MASTERPIECE is now in PAPERBACK!!!
MASTERPIECE is now in PAPERBACK!!!
This is such a fabulous book, and a great read-out-loud for the 5 and under crowd who are ready for a more complex story that is still gentle and only a little suspenseful...
In the great tradition of EL Konigsburg's masterpiece of children's literature, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, with a little Cricket in Times Square thrown in comes Elise Broach's fantastic new mystery, Masterpiece, with superb illustrations by the wonderful Kelly Murphy, doing double duty as the illustrator of the text and the artist behind the creations of Marvin, the beetle with a gift .
Masterpiece involves drawings by the great German artist Albrecht Durer, art theft, forgery, the FBI and beetles, not in that order. Marvin is a beetle living the good life in the walls of the Pompaday aprtment in New York City. He has loving and attentive parents, a large extended family and William Pompaday, an unruly baby who drops plentiful (for beetles) amounts of food on the floor of the kitchen. When we first meet Marvin, he is being awakened from a deep slumber to come to the aid of his family and Mrs Pompaday, who has dropped a contact lens down the drain of the bathroom sink. Like the Borrowers and The Littles, the beetles repay the food and objects they take from the humans by performing helpful tasks around the apartment, such as repairing small appliances and helping locate lost items. This is an act of self-preservation as well, as it keeps electricians, plumbers and the likes from poking about and possibly uncovering the beetles' homes, ensuring the next visitor to the apartment would be the exterminator. Marvin takes his peanut-shell-floatie and gamely hops down the drain and retrieves the contact lens, which is deposited in a not too obvious spot.
Marvin is a cautious, thoughtful and observant beetle who, despite the insistence of his parents otherwise, believes that humans can be friends with bugs based on the time he has spent watching James, Mrs Pompaday's son from a previous marriage to the abstract painter, Karl Terik. Mrs Pompaday takes her career as a relator a little too seriously and is always mixing business with pleasure. James' eleventh birthday party, brilliantly described as a "boisterous disaster" by Broach, takes place shortly after the contact lens incident and is attended by the children of Mrs Pompaday's clients, or people she would like to be clients and none of James' friends, if he has any. The disappointing afternoon is topped off with a visit from James' father and the gift of a pen and ink set that his mother feels will result in a horrible mess for sure. Dispiritedly, James makes a few experimental scribbles and writes his name with the pen and goes to bed, leaving the bottle of ink open. When Marvin goes to James' room that night to deliver his birthday present, he sees the ink and is overcome by the desire to try drawing with it. He dips his arms into the ink and produces a remarkable miniature sketch of the scene outside James' window. And this is where the story takes off!
James discovers Marvin and his picture in the morning and is delighted. But, he is even more taken with Marvin himself. Amid the excitement of his parents over what is perceived to be James' drawing and his new found artistic potential, James and Marvin forge a friendship and a form of communication that allows them to get along pretty well, despite several life threatening instances for Marvin and many nights passed without his parents knowing where he is, if he is alive or dead. And, in one of many climactic scenes, Marvin is faced with the choice of letting his friend down or disobeying his mother, who is standing right next to him. Like Lynne Jonell's enthralling Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, Broach goes back and forth between the insect/rodent world and the human world, bringing up important issues to be resolved in each, and making important points about choices, actions and decisions in each as well. Broach sprinkles her story with important observations about the nature of life, beauty and art throughout. The imaginary Virtue drawings by Durer are representations of Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and Prudence, and being an important part of the story, they get discussed somewhat philosophically throughout, Plutarch and Nietzsche's names even being bandied about. But one of my favorite lines is spoken by Marvin's mother who, when asked by Marvin why beetles don't get divorced after he has been pondering feelings that James shared with him about his parent's divorce. Marvin's mother answers, "Well, our lives are so short, darling. What would be the point? We have so little time, we must spend it as happily as possible...And we expect a lot less than people do. If we get through a day without being stepped on, with a little food to fill our bellies, a safe place to bed down for a few hours, and ou family and friends close by - well, that's a good day, isn't it?" Simple as it is, I feel like I would do well to adopt a more beetle-ish outlook on my own life...
As I said, there is a mystery in this book that involes James posing as the artist of a forged Durer to be used as bait for an art thief. Beyond that, I can't say much more without giving away too many surprises. And there are surprises. I gasped out loud at one point and couldn't stop reading until I finished the book after that point. Broach does a masterful job of weaving many fascinating elements into her superb story.
