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The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
by Sean Qualls
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.67
61 used & new from $6.82

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars And send all my Loving to you, July 1, 2015
When the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young children, in the position of trying to explain the ramifications to my offspring. Newly turned four, my daughter needed a bit of context. After all, as far as she was concerned gay people had always had the right to marry so what exactly was the big deal here? In times of change, my back up tends to be children’s books that discuss similar, but not identical, situations. And what book do I own that covers a court case involving the legality of people marrying? Why, none other than “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage” by creative couple Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. It’s almost too perfect that the book has come out the same year as this momentous court decision. Discussing the legal process, as well as the prejudices of the time, the book offers to parents like myself not just a window to the past, but a way of discussing present and future court cases that involve the personal lives of everyday people. Really, when you take all that into consideration, the fact that the book is also an amazing testament to the power of love itself . . . well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

In 1958 Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, a black/Native American woman. Residents of Virginia, they could not marry in their home state so they did so in Washington D.C. instead. Then they turned right around and went home to Virginia. Not long after they were interrupted in the night by a police invasion. They were charged with “unlawful cohabitation” and were told in no uncertain terms that if they were going to continue living together then they needed to leave Virginia. They did, but they also hired lawyers to plead their case. By 1967 the Lovings made it all the way to The Supreme Court where their lawyers read a prepared statement from Richard. It said, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” In a unanimous ruling, the laws restricting such marriages were struck down. The couple returned to Virginia, found a new house, and lived “happily (and legally) ever after.” An Author’s Note about her marriage to Sean Qualls (she is white and he is black) as well as a note about the art, Sources, and Suggestions for Further Reading appear at the end of the book.

“How do you sue someone?” Here’s a challenge. Explain the concept of suing the government to a four-year-old brain. To do so, you may have to explain a lot of connected concepts along the way. What is a lawyer? And a court? And, for that matter, why are the laws (and cops) sometimes wrong? So when I pick up a book like “The Case for Loving” as a parent, I’m desperately hoping on some level that the authors have figured out how to break down these complex questions into something small children can understand and possibly even accept. In the case of this book, the legal process is explained as simply as possible. “They wanted to return to Virginia for good, so they hired lawyers to help fight for what was right.” And then later, “It was time to take the Loving case all the way to The Supreme Court.” Now the book doesn’t explain what The Supreme Court was necessarily, and that’s where the art comes in. Much of the heavy lifting is done by the illustrations, which show the judges sitting in a row, allowing parents like myself the chance to explain their role. Here you will not find a deep explanation of the legal process, but at least it shows a process and allows you to fill in the gaps for the young and curious.

It was very interesting to me to see how Alko and Qualls handled the art in this book. I’ve often noticed that editors like to choose Sean as an artist when they want an illustrator that can offset some of the darker aspects of a work. For example, take Margarita Engle’s magnificently sordid Pura Belpre Medal winner “The Poet Slave of Cuba”. A tale of torture, gore, and hope, Qualls’ art managed to represent the darkness with a lighter touch, while never taking away from the important story at hand. In “The Case for Loving” he has scaled the story down a bit and given it a simpler edge. His characters are a bit broader and more cartoonlike than those in, say, “Dizzy”. This is due in part to Alko’s contributions. As they say in their “About the Art” section at the back of the book, Alko’s art is all about bold colors and Sean’s is about subtle layers of color and texture. Together, they alleviate the tension in different scenes. Moments that could be particularly frightening, as when the police burst into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them, are cast instead as simply dramatic. I noticed too that characters were much smaller in this book than they tend to be in Sean's others. It was interesting to note the moments when that illustrators made the faces of Richard and Virginia large. The page early in the book where Richard and Mildred look at one another over the book’s gutter pairs well with the page later in the book where their faces appear on posters behind bars against the words “Unlawful Cohabitation”. But aside from those two double spreads the family is small, often seen just outside their different respective homes. It seemed to be important to Qualls and Alko to show them as a family unit as often as possible.

Few books are perfect, and “Loving” has its off-kilter moments from time to time. For example, it describes darker skin tones in terms of food. That’s not a crime, of course, but you rarely hear white skin described as “white as aged cheese” or “the color of creamy mayonnaise” so why is dark colored skin always edible? In this book Mildred is “a creamy caramel” and she lives where people ranged from “the color of chamomile tea” to darker shades. A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.

Recently I read my kid another nonfiction picture book chronicling injustice called “Drum Dream Girl” by the aforementioned Margarita Engle. In that book a young girl isn’t allowed to drum because of her gender. My daughter was absolutely flabbergasted by the notion. When I read her “The Case for Loving” she was similarly baffled. And when, someday, someone writes a book about the landmark decision made by The Supreme Court to allow gay couples to wed, so too will some future child be just as floored by what seems completely normal to them. Until then, this is certainly a book written and published at just the right time. Informative and heartfelt all at once, it works beyond the immediate need. Context is not an easy thing to come by when we discuss complex subjects with our kids. It takes a book like this to give us the words we so desperately need. Many thanks then for that.

For ages 4-7.


Return to Augie Hobble
Return to Augie Hobble
by Lane Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.01
69 used & new from $2.66

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Boys becoming men. Men becoming wolves., June 20, 2015
This review is from: Return to Augie Hobble (Hardcover)
Here is what we can say about Lane Smith – he does not go for the easy emotional pass. There are countless author/illustrators out there for whom risk is an unknown concept. The idea of writing a book, to say nothing of your first middle grade novel, and making something new and strange of it, would put them off entirely. For Smith, it’s all in a day’s work. Indeed he’s made a name for himself in waltzing merrily into the children’s literary unknown. Had he debuted his first novel and it had been some earnest and meaningful tale of a slightly bullied boy who is dealing with a death and befriends the local pixie dream girl who teaches him to love again (currently the most popular plot in 2015 as long as you occasionally switch up the genders) then his fans would have felt a deep sense of betrayal. That said, to avoid the falsely “meaningful” by creating a book devoid of meaning is a step too far in the opposite direction. A little meaning is the glue that holds even the silliest and most esoteric work for kids together. In “Return to Augie Hobble” Lane Smith embraces that which makes him Lane Smith. Yet while he is clearly unafraid to take risks and try new things, he seems oddly reticent to give his creation a true and beating heart. Does it need one? That’s a question best answered by each individual reader.

