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The Jumbies
The Jumbies
by Tracey Baptiste
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.00
49 used & new from $3.34

4.0 out of 5 stars What evil lurks in the hearts of men?, April 27, 2015
This review is from: The Jumbies (Hardcover)
“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” So sayeth Leo Tolstoy (at least in theory). Regardless of whether or not it’s actually true, it is fun to slot books into the different categories. And if I were to take Tracey Baptiste’s middle grade novel “The Jumbies” with the intention of designating it one type of story or another, I think I’d have to go with the latter definition. A stranger comes to town. Not quite true though, is it? For you see, in this particular book the stranger isn’t coming to town so much as infesting it. And does she still count as a stranger when she, technically was there first? It sounds a bit weird to say, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a creature comes to a village where it is the people who are the strangers” but you could make a case for that being the tale “The Jumbies” brings to light. Far more than just your average spooky supernatural story, Baptiste uses the underpinnings of a classic folktale to take a closer look at colonization, rebellion, and what it truly takes to share the burden of tolerating the “other”. Plus there are monsters. Gotta love the monsters.

Corinne La Mer isn’t what you might call a superstitious sort. Even when she chases an agouti into a forbidden forest she’s able to justify to herself why it looked as though a pair of yellow eyes followed her out. If she told other people about those eyes they’d say she ran across a jumbie, one of the original spooky denizens of her Caribbean island. Corinne's a realist, though, so surely there's another answer. And she probably would have put the whole incident out of her mind anyway, had Severine not appeared in her hut one day. Severine is beautiful and cunning. She’s been alone for a long long time and she’s in the market for a loving family. Trouble is, what Severine wants she usually gets, and Corinne may find that she and her father are getting ensnared in a dangerous creature’s loving control – whether they want to be or not. A tale based loosely on the Haitian folktale “The Magic Orange Tree.”

A bit of LOST, a bit of Beloved, and a bit of The Tempest. That’s the unusual recipe I’d concoct if I were trying to describe this book to adults. If I were trying to describe it to kids, however, I’d have some difficulty. Our nation’s library and bookstore shelves aren’t exactly overflowing with children’s novels set in the Caribbean. Actually, year or so ago I was asked to help co-create a booklist of Caribbean children’s literature with my librarian colleagues. We did pretty well in the picture book department. It was the novels that suffered in comparison. Generally speaking, if you want Caribbean middle grade novels you’d better be a fan of suffering. Whether it’s earthquakes (“Serafina’s Promise”), escape (“Tonight By Sea”), or the slave trade (“My Name Is Not Angelica”) Caribbean children’s literature is rarely a happy affair. And fantasy? I’m not going to say there aren’t any middle grade novels out there that make full and proper use of folklore, but none come immediately to mind. Now Ms. Baptiste debuted a decade ago with “Angel’s Grace” (called by Horn Book, “a promising first novel” with “An evocative setting and a focused narrative”). In the intervening ten years we hadn’t heard much from her. Fortunately “The Jumbies” proves she’s most certainly back in the game and with a book that has few comparable peers.

My knowledge of the Caribbean would fit in a teacup best enjoyed by a flea. What I know pretty much comes from the children’s books I read. So I am not qualified to judge “The Jumbies” on its accuracy to its setting or folkloric roots. When Ms. Baptiste includes what appears to be a family with roots in India in the narrative, I go along with it. Then, when the book isn’t looking, I sneak off to Wikipedia (yes, even librarians use Wikipedia from time to time) and read that “Indo-Trinidadian and Tobagonian are nationals of Trinidad and Tobago of India ancestry.” We Americans often walk around with this perception that ours is the only ethnically diverse nation. We have the gall to be surprised when we discover that other nations have multicultural (for lack of a better word) histories of their own. So it is that Corinne befriends Dru, an Indio-Trinidadian with a too large family.

The writing itself makes for a fun read. I wouldn’t label it overly descriptive or lyrical, necessarily, but it gets the job done. Besides, there are little moments in the text that I thought were rather nice. Lines like “Corinne remembered when they had buried her mama in the ground like a seed.” Or, on a creepier note, “A muddy tear spilled onto her cheek, then sprouted legs and crawled down her body.” What I really took to, more than anything else, was the central theme of “us” and “them”. Which is to say, there is no “us” and “them”, really. It’s a relationship. As a local witch says later in the story, “Our kind? What do you know about our kind and their kind, little one? You can’t even tell the difference.” Later she says it once again. “Their kind, your kind, is there a difference?” This is an island where the humans arrives and pushed out the otherworldly natives. When the natives fight back the humans are appalled. And as we read the story, we see that we are the oppressors here, to a very real extent. These jumbies might fight and hit and hurt and steal children, but they have their reasons. Even if we’ve chosen to forget what those might be.

I have a problem. I can’t read books for kids like I used to. Time was, when I first started in this business, that I could read a book like “The Jumbies” precisely as the author intended. I approached the material with all the wide-eyed wonder of a 10-year-old girl. Then I had to go and give birth and what happens? Suddenly I find that everything’s different and that I’m now reading the books as a parent. Scenes in “The Jumbies” that wouldn’t have so much as pierced my armor when I was younger now stab me directly through the heart. For example, there is a moment in this book when Dru recounts seeing her friend Allan stolen by the douens. As his mother called his name he turned to her, but his feet faced the other way, walking him into the forest. That just killed me. Kids? They’ll find it nicely creepy, but I don’t know that they’ll not entirely understand the true horror the parents encounter so that later in the book when a peace is to be reached, they have a real and active reason for continuing to pursue war. In this way the book’s final resolution almost feel too easy. You understand that the humans will agree on a peace if only because the jumbies have them outnumbered and outmanned. However, the hate and fear is going to be lingering for a long long time to come. This would be an excellent text to use to teach conflict resolution, come to think of it.

In her Author’s Note at the back of the book, Tracey Baptiste writes, “I grew up reading European fairy tales that were nothing like the Caribbean jumbie stories I listened to on my island of Trinidad. There were no jumbie fairy-tale books, though I wished there were. This story is my attempt at filling that gap in fairy-tale lore.” And fill it she does. Entrancing and engaging, frightening but never slacking, Baptiste enters an all-new folktale adaptation into our regular fantasy lore. Best suited for the kids seeking lore where creatures hide in the shadows of trees, but where they’re unlike any creatures the kids have seen before. Original. Haunting.