2009 Newbery Honor Winner SAVVY is now in PAPERBACK!!!
Before I write my review of Savvy by Ingrid Law I need to thank my faithful reader, Jeremy and his daughter Ivy for keeping this book from slipping under my radar more than once. Savvy, The Penderwicks and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (which I promise to pick up again and review very soon...) are Ivy's three favorite books and I have to say, she has excellent taste! Thanks for introducing me to what is now one my my favorite new books Jeremy and Ivy!
Savvy came out in May of 2008 and is still in hardcover. One of the corporate book buyers must have thought it would be big (which it is) because we got a huge stack for our summer reading table. The cover, by the amazingly gifted and busy children's book illustrator Brandon Dorman is so dazzlingly beautiful that it was impossible not to pick up and read the flap. Unsurprisingly, it was voted Favorite Book Jacket of 2008 by Publishers Weekly Magazine. Yet, when I read the flap nothing clicked with me at the time. As every reader knows, sometimes you have to come across a book at just the right time for you to really embrace it. And once I did start reading Savvy I completely embraced it. I discovered that the words inside the book are just as dazzlingly, swirlingly, colorfully beautiful as the cover art, which I sincerely hope they do not change for the paperback edition. The dazzling, swirling words of this book and the rampant similes, rich descriptions and southernisms of Mississippi Beaumont, also known as Mibs, the thirteen year old narrator of the book might take a little getting used to. But, once you get the hang for her style of speech you will find yourself totally absorbed by the wet, humid, crackling world that Ingrid Law creates in this book.
The plot, which I don't want to reveal to much of, is laid out sparsely on the jacket flap. In the Beaumont family, savvies appear when a child turns thirteen. The genius of Law's book, title and concept is that the idea of a "savvy," whether it is defined as a deep understanding of something, a knowingness, as it is in our world, or defined as a superhuman ability, as it is in Law's book (and she thinks up some hilarious, clever savvies for her characters), it can be read, above all else, a metaphor for understanding and coming to know one's self. And, to take it one step further, this knowingness comes at a natural time of transition in every child's life - the sometimes momentous passage from child to teenager. The other brilliance of Law's use of "savvy" is that it speaks to the innermost longings of most, especially reading, children. What kid doesn't want to believe that she has some special, hidden talent that will emerge on a set date? What kid doesn't think that he has some super ability waiting to be discovered, an ability that will allow him to stand out amongst his peers? Who doesn't want to believe that he/she is special in some way that hasn't been uncovered yet? Like Claudia in EL Konigsburg's masterpiece, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, which I think may have been the first book for children to acknowledge the desire for specialness, some kids want something in their lives that will make them, prove to them that they are different. For Claudia, it was discovering the secret of the angel statue and having that secret to keep. For the Beaumonts, it is their special power which also must be kept a secret. But, one of the many beauties of this book is the way in which Mibs and her family learn to trust others with their secrets and share their savvies.
The action of the book, the plot event that gets the story moving is not Mibs' thirteenth birthday and the revelation of her savvy, but a car accident the day before that leaves her father in critical condition. Mrs Beaumont and Rocket, the oldest Beaumont child who, at the age of seventeen still has not found a way to "scumble," or control, his savvy, go to the hospital ninety miles away to be with Mr Beaumont, leaving Mibs, her fourteen year old brother Fish, her seven year old brother Samson, her three year old sister Gypsy and Grandpa Bomba at home to wait and worry. But, they are not alone for long. Mrs Rosemary Meeks, the preacher's wife, and her children Bobbi, sixteen, and Will Jr, fourteen, arrive at the Beaumont house to take care of the remaining family and throw Mibs a thirteenth birthday party. Mistakenly believing her savvy is the ability to wake sleeping people, Mibs stows away on the pink bus that belongs to Lester Swan, a nervous bible delivery man who is bullied mercilessly by his mother and girlfriend, which is headed to the town where her father is hospitalized. Seeing her sneak aboard the bus, Will Jr, Fish and Bobbi follow. Samson, an introverted child who rarely speaks and always finds a dark hole to hide in (much like my roommate freshman year of college...) has already hidden himself on the bus in an attempt to avoid his sister's party. However, Lester isn't headed straight to Salina-Hope and an adventure ensues.