Augie Hobble hasn’t the worst life you’ve ever heard of, but on a scale of sucks to ten it scores fairly low. It’s one thing to have to go to summer school because you can’t seem to finish one crummy school project. It’s another thing entirely to be convinced that you’re turning into a werewolf. Working in his dad’s run down fairy tale theme park (called, appropriately enough, “Fairy Tale Place”) Augie at least has his best friend Britt and their mutual intention of building a tree house to distract him. But things are not always what they seem. Pets are disappearing, there are some weird government agents flitting about, and then mysterious writing appears in Augie’s notebook from an unknown hand. Mysteries of this sort can be hard to come by. And when the true story behind the mysteries comes to light, the truth is clearly stranger than any fiction Augie could have imagined.

This is Smith’s first foray into the middle grade world but it’s hardly his first time playing with expectations and forms. His work on Jon Scieszka’s “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and “The Stinky Cheese Man” remain to this day original, eclectic, and odd. But watching Smith pen his own books been interesting. It’s little wonder that he was at least partially behind the blog Curious Pages “recommended inappropriate books for kids” with a big old picture of Struwwelpeter standing at the top. His picture books have ranged from a diatribe against the electronic world (ending with a word that gave a certain sort of parents apoplexy) to American history gone goofy to a meditative consideration of a life well spend (topiary in abundance). The aberration amongst these books, if it could be called that, was the last book I mentioned, “Grandpa Green”. In that book Smith slowed his rapid rate, and took stock of life and living. It seems that with “Return to Augie Hobbie” he is now returning to his fast paced existence with a vengeance.

There’s a lot to enjoy about the book, starting with the setting itself. For a time I decided to gather together all the information I could about all the children’s literature related statues in America. Little did I expect that this search would plunge me into an unexpected exploration of fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed parks for kids that preceded and existed in tandem with early Disneyland, only on a much smaller, creepier, scale. So many of them continue to operate today, and so they were pretty much tailor made for an eerie, unnerving book of this sort. If you were to create a book that was essentially “The X-Files” for kids, I can think of no better setting.

It will surprise few to learn that Smith is at his strongest when he’s at his creepiest. And in terms of creepy thrills, there’s an early mystery in the novel that taps into something fearful and primal at our core. Augie keeps a journal with him most of the time. After he experiences a shocking loss he finds to his consternation that someone is scribbling in his beloved book. Suspects abound but the writing itself turned out to be my favorite part of the story. There is true horror in misspelled childlike crawls. If it doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

Interestingly, it was Smith’s exploration of death that took me out of the book the most. A couple spoilers are going to start cropping up in this review so if you haven’t already signed off and you want to be surprised then I suggest you do so now. When Augie’s best friend Britt dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts, he becomes convinced that he himself is the accidental murderer. Augie is plunged into guilt and when it looks as though his friend’s ghost is somewhere near I wondered where Smith was going. Could the ghost just be an extension of Augie’s guilt? Nope. And all of a sudden Britt’s appearance wipes away what had all the promise of an interesting look at guilt and grief and coping. Not that I wanted this to turn into some introspective Newbery-esque treatise on the healing powers of family or anything. I mean there are friggin’ werewolves in them thar hills. But by the same token I was uncomfortable with how something that was so serious for a second became altogether too light too quickly. All I really wanted was a single moment between the two boys that felt real. Like they understood what their new roles were and had decided to take them on. Even the silliest book has room enough for a little heart, however brief. To excise it from the storyline does the title a disservice.

The other difficulty I had with the book involved the ways in which the central mysteries are solved. And it happened anytime the fantastical moved out of the possible into the real. Now I’ll be the first to admit that you cannot create a work of fiction built entirely on mysteries and mysterious occurrences without eventually saying what’s going on. A book that’s all mystery and no answer is simply a cheat. On the other hand, it takes an enormous amount of talent to reveal a mystery without inspiring in your audience that feeling of deflation that comes whenever a magician explains how he did a trick. The fact of the matter is that while Smith is exceedingly talented at setting up his mysteries, once they crossover from mystery to reality, they lose something. The first time this happens is when a character turns into a werewolf before our very eyes. Until that moment, we’ve had no absolute proof that there’s anything more than wishful thinking on the part of the hero going on in terms of the story’s mysteries. In fact, the revelation is so unexpected that I was left wondering if maybe Smith changed his mind in the course of writing the book and decided to go whole hog on the fantasy elements. When he commits to the bit he commits to the bit, and after the werewolfing of a character everything is pretty much up for grabs. Examples.

I think what Smith may be going for in this book is an intellectual play on fantasy akin to Daniel Pinkwater and his books. The difference between the two lies in how Smith straddles the form. On the one hand he has moments that could break into genuine emotional beats if he’d let them. On the other, if he wanted to really let go and embrace his love of the absurd, there’s room for that as well. Instead, he commits to neither. Moments that should engage the reader’s heart are left feeling empty while the absurdities have a caged in, closed feel. To be frank, I either wanted this book to let Smith’s freak flag fly or to give my heart something to care about. In the end, I have neither.

By the end of the story I had to come to the conclusion that the only way this book makes any sense is if it’s the first in a series. If Fairy Tale Place is meant to be the backdrop to a wide range of freaky happenings, then this is just setting up the premise. Three kids, one of whom is dead, solving supernatural mysteries is interesting. Would that we could just jump to those books and skip this one in the interim. It’s by no means a bad book, but with its fuzzy focus and off-kilter sense of its own audience, I question how many kids are going to engage. A noble, if ultimately unbalance, attempt.