For ages 9-12.


On the Shoulder of a Giant
On the Shoulder of a Giant
by Neil Christopher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.11
33 used & new from $8.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hello, up there!, April 23, 2015
My daughter is afraid of giants. She’s three so this isn’t exactly out of the norm. However, it does cut out a portion of her potential reading material. Not all giants fall under this stricture, mind you. She doesn’t seem to have any problem with the guys in “Giant Dance Party” and “nice” giants in general get a pass. Still, we’ve had to put the kibosh on stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and anything else where getting devoured is a serious threat. Finding books about good giants is therefore an imperative and it walks hand in hand with my perpetual search for amazing folktales. Every year I scour the publishers for anything resembling a folktale. In the old days they were plentiful and you could have your pick of the offerings. These days, the big publishers hardly want to touch the stuff, so it’s up to the smaller guys to fill in the gaps. And no one stands as a better folktale gap filler than the Inuit owned company Inhabit Media. Producing consistently high quality books for kids, one of their latest titles is the drop dead gorgeous “On the Shoulder of a Giant”. Funny, attractive, and a straight up accurate folktale, this is children’s book publishing at its best. And as for the giant himself, my daughter has never run into a guy like him before.

“…if there is only one Arctic giant story you take the time to learn about, this is the one to remember.” Which giant? Why Inukpak, of course! Large (even for a giant) our story recounts Inukpak’s various deeds. He could stride across wide rivers, and fish full whales out of the sea. In his travels, there was one day when Inukpak ran across a little human hunter. Misunderstanding the man to be a small child, the giant promptly adopted him. And since the man was no fool he understood that when a giant claims you, you have little recourse but to accept. He went along with it. The giant fished their dinner and when a polar bear threatened the hunter Inukpak flicked it away like it was no more than a baby fox or lemming. In time the two became good friends and had many adventures together. Backmatter called “More About Arctic Giants” explains at length about their size, their fights, their relationship to the giant polar bears, and how they may still be around – maybe right under your feet!

I’ve read a lot of giant fare in my day and I have never encountered a tale quite like this. Not that the story really goes much of anywhere. The only true question you find yourself asking as you read the tale is whether or not the hunter will ever confess to the giant that he isn’t actually a child. But as I read and reread the tale, I came to love the humor of the tale. Combined with the art, it’s a lighthearted story. In fact, one of the problems is also a point in its favor. When you get to the end of the tale and are told that Inukpak and the hunter had many adventures, you want to read those immediately. One can only hope that Mr. Christopher and Mr. Nelson will join forces yet again someday to bring us more of this unique and delightful duo.

I’m no expert on Inuit culture so it doesn’t hurt that in the creation of “On the Shoulder of a Giant” author Neil Christopher has the distinction of having spent the last sixteen years of his life recording and preserving traditional Inuit stories. Having seen a fair number of books of Native American folktales where the selection of the tales is offhanded at best, the care with which Christopher chooses to imbue his book with life and vitality is notable. The book reads aloud beautifully, and would serve a librarian well if they were told to read aloud a folktale to a group. Likewise, the pictures are visible from long distances. This story begs for a big audience.

I’ve seen a lot of small presses in my day. Quality can vary considerably from place to place. Often I’ll see a small publisher bring to life a folktale but then skimp on the artist chosen to bring the story to life. It’s a sad but common occurrence. So common, in fact, that when it doesn’t happen I’m shocked out of my gourd. Inhabit Media is one of those rare few that take illustration very seriously. Each of their books looks good. Looks not just professional but like something you’d want to take home for yourself. “On the Shoulder of a Giant” is no exception. This time the artist tapped was freelance illustrator Jim Nelson. He’s based out of Chicago and his art has included stuff like Magic the Gathering cards and the like. He is not, at first glance, the kind of artist you’d tap for a book of this sort. After all, he works with a digital palette creating images that would seemingly be more at home in a comic book than a classic Inuit folktale. Yet what are folktales but proto-superhero stories? What are superhero comics but just modern myths? Inukpak is larger than life and, as such, he demands an artist who can bring his physicality to bear upon the narrative. When he’s fishing for whales I wanna see that sucker fighting back. When he strides across great plains I wanna be there beside him. Nelson feeds that need.

Since Nelson isn’t Inuit himself, the question of how authentic his art may be arises. I am willing to believe, however, that any book published by a company operating with the sole intent to “preserve and promote the stories, knowledge and talent of Inuit and northern Canada” is going to have put the book through a strict vetting process. It would not be ridiculous to think that Nelson’s editor informed him of where to research classic Inuit clothing and landscapes. I loved every inch of Nelson’s art on this story but it was the backmatter that really did it for me. There’s a section that is able to show the difference in size between a inukpasugjuit (“great giant”), a inugaruligasugjuk (“lesser giant”), and a regular human that does a brilliant job of showing scale. That goes for the nanurluit (giant polar bear) in one of the pictures, relentlessly tracking two tiny hunters in their boats. But it is the final shot of a sleeping giant under the mountains as people walk on to of him, oblivious that will really pique young imaginations.

I’m not saying that “On the Shoulder of a Giant” has the ability to single-handedly rid my daughter of her fear of giants as a whole. It does, however, stand out as a singularly fun and interesting take on the whole giant genre. There’s nothing on my library shelves that sounds or feels or looks quite like this book. It could well be the poster child for the ways in which small publishers should examine and publish classic folktales. Beautiful and strange with a flavor all its own, this is one little book that yields big rewards. Fantastico.


Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure: A TOON Graphic (Toon Graphics)
Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure: A TOON Graphic (Toon Graphics)
by Nadja Spiegelman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.56
51 used & new from $9.44

5.0 out of 5 stars Be alert and have a safe day., April 20, 2015
While I’m aware that public transport was invented to meet the very real needs of urban commuters, when you’re the parent of a city child you can be forgiven for taking an entirely different view of things. Simply put: subways were created for the sole purpose of amusing children. How else to explain the fun maps, bright colors, and awe-inspiring bits of machinery? We already knew that kids loved trains. Now put those trains underground. That’s just awesomeness redoubled. Here in New York City a certain level of excitement about subway trains is almost required of our kids. Yet when it comes to books about the subway system, it’s often disappointing. Either it’s too young, too old, or like Count on the Subway by Paul DuBois Jacobs it gives the subway lines the wrong colors. Sure Subway by Christoph Niemann is the gold standard, but what can you offer older metro fans? Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman hits that sweet spot for the 6-10 year old crowd. Visually stunning (to say nothing of its accuracy) with abundant factual information wriggled into every available crevice, you don’t have to be a New Yorker to enjoy this book (though, boy, does it sure help).

