10.30.2008

Magic City by E. Nesbit. 206 pp RL4

Edith Nesbit is perhaps one of the greatest, most influential writers of children's literature that you have never heard of. Born in England in 1858, Nesbit lived until 1924 and published most of her children's books between 1898 and 1913. She is a known influence to CS Lewis and Edward Eager, author of the fabulous Half Magic, among others, both of whom published their children's fantasy novels some forty years after Nesbit. CS Lewis went so far as to mention the Bastable children, characters from Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers, in his book The Magician's Nephew. In her 2002 article linking George Balanchine's production of The Nutcracker to the works of Nesbit and Eager, who himself was a minor figure in the New York theatre scene of the 1940s, Mimi Kramer emphasizes the influence of Nesbit on Eager's writings for children. She cites a 1958 article Eager wrote for the HornBook Magazine of children's literature in which he admires what he calls the "dailiness of the magic" in Nesbit's books and referrs to his own writings as "second-rate Nesbit."

The phrase "the dailiness of the magic" is a perfect description of one of the two great attributes that Nesbit introduced into children's literature with her writings. As Peter Glassman, owner of the Books of Wonder bookstore in writes in his essay on The Magic City, before Nesbit published Five Children and It in 1902, there were two basic types of fantasy writing for children. The first involved children who traveled to some far away magical kingdom, as in Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. In the second, the story takes place in a fairy-world completely independent from our own, such as in George MacDonald's the Princess and the Goblin. He goes on to write, "in Nesbit's books, however, readers met children much like themselves, whose lives and problems seemed quite familiar. It was into this everyday setting that Nesbit introduced her singular brand of unpredictable magic."

The theme of real, familiar children is the other major innovation Nesbit brought to children's literature. Previously, during the Victorian era, children and childhood were idealized and fantasized. Nesbit wanted to give children "direct voices, capable of expressing ordinary human emotion that a writer as playful as Lewis Carroll tends to avoid, " as Natasha Walter notes in her article on Nesbit for England's Guardian newspaper. In addition to giving children voices in her work, Nesbit was not afraid to address the realities of childhood. As a child, Nesbit's father died and her family's fortunes rose and fell, so she knew firsthand the pain and turmoil sudden upheavals bring to a child's world. She explores this idea brilliantly in The Magic City.

The story begins with Philip, an orphan, who is being raised by his doting half-sister Helen, twenty years his senior. They have an idyllic life until the day she announces that she is marrying her childhood sweetheart and they will move to his home, the Grange, where they will live with him and his daughter, Lucy. Phillip is shocked and sullen and does not make a good impression upon arriving at The Grange after the wedding. Helen and her new husband set off on their honeymoon leaving the children in the care of Lucy's nurse and the servants. When Philip is rude to Lucy's auntie as well, Lucy is whisked away so that she will not be subjected to this horrid boy. Then Philip is truly alone. He has the "immense liberty of a desolate, empty sort." (The Magic City, p. 7) One of the things I love most about literature that is fifty plus years old is the quality of the writing and the care taken with the words. I think that this quote is the perfect example of that. In the service of exciting plots and rich, new fantasy worlds, many writers for children have forgotten how evocative a few well turned words, rather than paragraphs and paragraphs of description, can be. I firmly believe that there is almost no reason to write a book over 300 pages for children and I am suspect of those that hover around 500 pages. As I have said in other reviews, the real challenge is to write a complete story with detailed characters who live in a fully visualized universe in less than 200 pages. Although she does not write fantasy, I think the works of Polly Horvath, My One Hundred Adventures is her most recent, are perfect examples of this.

That said, Nesbit has a very clever, everyday introduction of magic into the story, which I love because it is exactly the kind of thing I have watched my older son do since he was four or five. Philip goes around the house and collects objects, books, candlesticks, chandelier crystals, ash trays, dominoes, and builds a city that he populates with Noah and his ark, as well as lead soldiers. He does this in the absence of Lucy's overbearing, coldhearted nurse, who has rushed off to see a brother thought to be lost at sea. Philip awakens in the night and, by the light of the full moon, goes downstairs to look at his city. Then the magic happens. Philip is transformed and transported into the city, as is Lucy, who returned home that night unbeknownst to Philip. The two eventually meet up in the city and, after a few encounters, are asked to leave. On their way out, however, Lucy is waylaid and Philip returns on his own and goes back to bed. The next morning the house is silent. All the servants are looking for Lucy and Nurse is dismantling the city. Realizing he must return to the city to rescue Lucy, Peter rebuilds it and enters once more.

Philip learns that a prophesy has predicted a Deliverer and a Destroyer and, if he wants to stay in Polistarchia, the country that the magic city, Polistopolis, is in, he must accept the role as Deliverer and perform seven great deeds. Lucy objects, saying she wants to help, and she is allowed to join Philip. But, they are also challenged by a lady whose face is covered by a motor-veil. She demands to be the Deliverer, but, as Philip has already taken that title, Mr Noah creates the title of "Pretender-in-Chief to the Claimancy of the Deliverership," or Pretenderette for short. She is allowed to take on the deeds if Philip fails, and she tails the children throughout the story on a great hippogriff she has gained control over with a magic word. The children are given some helpful companions, including Polly the Parrot and Max and Brenda, the dogs. Philip fights a dragon and rescues a princess, Lucy, and Lucy completes the task of unravelling the great Mazy Carpet when Philip cannot figure out how. They also have to slay the lions in the desert, which is kind of a strange scene. The lions, after all, are the wooden ones from Noah's ark, so the children do not actually kill them. They tie them up with ropes then have the dogs lick the paint off of them because this will keep them from feeling anything when the children disable them by sawing off their legs... This would not have been written today, nor would Lucy be able to call the dark skinned islanders they encounter later in the story "savages." However, Philip does tell her she's a stupid donkey when she says this since they are so clearly children just like them. There was no such thing as political correctness in 1910, but Nesbit seems to have a good sense of conscience.