For ages 9-12


In a Village by the Sea
In a Village by the Sea
by April Chu
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.86
68 used & new from $5.12

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the key to the kingdom, June 14, 2015
We talk a lot about wanting a diverse selection of picture books on our library, bookstore, and home shelves, but it seems to me that the key to giving kids a broad view of the wider world (which is the ultimate effect of reading literature about people outside your immediate social, economic, and racial circle) is finding books that go into formerly familiar territory and then give the final product an original spin. For example, I was just telling a colleague the other day that true diverse literature for kids will never come to pass until we’ve a wide variety of gross out books about kids of different races, abilities, genders, etc. That’s one way of reaching parity. Another way would be to tackle that age old form so familiar to kids of centuries past; nursery rhymes. Now we’ve already seen the greatest nursery rhyme collection of the 21st century hit our shelves earlier this year (“Over the Hills and Far Away”, edited by Elizabeth Hammill) and that’s great. That’s swell. That’s super. But one single book does not a nursery rhyme collection make. Now I admit freely that Muon Van and April Chu’s “In a Village by the Sea” is not technically a nursery rhyme in the classic sense of the term. However, Merriam-Webster defines the form as “a short rhyme for children that often tells a story.” If that broad definition is allowed then I submit “In a Village by the Sea” as a true, remarkable, wonderful, evocative, modern, diverse, ultimately beautiful nursery rhyme for the new Millennium. Lord knows we could always use more. Lord knows this book deserves all the attention it can get.

On the title page a single brown cricket grabs a rolled piece of parchment, an array of watercolor paints and paintbrushes spread below her (to say nothing of two soon-to-be-necessary screws). Turn the page and there a fisherman loads his boat in the predawn hour of the day, his dog attentive but not following. As he pushes off, surrounded by other fishermen, and looks behind him to view his receding seaside home we read, “In a fishing village by the sea there is a small house.” We zoom in. “In that house high above the waves is a kitchen.” The dog is now walking into the house, bold as brass, and as the story continues we meet the woman and child inside. We also meet that same industrious cricket from the title page, painting a scene in which a fisherman combats the elements, comforted by the picture of his family he keeps beside him. And in another picture is his village, and his house, and in that house is his family, waiting to greet him safely home. Set in Vietnam, the book has all the rhythms and cadence of the most classic rhyme.

When it comes to rhymes, I feel that folks tend to be fairly familiar with the cumulative form. Best highlighted in nursery rhymes likes “The House That Jack Built” it’s the kind of storytelling that builds and builds, always repeating the elements that came before. Less celebrated, perhaps, is the nesting rhyme. Described in “Using Poetry Across the Curriculum: A Whole Language Approach” by Barbara Chatton, the author explains that children love patterns. “The simplest pattern is a series in which objects are placed in some kind of order. This order might be from smallest to largest, like the Russian nesting dolls, or a range of height, length, or width . . . A nursery rhyme using the ‘nesting’ pattern is ‘This Is the Key to My Kingdom’.” Indeed, it was that very poem I thought of first when I read “In a Village by the Sea”. In the story you keep going deeper and deeper into the narrative, an act that inevitably raises questions.

Part of what I like so much about the storytelling in this book is not just its nesting nature, but also the questions it inspires in the child reader. At first we’re working entirely in the realm of reality with a village, a fisherman, his wife, and their child. But then when we dive down into the cricket’s realm we see that it is painting a magnificent storm with vast waves that appear to be a kind of ode to that famous Japanese print, “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa”. When we get into that painting and find that our fisherman is there and in dire straits we begin to wonder what is and isn’t real. Artist April Chu runs with that uncertainty well. Notice that as the fisherman sits in his boat with the storm overhead, possibly worrying for his own safety, in his hands he holds a box. In that box is a photo of his wife and child, his village, and what appears to be a small wooden carving of a little cricket. The image of the village contains a house and (this isn’t mentioned in the text) we appear to zoom into that picture and that house where the sky is blue and the sea is calm. So what is going on precisely? Is it all a clever cricket’s imaginings or are each of these images true in some way? I love the conversation starter nature of this book. Younger kids might take the events at face value. Older kids might begin to enmesh themselves into the layered M.C. Escher-ness of the enterprise. Whatever draws them in, Van and Chu have created a melodic visual stunner. No mean feat.

For the record, the final image in this book is seemingly not of the cricket’s original painting but of the fisherman heading home on a calm sea to a distant home. What’s so interesting about the painting is that if you compare it to the cricket’s previous one (of the storm) you can see that the curls and folds of the paper are identical. This is the same canvass the cricket was working on before. Only the image has changed. How is this possible? The answer lies in what the cricket is signing on the painting’s lower right-hand corner. “AC”. April Chu. Artist as small brown cricket. I love it.

So who precisely is April Chu? Read her biography at the back and you see that she began her career as an architect, a fact that in part explains the sheer level of detail at work in tandem with this simple text. Let us be clear that while the writing in this book is engaging on a couple different levels, with the wrong artist it wouldn’t have worked half as well as it now does. Chu knows how to take a single story from a blue skied mellow to a wrath of the gods storm center and then back again to a sweet peach colored sunset. She also does a good dog. I’ll say it. The yellow lab in this book is practically the book’s hero as we follow it in and out of the house. He's even in his master's family photograph.

One question that occurred to me as I read the book was why I immediately thought of it as contemporary. No date accompanies the text. No elements that plant it firmly in one time or another. The text is lilting and lovely but doesn’t have anything so jarring as a 21st century iPhone or ear bud lurking in the corners. In Van’s Author’s Note at the end she mentions that much of the inspiration for the tale was based on both her family’s ancestral village in Central Vietnam and her father’s work, and mother’s experiences, after they immigrated to American shores. By logic, then, the book should have a bit of a historical bent to it. Yet people still fish in villages. Families still wait for the fisherman to return to shore. And when I looked at April Chu’s meticulous art I took in the clothing more than anything else. The mom’s rubber band in her hair. The cut of the neck of her shirt. The other fishermen and their shirts and the colors of the father’s. Then there was the way the dishes stack up next to the stove. I dunno. It sure looks like it’s set in a village today. But these things can be hard to judge.

