling swirling red. You could lose yourself in these pictures.

Yet while Roy is capable of true beauty in her art, it’s the original ways in which she’s capable of conveying scientific information about sharks that truly won my heart. She’s the queen of the clever diagram. Early in the book we see an image of a shark’s torpedo-shaped body. Yet the image equates the shark with an airplane, overlaying its fins and tail with the wings and tail of a typical jet plane. Seeing this and the arrows that indicate airflow / how water flows, the picture does more to convey an idea than a thousand words ever could. I found myself poring over diagrams of how a shark can let in cold water and convert it in an internal heat exchange into something that can warm its blood. It’s magnificent. The close-up shot of how a shark’s five rows of teeth tilt and the shot that will haunt my dreams until I die of projectile jaws will easily satiate any bloodthirsty young shark lover hoping for a few new facts.

The projectile jaws, actually, are an excellent example of the tons of information Roy includes here that feels original and beautifully written. Roy is consistently child-friendly in this book, never drowning her text in jargon that would float over a kiddo’s head. Using the framing sequence of a shark attacking a seal, she’s able to work in facts about the creatures and their environment in such a way as to feel natural to the book. “Neighborhood Sharks” is one of the first books in the David Macaulay Studio imprint and like Mr. Macaulay, Ms. Roy is capable of artistic prowess and great grand factual writing all at once. The backmatter consisting of additional information, a word or two on why she decided not to do a spread on smell, Selected Sources, Further Reading, and a map of The Farallons is worth the price of admission alone.

The book is called “Neighborhood Sharks” for a reason. When we think of big predators we think of remote locations. We don’t think of them swimming along, so very close to places like the Golden Gate Bridge. Plenty of adults would be horrified by the notion that they might run into an unexpected shark somewhere. Kids, however, might see the prospect as exciting. “Neighborhood Sharks” has the potential to both satisfy those kids that have already read every single book on sharks in their local library and also convert those that haven’t already made sharks their favorite predator of all time. Remarkably beautiful even (or especially) in the face of straightforward shark attacks, this is a book that sets itself apart from the pack. If you read only one children’s shark book in all your livelong days, read this one. Disgusting. Delicious. Delightful.

For ages 7-12.


The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Russell Brand's Trickster Tales
The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Russell Brand's Trickster Tales
by Russell Brand
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.36
50 used & new from $9.25

30 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Kiddos need not apply, November 13, 2014
If there is a trend to be spotted amongst the celebrity children’s books being released these days then I think it boils down to a general perception on their part that books for kids aren’t subversive enough. This is a bit of a change of pace from the days when Madonna would go about claiming there weren’t any good books for kids out there. Celebrities are a bit savvier on that count, possibly because the sheer number of books they publish has leapt in numbers with every passing year. Now their focus has changed. Where once they pooh-poohed the classics, now they’re under the impression that in spite of masters like Shel Silverstein, Jon Scieszka, Tomi Ungerer, and the like, books for kids are just a little too sweet. Time to shake things up a bit. At least that’s the only reason I can think of to justify what Russell Brand has done here. When I heard that he had a new series out called “Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales” I admit that I was intrigued. Tricksters! What’s not to love there? Plus the man has talent and imagination. This kind of thing would really work. Add in the art of Chris Riddell and you might have something clever and worth reading on your shelf. I probably could have continued thinking in this manner if I hadn’t made the mistake of going so far as to actually read the book. Oh me oh my oh me oh my. In this, the first book in his series, Brand goes headlong in the wrong direction. Needlessly violent, humorlessly scatological, with really weird messages about disability and feminism thrown in for no particular reason, you can say lots of things about Brand’s foray in to the world of children. One thing you cannot say is that it’s actually for kids.

You think you know the story of The Pied Piper? Think again. In the town of Hamelin, the children are the future. Which is to say, the pretty children are the future. Kids like Sam, a child born with a withered leg, are ostracized and have to avoid being chased by the other kids’ zombie roadkill robots and such. The adults are little better with their misspent love of physical perfection and money. To this sordid town comes a hoard of nasty rats, each worse than the last and within a short amount of time they take over everything. As you might imagine, when a mysterious Piper arrives offering to do away with the hoard the townspeople agree immediately. He does but when he comes for his payment the town turns on him, rejecting his price. In response he takes away the kids, all but Sam, who is allowed to stay because he’s a different kind of kid. A good one.