Law wraps up her story with the same sensitivity, thoughtfulness and tenderness that she shows her characters in the rest of the book. Being a children's book, Mr Beaumont does not die, however he does seem to wake from his coma at the dramatic moment that Mibs begs/wills him to. But, he returns to the family a different man. The existence of savvies in their lives has made the Beaumonts a more connected, insular family - the children are all home schooled after their thirteenth birthdays until they learn to control their powers. They all enjoy each other's company immensely and seem to have no need for outsiders. Because of this, they are able to cope with Mr Beaumont's injuries and changes in a loving way that makes you wish all bittersweet endings could be so sweet.
I have specifically chosen not to disclose the savvy that is bestowed on Mibs. Again, it is another act of genius on the part of Ingrid Law. It is so hard not to discuss Mibs' savvy because, like savvies themselves, it works on many levels and pertains specifically to something negative that all us humans do on a daily basis but could change if we wanted to... Maybe I've piqued your interests just enough now to get you to read one of the best chapter books of 2008, Savvy!
And, just in case those of you who have read the book are wondering, there really is a Hebron, Nebraska and it really is the home of the World's Largest Porch Swing!
Coming August 24, 2010, SCUMBLE!!!
April is National Poetry
month and I am
stirring up a
pot of poems
steaming hot poems,
one for every day.
But this pot is so big
and I can't fill it alone
so if any one at home
could add to this stew,
I could really use
Please send me POEMS! If you have personal favorites by other poets, if you have written your own poems, if you want to send me a video clip of you and/or your children reading a poem - poetry appropriate for children only, please - DO NOT HESITATE TO SHARE! I am going to post a poem-a-day for the whole month of April and reviews of books of poetry for children. There will also be posts on "Why Poetry Matters," "How to Read a Poem," "Picture Book Poetry," excellent links and lots more!
Anne Ursu's Cronus Chronicles series, the first book of which is The Shadow Thieves, manages to be playful and menacing at the same time, a bit like Eric Fortune's cover illustration which I loved so much I had to share in its text-free form. Published early in 2006, less than a year after The Lightning Thief hit the shelves, The Shadow Thieves is a different animal all together. And really, why even compare the books? The Greek gods and goddesses are a bit like vampires when it comes to literary representation these days - there are as many different ways to make them modern or keep them classical as there are fish in the ocean. I do feel compelled to point out this one major difference between the two books, though. Where as The Lightning Thief is a fast paced, action packed book right out of the gate - I felt like I was watching a movie as I read it - The Shadow Thieves takes it's thoughtful, descriptive, character building time, waiting 100 pages before even mentioning the Underworld. Of course, this ultimately a matter of writing style, but it interests me that the main character of Riordan's book is a boy, where as the main character of Ursu's book is a girl.
Ursu employs first person narrator to guide the reader, sometimes in a very sardonic voice, through the story like Ariadne and her ball of thread in the Minotaur's maze. When we first meet the main character Charlotte Mielswetzski ("Say it with me: Meals-wet-ski. Got it? If not, say it again: Meals. Wet. Ski. There. You thought your name was bad?" the narrator chides the reader) she is on her way home from a not-too-great day at school. Charlotte is cranky, grumpy, even, and definitely unhappy. Her best friend has moved to Russia with her parents to teach English to orphans. Encouraged by her mom, she tried out for the school play and didn't get cast. Her only joy comes from making up stories to explain the absence of homework in some of her classes. Charlotte yearns for something out of the ordinary, magical, even, to happen to her. Somehow, though, the ordinary keeps piling up. Charlotte finds a kitten, which she names Bartholomew, Mew for short, (too cute) but this doesn't really shake up her life in any significant way. Charlotte learns that her cousin, Zachary, is coming to live with her family from his home in England. Still no big deal. Even worse really, since Zachary, or Zee as he likes to be known, is friendly, out going, good looking and sporty, all the things Charlotte feels she is not. However, things start to change quickly when Charlotte's friend becomes mysteriously, deathly ill. Soon the rest of the kids at her school are toppling like dominoes.