There’s this real feeling that meta picture books that play with their format and turn the fourth wall into rubble are relatively new. But if we look at rhymes like “This Is the Key to the Kingdom”, we can see how they were toying with our notion of how to tell a story in a new way long long before old “Stinky Cheese Man”. I guess what I like most about “In a Village by the Sea” is how to deals with this duality. It manages to feel old and new all at the same time. It reads like something classic but it looks and feels like something entirely original. A great read aloud, beautifully illustrated, destined to become beloved of parents, librarians, and kids themselves for years to come. This is a book worth discovering.

For ages 3 and up.


Billy's Booger
Billy's Booger
by William Joyce
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.50
59 used & new from $9.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sublime snot, June 13, 2015
This review is from: Billy's Booger (Hardcover)
The fictionalized picture book memoir is a fairly new creation, when you get right down to it. It’s not as if Sendak was telling tales about a little boy in Brooklyn or Margaret Wise Brown was penning nostalgic stories of a girl in a Swiss boarding school. But somewhere during the latter part of the 20th century, the form sort of took off. Tomie dePaola typified it with books like Oliver Button Is a Sissy. Michael Rosen took an adult perspective in The Sad Book. And Patricia Polacco has practically made a cottage industry out of it with stories like Thank You, Mr. Falker and Mr. Lincoln’s Way amongst others. They’re still relatively rare, though, so when you encounter a book like Billy’s Booger: A Memoir (Sorta) your first thought isn’t that this is going to have any bearing whatsoever on author William Joyce’s real life. Instead, you zero on in that word. “Booger”. Kinda hard to get away from. And you want to write the book off as gross based on that alone, but the image on the cover stops you. Not the small waving green guy, though he’s pretty cute (until you realize what exactly he is) but rather the bespectacled wide-eyed boy with the book. Get into the story and you encounter a tale that I can honestly say is unlike any other Joyce creation I’ve read before. Funny and relatable with more Bill Joyce in-jokes that you could shake a stick at, this is a picture book memoir that feels deeply personal. And all it took was a bit of fictional phlegm.

Let it be understood that even before the incidents involving the book, upon which I shall elucidate further in a moment, it was an undeniable fact that Billy was both a usual and unusual kiddo. Usual since he loved “monster movies and cartoons and comic books”. Unusual because he was the kind of child that liked to spice up things he regarded as too regular. This attitude was applied towards everything from homework to sports to the best possible way to eat your peas at dinner (for what it's worth, the trigonal form is to be recommended). Then, one day, the librarian Mrs. Pagely let Billy know about an upcoming book contest where kids would write and illustrate their very own creations. Billy was seriously psyched and pored his heart and soul into his magnum opus, Billy’s Booker: The memoirs of a little green nose buddy. Suffice to say, Billy did not receive any awards. Distraught and disheartened, he no longer had his former pep and verve. And then, one day, he saw something in the library that pretty much changed his entire life.

You know when you walk into a fictionalized picture memoir that what you are getting can’t possibly be all the facts surrounding a pivotal point in the author’s life. But truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight nonfiction picture book memoir in all my livelong days. So your job becomes figuring out what parts of a given storyline are true and which parts are exaggerations. With Joyce, the text is pretty straightforward. There’s nothing too wild, wacky, and out there involved. It’s the art where the man’s imagination soars. There are the natural exaggerations, like the fact that you never see Billy’s sister without her ear firmly attached to a phone receiver, or the way Billy’s book lights up as he writes in it. Then there are the set pieces. Joyce has always cultivated a true love of 1950s/60s nostalgia. Beehives, cat-eye glasses, buttoned up collars, and skirts replete with crinoline. In Billy’s Booger, Joyce creates for himself an idealized childhood. And in no better place is this visible than when Billy settles down to read the Sunday color comics.

Sharp-eyed spotters with a yen for classic newspaper comics will spend ungodly amounts of time poring over the panels that Joyce has painstakingly created here, trying to figure out what he’s referencing in one comic or another. For my part I was able to identify a Peanuts tribute (that one was pretty easy), a comic about the Shmoos of L’il Abner (only here they’re called “Smooks” and rather than "Al Capp" they’re written by "Al Hat"), a clear cut Little Nemo tribute, what appears to be a Terry and the Pirates homage, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracey (I love that the version here is called “Gunn”), The Gumps (maybe), what appears to be Dickie Dare, Bringing Up Father (no homage, that seems pretty straightforward), Yellow Kid, and Beadle’s Half-Dime Library (seriously, Bill?). These never actually existed all at the same time, of course. But Joyce’s original renderings, done with occasional shocking accuracy, are lovingly compiled. He knows perfectly well that kids reading this book aren’t going to get any of these references. Young parents will probably miss a good chunk of them as well. No, this is something Joyce is doing for himself and for the occasional comic enthusiasts out there who get their kicks out of shining iPhone flashlights on the pages trying like mad to make out the words on these teeny tiny panels.

Similarly, Joyce fills his pages to brimming with miniscule details that can only be considered true shout-outs to his fans. Elements of his future books pepper these pages. When Billy first starts writing his book, a little Dinosaur Bob sits on his desk, holding down papers that contain various Mischievians renderings. At the end of the book you can see his future characters flying through the air. Look closely and you’ll see George from George Shrinks. That floating head? It’s probably Ollie. More Mischievians, a possible robot from his movie Robots (remember that one?), and another Dinosaur Bob. And finally, just to go back to the comics for a second, it appears that Joyce has worked in a reference to Michael Chabon’s picture book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man. At least that’s how I interpreted his “Jonny Trek” comic written in part by “Mikey Chaboing”. This makes a fair amount of sense, since Joyce once illustrated the cover of Chabon’s book Summerland while Chabon has blurbed various Joyce books over the years.

