Wednesday, October 29, 2014

H2O by Virginia Bergin: REVIEW

H2O by Virginia Bergin
336 pages
Sourcebooks Fire (October 7, 2014)
Buy on Amazon

"The diary-style narration emphasizes Ruby's distinctly teenage response to society's end and her strong, spontaneous voice lends a touch of dark comedy to the post-apocalyptic doom and gloom... watching Ruby draw strength from her ability to tell her own story is as inspiring as it is harrowing" - The Horn Book Magazine

From the Jacket Blurb:
.27 is a number Ruby hates.It's a number that marks the percentage of the population that has survived. It's a number that means she's one of the "lucky" few still standing. And it's a number that says her father is probably dead.
Against all odds, Ruby has survived the catastrophic onset of the killer rain. Two weeks after the radio started broadcasting the warning, "It's in the rain. It's fatal and there's no cure," the drinkable water is running out. Ruby's left with two options: persevere on her own, or embark on a treacherous journey across the country to find her father-if he's even still alive.

"It's in the rain...and just one drop will kill you."

15 year-old Ruby Morris is obnoxious. In fact, she's possibly if not definitely the most annoying narrator of any YA book I've ever encountered. And just about all reader reviews of the book agree with this assessment.  She's an image and status obsessed snobby teenage brat, at times more concerned with putting on a sparkly top and makeup than smartly surviving the apocalyptic killer rain that has wiped out all but .27% of the world's population. You often find yourself thinking "UGH, what is wrong with you, Ruby? How can you still be THIS annoying? How could YOU of all people have survived when so many more likeable, clever, responsible people were dead within the first few days?" These questions are surprisingly, fascinatingly, the very reason why I enjoyed this book.

Let's face it: the world is full of annoying, frustrating people. People with different priorities and values and personalities than yourself. Ultimately harmless people that you just don't, And in the event of an apocalypse, these people don't just magically go away. Killer rain doesn't kill with discrimination. Many of the survivors of this story just got lucky. Ruby is a fault-filled person just like you or I (albeit far more immature), and catastrophe doesn't automatically change people into deeper people. At least not immediately, and not always in obvious ways...

Even if Ruby is as shallow as a drop of the alien killer rain from which she's running...she's still human. And like it or not, being human means that we are (as a species) a mix of good and bad, complex and simple, deep thinkers and painfully, mind-numbingly shallow idiots. We don't get to pick from only our best qualities to define what being human means. We can't control the behaviors and decisions of others. We can't force them to abandon who they are, who they've been, to suddenly become our version of a "better", more-likeable person.

Accepting that others are others, that they think and act differently and that this is OK---is a worthwhile (although sometimes very challenging) exercise in becoming better people ourselves. Ruby doesn't deserve to die just because I don't like her. And she doesn't deserve NOT to be the main character of a book just because I wouldn't want to be her friend in real life. Because in real life, there are countless Rubys in the world. Imperfect, immature, infuriating kids naively stumbling through the world---just trying to live to see another day. We may want Ruby to grow up (fast!) and prove her worth to us as a narrator we can be proud of, but really, she doesn't owe us a darn thing. She is who she is. Peoples is peoples.

In the end, it's not the differences that matter but the ways in which even VERY different people are the same.

"Please don't leave me."

Throughout the story, Ruby finds herself thinking these words. Silently imploring whoever happens to be around her to hang around a little longer. These tiny glimmers of desperation, of fear and desire not to be alone, let us see through to her deeper humanity. This is the Ruby that I understand and that I pity. No one wants to be alone. Ruby has lost just about everyone she knows and cares for. She's going through hell and yet she keeps going. Who am I to deny her the things that make her happy? The little things that add a bit of sparkle to an otherwise gray, dead (and deadly) world---even if her happiness does come in the form of an impractical, shimmering sequined top?

I hope to see more of Ruby. I hope that her story doesn't end here. I hope there is a sequel and I hope to get the chance to see her evolve into a better maturer version of herself.

I have to hope, because even in the face of unlikely odds, to hope is to be human.
Well, it's part of it, anyway.