The children go on to help the Dwellers by the Sea overcome their fear of water and free the people of Somnolentia from the wrath of the Giant Sloth and return water to the land, thus allowing the people to stop bathing in pineapple juice. Throughout the story, Philip and Lucy struggle with their antipathy for each other, frequently discussing the "pax" that they have called and what it encompasses - will Philip be kind to Lucy after they return home? As Glassman notes, Philips experience of having his life turned upside down by his sister's marriage, "throwing him helter-skelter into a new home, complete with a new family, and - worst of all - a stepsister. Philip's resentment of all this upheaval is as recognizable today, in our world of frequent divorce and remarriage, as it was in Edwardian Britain." Yet, as Philip embarks on his quest to perform the seven deeds, he also goes on a personal journey to "accept the changes that have been forced upon him and to discover that his sister's love for her new husband in no way diminishes her love for him."

It is amazing to think that, almost 100 years ago, themes like this were making their way into children's literature. It is also amazing to compare this work of fantasy to the amazingly rich worlds that have been created since then by writers like Dianna Wynne Jones, Joan Aiken, Philip Pullaman and JK Rowling, to name a few. On a final note, it is interesting to see how Nesbit uses magic in her writing and how this is different from the above noted authors. As Natasha Walter points out, for Nesbit, "magic promises everything but turns out to be a source of chaos." There is no great evil and no great good, no Dumbledore or Voldemort. The children in her stories must muddle through on their own, making their own mistakes and conquests. There is no destiny, no overriding universal force that guides them.

And, I have to mention that at one point in the story Philip accuses Lucy of being "snarky." I had no idea that this word is over 100 years old!!

If The Magic City doesn't sound like your cup of tea, consider The Railway Children, which has no magic in it. Written in 1906, it is the story of a family whose fortunes change when their father is accused of selling secrets to the Russians. A move to the country and poverty, as well as their mother's attempts to sell her writing and support her four children leave the children with free time to roam the countryside and wave at the train as it passes each day. When they alert the engineer to a potential disaster, they are befriended by an elderly gentleman who turns out to be the owner of the railroad and the story unfolds from there... This book has been made into BBC series and theatrical movies five times between 1951 and 2000, with the added touch of the actress Jenny Agutter, who played the daughter, Roberta, in the 1968 and 1970 productions playing the mother in the 2000 release, which is a very enjoyable production. You might also consider the Psammead trilogy, the first of which is Five Children and It, published in 1902. Sent to the countryside from London because of the war (Hm, what story does this remind me of?) the children discover a psammead, or sand fairy, while playing in a gravel pit. Unlike the dainty, winged fairies we think of, It is hairy, grumpy and has a phobia of water. He grants the children's wishes, but they never turn out quite as expected. This has also been made into several series and movies, the most recent of which starred Kenneth Brannagh, Zoe Wannamaker and Freddy Highmore and involved a bit of plot tweaking, but was still an enjoyable children's movie,

10.27.2008

Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter, pictures by Peter H Reynods, 155 pp RL4


In my effort to either to find books about girls who, rather than being precocious or full of attitude, are smart, brave, sensitive and maybe even creative, I picked up Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter. I'll be honest, I thought Olivia was going to be another precocious girl, maybe because of her winsome name, probably because Peter H Reynolds of Judy Moody and Stink fame does the illustrations - illustrations that make the book seem like it might be written at a lower reading level than it really is. And, while it took me a chapter or two to realize I was wrong, I am thrilled to report that I am very, surprisingly, blissfully wrong!


Olivia Kidney as a character and a book is very engaging. Initially, the book seems like it is going to be a "real life" girl story about a twelve year old city kid who's Dad is a superintendent in one of the many multistoried apartment buildings in New York City. This seems especially so when two older girls make fun of Olivia's jeans while riding in the elevator and tease her about leaving class to visit the school's counseling servives. However, little things here and there indicate the possibility that Olivia's story might not be what it seems. After discovering she has lost her keys, a boy who says he is in Olivia's English class introduces himself as Branwell, oldest of eleven siblings, and offers to let her into the building and his apartment, if she needs a place to stay. Olivia declines, but does allow him to unlock the door of the lobby for her. From there, things only get stranger, and more interesting. I am tempted to say more, but Potter does such a fabulous job of writing a seemingly normal story, making the reader see things in one way, and then tweaking and twisting and sometimes leaping in an altogether different direction that you're not sure what to make of it, that I don't want to spoil any of her surprises. However, if you must know or if you have issues with ghosts, please read the spoiler below. Otherwise, skip to the last paragraph for my final comments and connections.


*******SPOILER ALERT********


Olivia, although she does not know it when the story begins, is clairvoyant and can talk to ghosts. To others, it seems as though she is talking to invisible people and that is why she is seeing the school counselor. Also, in the course of the story we learn that her beloved brother who was eight years older than her and sounds and talks a little like Holden Caufield, has died recently and Olivia is still grieving this loss. To Olivia, she is talking, or trying to talk to her brother Christopher, not invisible people. That is why she has been reading his book on holding seances by Madam Brenda, a medium who is looking to retire and happens to be visiting Olivia's neighbor on the night this story takes place.

While locked out of her apartment, Olivia meets a series of neighbors with increasingly strange apartments and stranger life stories. She meets an old woman who sucks up and disposes of the dirty air in her apartment, in which everything, floors, faucets, tables, is made of glass. While peering at the downstairs neighbor through this woman's floor, Olivia watches as her baby almost ingests drain de-clogger, but Olivia saves him. She also encounters a neighbor with a steamy jungle in her apartment and hears a chilling story of piracy and a seeming Siren, a mythological creature who could play music that lured sailors to their deaths. After hearing this story she is almost killed by Master Clive himself, the dread pirate of the story. She escapes to the apartment of Branwell only to discover that his mother has turned one of the bedrooms into a barn and his siblings, while playing Charlie-in-a-Jam! have shoved their youngest brother, Charlie, into the incinerator chute and can only get him out by sending him down to the furnace which may or may not be turned on... While in the basement checking on the state of Charlie, Branwell shows Olivia the subbasement and a curious cylindrical brick structure in the middle of it. Her father discovers her down there, seemingly talking to herself and takes her home where they make brownies, only to be interrupted by her appointment downstairs with Madame Brenda and an explanation of the crazy events of the day and tips on how to channel her clairvoyant abilities.