When you have a father that moves your family all over the country, it can be easy to disconnect from the places you briefly live. So when Pablo enters Mr. Bartle’s class on the first day of his new school, he rebuffs cheery Alicia’s attempts at friendship. On this particular day the class is taking a field trip to the Empire State Building. Pablo learns about the subway system that will take the class there alongside everyone else, but when he and Alicia are inspecting a map on the subway he’s briefly confused and takes her with him onto the express 2 train and not the local 1. Now separated from their class, the two kids start to fight and next thing you know they have to find their way back to their classmates entirely on their own. Backmatter and a Bibliography of other subway resources appear at the end.

I'm an adult so after reading this story several times you know whom I feel most sorry for? The teacher, Mr. Bartle. Here the man is, taking his class on a routine subway trip, and along the way he loses two of them at the very first stop. A common New Yorker nightmare is the idea that you might lose your child on the subway. Yet in Spiegelman and Sánchez’s hands it’s a nightmare turned into an adventure. It’s the same reason From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler continues to be read. For children, the thought of being independent in a city as vast as NYC is as enticing as it is horrific. Spiegelman does give Pablo a native guide for the first part of his journey, but pretty soon they two are separated and he has to make his way on his own to his group. This is by no means an interactive book, but I had to withhold a scream when Pablo jumped the 7 train at 42nd Street. He’s lucky he asked for traveling advice as early as he did, else he would have ended up in far distant Queens relatively quickly.

Spiegelman’s writing holds up for the most part. It’s a slim story, clocking in at a mere 52 pages which is only slightly more than your average picture book. Some of that is rounded out with the backmatter too. Filled with history and brimming with photographs, engravings, and other stunning images, Spiegelman outdoes herself with the information found there. For certain subway buffs, the info included (with sections like “Why Are There No H, I, K, O, P, T, U, V, W, X, or Y Trains?”) will be particularly pleasing. However, when we look at the story in this book by itself, it does come to a rather abrupt halt. Pablo spends the greater part of the story declaring that he doesn’t need friends. He parts from Alicia on angry terms, yet when the two are reunited they act like the best buddies in the world. I wasn’t quite sure where the switchover on this relationship occurred. Otherwise, everything seems pretty certain and consistent.

Not all subway books are created equal. I remember years ago encountering a NY subway picture book where a normally elevated stop was pictured in the book as underground. Certainly the cover of this book gave me hope. It seemed to be acknowledging from the get-go that the 1 and 2 trains both stop at 96th, 72nd, and 42nd Street (we will ignore the peculiar inclusion of a “33” since we can assume artist Sergio Garcia Sánchez meant 34th Street). As it happens, Mr. Sánchez is a resident not of one of the five boroughs but of Spain. You wouldn’t know it. The New York found within these pages feels so real and so contemporary that I have difficulty understanding that I’m not going to run into the man on the street when I leave for work tomorrow morning. Artists could learn a thing or two from his attention to detail. From the color of the painted columns to the diversity of the city streets, this is indeed the New York I know and love.

The design of Lost in NYC is also a delight to the eyes. Good graphic novels for children are rare beasties. Half the time you’re left wondering if the editors or artists ever took the time to look outside the standard panel format. If Mr. Sánchez feels inclined to use panels in this book, you can bet it’s a strategic decision. The very first page is almost entirely open, only settling into panels when the kids are approaching the rigid format of a school setting. As the teacher, Mr. Bartle, begins to introduce subway history, we see the characters on a massive topographic map. It’s a visual approximation of the cut-and-cover technique used to create subways in a city chock full of hardened bedrock. Once the kids go underground the panels shift to full two-page spreads, and lots of individual vertical panels like the cars on a subway train. When called upon to render the city blocks in such a way where you can see the characters all converge on the Empire State Building from different directions, the artist either shrinks the buildings and blows up the characters, or he overlaps a subway map onto a street map and you can see the kids meet up that way. Then there are the perspective shifts. The view up into the Empire State Building, a wall or two cut away so that you can get a visual sense of some of the seventy-three elevators in the building, is dizzying. I can say with certainty that even if a child were incapable of reading English (or Spanish, since this book is being simultaneously translated) they would still be able to be moved and stirred by this story.

He’s also filled the book with inside jokes. I was so pleased that I took time to read the “Behind the Scenes: Sergio and the Cop” section at the back of the book. In it, Sergio describes a time he visited NYC and was photographing all the details at the 96th Street subway stop when a cop started paying a little too much attention to him. As a result, if you look in the book you can find Sergio and the cop on “virtually every spread.” Once you see it, it cannot be unseen. It also creates a kind of touching secondary story as the two go from antagonists to, finally, taking a selfie together.

Accuracy in illustration, even (or should I say especially?) in fictional stories, is imperative. You have to make the reader inhabit the setting presented, and the best way to accomplish this is through rigorous research and skill. Mr. Sánchez has both and by pairing with Nadja Spiegelman he may well earn himself an Honorary New Yorker decree. Though filled to its gills with accurate Manhattan details, you don’t have to live anywhere in the five boroughs to recognize the fear that comes with having to navigate an unfamiliar public transit system. Particularly if you’re just a kid. An adventure tale wrapped around a nonfiction core of subways subways subways. What’s not to love?

For ages 6-10.