Before any specific objections can be lobbed in the book’s general direction, I think the important thing to note from the start is that this isn’t actually a book for kids. It’s not published by a children’s book publisher (Atria Books is a division of Simon & Schuster, and does not generally do books for kids). Its author is not a children’s book author. And the writing is clearly for adults. When I read the review in Kirkus of this book I saw that it called it, “A smart, funny, iconoclastic take on an old classic,” and recommended it for kids between the ages of 8-12. Now look here. I like books that use high vocabularies and complex wordplay for children. You betcha. I also like subversive literature and titles that push the envelope. That’s not what this book is. In this book, Brand is basically just throwing out whatever comes to mind, hoping that it’ll stick. Here’s a description of the leader of the rats: “Even though they called themselves an anarcho-egalitarian rat collective (that means there’s no rules and no one’s in charge), in reality Casper was in charge . . . In his constant attendance were a pair of ratty twins – Gianna and Paul – who were both his wives. In anarcho-egalitarian rat-collectives, polygamy (more than one wife) is common. It’s not as common for one of the wives to be male but these rats were real badasses.” It’s not just the content but the tone of this. Brand is speaking directly to an adult audience. He does not appear to care one jot about children.

Of course when Brand decides to remember that he is writing a children’s book, that’s when he makes the story all about poop. Huge heaping helpfuls of it. There’s a desperation to his use of it, as if he doesn’t trust that a story about disgusting rats infesting a town is going to be interesting to kids unless it's drowning in excrement as well. Now poop, when done well, is freakin’ hilarious. Whether we’re talking about Captain Underpants or “The Qwikpick Adventure Society”, poop rules. But as the authors of those books knew all too well, a little goes a long way. Fill your book with too much poop and it’s like writing a book filled with profanity. After very little time the shock of it just goes away and you’re left feeling a bit bored.

Other reasons that this ain’t a book for kids? Well, there’s the Mayor for one. Brand attempts to curtail criticism of his view of this woman by creating a fellow by the name of Sexist Bob. See, kids? Bob is sexist so obvious Brand can’t be. Not even when he has the Mayor crying every other minute, being described as a spinster who was mayor “a high-status job that made her feel better about her knees and lack of husband.” Then there’s the world’s weirdest message about disability. Our hero is Sam, the sole child left in the city of Hamelin after the children are whisked away. He’s the one described as having a “gammy leg all withered like a sparrow’s”. Which is fine and all, but once you get to the story’s end you find that Sam gets to have a happy ending where he’s grows up to become Hamelin’s mayor and his disability is pretty much just reduced a slight limp. So if you’re a good person, kiddos, that nasty physical problem you suffered from will go away. Better be good then. Sheesh.

Now Chris Riddell’s a funny case here. He’s a great artist, first and foremost. Always has been. Though I feel like he’s never been properly appreciated here in America, every book he’s done he puts his all into. Riddell doesn’t phone it in. So when he commits to a book like “The Pied Piper” then he commits, by gum. For better or for worse. Honestly, Brand must have thought he died and went to heaven when they handed him an artist willing to not only portray drops of blood dripping from a child’s pierced nipple but robot gore-dripping animal corpses and sheer amounts of poo. In this book he really got into his work and I began to wonder how much of a direct hand Brand had. Did Brand tell Riddell to make the Piper look like a member of the film version of “Clockwork Orange”? No idea. Whatever the case, Riddell is as much to blame for some aspects of the book (the Mayor’s mascara comes to mind) as Brand, but he also is able to put in little moments of actual emotion. There’s a shot of Sam hugged by his mother early in the book that’s far and away one of the most touching little images you ever will see. Just the sweetest thing. Like a little light bobbing in the darkness.

The kicker is that beneath the lamentably long page count and gross-out factors, there might have been a book worth reading here. Playing the old “blame the editor” game is never fair, though. Editors of celebrity children’s books are, by and large, consigned there because they performed some act of carnage in a previous life and must now pay penance. No one goes into the business saying to themselves, “But what I’d really like to do is edit a picture book by Howard Stern’s wife about a fat white cat.” And so we cannot know how much input the editor of this book was allowed to give. Perhaps Brand took every note he was handed and hammered and sawed this book into its current state. Or maybe he was never handed a single suggestion and what he handed in is what we see here. No idea. But it’s difficult not to read the book and wonder at what might have been.