A Note on the Book's Design:

I quite like what Sourcebooks Fire has done with the book jacket and cover. Yellowish green acid-rain like droplets seem to have burned holes into the cover, revealing two key words in the raindrop shaped text block on the hard cover: "drop" and "scream" are very clearly highlighted by the cutouts which ominously sets the stage for the events that unfold. An effective cover, I love that it doesn't resort to the hideous trend in YA covers of overly Photoshopped imagery. I like that it's purely graphic. Simple, clean, and intriguing. No people. Only drops of killer rain, daring you to touch it with your bare hands.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

THIS IS NOT MY HAT by Jon Klassen

This is Not My Hat 
by Jon Klassen

Reading level: 3 and up
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Candlewick Press (October 9, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-0763655990

I first encountered this book while doing some browsing at shop at The Eric Carle Picture Book Museum this past fall, and was instantly charmed by the ingenuity of its design and storytelling smartness. Though Jon Klassen's preceding book, I Want My Hat Back, is also funny/smart in a strikingly similar fashion, This is Not My Hat far outshines its predecessor in design, concept, and attitude. It's Jon Klassen 2.0. Here's why:

In I Want My Hat Back, the hat thief is a mystery for most of the story and the hat-hunting Bear the innocent victim. But This is Not My Hat is told from the point of view of the hat thief himself---a little fish with a BIG attitude. Self-assured and cocky, Little Fish justifies his immoral swiping of Big Fish's hat for the logical reason that it's far too small for the big fish anyway. He's certain that he's committed the perfect crime and will never be found out... 

Each sentence (few as there are) does exactly what it needs to do in pushing the story along. But where the simplistic and restrained writing truly soars is that he is able to give Little Fish such a snarky voice in so few words. The beauty of the writing is that Klassen says what should be said, and shows what should be shown. It results in one of the best rhythmically syncopated picture books to emerge in recent memory. It's picture book mastery at its best.

Stylistically the images are a bit dark for my personal taste--I'm not a huge fan of the muted color palette or flat back background. The flat black basically says "death" from page one and I just don't know if this was the only solution that could have worked. However I do love the texture and traditional collage-like feel achieved with digital media. Regardless of how I feel about this look, I give Klassen credit for being daring and for appropriately setting the tone of this darkly comic caper. It would not have worked as well if it were set in a typically colored ocean scene. The dark, muted colors definitely enhance the ominous atmosphere.

I love the flat matte paper Candlewick has chosen as well as the long shape of the pages. Klassen uses the page turn like a slow motion flip book where at times nothing differs from one image to the next besides the reactive eye of the big fish and an occasional gesture of secondary character. This makes it feel especially animated and demonstrates an enviable efficiency that many illustrators could learn from. It's super smart.

I reiterate that what Jon Klassen has done with the storytelling here is admirable. He's created the perfect marriage of text and image where both serve the story in the best possible combination.

Winning the Caldecott Medal proves many people acknowledge its merit as a significant contribution to children's literature. But I'm surprised by those who who jump to give it a poor review simply because its main character is an unapologetic criminal. They've missed their chance to read between the lines (kids are often better at that than adults). At its heart, this IS a morality tale. It doesn't encourage stealing, it supports the idea that doing the wrong thing just because you can is still wrong---and there will be inescapable consequences. Little Fish is not a bully, he just takes what he wants because he thinks it won't be missed. To me, it reminds me of the very same little-kid logic I myself once had--even if I ultimately never indulged myself into thieving anything... In a humorous, smart, and engaging way this book speaks to kids because it relates to the way they think. The harsh reminder about consequences of immoral actions is also a good one, for kids and adults alike.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

by Brian Selznick

Reading level: Ages 9-12
Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Press (September 13, 2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0545027892

(I LOVED the experience of reading this book but my review is a bit more concise than it deserves because I'm writing this before work!)

Wonderstruck is an expansion of the genre-breaking novel/graphic novel form Brian Selznick beautifully invented with his last masterpiece, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In two alternating stories, we follow Ben, a boy living in 1977 who is struck deaf by lightening shortly after his mother's death and immediately following a discovery he made about the identity of his unknown father. Clinging to the little clues he has, Ben sets out to find the mysterious man named Danny, leading him from his home in Gunflint, Lake Minnesota all the way to New York's Museum of Natural History.  Simultaneously, we flash to Rose, a young deaf girl living in 1927, her story told through pictures rather than words. Both characters, though separated from one another through time, have obvious parallels in their respective journeys that link them in surprising and inspiring ways. 

Selznick weaves together two seemingly disjointed story lines in an effortless and intuitive way. He paces the book perfectly, focusing on the most important events and moving quickly from one interesting moment to the next. The only fault I found (which overall is very minor) was int he exposition toward the end, when Rose's full story comes to light. I would have liked more showing and less telling, though I suppose it would have required many more images and brought the book to double its size. 

Once again, the sheer scale of Selznick's undertaking is awe-inspiring. With well over 400 pages of drawings, Wonderstruck is truly a wonder to behold and to experience. Flipping through the drawn pages quickly mirrors an animated, cinematic effect that brings the story energy and drama. The moments he chooses to depict are emotive, intriguing, and poetic, and enigmatic. His use of lights and darks, hand drawn text, composition, detail, and pacing are beautifully handled. In all, a superb achievement in story telling worthy of the highest praises in children's literature.