The scene where Olivia's father finds her in the subbasement is very touching. The final scene, where she learns how to listen for her brother and talk to him is especially so. We learn a little bit about Olivia's mother in the story, but we do not learn why Christopher died. Maybe that is revealed in one of the other Olivia Kidney books. There are currently three in print - Olivia Kidney, Olivia Kidney Stops for No One and Olivia Kidney and the Secret Beneath the City. I plan to run out and read them all as soon as possible. I definitely recommend this book for readers who like ghost stories and surprises or books with interesting, sometimes fantastical characters. Ellen Potter is a very creative writer and her characters are compelling - I felt a connection and concern with Branwell and even Christopher, of whom very little is revealed, and of course with Olivia. While lighter in tone and depth, perhaps because it only takes place over the course of a day, Olivia Kidney reminded me in many ways of Polly Horvath's My One Hundred Adventures and her main character Jane Fielding. Jane meets some strange adults over the course of her summer and learns some interesting things about life and herself and, while she is not clairvoyant like Olivia, she encounters plenty of healers and seers and has her palm read by a thief. Stories that are journeys are subtle, gentle ways of enclosing larger messages, like learning to listen, into the text, and both Potter and Horvath are masters at doing this in rich, detailed stories that take place over a surprisingly short number of pages.


10.24.2008

The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley, pictures by Peter Ferguson 284pp RL 4



How could I not love these books? How can I keep myself from going on and on about how much I love these books, especially since there are six of them? I will try to contain myself to an overview of the series rather than reviews of the individual books and beg you to please visit the site Sisters Grimm to learn more about the series, but really, just go out and get book one, The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy Tale Detectives today! For those of you already knee-deep into the series, check out this video interview conducted by a young fan at the virtual field trip site, Meet Me at the Corner. For a little advance information on Book 7, The Everafter War, check out this AMAZING website for fairy tale lovers, Sur la Lune Fairy Tales.



With the Sisters Grimm series, Michael Buckley proves that he is so completely creative, ingenious and hilarious that I will be jealous of him until the day I die. I wish I had thought of this! Even more so, I wish I had thought of a story line that allowed me to play, in writing, with all of my favorite fairy tale characters. The overall conceit of the series is that the writings of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were not tales, but history books recounting the exploits of the Everafters, or the characters from fairy tales (as well as other books like The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few.) When it seemed as though the Everafters were getting out of control and unable to coexist alongside humans the Brothers Grimm teamed up with the powerful witch from Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga, to cast a spell that would keep all of the Everafters contained in one city - Ferryport Landing, NY. The caveat to the spell is that a direct descendant of the Grimms must always live in Ferryport Landing and record the goings on of the Everafter as well as police them. Evil characters being a crucial element of fairy tales, of course there are several disgruntled Everafters who are not happy with this arrangement and always looking for a way out of Ferryport Landing. However, there are also a few Grimms who are not happy with the arrangement either... There are also Everafters who find other ways of getting into trouble and breaking laws and Granny Relda, widow of Basil Grimm (a nice aside, Buckely dedicates book one to his grandparents, Basil and Relda) is always there to crack the case and find out who is behind each crime.


When the series begins, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, ages eleven and seven, have spent the last year and a half in orphanages and foster homes since the disappearance of their parents, but are now on their way to live with a grandmother they had believed to be dead. Sabrina has taken on the role of protector and skeptic, understandable considering some of the foster parents they have escaped from, while Daphne remains sunny and inquisitive and pretty much the seven year old she is. The girls are welcomed lovingly to Ferryport Landing by Granny Relda, her companion Mr Canis and her Great Dane, Elvis, who is often comic relief. Granny Relda does not tell the girls anything about their father or extended family initially, and even deflects some of the girls' questions. She doles out information, bit by bit, over the course of the books mostly for the girls' own safety, but also because, knowing Sabrina is so skeptical, she wants to gain her trust and give her an accurate, favorable impression of the family and world she has unwillingly become part of. A secondary plot line involves The Scarlet Hand, an secret organization of Everafters and their evil machinations. And, in every book, there is always a different crime or mystery to be solved by Granny Relda and the girls and assorted Everafters.


This series full of action and adventure, but for me it is character driven, and perhaps it has to be since readers are somewhat familiar with almost all of the fairy tale characters who pop up in this story in one way or another. However, I find myself completely taken with the characters I haven't met before - Sabrina, Daphne and Granny Relda. Over the course of six books, thus far, Buckley has imbued Granny Relda with humanity, compassion, patience and understanding. She has a deep love for and acceptance of her family and their individual qualities, whether they love their lot in life or loathe it. She also has some nice quirks, like a rusted out jumble of an old car that has rope seat belts and is so loud that it is impossible to converse when the engine is running. She also fully embraces her role of guard, protector and keeper of Everafters and has a house full of books to keep her knowledgeable - Birds of Oz, Shoes, Toys and Cookies: The Elvish Handcraft Tradition, 365 Ways to Cook a Dragon and Architecture for Pigs, among many. Relda also has an arsenal of magical objects at her disposal, guarded by Mirror - the wicked step-mother of Snow White's magic mirror. Mirror is actually an eccentric, droll man who lives inside the mirror (which is an "arcane powered, multi-phasic, trans-dimensional pocket universe") and is always on hand to help the girls out of a scrape or lend them a flying carpet or ruby slippers from the Hall of Wonders, or, as Granny calls it, the world's biggest walk-in closet. Another nice touch is Granny's questionable culinary skill. The first meal she serves the girls, spaghetti and meatballs, consists of black noodles, orange sauce and green meatballs and smells both sweet and spicy at the same time. The characters of Sabrina and Daphne are rich with determination, stubbornness, and an evolving maturity that can be moving to witness. They also have lighter sides. One the funniest running gags is Daphne's continual excitement at meeting Everafters. Every time she sees one of her favorites for the first time she shoves her the heel of her palm into her mouth to keep from squealing. Another story line full of laughs involves Sabrina and Puck, the Trickster (Faerie) King of mythology and star of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Despite her mistrust of and sometimes prejudice against Everafters, Sabrina finds herself with a bit of a crush on him.