It’s more ambitious than your average celebrity children’s book, I’ll grant you that. And yet it feels like nothing so much as a mash-up of Roald Dahl and Andy Griffiths for adults. Lacking is the kid-appeal, the tight editing, and the reason why we the readers should really care. Our hero Sam is the hero because he’s essentially passive and doesn’t much act or react to the events going on in the tale. The Piper is there to teach a town a lesson, does so, and the story’s over. Brand would rather luxuriate in nasty kids, adults, and rats then take all that much time with his rare decent characters. As a result, it’s a book that might have been quite interesting and could even have been for actual children but in the end, isn’t. Here’s hoping Mr. Brand’s future forays in storytelling don’t forget who the true audience really is.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 30, 2014 5:14 AM PST


Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters
Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters
by Oliver Jeffers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.45
75 used & new from $13.39

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Next time won't you sing with me?, November 4, 2014
Beware ever becoming a brand, my sweet, for that way lies nothing but unhappiness and ruin. Or not. I think the only real and true problem with becoming extremely popular in your field is that you have to battle on some level the ridiculous expectations others set for you. You did “X” and “X” was popular? Make another “X”! Creativity is haphazard and in the children’s book biz even the most popular illustrators do jobs that simply pay the bills. Such is NOT the case with Oliver Jeffers’ “Once Upon an Alphabet”. I have seen Jeffers do books that were merely okay and some that didn’t quite pass muster. I have also seen him be consistently brilliant with a style that is often copied, whether artistically or in tone. Yet in his latest book he does something that I honestly haven’t really seen before. Each letter of the alphabet is worthy of a story of its own. Each one distinct, each one unique, and all of them pretty much hilarious. No other author or illustrator could do what Jeffers has done here or, if they did, the tone would be entirely off. Here we have an abecedarian treat for older children (at least 6 years of age, I'd say) that will extend beyond Jeffers’ already gung-ho fan base and garner him new devotees of both the child and adult persuasion.

“If words make up stories, and letters make up words, then stories are made of letters. In this menagerie we have stories, made of words, made for all the letters.” So begins “Once Upon an Alphabet”, a book that seeks to give each letter its due. The tales told vary in length and topic. For example, “A” is about Edmund the astronaut who wants to go on an “adventure” and meet some “aliens” “although” there’s a problem. “Space was about three hundred and twenty-eight thousand, four hundred and sixteen feet above him . . . and Edmund had a fear of heights.” Many of the stories seen here rely on a twist at their conclusion. Danger Delilah may laugh in the face of Death but she’ll book it double time when her dad calls her for dinner. And then there’s Victor, plugging away on his vengeance. Told with wit and humor these tales are each and every one consistently amusing and enjoyable.

One thing that sets Jeffers apart from the pack is his deft wordplay. He has always been as comfortable as a writer as he is an illustrator or artist. Examining the tales I saw that some of the stories rhyme and others do not. This could potentially be off-putting but since each letter stands on its own I wasn’t bothered by the choice. The book could also be a very nice writing prompt title, not too dissimilar from Chris Van Allsburg’s “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick”. Once kids get the gist of what Jeffers is doing here they could be encouraged to write their own letter-inspired tales.

As for the art, it’s recognizably Jeffers, but with a twist. A close examination of the book shows that Jeffers changes up his artistic style quite a bit. While I’d say all his art is recognizably Jeffersish, his choices are fascinating. What determines whether or not a character gets a nose? Why is the terrified typist of “t” made so realistic while Ferdinand of “F” is done in a more cartoony style? Then there’s the use of color. Generally speaking the book is black and white but is shot through with different colors to make different points.

You also begin to read more into the illustrations than might actually be there. When the elephant dutifully eats nearly nine thousand envelopes in answer to a riddle, he is directed to do so by a nun who is keeping score. Adults will see this and wonder if it’s the equivalent of that old riddle about how many angels will dance on the head of a pin. I know the nun is there because the letter is “N” but that doesn’t stop me from seeing a connection. Other times there are connections between letters that aren’t explicitly mentioned but that will amuse kids. The owl and octopus that search and correct problems fix the cup that made an unseemly break (literally) for freedom at the letter “C” only for it to break again around the letter “T”. Then there are the back endpapers, which manage to wrap up a number of the stories in the book so subtly you might not even realize that they do so. See the frog hit on the head with a coin? That’s the ending to the “F” tale. And a closer reading shows that each person on the back endpapers correlates to their letter so you can read the alphabet found on the front endpapers through them. Pretty slick stuff!