This story is sweet, sad, hopeful, moving, and unique. It provides a much needed mainstream glimpse into deaf culture and that is worth mentioning. But beyond that, Selznick succeeds in creating an imaginative, fast-paced and one-of-a-kind reading experience that is at times part novel, part graphic novel, part picture book, part film. A truly captivating idea is executed with obvious love and passion for the story, resulting in the perfect combination of story and art.
"'We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus 
by Erin Morgenstern

Reading level: Adult
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Doubleday (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0385534635

I want it made perfectly clear that The Night Circus is not a children's book. Nor is it middle grade fiction or a young adult novel. It may fit into a crossover category of its own, but for the most part its intended audience is that with some level of maturity. That is not to say that the content is inappropriate---it just isn't going to naturally appeal to children much more than say, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

So why then, am I including this book in my KidBook blog?
The Night Circus has received more attention than any book in some time, with reviewers touting it as the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight. For that reason alone I find it worthwhile to provide a brief review as it relates to the new-found hunger for the next big thing in children's literature. 

Put simply: Magic exists. In youth, Marco and Celia are apprenticed separately to two illusionists who have conflicting approaches to doing and teaching magic. A game is devised to exhibit and demonstrate one approach over the other, and Marco and Celia find themselves bound to each other unwillingly in a magic match that will span their lives until one is declared the victor. They do not know how or when one wins, only that the arena is Le Cirque des Réves. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that the fate of the circus and those connected to it is entwined in the destiny and evolving relationship of the two competitors. 

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel is quite an accomplishment. Dark, lyrical, with atmosphere that is equal parts evocative and vague. Dream-like is the only way I can put my experience reading it. Beautiful, dazzling, imaginative, engrossing, enchanting, romantic. Intoxicating. Timeless. The characters feel real. Believable. Relatable. Lovable. Mysterious.

Ebbing and flowing between split perspectives and timelines, the story presents itself as a series of connected vignettes that slowly build in tandem to the conclusion. The constant switching from place, time, and character keeps you enraptured from beginning to end--always moving on to the next glimpse just as it gets interesting. Fortunately, with most chapters around five pages, you soon return seamlessly back to where you left off of previous narratives.

The romance in the book is slow building. Gentle is a good descriptor for it. It's quite restrained and not at all risque. In all, it is classy in its conservatism. No graphic descriptions, just elegant and refined passion between two young lovers.  

As for the circus itself (a character in its own right): there's so much there to fall into (the sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures) and yet still never enough to truly grasp everything with clarity and full understanding. While it may frustrate some that so many workings within the circus remain unexplained (that carousel, for example), that is what makes the book so successful. To reveal all the wonders of the circus with a tangible, comprehensible, scientific explanation is to kill its magic. As readers we are left as mystified as the attendees of the circus, marveling at the spectacles without truly learning their secrets. Our own imagination is a key ingredient to the enjoyment of the story. We are allowed space to dream and imagine and experience. And while we have some vague hints about how some things might work within the logic of this magical world, we never fully see behind the curtain.  The unsolved mysteries preserve the fantasticalness of our experience and invites us to come back to relive it in our minds again and again. 

We may not possess a ticket to Le Cirque des Réves, but we can return as true rêveurs any time we like-- with the simple turn of a page.

In a literary arena where stories are competing to be the next big book for kids, I would rather The Night Circus be in the hands of young people than Twilight. Yes, it is a mature romantic fable, much more like Romeo & Juliet than Harry Potter. But where Twilight is essentially a purely indulgent story about lusting after a rebel man/boy with fangs and giving up all you are to be with him (for no discernable reason), The Night Circus offers a more poetic and affecting tale of a growing bond and chemistry between two people who fall in love with each other because they are complimentary--because they respect, admire, and inspire wonders within the other person. These are values that make romance morally justifiable, transcending a mere guilty pleasure for forbidden lust.

There is satisfying tension because these characters can't be together---but should be together.  We route for Celia and Marco because they care for one another deeply, relate to each other sensitively, and who by all accounts WOULD be together if it weren't for some needless competition in which they are more pawns than players. Their love represents an archetype to aspire to in a real-world relationship: They are the perfect harmonious match-- their lives, and the lives of those around them, are made more magical when they are together.

If a young person can embrace this kind of beautiful idea about what romantic love can and should be, all the better for the world. We ought to have better standards not just for love in literature, but for love as we live and experience it in our own lives.

But then again...maybe I'm just a dreamer.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who 
Circumnavigated Fairyland 
in a Ship of Her Own Making 

Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrated by Anna Juan
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0312649616
It's difficult to know quite where to begin with this review. I'm overwhelmed with the attempt to string enough well-constructed sentences together that will fully convey the excitement I feel for this book, while at the same time leaving as much to the imagination as possible. But here goes.