Puck and Mr Canis are among the most richly written, detailed Everafter characters that Buckley evolved/created. Everafters, who are eternal, can choose to age and stop aging at will and, those who are animals, such as The Three Pigs, can take on human appearances at times. Puck has chosen to remain somewhere between age 11- 13 and, finding plenty of mischief to make in Ferryport Landing does not mind his imprisonment there. While he is initially jealous that the Sisters Grimm have usurped his role as sometimes-visiting-only-child in Granny Relda's home, he teams up with them to fight a giant in book one. As the books and his relationship with Sabrina and the Grimms progress, he changes and matures along with the girls. Reluctant protector and at odds with his mischievous nature, Puck gradually grows into his role and place in their family. However, he still pulls some really great gags on Sabrina (in the way that boys often tease girls they like) one of which involves a black Sharpie marker and the all-caps words CAPTAIN DOODIEFAICE.

Mr Canis has his own interesting background and is a prime example of Granny Relda's compassionate nature. If you plan to read these books and want to be surprised STOP READING HERE!! If not, continue on for a description of Mr Canis' true nature.

Mr Canis, or The Big Bad Wolf, or Tobias Clay, has his story told in book six. I can't go into too many details because there are other story lines intertwined with his, but I can tell you that Mr Canis has almost no memory of the man he was, Tobias Clay, before a witch with a magical kazoo unleashed the insanity that she sucked out of a rabid wolf on him. The magical kazoo makes its way into the hands of the Three Pigs and eventually Sabrina and Daphne. Mr Canis, the man Tobias Clay becomes, spends centuries practicing a Zen-like meditation that allows him to keep his wolf-nature in check and serve as a body guard to the Grimms in an effort to atone for his crimes. While protecting them in book one he accidentally tastes the blood of Jack the Giant Killer and gradually loses control of himself over the course of the next four books. By book six we see him on trial for his crimes, utterly defeated and ready to die. But Granny Relda won't let him Despite a conviction on Sabrina's part that he should be left to hang - one that causes a deep rift between her and Granny - Relda digs and digs until she reveals the truth of his existence as the Big Bad Wolf.

I feel like I can't say this enough, so I will say it one more time. The Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckey - with beautiful, sometimes moody, sometimes playful full-page black and white drawings in each chapter and more traditional, silhouettes at the heading of each chapter by Peter Ferguson - is, along the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer, the BEST fantasy series for children written since JK Rowling introduced us to Harry Potter in 1997. All three series have authors with amazingly creative imaginations and the writing skills to transfer those ideas onto paper, creating full blown characters and complete magical worlds that draw the reader in immediately. The genuine human qualities and personal growth that the characters exhibit cause you to care about them, maybe even fall in love with them and yearn to hear more of their stories with every book.

Five of the six books in the series are currently in paperback, and at the end of books one and two there is a great "Guide to Fairy Tales and the Sisters Grimm." It includes a letter from Michael Buckley about the creation of the books, brief descriptions of what fairy tales are and how they are different but also a bit the same all over the world, a bit about the Brothers Grimm, "Basic Ingredients" for fairy tales, a quiz and inspirations for kids to write their own fairy tales and a list of suggested fairy tale reading. Below are the titles of the books in order.

The Fairy Tale Detectives
The Unusual Suspects
The Problem Child
Once Upon a Crime
Magic and Other Misdemeanors
Tales From the Hood

10.22.2008

Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf by Paul Stewart, pictures by Chris Riddell, 240 pp RL 4









Barnaby Grimes and the Curse of the Night Wolf is the latest series by the duo Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, who brought us Far-Flung Adventures for third grade readers and the Edge Chronicles for fifth and sixth grade readers. The Barnaby Grimes books fall nicely between these two. Written at a fourth grade reading level, this series is set in pre-1900s London and is full of curiosities like high stacking, tick-tock lads and cordials as well as a host of British names that trip over the toungue, Cadwallader and Jolyon to name a few. While the Edge Chronicles and the Far-Flung Adventures take place in wonderfully described, detail laden imaginary worlds that are populated by fictional creatures and odd human beings, Barnaby Grimes' story takes place in a real city, albeit one that is equally laden with details and creatures, all of which, except for one or two, are factually based.

At its heart, this book is a mystery and a thriller and it has a fair amount of blood and violence befitting its subject and time - werewolves and the grimy, impoverished world of a post-Industrial city. Stewart takes as much care describing the poorer and the poorest neighborhoods of London and their inhabitants as he does the werewolves and their rampages through the city. His eye for minutiae that made his imaginary worlds so totally livable in his other series is used here to draw you into the gritty, smelly streets of the Wasp's Nest and the East Bank along with Barnaby, who, as a tick-tock lad, delivers messages and packages all over the city.

While high stacking one evening, high stacking being the habit of climbing onto the top of a building in order to jump from roof to roof, clinging to chimney stacks as you go, Barnaby is attacked by a great grey wolf. Despite a horrible burn on his shoulder from a hot chimney pot, he manages to evade the wolf and send him crashing through a skylight and into a vat of glue boiling away in the glue factory below. From that night on, he winds his way through a series of clients, clues and cordials that lead him to discover the genesis of the night wolf, the real purpose of Dr Cadwallader's Cordial and the source of the luxurious Westpahlian fur that is being used to trim the collars and cuffs of the fashionable swells and fine ladies of London.