I guess the only real correlation to this book is Edward Gorey’s “Gashlycrumb Tinies” alphabet. Even if the name sounds familiar I’m sure you’ve heard it. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” I’ve often thought that Jeffers’ sense of humor owes much to Gorey’s. You see it in letters like “H” which features a woman falling off a cliff or “T” where an author meets an untimely end at the hands (or, more likely, mouth) of a monster. And like Gorey, Jeffers is capable of giving potentially gruesome and macabre poems an almost sweet edge. Gorey’s stories dealt well in funny melancholy. Jeffers, in contrast, in a form of humor that turns tragedy on its head.

From what I can tell the book is pretty universally loved. That said, it is not without its detractors. People who expect this to be another alphabet book for young children are bound to be disappointed. No one ever said alphabet books couldn't be for older kids as well, y'know. And then there's one criticism that some librarians of my acquaintance lobbed in the direction of this book. According to them some letter stories were stronger than others. So I read and reread the book to try and figure out which letters they might mean. I’m still rereading it now and I’m no closer to finding the answer. Did they not like the daft parsnip? The missing question? The monkeys that move underground? I remain baffled.

Or maybe I just like the book because it ends with a zeppelin. That could also be true. I really like zeppelins. I am of the opinion that 90% of the picture books produced today would be greatly improved if their authors worked in a zeppelin in some way. Heck, it’s even on the cover of the book! But if I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, I suspect that even if you removed every last zeppelin from “Once Upon an Alphabet” I’d still like the puppy. A lot. A lot a lot. You see Jeffers knows how to use his boundless cleverness for good instead of evil. This book could be intolerable in its smarts, but instead it’s an honestly amusing and tightly constructed little bit of delving into the alphabet genre. It remains aware from start to finish that its audience is children and by using big long fancy dance words, it never talks down to kids while still acknowledging the things that they would find funny. All told, it’s a pip. No picture book alphabet collection will be complete without it.

For ages 6 and up.


Dory Fantasmagory
Dory Fantasmagory
by Abby Hanlon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $10.79
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “They didn’t even want to see me eat a napkin”., October 12, 2014
This review is from: Dory Fantasmagory (Hardcover)
Which of the following types of children’s books are, in your opinion, the most difficult to write: Board books, picture books, easy books (for emerging readers), early chapter books, or middle grade fiction (older chapter books)? The question is, by its very definition, unfair. They are all incredibly hard to do well. Now me, I have always felt that easy books must be the hardest to write. You have to take into account not just the controlled vocabulary but also the fact that the story is likely not going to exactly be War and Peace (The Cat in the Hat is considered exceptional for a reason, people). And right on the heels of easy books and their level of difficulty is the early chapter book. You have a bit more freedom with that format, but not by much. For a really good one there should be plenty of fun art alongside a story that strikes the reader as one-of-a-kind. It has to talk about something near and dear to the heart of the kid turning the pages, and if you manage to work in a bit of a metaphor along the way? Then you, my dear, have done the near impossible. The last book I saw work this well was the extraordinary Sadie and Ratz by Sonya Hartnett, a book that to this day I consider a successor to Where the Wild Things Are. I didn’t expect to see another book tread the same path for a while. After all, these kinds of stories are enormously difficult to write (or did I mention that already?). Enter Dory Fantasmagory. Oh. My. Goodness. Pick up my jaw from the floor and lob it my way because this book is AMAZING! Perfection of tone, plot, pacing, art, you name it. Author Abby Hanlon has taken a universal childhood desire (the wish of the younger sibling for the older ones to play with them) and turned it into a magnificent epic fantasy complete with sharp-toothed robbers, bearded fairy godmothers, and what may be the most realistic 6-year-old you’ll ever meet on a page. In a word, fantastico.