First, I'd like to say that I stumbled across this book in the small but glorious book section of a fantastic neighborhood comic shop. I picked it up, drawn to the look of the cover, glanced at the reviews, and then put it back down. I was certainly intrigued, but I already had a few other books in my hand. I walked around the store for a long while, but couldn't shake the praise I had just read out of my head. Neil Gaiman is quoted on the front cover:

“A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian Fairy Tale, done with heart and wisdom."

Honestly, how could I pass that up? I thought better of my initial decision and held on tightly to the book and made my way to the register.

Later that night, I started reading, IMMEDIATELY sensing I had found something truly special.


A highly logical, good-natured, relatively naive but adventuress young girl named September (LOVE THE NAME!) finds herself willingly winged away from boring Nebraska to magical Fairyland on the back of a flying leopard accompanied by a man named The Green Wind. Still with me?

From there her adventures unfold in the tradition of classical fantasies that precede it; September is part Alice in Wonderland and part Dorothy in OZ but with a spunky, humble, lovable personality all her own. She befriends and encounters numerous Fairyland beings, creatures, and environments on her journey through the enchanting new world, discovering as much beauty and charm as she does the disturbing and unsettling. Among many wonderful characters, September meets A-Through-L, a kind-hearted, well-meaning wyvern who's wings are shackled so he can not fly, and Saturday, a gentle Marid boy kept as a slave. She quickly realizes all is not well or fair in this magical land.

At odds with September is the nefarious Marquess, supreme ruler responsible for the current state of servitude and repression throughout Fairyland. But the Marquess is no two-dimensional villain, and by the end September unravels the reasons behind her authoritarian regime. This story is both startlingly unique and comfortingly familiar. At its heart, it is about a child coming to know herself and understand her own strengths through courage, logic, and selflessness. September is a worthy heroine that represents the exciting and tragic inevitibility of growing up.


Inventive. Exceptional. Insightful. Amusing. Moving. Witty. Victorian. Timeless. Delightfully,  superfluously, wonderfully verbose. That is to say, I am one of the faction which is entirely enthralled with Ms. Valente's flair for the English language. Her plays on words are clever and sharp, and for as surreal and absurdest as the world she has created can be, it is executed with such strong internal logic that every nonsensical bit simultaneously rings with unexpected truth. I will admit that there will be those for whom the writing may border on tiresome. But to me, she is a wordsmith. A genius at turning a phrase and creating not only memorable characters, settings, and plot, but a unique voice with which to tell the tale.

Amazing still is how this expansive story remains nuanced, heartfelt and intimate in Valente's capable hands. For every earth-shatteringly big-picture insight, a small, beautifully humble observation is made. The perfect balance between the awe-inspiringly fantastical, and the truthfully tangible.

This is a book for word-lovers, sentence-cherishers, and paragraph-hoarders. Chock full of quotable passages, this book is a true delight to read alone or aloud.

I know I am supposed to say all the reasons why Ana Juan's black and white chapter headers are the perfect compliment to the whimsical yet dark world Valente has created. But I just did not care for them. Yes, they are bizarre enough to work with the story, but they fall flat in terms of enhancing my experience of the book.

They are fine, but they don't thrill me. I simply do not connect to them. There is a generic quality to the characters that lacks personal appeal. While I love the cover illustration (which is in color) the interiors are rather muted and even a bit ugly and crudely drawn. I am loathe to sound so harsh, but it just don't find them very memorable. 

I feel ignorant in my evaluation---as if looking at a work of  Picasso and asking, "What's the big deal?" I feel perhaps I am missing some key perspective or previous appreciation for Juan's work that will make me love them more than I do. But perhaps my criticism is less to due with her art and more to due with the fact that I adore the writing so much that I want to love the illustrations equally. Forgive me.

To the right audience, I believe this book has the potential to inspire a love not only for reading but for the power and vibrancy of language itself. By drawing from classically told Victorian tales, Valente's voice begins in established territory but soon moves into a world of words that is entirely her own. It's smart. It's meaningful. It's fun. It's timeless. And I want more.

I implore you to give it a try. What's to lose? Especially as you can read the majority of the book right on the author's website. And if you like it, support her genius and buy yourself a copy of the hardback. She deserves it and you won't regret it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

BookNook Highlights: Helen Ward & Wayne Anderson

Today I'd like to depart from my typical review structure to highlight the imaginative children's bookmaking duo of author Helen Ward and artist Wayne Anderson. The two have worked together on a handful of children's titles, three of which are the focus of today's post. Their books feature strong, familiar, and worthwhile messages told through bizarre images and lyrical, simple writing. I'm very much engaged by Wayne Anderson's work, and find the delicate softness of his illustrations in perfect compliment to their strangeness. Weird and lovely at the same time, his worlds are truly his own.