Beastly Verse
Beastly Verse
by JooHee Yoon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.41
39 used & new from $10.76

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If I could talk to the animals . . ., April 14, 2015
This review is from: Beastly Verse (Hardcover)
Poetry. What’s the point? I say this as a woman who simultaneously gets poetry and doesn’t get it. I get that it’s important, of course. I only need to watch my three-year-old daughter come up with an ever increasing and creative series of bouncy rhymes to understand their use. But what I don’t get is Poetry with a capital “P”. I have come to accept this as a failing on my own part. And to be fair, there are works of poetry that I like. They just all seem to be for the milk teeth set. With that in mind I was particularly pleased to see “Beastly Verse”, illustrated by Joohee Yoon. Full of fabulous classic poems and art that manages to combined a distinctive color palette with eye-popping art, Yoon’s creates a world that takes the madcap energy of Dr. Seuss and combines it with the classic printmaking techniques of a fine artist. The end result keeps child readers on the edge of their seats with adults peering over their shoulders, hungry for more.

As I mentioned, the resident three-year-old is much enamored of poetry. This is good because it makes her an apt test subject for my own curiosity. I should mention that my goal in life is to NOT become the blogger who uses her children to determine the value of one book or another. That said, the temptation to plumb their little minds can sometimes prove irresistible. Now “Beastly Verse” is not specifically aimed at the preschooler set. With poems like William Blake’s “The Tiger” and “Humming-Bird” by D.H. Lawrence, the verse can at times exceed a young child’s grasp. That said, none of the poems collected here are very long, and the art is so entrancing that the normal fidgets just tend to fade away as you turn the pages. My daughter did find that some of the more frightening images, say of the carnivorous hummingbird or the spangled pandemonium, were enough to put her off. Fortunately, each scary image is hidden beneath a clever gatefold. If the reader does not want to see the face of a tiger tiger burning bright, they needn’t open the fold at all. Not only is it a beautiful technique, it makes the book appropriate for all ages. Clever.

One might not associate Yoon’s particular brand of yellows reds, oranges, greens, and blues with evocative prints. Yet time and again I was struck by the entrancing beauty of the pages. Yoon’s traditional printmaking techniques can bring to life the hot steam that rises even in the coolest shade of a tiger’s jungle. Another page and Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” lingers below the surface of the water, his innards heaving with “little fishes”. Yoon saves the best for last, though, with a poem I’d not come across before. “Dream Song” by Walter de la Mare is set in the gleam of “Sunlight, moonlight / Twilight, starlight” when the sun is just a sliver of a white hot crescent on the horizon. All the forest is lit by the orange and red rays, and out of a tree pokes the head of a single owl. The hypnotic verses speaking of “wild waste places far away” mix with the image, conjuring up the moment moviemakers call “magic hour”.

Mind you, there is always a nightmarish mirror image to each seemingly sweet picture. The eyeless caterpillar all maw and teeth is turned, on the next page, into a beautiful but equally unnerving butterfly. Only Yoon, as far as I’m concerned, could have brought us the horrific implications of “The Humming-Bird” and its existence “Before anything had a soul.” Even the last seemingly innocuous image of Captain Jonathan cooking himself an egg takes on a dire cast when you realize it’s that of a pelican (of the poem “The Pelican” by Robert Desnos) he’s about to devour.

This is by no means the first collection of animal poetry to grace our shelves. It was only two or three years ago that J. Patrick Lewis helped to collect the “National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry”. Many of the poems found in this book can be found in that one as well. However, while that book seemed to be going for sheer girth, Yoon’s selections here are carefully positioned. I was interested in the layout in particular. You begin with the aforementioned Carroll poem (which seems appropriate since a manic smiling cat graces the title page) and then transition into a nursery rhyme, a bit of typical Ogden Nash flippery (only three lines long), and then Blake’s best-known poem. Variety of length keeps the poems eclectic and interesting to read. They keep you guessing as well. You never quite know what kind of poem will come next.

Having read the deliciously multicultural “Over the Hills and Far Away”, collected by Elizabeth Hammill, it is difficult to pick up a collected work of poetry without hankering for a similar experience. Aside from artist Joohee Yoon’s own name and the fact that Robert Desnos was Jewish, there is very little in this collection that isn’t white and American/European. The reasons for this may have something to do with permissions. Every poem in this book, with the exception of a few, is in the public domain. None were commissioned for the book specifically. Mind you, it would have been possible for the book to follow Hammill’s lead and locate international public domain animal poems of one sort or another written specifically for children. It is therefore up to the reading public to ascertain if the book stands stronger as a collection of similar types of poetry or if it would have benefited from a bit of variety here and there.

In the end, it’s a beautiful piece. Children’s rooms are no strangers to beautiful art in their poetry collections, but Yoon’s distinctive style is hard to compare to anyone. The only poet/illustrator with the same energy that comes to mind (and that writes for kids) would have to be Calef Brown. And as debuts go, this is a stunner. A truly inventive and original collection that deepens with every additional read. Kids like it. Adults like it. It could have benefited from some diversity, absolutely. Overall, however, there are few things like it on our shelves. An inspiration.

For ages 3 and up.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 26, 2015 5:30 PM PDT


Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred)
Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred)
by Josh Schneider
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.67
47 used & new from $3.81

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sleepers awake!, April 7, 2015
When attempting to turn small writhing human beings of very little years into mature, forthright, sterling individuals of singular merit and good humor we run into some challenges. There’s teaching them to eat their dinner (even the vegetables). There’s endowing them with an appreciation of tooth brushing. And then there’s the trickiest one of all: bedtime. That moment every day is when the battle of wills must begin. Now for some kids bedtime is merely a nightly inconvenience. For others, a call to arms. It is where our children pull out all the stops and use every last bit of intelligence and cunning at their disposal in the hopes of avoiding the unavoidable. Many is the picture book that has tried to bring that struggle to life on the page. Most catalog avoidance techniques. That is understandable. Like I say, creativity flows like a gushing torrent when kids are trying to get out of sleepytime. But one, a certain Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred), goes a different route entirely. In this book Fred isn’t just avoiding bedtime. He’s making it nigh well impossible for anyone else to get any shut-eye either. Funny? You don’t know the half of it.

In this book Schneider takes the usual bedtime avoidance metaphors and then proceeds to crank them up to eleven. It’s bedtime. A time when all the animals are getting some well-deserved rest. There are the sheep counting themselves down. There are the monkeys, dreaming of some fine ballet antics. There are the monsters, brushing their teeth before they go down. And then, there is Fred. A Fred, who is not taking any of this lying down. He has a list of things to get done and by golly he’s going to do them. He might be playing loud instruments on the one hand or searching for Bigfoot on the other. Whatever it is he does, he does it loudly and all the animals are having a heckuva time getting some slee . . . wait! What’s this? It looks like Fred is sleeping at last. What a relief! But close the book quietly or he might begin his antics all over again.