She’s six-years-old and the youngest of three. Born Dory, nicknamed Rascal, our heroine enjoys a rich fantasy life that involves seeing monsters everywhere and playing with her best imaginary friend Mary. She has to, you see, because her older siblings Luke and Violet refuse to play with her. One day, incensed by her incessant youth, Violet tells Rascal that if she keeps acting like a baby (her words) she’ll be snatched up by the sharp-toothed robber Mrs. Gobble Gracker (a cousin of Viola Swamp if the pictures are anything to go by). Rather than the intended effect of maturing their youngest sibling, this information causes Rascal to go on the warpath to defeat this new enemy. In the course of her playacting she pretends to be a dog (to escape Mrs. Gobble Gracker’s attention, naturally) and guess what? Luke, her older brother, has always wanted a dog! Suddenly he’s playing with her and Rascal is so ebullient with the attention that she refuses to change back. Now her mom’s upset, her siblings are as distant as ever, Mrs. Gobble Gracker may or may not be real, and things look bad for our hero. Fortunately, one uniquely disgusting act is all it will take to save the day and make things right again.

This is what I like about the world of children’s books: You never know what amazingly talented book is going to come from an author next. Take Abby Hanlon. A former teacher, Ms. Hanlon wrote the totally respectable picture book Ralph Tells a Story. It published with Amazon and got nice reviews. I read it and liked it but I don’t think anyone having seen it would have predicted its follow up to be Dory here. It’s not just the art that swept me away, though it is delightful. The tiny bio that comes with this book says that its creator “taught herself to draw” after she was inspired by her students’ storytelling. Man oh geez, I wish I could teach myself to draw and end up with something half as good as what Hanlon has here. But while I liked the art, the book resonates as beautifully as it does because it hits on these weird little kid truths that adults forget as they grow older. For example, how does Rascal prove herself to her siblings in the end? By being the only one willing to stick her hand in a toilet for a bouncy ball. THAT feels realistic. And I love Rascal’s incessant ridiculous questions. “What is the opposite of a sandwich?” Lewis Carroll and Gollum ain’t got nuthin’ on this girl riddle-wise.

For me, another part of what Dory Fantasmagory does so well is get the emotional beats of this story dead to rights. First off, the premise itself. Rascal’s desperation to play with her older siblings is incredibly realistic. It’s the kind of need that could easily compel a child to act like a dog for whole days at a time if only it meant garnering the attention of her brother. When Rascal’s mother insists that she act like a girl, Rascal's loyalties are divided. On the one hand, she’ll get in trouble with her mom if she doesn’t act like a kid. On the other hand, she has FINALLY gotten her brother’s attention!! What’s more, Rascal’s the kind of kid who’ll get so wrapped up in imaginings that she’ll misbehave without intending to, really. Parents reading this book will identify so closely to Rascal’s parents that they’ll be surprised how much they still manage to like the kid when all is said and done (there are no truer lines in the world than when her mom says to her dad, “It’s been a looooooooong day”). But even as they roll their eyes and groan and sigh at their youngest’s antics, please note that Rascal's mom and dad do leave at least two empty chairs at the table for her imaginary companions. That ain’t small potatoes.

It would have been simple for Hanlon to go the usual route with this book and make everything real to Abby without a single moment where she doubts her own imaginings. Lots of children’s books make use of that imaginative blurring between fact and fiction. What really caught by eye about Dory Fantasmagory, however, was the moment when Rascal realizes that in the midst of her storytelling she has lost her sister’s doll. She thinks, “Oh! Where did I put Cherry? I gave her to Mrs. Gobble Gracker, of course. But what did I REALLY ACTUALLY do with her?” This is the moment when the cracks in Rascal’s storytelling become apparent. She has to face facts and just for once see the world for what it is. And why? Because her older sister is upset. Rascal, you now see, would do absolutely anything for her siblings. She’d even destroy her own fantasy world if it meant making them happy.

Beyond the silliness and the jokes (of which there are plenty), Hanlon’s real talent here is how she can balance ridiculousness alongside honest-to-goodness heartwarming moments. If you look at the final picture in this book and don’t feel a wave of happy contentment then you, sir, have no soul. The book is a pure pleasure and bound to be just as amusing to kids as it is to adults. Like older works for children like Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Dory Fantasmagory manages to make a personality type that many kids would find annoying in real life (in this case, a younger sibling) into someone not only understandable but likeable and sympathetic. If it encourages only one big brother or sister to play with their younger sibs then it will have justified its existence in the universe. And I think it shall, folks. I think it shall. A true blue winner.

For ages 6-8.