Words that come to mind when reading these books might be dreamy, strange, otherwordly, whimsical, elegant, and ethereal. If those adjectives intrigue you, than read on for more about The Tin Forest, Little Moon Dog, and The Dragon Machine.


The Tin Forest
Written by Helen Ward
Illustrated by Wayne Anderson
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Dutton (2005)
ISBN-13: 978-0142403648

An old man lives alone in a small house surrounded by unwanted junk and discarded trash. By day, he spends his time cleaning, tidying, and organizing this ugly garbage heap, and by night he dreams of beautiful tropical forests. One day he gets an idea to build his own forest out of the resources around him. With a lot of hard work and a bit of wishing, he gets more than he dreamed of.
A positive message about the power of perusing your dreams and the good that can come when you work to make them a reality. No matter your circumstances, with enough dedication and heart you can transform your life and the world around you. A powerful and inspiring allegory great for children and adults alike.


Little Moon Dog
Written by Helen Ward
Illustrated by Wayne Anderson
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Dutton (2007)
ISBN-13: 978-0142403648

The Man in the Moon and his little dog live peacefully alone but for once a year, when they must contend with tourists to their home land--a tour bus full to the brim with mischievous fairies.  While the Man in the Moon prefers to shut himself in for the duration of their visit,  Little Moon Dog sees the fairies as exciting new playful companions.  Mistaking their willingness to play for genuine friendship, Little Moon Dog easily joins his new "friends" when they depart the moon for a nearby planet. The Man in the Moon finds himself alone and missing his furry friend, who only too soon realizes the true meaning of friendship and the value of home.

Though at times the writing can get a bit heavy handed, its message of appreciating your true friends is strong as ever and told in a strange new way.


The Dragon Machine
Written by Helen Ward
Illustrated by Wayne Anderson
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Dutton (2003)
ISBN-13: 978-0142403648

Lonely George seems to be the only one who notices when dragons begin appearing in places they shouldn't. Ignored and overlooked by everyone around him, George decides to deal with the issue on his own, and builds and pilots a flying machine shaped like a dragon and leads them all back from whence they came. During his trip, his parents finally discover George has gone missing, and set out to find him and bring him home.

The images provide an additional layer of meaning than the words alone. We never see George's parents--nor much of any other adults around George, which emphasizes the sense of isolation and disconnect he has to others. The soft, dull color palette used for George compared to the world around him makes him appear to sink into the background, undervalued and unappreciated.  And we come to understand that the dragons are manifestations of his imagination and desire to be noticed; his journey to bring them home to where they belong is in essence an elaborate way to run away from home.  The message at the end is universal: everyone wants to be valued and feel loved.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Quirk Books (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1594744761
Buy This Book on Amazon

I'd like to preface this review by saying that about two weeks ago I read a snippet about this new book that had me itching to get to the bookstore to pick it up and read it as quickly as possible. And based on the article I read, I assumed this was a book for adults---(which intrigued me as I am NEVER attracted to books intended for adults). But when I made my way into one of my favorite book shops in Providence I spotted the cover instantly---in the Young Adult section! (It figures.) As it turns out, though it's not really specific to any age group, the protagonist is a 16-year-old boy so it is attributed to the YA fantasy genre. Which means now I get to write about it!
16 year-old Jacob doesn’t have many friends, doesn't have a particularly deep relationship with his parents, works at a crappy job at his family's company, and is sadly watching his grandfather lose his mind. The same man who he used to adore--the grandfather who told him fantastical tales about his childhood growing up on an island during the war in a home for peculiar orphaned children.  A girl who levitates, an invisible boy, a boy filled with bees, a Bird who smokes a pipe, and terrifying monsters chasing after him. As a child Jacob gets swept away by the stories, but over time he comes to see them only as tall tales from an imaginative man's mind--they couldn't possibly be true.

Only after witnessing the violent death of his grandfather (seemingly at the hands of a mysterious creature) does Jacob begin to wonder just how unbelievable his grandfather’s stories really were. So he sets out to find the little island in Wales home to the peculiar children and uncover the answers for himself. What he discovers is fascinating and frightening and every bit as strange as the stories he was told.

Essentially, this book is as much an exercise in literary construction as it is a fantasy novel. What sets this book apart is how it came to be written: strange but REAL vintage photographs collected by the author were used as the direct inspiration for every peculiar character in the story. This concept of using photographs to jump start the imagination and inform the story instantly intrigued me.  But would it really work as a storytelling device? Would it rise above just being a gimmick? In my opinion, is does achieve a bit of both.