So I’m just sitting here waiting for Josh Schneider to do something wrong. Any minute now. Any minute. Surely it’s just a matter of time before he pens a dud, right? Because as of right now in the year 2015 he’s just been hitting it out of the park over and over again. Tales for Very Picky Eaters won itself a Geisel Award. The Meanest Birthday Girl is the best white elephant tale you’ll ever pick up. And Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover has to be the best Frankenstein meets pretty pretty princess fare you’ll run ever run across. So even though the cover of this book made me laugh out loud on sight (the giraffe takes up two floors!!!) I tried to read Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) with an open mind. Schneider was going to have to earn my love with this one. Yeah, he pretty much does that from page one onwards.

Part of this has a lot to do with Schneider’s love of detail. His is not a changeable illustration style. Once again he employs the same thin black lines. The same L’il Orphan Annie’s pupil-less eyes. But here he’s been given a bit more leeway with the art. I don’t know that I ever felt he was holding himself back before, but if this book is any indication then yes. Yes he has. This is a book that rewards the parent called upon to read and reread certain sections multiple times. Some examples: Turn now to the page where the sheep are getting sleepy. Did you notice that there’s a tally on the wall and that next to one of the tally marks they’ve written a sheep’s name with a question mark? Clearly they’re good at keeping track. And did you notice that the animals that move from page to page are actually Fred’s stuffed animals seen at the beginning and end of the book? This only becomes perfectly clear when you get to the end and the woebegotten sheep Fred has fallen asleep upon turns into a stuffed animal with a mere page turn. Then you have to spend an inordinate amount of time flipping back through the book to figure out where each stuffed animal plays into the narrative.

Is it repetitive of me to mention that it’s funny to boot? Let us not downplay the role of humor in a title. If Schneider was truly told by his editor to go all out and do whatever he liked (which, regardless of whether or not that happened, is the overall impression anyway) you could not get a better mixture of child and adult humor. Some books tip too far in one direction or another. This book walks the fine line. So you’ll have monkeys performing ballet on the one hand (note that to accommodate their feet, Schneider has given their shoes a little extra hole for the superfluous thumb toe) and then you’ll have the text of the world’s most boring bedtime book on the other. At one point in the story we are told that a group of children has been bored into snores by the reading of a particularly draining bunny book. We even get a glimpse of the text and to my mind it is worth the price of the book right there. I won’t ruin it for you. Just know that “foreign monies” does in fact rhyme with “bunnies” and that this may be the first time the term “bunny bender” has ever appeared in any kind of a context in a children’s book.

All this is well and good, but let’s examine the really important part: how does the book read aloud? You see I have a three-year-old residing in my home right now and if a book doesn’t pass the readaloud test then this particular kiddo is not going to care two bits about Fred, sleeping or otherwise. Happily, it reads beautifully. I was able to have particular fun with the “but not Fred” part of each sequence. You just drop a long pause in there. Not so long it loses your audience, but long enough to build anticipation. Then you lean towards the kid and say sotto vox, “... but not Fred.” Gets ‘em every time, guaranteed.

Is it a book that will actually put a kid to sleep? Not in the traditional sense. I mean, you want soporific fare you may as well stick to Goodnight Moon. There is, however, the possibility that Fred’s antics will be so wild and wackadoodle that they’ll exhaust your own child by mere association. And, of course, he’ll amuse them deeply. He and his dead tired animal/monster companions. There are books about avoiding going to bed and then there’s Fred. A book with a spring in its step, a song in its heart, and what appears to be Jolt cola swimming through its veins. Sleepers awake!

For ages 4-6.


Sidewalk Flowers
Sidewalk Flowers
by JonArno Lawson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.89
14 used & new from $12.89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bright spots of joy and comfort., March 31, 2015
This review is from: Sidewalk Flowers (Hardcover)
When you live in a city, nature's successes can feel like impositions. We have too many pigeons. Too many squirrels. Too many sparrows, and roaches, and ants. Too many . . . flowers? Flowers we don’t seem to mind as much but we certainly don’t pay any attention to them. Not if we’re adults, anyway. Kids, on the other hand, pay an exquisite amount of attention to anything on their eye level. Particularly if it’s a spot of tangible beauty available to them for the picking. Picture books have so many functions, but one of them is tapping into the mindset of people below the ages of 9 or 10. A good picture book gets down to a child’s eye level, seeing what they’re seeing, reveling in what they’re reveling in. Perspective and subject matter, art and heart, all combine with JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s Sidewalk Flowers. Bright spots of joy and comfort, sometimes it takes a kid to see what anyone else might claim isn’t even there.

A girl and her father leave the grocery to walk the city streets home. As he leads, he is blind to the things she sees. A tattooed stranger. A woman in a cab. And on one corner, small dandelions poking out of the sidewalk. As the two walk she finds more and more of the beauties, and gathers them into a bouquet. Once that's done she finds ways of giving them out. Four to the dead bird on the sidewalk. One to the homeless man asleep on the bench. Five tucked into the collar of a dog. Home once more she plants flowers in her mother's hair and behind her brothers' ears. Then, with the last blossom, she tucks it behind her own ear. That done, she's ready to keep walking, watching and noticing.

Now JonArno Lawson, I know. If I had my way his name would grace the tongue of every children’s librarian in America. However, he is both Canadian and a poet and the dual combination dooms his recognition in the United States. Canadians, after all, cannot win most of the American Library Association awards and poets are becoming increasingly rare beasts in the realm of children’s literature. Time was you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting one or two children’s poets (albeit the slow moving ones). Now it sometimes feels like there are only 10-15 in any given year. Treat your children and read them The Man in the Moon Fixer’s Mask if ever you get a chance. Seen in this light, the idea of a poet turned wordless picture book author is unusual. It’s amazing that a man of words, one that finds such satisfaction in how they are strung together, could step back and realize from the get-go that this story could be best served only when the words themselves were removed.