I am a huge fan of the works of Stewart and Riddell, as well as a lover of all things British, so this book was a genuine treat for me. While I am not such a huge fan of creatures like werewolves and the havoc they wreak, there was so much else going on in this story, from the descriptions of the characters Barnaby encounters to the squalid details of the lives of the lower classes, that I was entertained and riveted from the start. While this strikes me as mostly a book for boys, I think it will have crossover appeal, as do the other series by this team. Older readers who enjoyed this book should not miss the Edge Chronicles and younger readers looking for something a bit more light hearted should definitely check out the Far-Flung Adventures.



If your daughter likes this book, I strongly recommend the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer, the first of which is The Case of the Missing Marquess. Springer imagines that Sherlock Holmes' mother has had a daughter, Enola, very late in life. Because of the eccentricities of her mother, which really turnout to be proto-feminist ideas about independence and the right to ownership and inheritance for women, Enola does not know her brother, only knows of him. This all changes when her mother disappears on Enola's fourteenth birthday. Enola follows the cryptic clues left behind by her mother and ends up on the trail of a missing Viscount and a phony spiritualist as well. Springer evokes the period beautifully and creates an initially timid, but very intelligent, emotional and sympathetic character in Enola, who evolves nicely over the course of the book, which ends with her setting up her own investigative agency, posing as the secretary but doing all of the work on her own. There are currently four books in this series, the fifth due out in 2009.

10.20.2008

Silverwing, by Kenneth Oppel 214pp RL 5

With Silverwing, Kenneth Oppel creates a fascinating world of bats, complete with a creation myth, a social hierarchy, and a troubled history as a creature that falls somewhere between the warring factions of mammals and birds. The cover illustration, subject matter and presence of cannibalistic vampire bats make this sound like a very dark story. But it is not. It is full of carefully drawn characters who show curiosity, compassion and bravery as well as foolishness, laziness and cowardice.

Shade, the main character, a Silverwing bat and the runt of the newborns, is curious, defiant and eager to prove himself. He is also desperate to learn anything about his father, Cassiel, who has disappeared and is believed to be dead. Shade lives with his mother, Ariel, and the rest of the Silverwing community in Tree Haven, the warm weather nursery for the colony. Within the first few pages of the book, Shade breaks the time honored code that keeps an uneasy peace between owls and bats: bats are not allowed to be out of their roost when the sun rises, if they are, they will be hunted by the owls as fair game. Sensing his inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge, Frieda, the chief elder of the colony who has a silver band on her arm, takes Shade to visit the Echo Chamber, a smooth walled cavern deep within Tree Haven where the bats have sung the history of the colony ever year since its inception. There he learns that this agreement with the owls stems from an incident that occurred millions and millions of years ago. In their bats creation story, Nocturna, the Winged Spirit whose wingspan was the night sky, created the beasts and birds that populated the earth and bats flew in the day light. But, a war between the beasts and birds ensued and each side asked the bats to join up with them and fight. The bats refused and, when a peace treaty was worked out and the bats were banished to the night and after thousands of years of living in the dark, bats were no longer able to survive in the light. Nocturna, unable to undo the banishment, gave the bats gifts. She darkened their fur so they would blend in with the night and she gave them echo vision so they could hunt i the dark. She also gave them the Promise. One day, when the moon moves in front of the the sun and causes darkness in day light, the bats will be free to fly and will not have to fear the claws of the owls or the jaws of the beasts.

Unfortunately, that day does not come before Shade decides to see the sunrise and incurs the wrath of the owls. When his mother and Frieda refuse to turn him over to the owls as compensation for breaking the law, the owls set Tree Haven on fire. The bats take wing, flying south to Stone Hold, their hibernaculum and Shade's journey begins when a storm separates him from his mother. But, not before she sings him an echo map teaching him the landmarks to look for as they travel to Stone Hold since, as a newborn, Shade has never migrated before. Shade is befriended by Marina, a banded Brightwing bat who has been exiled from her colony because of this. The bands and what each colony believes they represent, whether a good sign or a bad omen, is the fascinating mystery that threads through this book and ultimately accounts for the climax. He also meets Zephyr, a blind, albino bat with a star map on his wings and the knowledge to heal with herbs, Scirocco, a bat who interprets the Promise to mean that bats will become human and walk on two legs and Romulus and Remus, sewer rat kings before his journey is over.

But, this is just the beginning. There are three more books that follow the lives of the bats as of this writing. While this is normally not the kind of book I would choose to read, I was drawn to it when I first saw it ten years ago - maybe it was the cover art, done by SD Schindler, who illustrated the Cat Wings Quartet by Ursula le Guin. Nevertheless, I was won over by the humanity and compassion of the bats and their struggles. Kenneth Oppel is a wonderful addition to the fantasy genre and, if you have readers who don't mind a 500+ page book, I strongly recommend his trilogy Airborn, Skybreaker and the soon to be published Starclimber. Oppel has created an alternate universe where the skies are ruled by luxury airships and an unknown creature. Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries are the well written, teenage characters who drive, um, fly, the plot...




10.19.2008

Houndsley and Catina by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay, 36pp RL1



Buddy books seem to be the staple genre of beginning readers. Along with Frog and Toad and George and Martha, Houndsley and Catina can be added to the list of stand-outs in their field. Above all else, these stand-out friends show kindness and consideration for each other, especially at times of conflict.

The three books in the series are written by James Howe, of Bunnicula series fame, and have detailed, cozy watercolor illustrations by Marie-Louise Gay, author and illustrator of the Stella and Sam books as well as the chapter book, Travels With My Family that match the gentle tone of Howe's writing. Houndsley is a dog with a soft-as-a-rose-petal voice who enjoys cooking, but learns that he neither wants or needs to be the best cook. Catina is a thoughtful, enthusiastic cat who thinks she wants to be a writer but learns that writing does not make her happy.

Each book has three chapters, as opposed to the Frog & Toad and George & Martha books which are separated into stories. For siblings of older independent readers, this might make all the difference. Some kids who see their older sibling reading a chapter book will accept nothing less. Hopefully, this will fit the bill and take up a some time during that difficult learning year or so between being an emerging reader and an independent reader.