On one hand, I'm fairly certain that there is a genius idea happening here. And on the other I'm fairly certain that if I did not know the back story for this book, I would likely be thinking this the most oddly random story I've ever encountered--and not necessarily a great one. While the photos definitely inform the plot and characters, one can't help but wonder what the story would have become if they were used only for abstract inspiration rather than literal information. At times it seems the story was written to fit the images rather than the images made to fit the story. For all intents and purposes, the story is still fascinating and entertaining and unpredictable and certainly not one I have read before. I enjoyed the oddness of it all and chose to embrace it along with its imperfections because I can appreciate the bigger creative picture. It may not be perfect, but it is fun and engaging.

I'm not going to spend too much time picking apart the writing, because it wasn't the style of the writing or the voice that made me like this book. In fact, as far as writing goes, I have one significant  gripe: This book does not feel like it was written from the mind of a 16 year old boy. The language usage is at times too insightful, the vocabulary too forced, to feel believable. Had there been more of an initial set up that alluded to the fact that this is an older Jacob recounting his tale, I might not feel so critical. But so much of the book does feel like it's happening in Jacob's present that it's difficult to imagine this being told by Jacob in retrospect. Other than that issue, the writing is pretty straightforward with little poetic embellishment or literary grace. Not a problem, but nothing special either.

First, let me just say, I love the photos. I love the idea of incorporating the photos. And it was the idea of the photos that drew me to read this in the first place. But after having read it, I must be truthful:

As much as I like the inclusion of the photos because it is such an original an idea, they may have limited my experience of the novel a tiny bit. Here's why: With conventional illustrations, there is still a fair amount left to your imagination in terms of exactly what the characters look like. As traditional illustrations are only ONE artist's idea, they give you just enough information to go on but leave plenty of room for your own interpretation. Whereas when photos are used in place of illustrations, there are real, concrete, immutable faces staring back at you. It is far more difficult to change them to appear as they may in your imagination. And strange/quirky and occasionally vague as these particular photos are, even they pale in comparison to what your mind is capable of imagining when given the chance.

But all that being said, it is what it is. And I'm GLAD it is this way. It sets it apart from all the other novels I have read and makes it something worth experiencing. To me, it's almost an art piece about the power of the human imagination and its ability to formulate a story out of inspiration found in real life. Stories are out there, but it's people like Ransom Riggs who form them from the ether. He saw a story hidden in bits of peculiarities and set it to words for others to enjoy. And for that I am grateful and left wanting more.

Everything about this book called out to me from the front cover. The fonts, the image, the tone, the black and whiteness, the beautiful spine, the evident bizarreness. Inside, it has gloriously beautiful touches throughout--pretty end papers and chapter dividers, and a lovely sepia colored bottom rule on every page which gives it a nice flourish. The vintage photos are fantastic and are given a great deal of presence laid on top of the dark brown background of the page. The type is nicely set in terms of font and size (though the margins are atrocious---not enough room for your fingers and far too close to the gutter). The pages are smooth as satin and feel wonderful in your hand. Impressive quality from a press I've never heard of before now (Quirk Books).

True, these are all unnecessary attributes required for reading a book, but they serve to remind me why I love experiencing the printed thing itself and will thus never be satisfied the same way by eBooks.

This book is fun, imaginative, exciting, inspiring, creative, engaging, BIZARRE, random, and by all accounts, peculiar. I loved every minute of it. Maybe you will, maybe you won't. But I think you'll be hard pressed not to recognize its ingenuity.

Disappearing Desmond by Anna Alter

Disappearing Desmond by Anna Alter
Written and Illustrated by Anna Alter

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0375866845
Buy This Book on Amazon

Desmond is a cat who prefers not to be noticed. He blends in with his surroundings wherever he goes, until the day his new classmate Gloria arrives. Gloria is Desmond's social opposite--she loves to stand out and embraces attention. And unlike the others, she can always spot Desmond wherever he is hiding and consistently acknowledges him with a friendly "Hello, Desmond!" Slowly but surely her friendship brings Desmond away from his shy, wallflower tendencies and shows him the fun that can be had from interacting with those around him. Straightforward and easy to read, the story is pleasing from begining to end.

Anna Alter continues her lovely characteristic style of charming animals, pleasing color palettes, and playful patterns. Her world is warm with a comforting feeling of timeless universality.  The scenes are cute and clever and are just plain fun to look at. And while spotting Desmond is no hard task, it is enjoyable to see where and how he'll blend in next. Alter's animal characterization and use of materials is recognizable from book to book in a similar consistency as that of Rosemary Wells. Alter's illustrations are equally crisp, clean and smooth, with a smart simplicity that children will enjoy.

Disappearing Desmond visually explores the idea of shyness and the contradictory desire to both disappear and be noticed that many children can relate to. I for one was a shy child in school, never seeking or wanting the attention of others. But outgoing children like Gloria do exist and offer support and friendship to those who don't realize how much they need it. Once Desmond discovers the power of inclusion and friendship for himself, he is able to reach out to other bashful children who benefit from his initiative. This book is a sweet and original take on a universal concept with a positive message that is fun to read and look at---what more could you want in a picture book?