In the midst of all this fun it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that Joyce’s sense of design and layout are going wild. From the endpapers of kooky ideas to the title page drawn to resemble art from those insipid easy reader books of the 50s (think knock off Dick and Jane). The most ambitious element, however, is the small insert in the center of this book of the titular Billy’s Booger. Now on the bookflap of this title we learn that “William Joyce began writing books in the fourth grade. He’s done a bunch of books since, but this it the true story of his making that very first book. And that book is included in this book.” I understand that, but there is no guarantee that this is the original book itself rather than a modernized version of it. I did wonder, and then pored through it in search of any evidence one way or the other. In the end, I’ve no idea. Does it matter? Probably not. But it does make a reader wonder anyway. Kids, naturally, will take it for granted that it’s the original.

There are reviews I write that are so glowing that I feel compelled to come up with some kind of concern, just so I don’t appear to have fallen for its charms too completely. I'm a reviewer, not a cheerleader, after all. In this case, the best I can do is the fact that sometimes Billy’s sister is drawn in an inconsistent fashion, and his book Billy’s Booger uses that term “gypped” which some folks find offensive. For my part, I found it interesting that if this story is indeed true and Joyce did once submit a book called Billy’s Booger in a book contest then it is fascinating to think that the sole time I’ve seen him return to this kind of gross out humor in a literary form was when he created the aforementioned Mischievians. At the time it felt like an odd aberration in the Joyceian oeuvre. Now, not so much.

We might wonder, why now? Why at this point in his career has Bill Joyce chosen to return to this pivotal moment of his youth? As of 2015 the man is remarkably successful. A former New Yorker cover artist, animator, Academy Award winning filmmaker, app creator, you name it. Heck, the guy even has a statue he designed out there somewhere. In the midst of all this, it’s oddly refreshing to see a book of his that’s just a book. There’s no app tie-in or short film waiting in the wings. It’s a book for its own sake, telling a personal story, filled to brimming with fun and humor and teeny tiny details tailor made for picture book/funny page obsessives like myself. And kids? Let’s not forget the actual intended audience here. They should eat it up with a spoon. It’s just a really nice way of explaining that sometimes critics like myself are not the true arbitrators of whether or not a picture book is any good. Sometimes it really comes down to the kids themselves. They’re the ones who’ll read the title and grab this book so fast it makes your head spin. They say only the rarest kind of best is good enough for our kids. Well this puppy is as rare as it gets and, yes. It’s one of the best. Superhero booger men and all.

For ages 4-6.
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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
by Kelly Jones
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.45
70 used & new from $6.37

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With a cluck cluck here and a levitation there . . ., May 31, 2015
The epistolary novel has a long and storied history. At least when it comes to books written for adults. So too does it exist in novels for children, but in my experience you are far more likely to find epistolary picture books than anything over 32 pages in length. That doesn’t stop teachers, of course. As a children’s librarian I often see the kiddos come in with the assignment to read an epistolary novel and lord love a duck if you can remember one on the spot. I love hard reference questions but if you were to ask me to name five such books in one go I’d be scrambling for my internet double quick time. Of course now that I’ve read “Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer” I will at long last be able to pull at least one book from my crazy overstuffed attic of a brain instantaneously. Kelly Jones’s book manages with charm and unexpected panache to take the art of chicken farming and turn it into a really compelling narrative. Beware, though. I suspect more than one child will leave this book desirous of a bit of live poultry of their very own. You have been warned.

After her dad lost his job, it really just made a lot of sense for Sophie and her family to move out of L.A. to her deceased great-uncle Jim’s farm. Still, it’s tough on her. Not only are none of her old friends writing her back but she’s having a hard time figuring out what she should do with herself. She spends some of her time writing her dead Abuelita, some of her time writing Jim himself (she doesn’t expect answers), and some of her time writing Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply. You see, Sophie found a chicken in her back yard one day and there's something kind of strange about it. Turns out, Uncle Jim used to collect chickens that exhibited different kinds of . . . abilities. Now a local poultry farmer wants Jim's chickens for her very own and it's up to Sophie to prove that she's up to the task of raising chickens of unusual talents.

There are two different types of children’s fantasy novels, as I see it. The first kind spends inordinate amounts of time world building. They will never let a single thread drop or question remain unanswered. Then there’s the second kind. These are the children’s novels where you may have some questions left at the story’s end, but you really don’t care. That’s “Unusual Chickens” for me. I simply couldn’t care two bits about the origins of these unusual chickens or why there was an entire company out there providing them in some capacity. What Ms. Jones does so well is wrap you up in the emotions of the characters and the story itself, so that details of this sort feel kind of superfluous by the end. Granted, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be the occasional kid demanding answers to these questions. You can’t help that.

I have a bit of a thing against books that present you with unnecessary twists at their ends. If some Deus Ex Machina ending solves everything with a cute little bow then I am well and truly peeved. And there is a bit of a twist near the end of “Unusual Chickens” but it’s more of a funny one than something that makes everything turn out all right. The style of writing the entire book in letters of one sort or another works very well when it comes to revealing one of the book’s central mysteries. Throughout the story Sophie engages the help of Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply (the company that provided her uncle with the chickens in the first place). When she at last discovers why Agnes's letters have been so intermittent and peculiar the revelation isn't too distracting, though I doubt many will see it coming.

Now the book concludes with Sophie overcoming her fear of public speaking in order to do the right thing and save her chickens. She puts it this way: “One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.” That’s a fair lesson for any story and a good one to drill home. I did find myself wishing a little that Sophie’s fears had been addressed a little more at the beginning of the book rather that simply solved without too much build up at the end, but that’s a minor point. I like the idea of telling kids that doing the right thing doesn’t always give you the outcome you want, but at least you have to try. Seems to have all sorts of applications in real life.