Zee knows why and he tries to tell Charlotte, but ultimately decides to prove it to her, which almost results in a trip to the Underworld. Instead, they are rescued by Mr Metos, their creepy English teacher who fills in some of the gaps in their story. Mr Metos is part of the Promethian Society, a group dedicated to protecting humans from the follies of the gods. Mr Metos explains that Philonecron, grandson of Poseidon, is trying to take control of the Underworld from Hades, who has become so jaded over the years that he turned the Underworld into a corporation full of mid-level managers and bureaucratic busy bodies. Phil has some plans for Hades, the Underworld and the Shades who inhabit it. Through his mastery of sorcery and Zee's blood, Phil has managed to create an army out of Shades from the shadows of living children, rendering them virtually comatose. When they are tricked into believing Mr Metos wants them to head down to the Underworld, the story takes off and Charlotte and Zee are forced to rely on their wits and instincts (and, fortunately, knowledge of Greek mythology and the ways of the Underworld) alone. Ursu does a great job re-imagining the Greek gods and goddesses and creating her own vision of the Underworld and all the creepies that reside in it. She even provides a bestiary at the end of the book to sort them all out...
One thing I loved about this book was the role of, mere existence of PARENTS. Unlike most fantasy novels in which the kids disappear for an indeterminate amount of time and no one seems to notice, Charlotte and Zee's parents notice. Not only are they typical, they are modern. Zee has a few visits with the psychiatrist when things go wrong in England and all his friends are falling ill. Charlotte's mother is "a child psychiatrist who wrote books on adolescence and was very concerned with Charlotte's well being, This was not always as advantageous as it sounds." Another interesting aspect of the books, as noted by another Charlotte, this one of the blog Charlotte's Library, is the fact that Charlotte and Zee are not, "Chosen Ones, with a Great Destiny and Magical Gifts etc." This is so true and so worth taking note of. The fantasy genre will always have characters who labor under the assumption of normalcy only to wake one day and learn that they are special, and young adult fantasy even more so. What kid doesn't dream of this, or at least dream that they are maybe adopted and there real parents are out there somewhere, maybe even royalty... But, I think it is much more challenging and ultimately interesting to write characters who are normal and survive by their brains and courage alone. Well done, Anne Urusu!
Book Two, The Siren Song, finds Poseidon out for revenge after Charlotte and Zee's actions lead to another, harsher banishment for Philonecron. They are tricked into taking a cruise through the Mediterranean on board Poseidon's own cruise line. Book Three, The Immortal Fire, finds the two on Mount Olympus facing off with Zeus in an effort to stop Phil once and for all.
A little treat for all you art lovers out there... The original illustration for the hardcover of The Siren Song, as interpreted by Eric Fortune. Not sure why Brandon Dorman took over for the paperback edition and book 3, The Immortal Fire.
I got on this crazy kick today and decided to do a special week of posts on books pertaining to GREEK MYTHOLOGY.
I reviewed Rick Riordan's The Lightning Thief back in 2008, all the while intending to read (what I refer to while on the bookfloor as) the "girl version of Percy Jackson, but better!" I finally read The Shadow Thieves, the first book in Anne Ursu's The Cronos Chronicles and was wowed. My review of The Shadow Thieves will post on Monday.
I have always tried to interest kids in books on Greek mythology, and Rick Riordan's series of books is the perfect starting point in most cases, especially for readers who are suspicious of books that look too much like reference books. On Wednesday, I will post a listing of reference books on Greek Mythology as well as some adapted versions of Homer's Odyssey. On Friday I will post a collection of fiction for kids, besides Riordan and Ursu's, that utilizes Greek Mythology as a theme.
I do have to note, though, that for the first time ever, in this post only, I will be discussing books that I have not read beforehand. I state this clearly in the review, but want to let you know that here as well. The interest in books of this theme is so great, and my pile of to-be-read books is so tall that I thought it worth the change in policy to list the books in a post based on blurbs alone. Parents, please read these books before giving them to your children if you have any concerns. They all seem like well written, well thought out books for children of varying reading levels with a fair amount of history, but you never know...
Hope you enjoy reading Greek for the week!
For me and other adult readers of children's books, The Willoughbys is a tasty little treat. For young readers, I am not sure what they will make of it. And it matters to me what they will make of it.
The Willoughbys is, from start to finish, a playful joke, a parody that pokes fun at "old fashioned" children's stories while at the same time referring back to them by name and character. Lowry even provides a bibliography with brief descriptions as well as a glossary that defines all of the big vocabulary words (words that are used regularly in classic children's literature) in the back of book. This, in an of itself, is wonderful. As a child and as an adult, I love it when a book I am reading leads me to discover another book. However, my first concern is that most children who will read this book probably have not read Anne of Green Gables, Mary Poppins, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Pollyana, Heidi, James and the Giant Peach and The Secret Garden, to name most of the books cited. However, I think it would be very admirable if those parents out there who enjoy reading aloud to their children and recognize the value in classic children's literature take it upon themselves to read as many of the books listed here out loud to their children in the time it takes for The Willougbys to go to paperback (15 months, in this specific instance.) If that is too large a task, I beg you to read this book out loud so you can fill your kids in on the "in jokes" and check in on them occasionally to see what they are making of the horrible adults, bossy children and deprived orphans depicted in the story.