Water Rolls, Water Rises Water Rolls, Water Rises: El agua rueda, el agua sube
Water Rolls, Water Rises Water Rolls, Water Rises: El agua rueda, el agua sube
by Pat Mora
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.82
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rolling in the deep, October 10, 2014
Sometimes I wonder what effect the televised ephemera I took in as a child has had on my memories and references. For example, when I pick up a book like Pat Mora’s beautifully written and lushly illustrated “Water Rolls, Water Rises: El Agua Rueda, el Agua Sube” I immediately flash back to an old Sesame Street episode I enjoyed as a kid that showed a water sapped desert landscape made vibrant once more with the appearance of rain. Taken by itself, such a ran is an event that happens every day on Earth, and as such it’s the kind of thing tailor made to inspire a poet’s heart and mind. Poetry, sad to say, is not a form of literature that I excel in as a student. I can appreciate it, even quote it when called up to do so, but my heart belongs to prose first and foremost. If I have to read poetry, it helps to read the best of the best. Only really stellar poetry can crack my shell of indifference. And when you pair that really good verse alongside art that makes you want to stand up and cheer? That’s when you have a book that won’t just win over crusty old fogies like me, but also its intended audience: kids. Because if a book like “Water Rolls, Water Rises” can make me stop and think about the natural world, if only for a second, imagine what it could do for an actual child’s growing brain. Better things than old Sesame Street segments, that’s for sure.

We start slowly and watch the roll of the tides and the rise of the fog. The water is blown, then slithers and snakes, and in one particularly beautiful passage glides “up roots of tulips and corn.” After that, things pick up a bit. In swells the water sloshes, in woods it swirls, and it all culminates in storms and thunder and “lightning’s white flash.” Then, just as suddenly, all is calm again. Water rests in an oasis and slumbers in marshes. The book concludes with water joyfully “skidding and slipping”, “looping and leaping” until at last we pull back and view for ourselves our blue planet, “under gold sun, under white moon.” The bilingual text in both English and Spanish is complemented by illustrator Meilo So’s mixed media illustrations and contains both an Author’s Note and key for identifying the images in the book in the back.

Now I’ll tell you right now that I don’t speak a lick of Spanish. I’ve the rudimentary single words and phrases culled from years of watching the aforementioned “Sesame Street” but there’s nothing substantial in my noggin. Therefore I cannot honestly tell you if the Spanish translation by Adriana Dominguez and Pat Mora matches the English text's spare verse. Certainly I was impressed with the minimal wordplay Mora chose to use in this book. As someone prone to wordiness (I think the length of this review speaks for itself) I am always most impressed by those writers that can siphon a thought or a description down to its most essential elements. It’s hard to say what you’ll notice first when you read this book. Will it be the words or the art? Mora’s cadences (in English anyway) succeed magnificently in evoking the beauty and majesty of water in its myriad forms. Read the book enough times and you begin to get a real sense of the rise and fall of water’s actions. I also noted that Mora eschews going too deep into her subject matter. The primary concentration is on water as it relates to the landscape worldwide. She doesn’t dwell on something like water’s role in the human body or pepper the text with small sidebars pertaining to facts about water. This is poetry as it relates to liquid. Nothing more. Nothing less.

The bilingual picture book is fast becoming a necessity in the public library setting. Just the other day someone asked if we could have more Bengali/English picture books rather than just straight Bengali, because the parents liked reading both languages to their kids. Yet sadly in the past our bilingual literature has had a rough go of it. Well-intentioned efforts to give these books their own space in the children’s libraries have too often meant that they’re scuttled away in some long-forgotten corner. The patrons who need them most are often too intimidated to ask for them or don’t even know that they exist. So what’s the solution? Interfile them with the English books or all the other languages? Wouldn’t they be just as forgotten in one collection as another? There are no easy answers here and the thought that a book as a beautiful in word and image as “Water Rolls” could end up forgotten is painful to me.

Since this book travels around the world and touches on the lives of people in different lands and nations it is, by its very definition, multicultural. And to be honest, attaining the label of “multicultural” by simply highlighting different nations is easy work. What sets artist Meilo So’s art apart from other books of this sort is her fearless ability to upset expectations. I am thinking in particular of the image of the wild rice harvest in northern Minnesota. In this picture two children punt a boat through marshland. Their skin is brown, a fact that I am sure Ms. So did on purpose. Too often are white kids the “default” race when books that skate around the world make mention of the U.S. It’s as if the publishers forget that people of races aside from white live in America as well as the rest of the world. As such So elevates the standards for your average round-the-world book.