A picture book as an object is capable of bringing to the attention of the reader those small moments of common grace that make the world ever so slightly better. In an interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton, author JonArno Lawson cited the inspiration for this book: “Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way . . . What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn't doing it for praise, she was just doing it.” I love this point. The description on the back of this book says that “Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.” I think I like Lawson’s interpretation better. What we have here is a girl who is bringing beauty with her, and disposing of it at just the right times. It becomes a kind of act of grace. Small beauties. Small person.

Now we know from Roger’s interview that Lawson created a rough dummy of the book and the way he envisioned it, but how artist Sydney Smith chose to interpret that storyline seems to have been left entirely up to him. Wordless books give an artist such remarkable leeway. I’ve seen some books take that freedom and waste it on the maudlin, and I’ve seen others make a grab for the reader’s heart only to miss it by a mile. The overall feeling I get from Sidewalk Flowers, though, is a quiet certitude. This is not a book that is pandering for your attention and love. Oh, I’m sure that some folks out there will find the sequence with the homeless man on the bench a bit too pat, but to those people I point out the dead bird. How on earth does an artist show a girl leaving flowers by a dead bird without tripping headlong into the trite or pat? I’ve no idea. All I know is that Smith manages it.

Much of this has to do with the quality of the art. Smith’s tone is simultaneously serious and chock full of a kind of everyday wonder. His city is not too clean, not too dirty, and just the right bit of busy. For all that it’s a realistic urban setting, there’s something of the city child to its buzz and bother. A kid who grows up in a busy city finds a comfort in its everyday bustle. There are strangers here, sure, but there’s also a father who may be distracted but is never any more than four or five feet away from his daughter. Her expressions remain muted. Not expressionless, mind you, but you pay far more attention to her actions than her emotions. What she is feeling she’s keeping to herself. As for the panels, Smith knows how to break up each page in a different way. Sometimes images will fill an entire page. Other times there will be panels and white borders. Look at how the shelves in a secondhand shop turn the girl and her dad into four different inadvertent panels. Or how the dead bird sequence can be read top down or side-to-side with equal emotional gut punches.

The placement of each blossom deserves some credit as well. Notice how Smith (or was it Lawson?) chooses to show when the flowers are bestowed. You almost never see the girl place the flowers. Often you only see them after the fact, as the bird or dog or mother remains the focus of the panel and the girl hurries away. The father is never bedecked, actually. He seems to be the only person in the story who isn’t blessed by the gifts, but that’s probably because he’s a stand-in more than a parent. For adults reading this book, he’s a colorless reason not to worry about the girl’s capers. His purpose is to help her travel across the course of the book. Then, at the end, she takes the last remaining daisy, tucks it behind her ear, and walks onto the back endpapers where the pattern changes from merely a lovely conglomeration of flower and bird images to a field. A field waiting to be explored.

The use of color is probably the detail the most people will notice, even on a first reading of the story. In interviews Lawson has said that folks have told him that the girl’s hoodie reminds them of Peter in The Snowy Day or Little Red Riding Hood. She’s a spot of read traveling through broken gray. Her flowers are always colorful, and then there are those odd little blasts of color along her path. The dress of a woman at a bus stop is filled with flowers of its own. The oranges of a fruit stand beckon. The closer the girl approaches her home, the brighter the colors become. That grey wash that filled the lawns in the park turn a sweet pure green. As the girl climbs the steps to her mother (whose eyes are never seen), even her dad has taken a rosy hue to his cheeks.

After you pick up your 400th new baby book OR story about an animal that wants to dance ballet OR tale of a furry woodland creature that thinks that everyone has forgotten its birthday, you begin thinking that all the stories that could possibly be told to children have been written already. Do not fall into this trap. If Sidewalk Flowers teaches us nothing else it is that a single child could inspire a dozen picture books in the course of a single hour, let alone a day. There’s a reason folks are singing this book’s praises from Kalamazoo to Calgary. It’s a book that reminds you why we came up with the notion of wordless picture books in the first place. Affecting, efficient, moving, kind. Lawson’s done the impossible. He wrote poetry into a book without a single word, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

For ages 3-6


Red: A Crayon's Story
Red: A Crayon's Story
by Michael Hall
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.91
73 used & new from $7.23

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm blue, baba dee, March 29, 2015
This review is from: Red: A Crayon's Story (Hardcover)
Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one's moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from “The Childe’s Guide” that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. “When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Very Very Angry” works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every “Sophie” there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across “Red: A Crayon’s Story”. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.

“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.

A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.

Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.

This isn’t my first time on the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked “My Heart Is Like a Zoo”, enjoyed “Perfect Square”, took to “Cat Tale”, and noted “It’s an Orange Aardvark!” It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to “Red”. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like “Perfect Square” he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, “Red” makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.

Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.

Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.

For ages 3 and up.


Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
by Elizabeth Hammill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.79
59 used & new from $9.93

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A nursery rhyme book for the 21st century, March 28, 2015
Not all nursery rhyme collections are created equal. That is something you discover when you have small children. A parent, even a children’s librarian type parent, will inevitably come to a shocking realization sometime during their child’s early years that when you read a nursery rhyme, the kiddo really and truly seems to love it. Nursery rhymes, far from simply being “good for the child” in some lofty, educated manner, have stuck around as long as they have because they really and truly do speak to the kids. The cadences and rhythms and images are incomparable, and that is regardless of nation or heritage. So as you seek out new nursery rhyme books, you begin to fancy yourself a kind of connoisseur. Some authors provide the classics in an effective manner (Lobel, de Paola, etc.) while others seem to be finding their footing. And really, how many ways can you re-imagine Little Boy Blue anyway? One thing you don’t find in a lot of nursery rhyme collections? Diversity. You pick up something like Over the Hills and Far Away and you see that “more than 70 celebrated artists” are included. It ain’t lying. It also ain’t the white white world we’re so used to in nursery rhyme collections. Tsimshian and Creole, Jamaican and Australian, Chinese American and Chippewa, this is a book that not only speaks to a wider audience than nursery rhyme collections of the past, it’s cleverly constructed and perfectly illustrated to boot. Hammill has clearly created the very first nursery rhyme collection of note for the 21st century.