The story: It is nefariously written and ignominiously written by Lois Lowry, author of Newbery Award winners The Giver and Number the Stars, two truly amazing, remarkable books - not just children's books. The other books that loosely follow The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger, are among my favorites. They all illustrate Lowry's ability to distill a story into a brief (all three books hover around 200 pages) shining plot that carries you along like a leaf on a river, like poetry, like a dream, but with a dark, serious undercurrent. And, while this book is short, it does not have a dark undercurrent - it wears it's humorous menace right on its sleeve, or (book) jacket. Lowry's illustrations for The Willoughbys immediately call to mind the works of Edward Gorey, illustrator of Florence Parry Heide's Treehorn Trilogy, as well as many other books, all Gothic in their illustrative style and story telling, seemingly for children but really for adults. This cover is meant to be our signal of things that are to come...
What does come is a story of four sibling, some horrid, some timid, some woefully underdressed and under-named. Tim, the eldest, is a bossyboots with a despicable points game that allows him to make up the rules as he wishes and cause the other three children to lose points and the game as well as warm, clean bath water privileges. Next come Barnaby and Barnaby, the twins who share one sweater, commonly referred to as A and B. Finally, there is Jane, plain Jane, discriminated constanly against by Tim, but not so down trodden. She grows up to be a professor of feminist literature and mother of three excitingly named daughters, Lavender, Arpeggio and Noxzema. There is also a baby girl left on a doorstep (named Ruth because she is foisted off on Colonel Melanoff thus making the children the "Ruthless Willoughbys" as Tim notes), a grieving candy magnate living in squalor and an odious nanny who is really fabulous. Then there are the horrible adults. The Willoughby parents really just do not like their children. They leave on a cruise (one that the children secretly arranged through a third-rate agency, hoping their parents would perish and make them orphans just like in the old fashioned stories) and, while they do hire Nanny to look after the children, they also sell the house out from under the children, instructing them to hide in the coal bin whenever prospective buyers stop by. There is another set of awful adults, but they will remain anonymous as there are some surprises to be had in The Willoughbys.
As I began reading this book I could not help but think of Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, all of which I read out loud to my son a few years ago.
***POLEMIC WARNING: TOPIC: SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS***
(feel free to skip to the end of the review)
I did not enjoy the experience and felt ripped off at the end of book thirteen. I realize that there was a lot going on in the books that I failed to appreciated while I was reading them, even though I caught all of the literary references and snickered at the in jokes, even though they remain the most beautifully illustrated and packaged series of books for middle readers - followed closely by the Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley and Peter Ferguson and
the Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. I realize that I was reading for plot and wanted the mysterious disappearance of the Beaudelaire parents resolved (and wanted the children not to be orphans...) and maybe that was the wrong perspective on my part. But, I maintain that, because of the huge popularity of these books, and based on the kind of kids I saw coming in and buying them as they were released, at least at my bookstore, the arty, intellectual, scholarly kids who WOULD get the jokes and references and vocabulary, or at least try to find out what they meant and feel proud of themselves when they did, made up about 5% of the kids I saw buying the books. They rest were kids who, above all else, looked like they had no interest in cracking a dictionary when they came across an unfamiliar word, which happens almost every page in those books, despite Snicket's "definitions." Where am I going with this? I'm not sure adults are doing most kids a service when they write witty, intellectual works for children, even though I whole heartedly support the idea that adult themes, ideas and concepts can be and should be employed in children's books. I'm not saying that I don't think Handler should have written those books - I'm glad he did and I know I will re-read them one day and be embarrassed by this rant, but, I think that a lot of kids wasted time and money following the SOUE "fad" and I wish they had used that time and money on books that would have better suited their interests and abilities. But, that's life, right? I can't protect every child from the experience of reading the wrong book, no matter how hard I try!!