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Umbrella by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert

The Umbrella by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert
Written and Illustrated by Ingrid & Dieter Schubert

Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Lemniscaat USA (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-1935954002

A curious puppy, a windy day, and a red umbrella are the key ingredients to this charming wordless picture book. Told through beautifully delicate and imaginative watercolor images, the playful adventure story of a spontaneous trip around the world captivates the imagination and invites the audience to give voice to the puppy's silent narrative using their own words.

The double-page spreads are colorful, fun, charming and bursting with life and energy. Each page turn offers a completely new location, environment, and animal scenario for the little black pup's journey. The umbrella becomes not just a flying contraption but a boat, parachute, sled, and even a protective shield when the going gets rough. Without the limitations of words, you can feel free to linger on each page taking in every detail or let the question "Where will he go now?!"propel you eagerly to the next scene.

The Schuberts, a husband and wife team, are clearly having fun dynamically changing perspectives, focal points, and scale, pushing each composition to create an entirely fresh feeling from one environment to another. The result is a fantastic sensation of movement, achieving the feeling of a topsy-turvy adventure ride. The ending is equally intriguing as the begining, showing the puppy returning to the where he began---just in time to pass on the magic of the red umbrella to the next curious adventurer.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, this book offers plenty of stories both told and untold through the illustrations. With books like this, the true fun is in becoming the storyteller yourself. It encourages us to get swept away by our own imagination, asking "Where will WE go next?"

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep by Susan Lendroth

Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep
by Susan Lendroth
Illustrated by Raul Allen
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Tricycle Press (2008)
ISBN-13: 978-1582462325
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Set in 19th century Cape Cod, this picturebook tells the story of a young girl waiting for her father to return from a year at sea in the China trade. Time moves quickly, seasons pass, her baby brother learns to walk, and all the while she constantly wonders about the safety of her father, wherever he is, and whether he is thinking of her, too. 

Told in a traditional couplet rhyming verse, the author creates an old fashioned story complimentary of the time period of the story. Quiet, and introspective, the lyrical structure of the poem ebbs and flows like the ocean itself. Evoking the period of the age while at the same time crafting a beautiful timelessness, Susan Lendroth's verse reads like a heart-warming lullaby of family love and the patience required awaiting an absent parent's return.

I was instantly drawn to the sophisticated cover artwork by Raul Allen. The style of the girl's face and the expression in her eyes pulled me in and demanded a closer look. The line quality in Allen's work is unusual in its unpredictability, moving from thick to thin in unexpected ways. The paint balanced interesting between flat and thinly painted---some parts feel digital, some feel almost like a mono print in their texture. According to the back page, the illustrations were created using a combination of pencil, watercolor, and Photoshop. It certainly creates an interesting old time aesthetic that serves the story well. The color palette is subdued and low key, mostly earthy and sepia toned with some mild cool blues and greens sprinkled throughout. Together, all the elements combine to create emotive, beautiful images that demonstrate Allen's skill at drawing human form--though the faces can be a bit inconsistent from page to page.

An exciting new book illustrator to my eyes, and although the digital technique isn't perfect, I would look forward to seeing more books from him in the future. Allen is great at capturing subtle emotion which I greatly admire.

Just wanted to make a quick note pertaining to the design/layout of the book which I think is really well-done in its simplicity. Beginning with very subdued light blue endpapers depicting a flat spread of ocean with a ship sailing off into the distance, every bit of the book serves to enhance the flavor of the story. The design reminded me quite a bit of Candlewick Press's books, particularly The Serpent Came to Gloucester. The use of white space adds to its sophistication, as most spreads feature an illustration on one side and a white page with text and border on the opposite. It really gives presence to the verse and an intimate feeling to the illustrations. And where appropriate, it satisfyingly breaks that mold by offering a nicely paced double paged spread. Well done.

Ultimately, it's a poetic, beautiful story about patience, hope, longing and family with a happy ending that satisfies. It takes an idea many can relate to in different ways and places it in an interesting historical context where we empathize with a child who patiently endures time away from her father. Overall, a nice feel-good read.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz

The Boy Who Grew Flowers
by Jen Wojtowicz
Illustrated by Steve Adams
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Barefoot Books (2005)
ISBN-13: 978-1841486864
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Sometimes, what makes a book truly inspiring is not so much the story as it is written, but the meaning behind why it was written; the message it conveys becoming the purpose for telling it.

The Boy Who Grew Flowers is a story of finding friendship and acceptance and embracing rather than shunning the differences that make us who we are. Granted, there are tremendous amounts of children's stories that accomplish this message, but few do it with the same level of sophistication. Straddling abstract and surreal ideas (a boy that grows flowers from his head?) with straightforward and simple plot (other children avoid him), the story appears timeless and classical, yet not unrelatable for contemporary children.