Read the publication page of the book and you will be told that "Over the Hills and Far Away gathers poems from various parts of the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, the Caribbean, Australia, and the United States. Regional spellings and usage have been retained in order to preserve the integrity of the originals.” Fair enough, and I understand why this statement reads the way it does, but it does run the risk of leading the casual reader to believe that this book only collects poems from the English-speakers of the world. Happily, even the most cursory flip through will relieve you of that mistake (to say nothing of reading the Introduction). Because if there is one thing the nursery rhyme books of your average library lack, it is diversity. Generally speaking, if a person wants to find Inuit, Jamaican, Latino, or South African nursery rhymes, you find separate collections of them and that’s that. Almost never do you find them integrated seamlessly with English and American rhymes. Hammill notes in her Introduction that “Nowhere... have I found a wide-ranging collection that sits alongside these Mother Goose favorites and injects fresh life into them – providing a genuine intercultural experience.” Why? Research. Dedication. It takes a single-minded intensity to not only track them down but to also pair each and every one with just the right artist.

And the artists, in this particular case, are jaw-dropping. It isn’t just the number of well known names on display. Certainly Mo Willems, Shaun Tan, Lucy Cousins, Ed Young, Jon Klassen, Shirley Hughes, Jerry Pinkney and so on and such are impressive right from the get go. It’s also the fact that there are a great number of artists working here who are not, first and foremost, famous names. Hammill says in her opening that these artists included both the established and the emerging, as well as winner of an Illustration Competition for U.K. art students.

And how do these illustrators do? I was pleased. Every collection out there is going to have its stronger and weaker elements. So there were some artists who had clearly put a lot of time and thought into their art, while others seemed to phone it in. The Marcia Williams take on “Old Mother Hubbard” reminded me of the poem in Nursery Rhyme Comics which also turned the rhyme into sequential comic art (it really lends itself to the form well). Meanwhile Eric Carle’s art is just a series of animals taken from his previously published books. Jerry Pinkney created original art of a familiar character when he referenced his Caldecott Honor title Noah’s Ark in the rhyme “Who Built the Ark?” Sometimes the artists alleviate potential creepiness (as with Gus Gordon’s rather charming if carnivorous “Algy Saw a Bear”) while others add to it (I’m thinking of the uber-sketchy men peering at the cheerful girl eating her food alongside the rhymes “Brow Bender”, “Earkin-Hearkin”, and “Knock at the Door”). But by some great good fortune, the bulk of the work is very strong, charming, and actually honestly interesting to kids. Let’s not forget that little factor.

I was charmed by the art. I was taken with the selection. But the real reason Hammill’s work on this book blew me away as much as it did? It’s simple. The woman has a gift for pairing complimentary rhymes together. As the mother of a 3-year-old and a new baby I’ve done my due diligence and read every nursery rhyme book I could get my hands on. Yet while artists like Tomie dePaola and Arnold Lobel would pair similar rhymes together in clever ways (rain poems on one page, love poems on another), Hammill sort of kicks everything up to another level. First there are the pairings that are so obvious you’re shocked you haven’t seen them before. “Yankee Doodle” next to “The Grand Old Duke of York”. Or glutinous “Hannah Bantry” with “Jack Sprat” and wife. In her introduction, Hammill notes that in her research she “came upon anthologies of parallel rhymes and verse that have entered and enhanced the English lexicon from Asia, the Caribbean, and African, Native-American, and Hispanic cultures and elsewhere.” It reminds me of that old collection of world fairy and folktales World Tales collected by Idries Shah, which noted similarities in single stories throughout different cultures. Here you’ll see how well some poems pair. Some pairs are the lighthearted kind mentioned above. Others have quite a bit more to say, as when “Hush-a-bye, Baby” sits alongside the Chippewa “Little Baby, Sleep” and artist Olivia Lomenech Gill crafts a fascinating construct of “baby” King George falling off the tree while, on the other page, a Chippewa mother holds her child’s cradle board.

In the back of the book you will find a list of sources used to find some of these poems and rhymes. This is followed by a section thanking directly some of the people who helped to find these rhymes, like Pascale Arpin, coordinator of Arts Programming at Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association and Ashley Bryan who opened “his extensive personal library to me and introducing me to important collections of African and Caribbean verse and rhyme”. Many of the collections sourced are older, from the 1929 rhymes from the Bureau of American Ethnology to the 1900 Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes. I’m no nursery rhyme historian so I take it on faith that Hammill took steps to ensure accuracy where the poems are concerned. You need a certain level of trust in these cases. I leave it to others to ascertain one source’s authenticity over another’s.

Gone are the days when the publishing industry could put out nursery rhyme collection after nursery rhyme collection and not have to think about the diverse audience who might be reading the poems. Generally when nursery rhymes are produced these days the hat tip made to cultural diversity rests squarely on the shoulders of the illustrator, not the selection of poems themselves. What sets Over the Hills and Far Away apart is the fact that not only has Elizabeth Hammill found a wide range of interesting and intelligent rhymes, she has found ways to interweave them with similar rhymes from other cultures to create a real understanding of why rhymes from children are universally desired and important. For all that we talk about diverse books for kids, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that someone create a book like this before. Now it is here. If you own only one nursery rhyme collection on your shelves, own this one.

For all ages.


Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
by Greg Pizzoli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.95
75 used & new from $8.09

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dirty rotten scoundrel, March 25, 2015
I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films. A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist. “Ocean’s 11” and that sort of thing. In the children’s book world this would be “The Great Greene Heist”. A con man film is different. There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either. “Catch Me If You Can” is a con man film. And on the children’s book side? Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them. Maybe “Pickle” by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch. It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s “Tricky Vic” that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years. Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him. Here we see a character that was larger than life. Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.

In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last. Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist. His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation. Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich. But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers. Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope. Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.

Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers. In “The Boy Who Loved Math” it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness. In “The Noisy Paintbox” it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again. And in “Tricky Vic” it’s shamelessness. Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong. Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here. You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun. You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself. Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal. But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln. Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears. There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.

Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book “The Watermelon Seed” two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route. “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic. That aesthetic remains intact in “Tricky Vic” but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven. In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.

Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty. The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses. With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next. This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation. But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person. Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this. Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun. Remove his mouth and eyes and voila! An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline. Let the facts speak for themselves.

And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today. Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts. These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue. I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography. However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule. And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative. If you read the book the actual text is all factual. There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly. Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space. Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages. The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text. A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past. They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.