In an age where publishers are being held increasingly accountable for diverse children’s fare, it’s still fair to say that “Unusual Chickens” is a rare title. I say this because it’s a book where the main character isn’t white, that’s not the point of the story, but it’s also not a fact that’s completely ignored either. Sophie has dark skin and a Latino mom. Since they’ve moved to the country (Gravenstein, CA if you want to be precise) she feels a bit of an outsider. “I miss L.A. There aren’t any people around here- especially no brown people except Gregory, our mailman.” She makes casual reference to the ICE and her mother’s understanding that “you have to be twice as honest and neighborly when everyone assumes you’re an undocumented immigrant…” And there’s the moment when Sophie mentions that the librarian still feels about assuming that Sophie was a child of the help, rather than the grandniece of the Blackbird Farm’s previous owner. A lot of books containing a character like Sophie would just mention her race casually and then fear mentioning it in any real context. I like that as an author, Jones doesn't dwell on her character's ethnicity, but neither does she pretend that it doesn't exist.

You know that game you sometimes play with yourself where you think, “If I absolutely had to have a tattoo, I think I’d have one that looked like [blank]”? Well, for years I’ve only had one figure in mind. A little dancing Suzuki Beane, maybe only as large as a dime, on the inner wrist of my right hand. I’ll never get this tattoo but it makes me happy to think that it’s always an option. I am now going to add a second fictional tattoo to my roster. Accompanying Suzuki on my left wrist would be Henrietta. She’s the perpetually peeved, occasionally telekinetic, and she makes me laugh every single time I see her. Henrietta’s creator, in a sense, is the illustrator of this book, Ms. Katie Kath. I was unfamiliar with her work, prior to reading “Unusual Chickens” and from everything I can tell this is her children’s book debut. You’d never know it from her style, of course. Kath’s drawing style here has all the loose ease and skill of a Quentin Blake or a Jules Feiffer. When she draws Sophie or her family you instantly relate to them, and when she draws chickens she makes it pretty clear that no other illustrator could have brought these strange little chickies to life in quite the same way. These pages just burst with personality and we have her to thank.

Now there are some fairly long sections in this book that discuss the rudimentary day-to-day realities of raising chickens. Everything from the amount of food (yes, the book contains math problems worked seamlessly into the narrative) to different kinds of housing to why gizzards need small stones inside of them. These sections are sort of like the whaling sections in “Moby Dick” or the bridge sections in “The Cardholder”. You can skip right over them and lose nothing. Still, I found them oddly compelling. People love process, particularly when that process is so foreign to their experience. I actually heard someone who had always lived in the city say to me the other day that before they read this book they didn’t know that you needed a rooster to get baby chickens. You see? Learning!

I don’t say that this book is going to turn each and every last one of its readers into chicken enthusiasts. I also know that it paints a rather glowing portrait of chicken ownership that is in direct contrast to the farm situation perpetuated on farmers today. But doggone it, it’s charming to its core. We see plenty of magical animal books churned out every year. Magical zoos and magical veterinarians and magical bestiaries. So what’s wrong with extraordinary chickens as well? Best of all, you don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy this book. Heck, you don’t have to like chickens. The writing is top notch, the pictures consistently funny, and the story rather moving. Everything, in fact, a good chapter book for kids should be. Hand it to someone looking for lighthearted fare but that still wants a story with a bit of bite to it. Great stuff.

For ages 9-12.


Green Toys My First Tugboat, Yellow
Green Toys My First Tugboat, Yellow
Price: Click here to see our price
74 used & new from $7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Little fingers beware, May 26, 2015
I absolutely loved it for quite some time. Didn't have the mold problem that folks mention (that I knew of). Everything was fine for a year until my three (almost four) year-old stuck her pinkey finger in the window . . . and it never came out. At first we figured it was just a case of icing the hand. Nope. To avoid a trip to the emergency room we eventually just carved away around the finger. Should have check here to learn how to take the dang thing apart since that blue bottom really does stick to the red top like glue. All told the removal took about 3 hours. Thank God for Frozen. She's recovering now but be warned, oh fellow parents. That little round window is hungry for your preschoolers' digits.

The photo here is sort of an "after" shot of the boat, once we were able to use these tools to cut the incredibly thick plastic away.
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Cuckoo Song
Cuckoo Song
by Frances Hardinge
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.08
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Snip snip, May 17, 2015
This review is from: Cuckoo Song (Hardcover)
I was watching the third Hobbit movie the other day (bear with me - I'm going somewhere with this) with no particular pleasure. There are few things in life more painful to a children's librarian than watching an enjoyable adventure for kids lengthened and turned into adult-centric fare, then sliced up into three sections. Still, it’s always interesting to see how filmmakers wish to adapt material and as I sat there, only moderately stultified, the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” (which, in this film, could be renamed “The Battle of the Thirteen Odd Armies, Give Or Take a Few) comes to a head as the glorious eagles swoop in. “They’re the Americans”, my husband noted. It took a minute for this to register. “What?” “They’re the Americans. Tolkien wrote this book after WWI and the eagles are the Yanks that swoop in to save the day at the very last minute.” I sat there thinking about it. England has always had far closer ties to The Great War than America, it’s true. I remember sitting in school, baffled by the vague version I was fed. American children are taught primarily Revolutionary War, Civil War, and WWII fare. All other conflicts are of seemingly equal non-importance after those big three. Yet with the 100 year anniversary of the war to end all wars, the English, who had a much larger role to play, are, like Tolkien, still producing innovative, evocative, unbelievable takes that utilize fantasy to help us understand it. And few books do a better job of pinpointing the post traumatic stress syndrome of a post-WWI nation than Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. They will tell you that it’s a creepy doll book with changelings and fairies and things that go bump in the night. It is all of that. It is also one of the smartest dissections of what happens when a war is done and the survivors are left to put their lives back together. Some do a good job. Some do not.

Eleven-year-old Triss is not well. She knows this, but as with many illnesses she’s having a hard time pinpointing what exactly is wrong. It probably had to do with the fact that she was fished out of the Grimmer, a body of water near the old stone house where her family likes to vacation. Still, that doesn’t explain why her sister is suddenly acting angry and afraid of her. It doesn’t explain why she’s suddenly voracious, devouring plate after plate of food in a kind of half mad frenzy. And it doesn’t explain some of the odder things that have been happening lately either. The dolls that don’t just talk but scream too. The fact that she’s waking up with dead leaves in her hair and bed. And that’s all before her sister is nearly kidnapped by a movie screen, a tailor tries to burn her alive, and she discovers a world within her world where things are topsy turvy and she doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Triss isn’t the girl she once was. And time is running out.