Admittedly, as I was reading it I noted that while as an adult I appreciate the beauty of the author's language, I wonder whether I would have fully grasped every angle of the story reading it as a child.

Simply put, sophisticated writing that handles abstract ideas can often go over the heads of the intended young audience. In this book, most of the sentences are easy to read and straightforward. But the key to the story's sophistication is not what is written, but what is not written. It requires some level of thinking beyond the literal words on the page to fully "get" the everything this story is saying. There are equal amounts show as there are tell.

"Why won't anyone talk to him? she asked. The others fell silent. The question rattled in their minds."
In three simple lines, the author describes that the other children 1: do not talk to the boy, and 2: Don't really know why they don't talk to him. She hits upon the sad truth of childhood discrimination: we often do not know WHY we treat each other as we do, gravitating more easily towards distaste than we do toward affection. This book does not seek to answer this question, but rather to show the good that comes when compassion is the only option.

The story handles the idea of differences between people with artful symbolism, and creates a universal, sweetly humane message that love and friendship and differences are wonderful things that make life worth living. Precisely the type of kind, heart-warming message I want my books to contain.

Steve Adams images are well-suited for this story. There is a simple mild surrealism in his exaggeration and manipulation of the human figure which serves the strangeness of the story. The colors are both vibrant and subdued, which also compliments the feeling of the story well. Overall, I like the illustrations though stylistically I feel they may go a bit too generic for my taste, especially when you consider that the boy grows flowers from his head. I envisioned the characters with slightly more personality---though not enough to destroy the wonderful and universal fairy-tale quality of the story.

While reading the story,  questions formed in my mind about children's literature in general: Why do we write for children in sophisticated ways (whether through language or abstract plot) that they may not fully grasp? Yes, they can follow the plot (boy has strange family, boy goes to school, boy has no friends, etc) But can they appreciate the beauty in the writing as much as the beauty in the story or pictures? And more importantly, is there really any harm in writing this way regardless--aren't children better served by being exposed to elevated, quality writing at a young age rather than not?

Reading is the gateway to understanding the possibilities of expression in language. If stories were only ever written in blatant, simplistic ways (i.e. "The brown fox ran through the field.") would we ever develop more expressive ways to form sentences? (i.e. "The fox, brown as the dirt beneath his muddy paws, hastily bounded through the dew-covered field.")

My answer is that I am thankful that there are authors creating high caliber stories that challenge young readers rather than placate or patronize.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Chiru of High Tibet by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

The Chiru of High Tibet
by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Illustrated by Linda Wingerter
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (September 27, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0618581306
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An exciting and true tale about the remarkable antelope-like animals called Chiru and the humans who have both threatened and spared them from extinction. The chiru is a little-known relative of the sheep and goat and makes its home high in the mountains of Tibet. Their brilliantly soft wool is extremely valuable but unlike sheep, cannot be sheared. The greed of poachers to profit of these miniature creatures has subsequently resulted in mass killings and severe endangerment to their populations. Yet rather than focus on the terrible effects of a few terrible people, the real story takes heart in the heroic adventures of George B. Schaller and the 4 man crew that dedicated themselves to studying these mysterious animals and seeking protection of them under Chinese law. A conservation message told poetically by Briggs Martin that is more beautiful and hopeful than it is tragic.

I really enjoy Jacqueline Brigg's Martin's elegant way of writing nonfiction. At times poetic, at times factual, it ebbs and flows with cohesive lyricism that simplifies the story to its most essential bits. For as text heavy as it is, it still manages to feel light and airy. Probably not the most ideal book for reading aloud, but perfect for one on one or independent reading.

I admit it. If the brilliant Ms. Wingerter had not illustrated this book, I may never have even noticed it on the shelf. Being a huge fan of her other children's books and personal paintings, I knew that the Chiru book was in the works well before I finally came across it at the book store. And it does not disappoint. Her color palette is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and her simplification and stylization of people and environments brings the art to the appropriate age level but with characteristic sophistication. Her work is colorful, warm, and sensitive with a touch of folk art flair that truly compliments the story. Illustrated picture books like this are the reason why I fell in love with this industry to begin with. These books are pieces of art created by adults out of a sheer passion and love for beautiful pictures and story. A delight.

Any book that brings to light a little-known animal's journey from endangerment to hope has a place on my bookshelf. As a non-fiction read, it's one of the only places you can learn about this amazing story in such a comprehensive way. The conservation message is heartwarming, inspiring, and absolutely necessary for children of all ages. After all, the future of animal life and survival will be in their hands someday. Let's hope the chiru are not only still around at that point, but thriving.