Every book you pick up and read has to pass through your own personal filters and prejudices before it makes a home for itself in your brain. Let us then discuss what it means to be an English-only speaking American woman looking at this book for the first time. I pick up this book and I instantly assume that the cover is sporting an image of Niagara Falls. On the back of the jacket I come to a similar conclusion that we’re viewing Old Faithful. Thus does the American see the world only in terms of those natural wonders that happen to exist within her own nation’s borders. Turns out, that waterfall on the front is Victoria Falls, found between the countries of Zambia and Zimbabwe. And that geyser? Strokkur in Iceland. With this in mind you can understand why I was grateful for the little key in the back of the book that clearly identifies and labels (in both English and Spanish) where each location in the images can be found. It was interesting too to see each credit saying that the image was “inspired by” (“inspirada por”) its real world equivalent. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about accuracy in works of illustration in picture books. Mostly I’ve been thinking about historical accuracy, but contemporary landscapes raise their own very interesting questions. If Meilo So came up with the “inspired by” label then it may well be that it was thought up to protect her against critics who might look to her view of the Qutang Gorge, say, and declare her positioning of this or that mountain peak a gross flight of fancy. Since she is illustrating both distinct landmarks (the Grand Canyon, Venice’s Grand Canal, the coast of Cabo San Lucas, etc.) alongside places that typify their regions (a fishing boat at sea in Goa, India, a well in a rural village in Kenya, etc.) it is wise to simply give the “inspired by” designation to all images rather than a few here and there so as to avoid confusion.

After soaking in the art page by page I wondered then how much control Ms. Mora had over these images. Did she designate a country and location for each stanza of her poem? The book sports an Author’s Note (but no Artist’s Note, alas) that mentions the places Ms. Mora has traveled too. Look at the list of locations and they do, indeed, appear in the book (China, Holland, Peru, Finland, etc.). So I make the assumption that she told Ms. So what country to draw, though I don’t know for sure.

As a mother of two small children, both under the age of 4, my interest in early brain development has been piqued. And like any mother I berate myself soundly when I feel like my own personal prejudices are being inflicted on my kids. I don’t go gaga for poetry but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read it to the kiddos as much as possible. Fortunately, books like “Water Rolls, Water Rises” make the job easy. Easy on the eyes and the ears, this is one clever little book that can slip onto any home library shelf without a second thought. Sublime.

For ages 4-7.


Caminar
Caminar
by Skila Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.14
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hidden, October 2, 2014
This review is from: Caminar (Hardcover)
Survivor’s guilt. Not the most common theme in children’s books these days. Not unheard of certainly, but it definitely doesn’t crop up as often as, say, stories about cupcakes or plucky orphans that have to defeat evil wizards. Serious works of fiction do well when award season comes along, but that’s only because those few that garner recognition are incredibly difficult to write. I’ll confess to you that when I first encountered “Caminar” by Skila Brown I heard it was about a kid surviving Guatemala’s Civil War and I instantly assumed it would be boring. Seems pretty silly to say that I thought a book chock-full o’ genocide would be a snorefest, but I’ve been burned before. True, I knew that “Caminar” was a verse novel and that gave me hope, but would it be enough? Fortunately, when the time came to pick it up it sucked me in from the very first page. Gripping and good, horrifying and beautifully wrought, if you’re gonna read just one children’s book on a real world reign of terror, why not go with this one?

He isn’t big. He isn’t tall. He has the round face of an owl and he tends to do whatever it is his mother requires of him with very little objection. Really, is it any wonder that Carlos is entranced by the freedom of the soldiers that enter his small village? The year is 1981 and in Chopan, Guatemala things are tense. One minute you have strange soldiers coming through the village on the hunt for rebels. The next minute the rebels are coming through as well, looking for food and aid. And when Carlos’s mother tells him that in the event of an emergency he is to run away and not wait for her, it’s not what he wants to hear. Needless to say, there comes a day when running is the only option but Carlos finds it difficult to carry on. He can survive in the wild, sleeping in trees and eating roots and plants, but how does he deal with the notion that only cowardice kept him from returning to Chopan? How does he handle his guilt? And is there some act that he can do to find peace of mind once more?