From that description you’d be justified in wondering why I spent the better half of the opening paragraph of this review discussing WWI. After all, there is nothing particularly war-like in that summary. It would behoove me to me mention then that all this takes place a year or two after the war. Triss’s older brother died in the conflict, leaving his family to pick up the pieces. Like all parents, his are devastated by their loss. Unlike all parents, they make a terrible choice to keep him from leaving them entirely. It’s the parents’ grief and choices that then become the focal point of the book. The nation is experiencing a period of vast change. New buildings, new music, and new ideas are proliferating. Yet for Triss’s parents, it is vastly important that nothing change. They’re the people that would prefer to live in an intolerable but familiar situation rather than a tolerable unknown. Their love is a toxic thing, harming their children in the most insidious of ways. It takes an outsider to see this and to tell them what they are doing. By the end, it’s entirely possible that they’ll stay stuck until events force them otherwise. Then again, Hardinge leaves you with a glimmer of hope. The nation did heal. People did learn. And while there was another tragic war on the horizon, that was a problem for another day.

So what’s all that have to do with fairies? In a smart twist Hardinge makes a nation bereaved become the perfect breeding ground for fairy (though she never calls them that) immigration. It's interesting to think long and hard about what it is that Hardinge is saying, precisely, about immigrants in England. Indeed, the book wrestles with the metaphor. These are creatures that have lost their homes thanks to the encroachment of humanity. Are they not entitled to lives of their own? Yet some of them do harm to the residents of the towns. But do all of them? Should we paint them all with the same brush if some of them are harmful? These are serious questions worth asking. Xenophobia comes in the form of the tailor Mr. Grace. His smooth sharp scissors cause Triss to equate him with the Scissor Man from the Struwwelpeter tales of old. Having suffered a personal loss at the hands of the otherworldly immigrants he dedicates himself to a kind of blind intolerance. He's sympathetic, but only up to a point.

Terms I Dislike: Urban Fairies. I don’t particularly dislike the fairies themselves. Not if they’re done well. I should clarify that the term “urban fairies” is used when discussing books in which fairies reside in urban environments. Gargoyles in the gutters. That sort of thing. And if we’re going to get technical about it then yes, Cuckoo Song is an urban fairy book. The ultimate urban fairy book, really. Called “Besiders” their presence in cities is attributed to the fact that they are creatures that exist only where there is no certainty. In the past the sound of church bells proved painful, maybe fatal. However, in the years following The Great War the certainty of religion began to ebb from the English people. Religion didn’t have the standing it once held in their lives/hearts/minds, and so thanks to this uncertainty the Besiders were able to move into places in the city made just for them. You could have long, interesting book group conversations about the true implications of this vision.

There are two kinds of Frances Hardinge novels in this world. There are the ones that deal in familiar mythologies but give them a distinctive spin. That’s this book. Then there are the books that make up their own mythologies and go into such vastly strange areas that it takes a leap of faith to follow, though it’s worth it every time. That’s books like The Lost Conspiracy or Fly By Night and its sequel. Previously Ms. Hardinge wrote Well Witched which was a lovely fantasy but felt tamed in some strange way. As if she was asked to reign in her love of the fabulous so as to create a more standard work of fantasy. I was worried that Cuckoo Song might fall into this same trap but happily this is not the case. What we see on the page here is marvelously odd while still working within an understood framework. I wouldn’t change a dot on an i or a cross on a t.

Story aside, it is Hardinge's writing that inevitably hooks the reader. She has a way with language that sounds like no one else. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of the book: “Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball, and stuffed her skull with it.” Beautiful. Line after line after line jumps out at the reader this way. One of my favorites is when a fellow called The Shrike explains why scissors are the true enemy of the Besiders. “A knife is made with a hundred tasks in mind . . . But scissors are really intended for one job alone – snipping things in two. Dividing by force. Everything on one side or the other, and nothing in between. Certainty. We’re in-between folk, so scissors hate us.” If I had half a mind to I’d just spend the rest of this review quoting line after line of this book. For your sake, I’ll restrain myself. Just this once.

When this book was released in England it was published as older children’s fare, albeit with a rather YA cover. Here in the States it is being published as YA fare with a rather creepy cover. Having read it, there really isn’t anything about the book I wouldn’t readily hand to a 10-year-old. Is there blood? Nope. Violence? Not unless you count eating dollies. Anything remarkably creepy? Well, there is a memory of a baby changeling that’s kind of gross, but I don’t think you’re going to see too many people freaking out over it. Sadly I think the decision was made, in spite of its 11-year-old protagonist, because Hardinge is such a mellifluous writer. Perhaps there was a thought to appeal to the Laini Taylor fans out there. Like Taylor she delves in strange otherworlds and writes with a distinctive purr. Unlike Taylor, Hardinge is British to her core. There are things here that you cannot find anywhere else. Her brain is a country of fabulous mini-states and we’ll be lucky if we get to see even half of them in our lifetimes.

There was a time when Frances Hardinge books were imported to America on a regular basis. For whatever reason, that stopped. Now a great wrong has been righted and if there were any justice in this world her Yankee fans would line the ports waiting for her books to arrive, much as they did in the time of Charles Dickens. That she can take an event like WWI and the sheer weight of the grief that followed, then transform it into dark, creepy, delicious, satisfying children’s fare is awe-inspiring. You will find no other author who dares to go so deep. Those of you who have never read a Hardinge book, I envy you. You’re going to be discovering her for the very first time, so I hope you savor every bloody, bleeding word. Taste the sentences on your tongue. Let them melt there. Then pick up your forks and demand more more more. There are other Hardinge books in England we have yet to see stateside. Let our publishers fill our plates. It’s what our children deserve.

For ages 10 and up.