The other books, Houndsley and Catina and the Birthday Surprise, available in paperback and Houndlsey and Catina and the Quiet Time, available in hardcover, are
equally enchanting and make for good story time reading as well for the three and four year old crowd as well.

10.17.2008

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald 241pp RL4

George MacDonald may be one of the most famous children's book authors you have never heard of. Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1824, he is remembered for his theosophical writings as well as his works of fantasy. As a pastor, he was controversial, preaching God's universal love and the possibility that none would ultimately fail to unite with God. As a fantasy writer, he is best remembered for his adult works, Phnatastes: A Faeirie Romance for Men and Women and Lilith. His best known children's works are The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind and The Light Princess. He is cited as an influence and inspiration to the poet, WH Auden, JRR Tolkein, Madeleine L'Engle and CS Lewis who said, after reading Phantastes cover to cover, "I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."




Written 1872, The Princess and the Goblin is the story of Princess Irene and a plot amongst the kingdom of goblins, or cobs, to kidnap her and marry her off to the horrid Prince Harelip, who is half goblin, half human and has a fetish for feet. The goblins, it seems, are somewhat club footed and without toes and their feet are the tenderest, weakest part on them. Princess Irene is sent to be brought up by country people in a house that is half castle, half farm house, because her mother is too weak to care for her. The servants who care for her are well aware of the goblin folk who inhabit the nearby mountain but do not speak of them for fear of upsetting Irene. Long ago, these goblin folk lived above ground with the humans, who grew intolerant of their differences. A series of laws and taxes were passed and the race of little people eventually found themselves and their livestock seeking refuge underground. There, they and their animals grew accustomed to the dark and the damp and evolved over the years to the horrible, vengeful creatures of the story. As well as goblins, miners work the mountain, excavating ore. They protect themselves from the goblins by showing no fear and singing nasty rhyming songs about the goblins, since the goblins cannot sing and cringe and flee when they hear others doing so. While out one day playing on the mountainside with her nurse, Lootie, Princess Irene encounters a goblin. Scared witless, Lootie grabs her hand and runs off, becoming hopelessly lost. However, they have the good luck to come upon Curdie, son of Peter, both of whom are miners. Curdie sings a song, the goblins flee and he sees the Princess and her nurse back to the garden gate. This disturbing event is followed by a strange event in which Princess Irene, bored and alone, opens a cupboard and finds a hidden staircase. She follows it up and up and finds a long hallway full of rooms. She thinks herself hopelessly lost, but finds yet another staircase at the top of which are three doors. Upon opening a door, the Princess finds a beautiful, magical woman at a spinning wheel who claims to be Irene's great-great-great-great grandmother, Irene. But is she a benevolent protector or an evil spirit out to entrap Irene? The paths of Curdie and Princess Irene, as well as the grandmother in the tower, cross again in the course of the story. Though unable to believe the Princess' story about her grandmother, Curdie proves himself to be brave and clever and finds a way to save the Princess from a horrible fate and continue on in the sequel, The Princess and Curdie.

Although the page number quoted above is from the Puffin Classics Series, the version I read was part of a collection of the works of George MacDonald and clocked in at 150 pages with illustrations, and was a quick read. I think this would be a wonderful read out lout that could be done over a few nights. Despite the fact that it is 150 years old, there is not too much arcane language to throw a young reader off. The goblins have a wordy way of speaking, but their dialogue does not take up much of the story. MacDonald does a wonderful job describing the beautiful mountain countryside where the story takes place and his goblins are more vain than frightening. The scenes with the grandmother are wonderfully, deliciously written, and my favorite parts of the story, even though I was never sure until the end of the story if she was who she claimed to be. I was given my collection of MacDonald stories more than twenty years ago by a dear friend and I am ashamed to say that, as someone who claims to love fairy tales, I had not read any of his writings until now. If you find you enjoy MacDonald's works and are also fans of the illustrations of Maurice Sendak, don't miss The Light Princess, the wonderful story of a princess who, at her christening is cursed with "lightness" of both body and spirit but discovers she can regain her gravity when swimming in the beautiful lake by her castle.


10.13.2008

The Sister's Club by Megan McDonald, 196 pp RL 3



Written in 2003 by Megan McDonald, best known for her Judy Moody and Stink series, The Sister's Club is a great book, comparable, but different from, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. Written for a slightly older audience, Birdsall can incorporate a longer, more complex plot and her story spans a longer period of time and feels a bit timeless. McDonald's book has a much more contemporary feel to it. However, both books employ one of my favorite devices in children's literature, one that will hopefully inspire the reader to seek out the originals - the incorporation poems, plays and snippets of other works of children's literature into the story line.

The Reel family live in the aptly named town of Acton, Oregon. Aptly named because they are a family of actors, including their descendant Hepzibiah McNutty who, as a pioneer traveling on the Oregon Trail, settled in Acton. There she built the 100+ year old Raven Theater, which the Reel family lives next to. Mom and Dad Reel both act and Mr Reel also works as a set designer for the Raven. One of Mr Reel's greatest roles was that of King Lear and, having three daughters, Alex, almost 13, Stevie, 10 and Joey, 8, he has cast them in the roles of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia for family theatricals so often that, despite knowing it is a tragedy, the girls usually end up laughing, or fighting by the time it's over. Sisters and how they love and hate each other, is the main focus of McDonald's book and she manages to work in other sisterly references beyond Shakespeare, my favorite being the legend of the Three Sisters Mountain range in Oregon which is told by Alex as a ghost story at the end of the book. In addition to working in a reference to I Am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier and a great bit from The Joy of Cooking, McDonald has a wonderful, genuine passage that involves a very famous William Carlos Williams poem. This is also my favorite part of the book because I feel like McDonald portrays a very real thought (or lack of thought) process that we have all experienced as children and probably still do as adults. Tired of being the glue that holds together Alex, the slightly self-absorbed actress consumed by her newest role, and Joey, the pioneer obsessed, Jell-O loving, antagonizer, as well as parents who are pretty absorbed by their jobs, Stevie makes a decision she knows is a bad one, and things snowball from there.