However, I found that I soon shook the eerie feeling that Lowry was mimicking Lemony Snicket and enjoyed myself once she and I got into the groove of the story. There are very funny parts, good enough to read out loud to other adults, and there are characters in whom you will recognize traces of meanies from the works of Roald Dahl. And, I think that Lowry may even be having a little fun with the charming new girls on the block, sisters who could definitely be called old fashioned, The Penderwicks. I recommend this book to all of you kids who are advanced, avid readers. But I also beg you, no matter what your reading abilities, to get your mom and dad in on the game and have them read the book out loud to you.
Meet Me at the Corner is a fabulous website for kids that offers virtual field trips. Started by Donna Guthrie, author of over 20 books for children with an MFA in Children's and Young Adult Writing from Vermont College, the site is sort of an educational (let me emphasize this - EDUCATIONAL - there are no clips of cats sneezing or people dancing in front of their mirrors here) YouTube for kids ages 7 - 13. There are currently over 60 kid friendly videos on the website and they cover a wide range of topics and each one comes with a list of recommended books and a Learning Corner with related questions and activities relating to the topic of each show. I first discovered the MEET ME AT THE CORNER in October of 2008 when I was writing my review of Michael Buckley's excellent series, The Sisters Grimm. I found a video narrated by Emma, who is a fan of the series. The field trip begins outside the building where Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, the publisher of the series, is housed. Emma goes inside, explains the business a bit then sits down with Mr Buckley for an interview. While the two speak images of the illustrations from the books as well as images of the books of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm float by when appropriate. The movie lasted a little over four minutes and I learned things I never knew about the series and the Grimms - did you know they had a sister? - I was hooked.
My 5 year old, a They Might Be Giants fan, has recently taken a liking to their song, "The Edison Museum." I was thrilled when I logged on today and saw a field trip to the Thomas Edison National History Museum, led by Carter who is accompanied by an actor portraying Edison. Of course I pulled out a few books on Edison for my son, but really, for his age, he got much more out of the virtual field trip that he did looking at any of the pictures in the books I had. There are over 20 categories of field trips and they cover everything from sports, poetry, music (a visit to the stage of Hairspray and a talk with the director) tavel, pets and cooking. There is a field trip to the Blessing of the Animals at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in NYC to a tutorial on Gargoyles. Every field trip is headed and narrated by a child with adults providing additional information and insight. I could go on and on with all the great field trips, but for those of you in my neck of the woods, don't miss all the trips in the San Diego area!
But, my favorite clips on the site are from the BIG APPLE BOOK REVIEW. These are great little "book hooks" in which a young person presents a book and discusses the plot, interspersed with images from the book or related subjects. I watched a clip for the book Whittington by Alan Armstrong. I had seen this book on the shelves and wanted to check it out and was very pleased with Chandra, the presenter's, discussion of it. I think that promise of a spot on the BIG APPLE BOOK REVIEW might be a great incentive to get kids reading, or a super project for a book report.
Of course I noticed Annie Barrows's book The Magic Half the minute the paperback hit the shelves almost a year ago. The cover art is by one of my favorites, Alexandra Boiger, who illustrated two books that made it to my Best Picture Books of 2008, The Little Bit Scary People by Emily Jenkins and While Mama Had a Quick Little Chat by Amy Reichert. Boiger has also recently updated the cover art for Betty MacDonald's superb Mrs Piggle-Wiggle series, taking over for the briliant and influential children's book illustrator Hilary Knight. On top of the great cover, Barrows name caught my attention as well. Not only is she the author of the super new chapter book series for emerging readers, Ivy + Bean, but, along with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, she is the co-author of the bestselling book group favorite for adults, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society!
And, yes, all that great background experience does lead up to a really great book! Like Jeanne Birdsall's wonderful series The Penderwicks (no news yet on when book 3 in the series will be published, but she plans to write 5 in all), The Magic Half shares a sense of timelessness (even though there are brief references here and there to Xboxes, iPods and cell phones) and attention to the importance of family. And, these books also share the common theme of big families. Four sisters make up the Penderwick family. The main character of The Magic Half, Miri (short for Miriam) is the middle child between two sets of twins. As Miri's father notes, "only one in fifty thousand families had two pairs of twins," thus making their family unique. For eleven year old Miri, this mostly means being the odd person out. Older brothers Robbie and Ray are inseparable, as are four year old twins, Nora and Nell. When the family moves to a new (old) house out in the country, Miri gets her own room for the first time, but still has trouble settling in.