Castle Hangnail
Castle Hangnail
by Ursula Vernon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.76
62 used & new from $7.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There's a light, over at the Frankenstein place, May 13, 2015
This review is from: Castle Hangnail (Hardcover)
These are dark times for children’s fantasy. Dark times indeed. Which is to say, when I pick up a fantasy novel for kids, more often than not I find the books filled with torture, violence, bloody blood, and other various unpleasant bits and pieces. And honestly? That is fine. There are a lot of kids out there who lap up gore like it was mother’s milk. Still, it’s numbing. Plus I really wish that there was more stuff out there for the younger kiddos. The ones who have entered the wide and wonderful world of children’s fantasy and would rather not read about trees eating people or death by cake. Maybe they’d like something funny with lovable characters and a gripping plot. Even Harry Potter had its dark moments, but in the early volumes the books were definitely for the younger readers. Certainly we have the works of Eva Ibbotson and Ruth Chew, but newer books are always welcome, particularly if they’re funny. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Castle Hangnail blew me away as much as it did. Here we have a story that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to do, and manages to be hilarious and charming all at the same time. If you like your children’s fantasy novels full of psychotic villains and mind-numbing action sequences, seek ye elsewhere. This one’s for the kids.

To some, Castle Hangnail might appear to be a “pathetic rundown little backwater” but to the minions who live there it’s home. A home desperately in need of a new Master and Mistress. After all, if they don’t get someone soon the castle might be sold off and destroyed. Maybe that’s why everyone has such mixed feelings at first when Molly appears. Molly is short and young and wearing some very serious black boots. She looks like a 12-year-old kid and Majordomo, the guardian of the castle, is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she’s supposed to be their new Wicked Witch. Yet when he gives her the necessary tasks to make Castle Hangnail her own, Molly appears to have a couple tricks up her sleeve. She may have her secrets but everything seems to be okay . . . that is until the REAL master of Castle Hangnail arrives to claim it.

Basically what we have here is Downton Abbey for kids, albeit with significantly more dragon donkeys (and isn’t Majordomo SUCH a Carson?). This raises the question of where precisely this book takes place. Remembering that author Ursula Vernon herself is not actually British, one supposes that the story could be read as a U.S. tale. Due to its distinct Eva Ibbotson flavor, the initial inclination is to see the book as British. Our picturesque little towns pale in comparison to their picturesque little towns, and we’ve far fewer castles lying about the place. Still, there’s no reason it couldn’t be American. After all, I’ve seen many an American author fall into the trap of putting cockney characters into their books for no apparent reason. Vernon has a good head on her shoulders. She’s not falling for that game.

Truly a book like this hinges on the characters created. If you don’t believe in them or don’t like them then you won’t want us to follow them into your tale. You have to sympathize with Majordomo, even when he does some unfortunate things. You have to like Molly, even when you don’t initially understand her back-story. It takes a little while but Vernon also makes it clear how someone can be wicked as opposed to evil. “Wicked was turning somebody into an earwig and letting them run around for a week to give them a good scare. Evil was turning someone into an earwig and then stepping on them.” An evil heroine is tricky to love. A wicked one is on par with your average 12-year-old reader.

Speaking of characters, Vernon makes some very interesting narrative choices as well. For example, our heroine is introduced to us for the first time on page six. However around Chapter 33 she disappears from the storyline and really doesn’t appear again until Chapter 39. You have to have a very strong supporting cast to get away with that one. It would be a lot of fun to ask kid readers who their favorite character was. Did they prefer Pins or his neurotic goldfish? The minotaurs or the moles? Me, I like ‘em all. The whole kooky gang. For a certain kind of reader, there’s going to be a lot of allure to having minions as lovable as these.

Even the lightest bit of middle grade fluff needs a strong emotional core to keep it grounded. If there’s nothing to care for then there’s nothing to root for. For me, the heart of this particular tale lies in Molly’s relationship with the evil sorceress (and teenaged) Eudaimonia. Lots of kids have the experience of wanting to befriend someone older and meaner. The desire to please can lead a person to act unlike themselves. As Molly says, “It’s like a weird kind of magic . . . Like a spell that makes you feel like it’s all your fault.” Molly also wrestles with being different from her kittens and sparkles loving twin and so the theme of finding yourself and your own talents come to the fore.

And now a word in praise of humor. Funny is hard. Funny fantasy? That’s even harder. Vernon has always blown away the competition in the hilarity department. Pick up any “Danny Dragonbreath” comic and you’ll see what I’m talking about. She can sustain a narrative for an early chapter book, sure, but full-blown novels are a different kettle of fish (is that a mixed metaphor?). So how does she do? You’d swear she’d been churning these puppies out for years. Here are three of my favorite lines in celebration:

- “Harrow was one of those people who is born mean and continues to lose ground.”

- “Magic was a requirement in a new Master, unless you were a Mad Scientist, and Molly didn’t look like the sort to hook lightning rods up to cadavers while wild Theremins wailed in the background.”

- “For there are very powerful spells that are very simple, but unless you happen to be the right sort of person, they will not work at all. (And a good thing too. You can raise the dead with five words and a hen’s egg, but natural Necromancers are very rare. Fortunately they tend to be solemn, responsible people, which is why we are not all up to our elbows in zombies).”

Parents wander into the children’s room of a library. They ask the librarian at the desk to recommend a fantasy novel for their 8-year-old. “Nothing too scary”, they say. “Maybe something funny. Do you have anything funny?” Until now the librarian might try a little Ibbotson or a touch of E.D. Baker. Perhaps a smattering of Jessica Day George would do. Still, of all of these Castle Hangnail appeals to the youngest crowd. At the same time, it can be equally enjoyed by older kids too. Smart and droll, it’s the fantasy you’ve always wanted to hand to the 10-year-old Goth girl in your life (along with, let's face it, everybody else you know). A true crowd pleaser.


The Jumbies
The Jumbies
by Tracey Baptiste
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.36
60 used & new from $2.10

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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: $13.08
38 used & new from $10.01

2 of 2 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.


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