One of the great creative devices in this book, and way to change narrative voices, is the intermittent use of notebook entries and drawings by Joey, who longs to have real homework like her older sisters and makes up her own assignments, occasional notes from Stevie, and, best of all, short one-act scenes written by Alex that dramatize her life and sometimes employ her sock monkey doll as a character. These passages appear "handwritten" on lined paper, or typed, and the drawings look like they were done by kids. This reminds me a bit of the hugely popular Diary of A Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney, which is entirely "hand written" diary entries and drawings by the main character. These keep the story moving, lighten up serious parts and make the experiences and voices of the main characters seem more realistic and entertaining. They also help to illustrate the age and personality differences between the three sisters, which is difficult at times since they are relatively close in age. However, McDonald has no difficulty keeping Joey a real (young and immature) eight year old and Alex a maturing almost teenager, as she points out at one point in the book.

The "sister's club" of the title is started by Stevie as a way to keep her sisters connected. But, in the first few pages of the book, Olivia, Stevie's friend who is not a sister and not allowed to join the club, predicts a rift in the making, foreshadowing the events that follow. It serves to keep the sisters connected, but also ends up emphasizing the ways in which they are individuals trying to be themselves within a tightly knit family unit, as well as the difficulties of doing so. There are no "precocious girl" characters here, just real, creative girls with realistic hobbies, interests and interior lives that make them both introspective and interesting, not the loudest voice in the room.

I was curious as to what childhood or work experiences could have given Megan McDonald such precise insight into the lives of girls and kids in general and was tickled to learn a few things. Megan is the youngest of five girls, which explains a lot. As a joke, the doctor yelled, "It's a boy!" when she was born. Megan's middle name is Jo and, as a kid she wanted to change her name to Megan Jon Amy-Beth McDonald so that her name would include all four of the names of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Finally, as a bookseller constantly awed by the ways and things customers steal from the store, I was very excited to learn that Megan chased down and caught a shoplifter who had run out of the store with two full bags of books. Not only did she chase the thief, she caught him!

Books Two and Three in the Sister's Club series: - The Rule of Three and Cloudy with a Chance of Boys!


Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:
Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay
School Story by Andrew Clements
My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe
Book of Coupons by Susie Morgenstern
Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

10.09.2008

Beauty by Robin McKinley 247pp RL 5

Robin McKinley has won a Newbery Award for The Hero and the Crown, as well as a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword. However, it is her first published book, Beauty, that has been a favorite of mine since I first read it. I have always loved fairy tales and have really enjoyed the growing genre I'll call fairy tale re-telling. Ella Enchanted, a spectacular book by Gail Carson Levine is probably the most famous in this genre. For those of you who saw the movie, the book is completely different and please, please don't judge the book by the movie... Gail Carson Levine also wrote a series of short stories, now published in one hardcover volume titled The Fairy's Return and other Princess Tales, or in two paperback volumes titled Princess Tales, Volume 1 and Princess Tales, Volume 2. These are fabulous, feminist retellings of popular fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, The Princess and the Pea and Cinderella as well as lesser known tales like Toads and Diamonds and the Golden Goose. Some Friday I will give all of these books a proper review, but if you love fairy tales the way I do, rush out to find them the minute you finish reading Beauty.

Written in 1978, Beauty is the first, or at least the first widely popular, novel to take a traditional fairy tale and provide an in depth exploration of the characters and plot as well as humanize the characters, even those who are not human. If you have seen the animated Disney version of this fairy tale, McKinley's book will leave you with no doubt that folks at the Disney Studios were reading her book as they wrote the screenplay for their movie. McKinley creates such a complete and detailed world that you feel as though you are watching a movie as you read.

From the first page of the book, it is evident that McKinley is up to something special. The narrator of the book tells us that she is the youngest of three daughters, Grace, Hope and Honor. However, when, at the age of five she discovers that their names are more than names, she asks her father what the meaning of "honor" is. Displeased with his answer, she replies that she would rather have been named Beauty, and the name sticks. While she does prove true to her name by making an honorable sacrifice later in the story, she does not grow into her nickname until the end of the book. Unlike her sisters, Beauty is not beautiful. She is plain looking and her hands and feet are large. And she loves books and learning above all else.

This is one of those books where you know the ending without having read it. Despite this, McKinley makes every word compelling. Beauty's journey from resigned but frightened prisoner by choice to compassionate, loving companion is rich and irresistible. I had to stop myself more than once from detailing the whole plot in this review and will force myself to a short list of the qualities of this book that are most brilliant. As a narrator, Beauty is thoughtful and honest. Whether she is comparing her ungainliness to her sisters' loveliness or struggling to overcome her fear at being trapped in the Beast's castle - not because she is scared of the Beast himself, but because she has an innate understanding of what it means to be free. Despite the lavish clothes, sumptuous food and opulent surroundings, she is not lulled into acceptance of her fate. That is what makes this story so ultimately satisfying - McKinley has found a way to keep Beauty independent in mind and spirit and make her slow growing love for the Beast genuine and hard won. She does the same for the Beast. Despite the fact that, beginning with her first night in his castle, every evening after dinner he asks Beauty to marry him, her agreement thus breaking the enchantment, it never once seems as though the Beast is asking her solely or even mostly to break the spell. The preparations he undertakes before Beauty journeys to the castle make it clear that he has an understanding and appreciation for her unique character and an awareness and concern for her interests and pursuits, as evidenced by the rows of bookshelves and well stocked desk that she finds in her bedroom upon her arrival. As time passes, Beauty realizes that, while she knows she must say no, it saddens her to have to reject the Beast's proposal night after night as her connection to him deepens.