The action in the story begins when Robbie and Ray run home with the news that there might be stolen loot buried on their property. Miri, who is getting a break from baby-sitting Nora and Nell, wants to help but the boys won't let her. Wandering around the large piece of land the house is set on leads her to the remains of the old barn and the likely spot for hidden treasure. When the boys spot her trying to sneak off with a shovel, a chase ensues, Miri is tackled, breaking her glasses, and she ends up whacking Ray in the head with the shovel. This lands Miri back in her room awaiting further punishment. Squinting without her glasses, Miri notices a flash of light near the floor from across the room. When she investigates, she finds a piece of glass - the lens from a pair of eyeglasses - taped to the baseboard. She gently removes it and holds it up to her eye for a better look and finds herself in the same place but transported to a different time. I find myself wanting to add exclamation points at the end of every sentence I write about this book. Barrows writing is so descriptively vivid, so immediate and straightforward, that the twists and turns, and magic, when it arrives, are always a surprise.
Miri finds herself face to face with Molly in the year 1935. Glasses, broken or otherwise, play a key role in this story, which quickly turns into a fast paced adventure and a race against the clock. Thoughtful and open to the possibilities of the imagination, Miri is only a little bit surprised by her time travel. Lonely and feeling left out, she immediately sees the same in Molly and her less than ideal family life and knows that, if she does nothing else, she must return to her own time with Molly in tow. This seems easy enough, but Miri first has to figure out how the magic and time travel work and how she can maneuver around Molly's menacing cousin Horst and manipulative Aunt Flo. And then there is Molly's Grandma May. I tore through this book because the story was so engrossing but also because Horst was such an unpredictable, wicked character that I was really worried for Molly's safety and had to know how the plot worked out. Barrows's writing style also lends itself to a speedy read. The book itself is a smaller format and the chapters are often less than ten pages. Which is both good and bad. Being such a great story, I would have loved to spend more time with Molly in 1935 and maybe even learn more about the mysterious Grandma May. Barrows's descriptions of the house are wonderful and Flo, Horst and his sister, Sissy are easily imagined and well drawn. Time with Miri and her siblings in the present is also enjoyable. The way her mother manages five children while unpacking a house and preparing to for a new semester teaching college while their father is out of town at a conference was entertaining from an adult's perspective, especially.
Short or long, I hope to read more of the same from Annie Burrows in the future!
Readers who enjoyed this book (and have already read The Penderwicks) might also like:
Half Magic by Edward Eager. All his books are excellent and this is a great place to start.
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit. Writing at the turn of the last century, Nesbit's fantasy stories have been greatly influential in the world of children's literature, inspiring Edward Eager and CS Lewis, among many others. Many of Nesbit's books have been made (and re-made) into movies by the BBC. One of my favorite is The Railway Children. Reality based, this book is comparable to A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodeson Burnett and a wonderful story about children and adults overcoming hardship with the help of friends. Interestingly, this book has been made into a movie five times in between 1968 and 2000. The British actress Jenny Agutter played the daughter in the 1968 production and the mother in the 2000 one.
Strawberry Hill, by current Children's Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman is an excellent slice of life in America during the Great Depression. While it is semi-autobiographical and thus reality based, Hoberman's writing is so precise and rich that it feels magical.
And, last but not least, The Secret of the Ruby Ring by Yvonne Mac Gory, pictures by Terry Myler, is one of the best time-travel, historical fiction books for young readers I have enjoyed. Sadly, it is out of print but used copies abound. Lucy is a rather spoiled eleven year old who gets a very special ring as a birthday gift from her Grandmother. When she puts it on and twists it she finds herself in 1885 Ireland during a time of unrest, evictions and boycotting, working as a maid in Langley Castle. When she loses the ring and is unsure she will ever see her family again, she begins to take charge of her situation and appreciate her life.
Just in case you weren't familiar with Ivy + Bean, here they are, pictures by another favorite of mine in the world of children's book illustrators, Sophie Blackall.
Ok, I am just going to do this now and get it out of the way: YES - there are passing similarities between Tom Angleberger's amazing new book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid that go well beyond their shared publisher, the excellent Amulet Books. Both are set in middle school, both are first person narratives, both contain kids who exist on the fringes (and far, outer fringes) of popularity and both contain a healthy dose of illustrations done by the young characters in the books. However, the whole story arc of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda involves introspection, observation, self-examination and, in more than one instance, forgiveness and the story wraps up in one book that has a very satisfying ending. I guarantee you that, even if Angleberger can't wrangle a few more books out of his well formed characters, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda will find itself hugely popular among young readers and have a very long shelf life. And, I am sure that, for years to come, thanks to the instructions in the back of the book and on the website, teachers will be confiscating origami Yodas from their students.