I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy. During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on “Gingerbread for Liberty” and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text. In “Tricky Vic” Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art. He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well. The design elements are what really step things up a notch. I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate. As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz. The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.

I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals. As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin. The beauty of “Tricky Vic”, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character. There is value in showing kids the fools of the past. I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own. And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world. The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy. For one. For all. Un-forgettable.


My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!)
My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!)
by Alison DeCamp
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.71
57 used & new from $0.78

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars He's a lumberjack and he's okay . . ., February 24, 2015
Children’s historical fiction novels often divide up one of two ways. In the first category you have your important moments in history. In such books our heroes run about and encounter these moments by surprise. Extra points if it happens to be a Great Big Bad Moment in history as well. Then in the second category are the books that have opted to go a more difficult route. They may be well grounded in a time period of the past, but they do not require historical cameos or Great Big Bad Moments to transport their readers. Such books run a very great risk of, quite frankly, becoming dull. Read enough of them and, with the exception of a few, they all run together. Humor often helps me distinguish them from the pack. After all, would “Catherine Called Birdy” command quite so many hearts and minds if it weren’t also deeply amusing? Still, it’s rare to find fiction set in the past for kids that’s quite that original. It takes a certain kind of devious brain to hit on an all-new take. Enter “My Near-Death Adventures” by Alison DeCamp. Falling squarely into the second category rather than the first, this 1895 charmer utilizes plenty of visuals along with an unreliable narrator and classic comedic setting. I can say with certainty that your kids will never read a work of lumberjack fiction quite as fast and funny as this ever again.

Well, sir, it looks like Stan’s found himself in a heap of trouble. First off there’s the difficulty with his dead father. The problem? He’s not dead. He’s nowhere around, and now he seems to have divorced Stan’s mama, but dead he is not. Then there’s the fact that it’s the middle of winter yet Stan's mama and his 95% evil Granny (her percentage fluctuates a lot) are packing him up and they're all heading up to some godforsaken lumber camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that’s good for Stan since he’s been hoping to build up his manly skills so that he can support his mama. Unfortunately his cousin Geri, who seems to revel in torturing him, will be there as well. Can Stan fight off his mother’s multiple suitors, keep his eye on the lumberjack he’s dubbed “Stinky Pete”, and learn to be a man (if Geri doesn’t kill him first) all at once? If anyone can, it’s Stan. Probably.

Humor in historical fiction can come across as a case where the contemporary author is shoehorning his or her own beliefs onto characters from the past. Often when this happens it feels fake. I remember once reading a children’s novel set in the Civil War South where an enterprising young woman, with no outside influences, actually said, “Corsets don’t just restrict the waist. They restrict the mind,” or something equally out of left field. So to what extent are anachronisms a threat in books of this sort? For example, would someone like Stan really have called his cousin "Scary Geri"? For me, I don’t worry as much about the small details. If the language isn’t strictly of the late 19th century variety then who in the Sam Hill cares? (Forgive my language, granny.) It’s the big things (like mind restricting corsets) that catch my eye. With that in mind, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Stan is a sexist jerk. He quite believably does not look on women’s accomplishments as something to commend (which, in turn, is an interesting way of building up sympathy for his cousin Geri). In other words, he's of his time.

To bring the funny, DeCamp does two things I’ve not seen done in works of historical fiction before. The first involves a ton of late 19th/early 20th century advertisements. Using the conceit that this is Stan’s scrapbook, each image makes some kind of commentary on what Stan is describing. They’re also hilarious. I cannot help but imagine the countless hours DeCamp spent poring through advertisement after advertisement. One wonders if there were parts of the narrative wholly reliant on the existence of one ad or another. Hard to say.

The second clever and hitherto unknown thing DeCamp does with her storytelling is to make Stan an unreliable narrator with unreliable narration. Which is to say, you’ll be reading his private thoughts on the page when suddenly another character will comment on what clearly should have been kept inside Stan’s brain. The end result is that the reader will lapse into a continual sense of security, safe in the knowledge that what they’re reading isn’t dialogue (after all, there aren’t any quotation marks) and then, exactly like Stan, the reader will be shocked when someone comments on information they shouldn’t know anything about. It really puts you directly into Stan’s shoes and helps to make him more relatable. Which is good since he runs the risk of being considered unsympathetic as a character.

Unreliable as a narrator, potentially unsympathetic as a human being, Stan still wins our love. Why? He’s Kid Falstaff! A coward you root for and love, yet still don’t always approve of. Still, even in the depths of his own delusion, how can you not love the guy? He’s a Yooper Telemachus fending unworthy suitors off of his mama. And even when you’ve taken almost all you can take from the guy, you’ll find him saying something like, “This is the furthest I’ve ever felt from being a man. All I really want to do is cuddle up in bed and have Mama read me a book. Or play with the toy soldiers still lined up on my windowsill in the apartment house. But I can’t. Because that’s not manly, and being manly is the only way I’ll ever understand my father . . .” Poor kid.

A good author, by the way, allows their supporting characters some personal growth as well. It doesn’t all have to come from the protagonist, after all. In this particular case it’s Stan’s mama, a character that could easily have just been some passive, maternal bit of nothingness, who comes into her own. For years she’s been held down pretty effectively by her own mother. Now she has a chance at making a bit of a life for herself, choosing her own mate (or not choosing, as the case may be), and generally having a bit of fun. I know no kid reading this book is going to care, but I appreciated having someone other than Stan learn and grow.

I sit here secure in the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, an enterprising adult (be it teacher, parent, or librarian) will take it upon themselves to actually follow Mrs. Cavanaugh’s recipe for Vinegar Pie. The recipe is right there in black and white in the book, clear as crystal. If you have any goodness in your heart and you are tempted to tread this path, here is a bit of advice: don’t. It’s called Vinegar Pie, for crying out loud! What part of that sounds appetizing? You know what is appetizing? This book. Hilarious and heartbreaking and funny funny funny. You know what you hand a kid that gets the dreaded, “Read one work of historical fiction” assignment in school? You hand them this and then sit back to wait for their inevitable gratitude. They may never say thank you to your face, but you’ll be able to rest safe and secure in the knowledge that they loved this book. Or, at the very least, found it enticing and intriguing. 99-100% fantastic.

For ages 9-12.


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