This isn’t the first book containing mass killings I’ve ever encountered for kids. Heck, it’s not even the only one I’ve seen this year (hat tip to “The Red Pencil” by Andrea Davis Pinkney). As such, this brings up a big question that the authors of such books must wrestle with each and every time such a book is conceived. Mainly, how do you make horrific violence palatable to young readers? A good follow-up question would have to be, why should you make it palatable in the first place? What is the value in teaching about the worst that humanity is capable of? There are folks that would mention that there is great value in this. Some books teach kids that the world is capable of being capricious and cruel with no particular reason whatsoever. Indeed Brown touches on this when Carlos prays to God asking for the answers that even adults seek. When handled well, books about mass killings of any kind, be it the Holocaust or the horrors of Burma, can instruct as well as offer hope. When handled poorly they become salacious, or moments that just use these horrors as an inappropriately tense backdrop to the action.

Here’s what you see when you read the first page of this book. The title is “Where I’m From”. It reads, “Our mountain stood tall, / like the finger that points. / Our corn plants grew in fields, / thick and wide as a thumb. / Our village sat in the folded-between, / in that spot where you pinch something sacred, / to keep it still. / Our mountain stood guard at our backs. / We slept at night in its bed.” I read this and I started rereading and rereading the sentence about how one will “pinch something sacred”. I couldn’t get it out of my head and though I wasn’t able to make perfect sense out of it, it rang true. I’m pleased that it was still in my head around page 119 because at that time I read something significant. Carlos is playing marbles with another kid and we read, “I watched Paco pinch / his fingers around the shooter, pinch / his eyes up every time . . .” Suddenly the start of the book makes a kind of sense that it didn’t before. That’s the joy of Brown’s writing here. She’s constantly including little verbal callbacks that reward the sharp-eyed readers while still remaining great poetry.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, the destruction of Carlos’s village reminded me of nothing so much as the genocide that takes place in Frances Hardinge’s “The Lost Conspiracy”. That’s a good thing, by the way. It puts you in the scene without getting too graphic. The little bits and pieces you hear are enough. Is there anything more unnerving than someone laughing in the midst of atrocities? In terms of the content, I watched what Brown was doing here with great interest. To write this book she had to walk a tricky path. Reveal too much horror and the book is inappropriate for its intended age bracket. Reveal too little and you’re accused of sugarcoating history. In her particular case the horrors are pinpointed on a single thing all children can relate to: the fear of losing your mother. The repeated beat in this book is Carlos’s mother telling him that he will find her. Note that she never says that she will find him, which would normally be the natural way to put this. Indeed, as it stands the statement wraps up rather beautifully at the end, everything coming full circle.

Brown’s other method of handling this topic was to make the book free verse. Now I haven’t heard too many objections to the book but when I have it involves the particular use of the free verse found here. For example, one adult reader of my acquaintance pretty much dislikes any and all free verse that consists simply of the arbitrary chopping up of sentences. As such, she was incensed by page 28 which is entitled “What Mama Said” and reads simply, “They will / be back.” Now one could argue that by highlighting just that little sentence Brown is foreshadowing the heck out of this book. Personally, I found moments like this to be pitch perfect. I dislike free verse novels that read like arbitrary chopped up sentences too, but that isn’t “Caminar”. In this book Brown makes an effort to render each poem just that. A poem. Some poems are stronger than others, but they all hang together beautifully.

Debates rage as to how much reality kids should be taught. How young is young enough to know about the Holocaust? What about other famous atrocities? Should you give your child the essentials before they learn possibly misleading information from the wider world? What is a teacher’s responsibility? What is a parent’s? I cannot tell you that there won’t be objections to this book by concerned parental units. Many feel that there are certain dark themes out there that are entirely inappropriate as subject matter in children’s books. But then there are the kids that seek these books out. And honestly, the reason “Caminar” is a book to seek out isn’t even the subject matter itself per se but rather the great overarching themes that tie the whole thing together. Responsibility. Maturity. Losing your mother. Survival (but at what cost?). A beautifully wrought, delicately written novel that makes the unthinkable palatable to the young.

For ages 10 and up.


The Madman of Piney Woods
The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.15
60 used & new from $5.94

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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: $12.30
50 used & new from $7.80

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
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.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2014 1:29 AM PST


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