Here are a few other aspects of the book that I think are worth noting. Unlike the help transformed into household objects in Disney interpretation, the servants in the Beast's castle are invisible, noticeable only as breezes and almost inaudible "tsks." As Beauty settles into the caste, bringing back the humanity that has been missing for so long - noticing the lack of wildlife on the grounds, she scatters birdseed outside her window and attracts birds - she finds she can hear more of the invisible servants conversation than just the "tsks" and she gains a small understanding of the curse that has befallen the beast and why no one can speak of it. Back to the topic of the humanity that Beauty brings with her, there is a profoundly moving scene where, after sharing a rainy morning in the library reading out loud to each other, Beauty leaves for her daily walk through the gardens with Greatheart once the rain subsides. Not wishing to part company with the Beast, she invites him to join them, despite what he has told her about the effect he has on other animals. She convinces him to meet them in the garden and, as she walks to the stables she begins to realize what a frightening situation she is about to put her beloved horse into. McKinley describes Beauty and Greatheart's tense walk across the courtyard to where the Beast waits masterfully.

As in the traditional fairy tale, a crisis occurs and Beauty finds she must return home to her family. The Beast knows how deep Beauty's connection with and love for her family is and, as a way of comforting her, sends Beauty dreams of her family so that she does not lose touch with them entirely. Thus, she knows of the crisis and knows what must be done to resolve it. The Beast agrees to her wish to return home, but asks her to leave after a week. Being away from the castle and with her family again and seeing them prosper gives Beauty the perspective to reflect on and accept her true feelings for the Beast. Returning a day late, she finds the Beast near death and begs him not to die, professing her love for him and wish to marry. This breaks the spell and a handsome, regally dressed man stands before her. Shocked and alarmed, Beauty looks for her Beast. When he explains the curse to her, she says she cannot marry him. He deserves to marry a more beautiful, noble born lady and owes her no debt for breaking the spell. The servants, still enchanted for the time being, magically dress Beauty in one of the beautiful gowns she had always refused to wear and the Beast takes her to a mirror, which had formerly been banned from the castle, to show her that she has become truly worth or her name - both her names.

So, my heart is on my sleeve now. I am a hopeless romantic and that is why I love fairy tales and why I love Beauty. I tried not to go on about the book too much, but I have. Oh, and I forgot to mention my favorite part of the Beast's castle - a library that contains every book ever written and every book TO BE written! Beauty gets to read the poetry of Robert Browning, one of the Beast's favorites, as well as some Arthur Conan Doyle, Dickens and T H White's The Once and Future King, though she still prefers Mallory's Morte d'Arthur.

Almost 20 years later, Robin McKinley returns to the story of Beauty and the Beast with a new retelling, Rose Daughter. While I have not read it, reviews say it is different enough from the first retelling to be worth reading. I know I will.

Fairy Tale Fridays!!

Hello Everyone - I have been wanting to do a series of posts on fairy tales and books based on fairy tales since this is possible my favorite genre in the world of Children's Lit.  As I began re-reading one of my favorites and making some new  label categories, I got the great idea for 

FAIRY TALE FRIDAYS!  


So, from here on out, every Friday expect a little once upon a time with a dash of magic thrown in for good measure.  

10.06.2008

Travels with My Family by Marie-Louise Gay and David Homel 119 pp RL 2


Marie-Louise Gay is the author and illustrator of many picture books, including the "Stella" and "Sam" series. Her bright and gentle water colors, along with the quirky siblings, big sister Stella and little brother Sam, make for beautiful books for the 2- 4 year old crowd and are also good beginning readers for older children. Gay also illustrates the "Houndsley and Catina" series of beginning reader books written by James Howe, of "Bunnicula" fame. Travels with my Family is her first chapter book, and, along with her husband (and traveling partner) David Homel, they have written a wonderful book, which I suspect is largely autobiographical as the author info notes that they have two sons and a cat named Miro.

The book consists of nine chapters, each one recounting a different vacation trip. However, as Charlie, the narrator and big brother to Max, states in the very first paragraph of the book, his parents don't go on on "normal" vacations that include hotels with swimming pools, amusement parks, giant water slides or miniature golf. When Charlie's family travels, they go in a car with no air conditioning and their cat, Miro joins them and gets carsick. Instead of "fun" vacations, Charlie's family travels to Maine and gets a visit from hurricane Bob. From there they head to Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia where Max, who can't swim, is almost drowned when the family is stranded on a shrinking sand bar as the tide comes in. They also visit northern California, where Charlie rescues Max from a sneaker wave. Not having a change of clothes, Max is forced to sit wrapped in a table cloth in the laundromat in the town of Punta Reyes as his clothes dry. They also get stuck in a sand storm in Arizona, meet some crazy farm animals on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, have a heart stopping moment in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and have some harrying adventures in Mexico, including a man who tries to fix their car engine with a spoon.

This book is ideal because it is a really well written, entertaining book for kids reading at a high second or third grade reading level and there are so few of these. It is really a travelogue more than a traditional chapter book with a plot, a climax and a resolution. Gay's illustrations lose some of their beauty in black and white, but they are a playful, welcome addition to the text. Travels with My Family is also a super book because all families take vacations, even if it is just a six hour drive to visit grandparents, so everyone can relate to these stories. As I was reading it, I was reminded of some of the crazy, but mostly fun, family vacations I have been on with my husband, kids and extended family (there were eighteen of us at a villa in Tuscany last summer) over the last five years. If you are reading this out loud to your kids, it's a great opportunity to reminisce. It's also the perfect inspiration to sit down and write out some of your own memories of family trips with your kids' help. Gay and Homel have written a sequel, On the Road Again, More Travels with my Family, in which they move the kids to the French countryside for a year. Currently it is only in hardcover.



If your child likes this book, don't miss Alison Lester's Are We There Yet? While it is a picture book, it is a very detailed account of a family's three month trip driving around their home continent of Australia. Lester is the magnificent author/illustrator of Imagine and Magic Beach, two of my all-time favorite picture books, as well as chapter books I plan to review someday soon.