The unifying force (no pun intended, Star Wars fans) for The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda is frequent narrator, Tommy. But, from my perspective, the star of the book is the creator and mouthpiece for the origami Yoda, the oddball, outcast Dwight. While he claims never to have seen the Star Wars movies, Dwight finds his origami Yoda, when perched atop of his finger, is a master at dispensing somewhat cryptic, yet mysteriously pertinent, advice. Tommy is desperate to get to the bottom of this phenomenon because he has a burning question to ask Yoda - if Yoda really is a wise piece of paper and not another odd expression of Dwight's oddball personality. Some of Yoda's advice is spot on, like his suggestion that Kellen splash water all over his pants after a mishap in the boys bathroom with a wet sink. This larger splash will mask the smaller, original splash that made it look like Kellen had wet his pants. However, some of Yoda's advice is off the wall, like the day when the only advice he dispenses, regardless of the question, is, "The Twist you must learn." So, Tommy decides to compile a case file and have each person who asked origami Yoda a question tell his or her story about the incident, allowing Harvey, the skeptic in the group, to add his perspective at the end of each case file. In the process, Kellen, another friend in this group of middling outcasts, adds his doodles to each case file. In addition to this, the pages of the book are printed to look like real paper, creases and all, with tiny, yet accurate sketches of tie-fighters and x-wing fighters in the lower corners. This adds to the authentic diary/journal look of the book, which I think is a major selling point for Jeff Kinney's books, and only serves to enhance the genuine voices of the characters.
Tommy's question pertains to a girl he has a crush on, as do many of the other questions asked of origami Yoda, and this kind of romantic tension is an ongoing theme in the book, albeit one that is VERY low key. Tom Angleberger walks a fine line in terms of age appropriate plot and reading level with The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda. Set in a school, the drama of the book has to come from either a boy-girl situation, a bully or possibly a mean teacher. The more books I review, the more I see the map of children's literature and what terrain can be covered in any given reading level. Real life stories, school stories especially, usually only have a couple of options when it comes to creating dramatic tension that will propel a plot, and that tension is often dictated by the reading level that the book is written at. With books written in a fantasy genre, even those at a second grade reading level, the possibilities for tension and drama and really bad bad guys is much greater. When basing a story in reality, there are certain lines you have to color inside of to keep your story real. Tom Angleberger does this so well I find it very hard to believe that this is his first book for young readers. His writing, although markedly different, is on par with the master of real life kid stories, Andrew Clements, author of one of my favorites, The School Story, among many others.
As I mentioned above, I really like the characters in The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, especially Dwight. Dwight does things like dig holes then sit in them, as Sara, his longtime neighbor and case file contributor, comments. He also lies down in inappropriate, odd places. When he wears a hideous holiday sweater vest to school, Kellen questions and goads Dwight into taking it off, but eventually apologizes when he realizes that Dwight is wearing it to impress a girl. In his investigative efforts, Tommy even probes into Dwight's backpack and personal life in an effort to prove that origami Yoda must be real because Dwight himself doesn't take Yoda's advice. He learns some interesting things about Dwight, but, in a genuinely kid-like way, he doesn't judge him or ostracize him. While other boys in the group wish Dwight wouldn't sit at their lunch table and have no problem when a new kid comes along and takes Dwight's seat, Tommy sticks up for him and maintains the status quo. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda ends where it began, at the monthly PTA sponsored McQuarrie Middle School Fun Night, music in the cafeteria, basketball in the gym, with Tommy wondering if he should ask Sara to dance. Afraid that she will reject him and his friends will laugh at him, and even more afraid that Dwight is using origami Yoda as a way to set him up for ridicule, Tommy overcomes his fears and decides to ask Sara to dance. As he is about to make his way over to her, Harvey points out that he doesn't know how to dance and will make a fool of himself even if Sara does agree to dance with him. Before Tommy can even begin to doubt himself, a piece of Yoda's advice that both he and Sara took proves very, very useful and unifying, giving this book a truly great ending. Did I mention how much I love this book?
Meanwhile by Jason Shiga has to be the most amazing choose-your-own adventure story I have ever seen! As a kid, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, cheesy as they were, for their novelty. As a bookseller, I was thrilled to see them reprinted and back on the shelves a couple of years ago. These books are great enticements for reluctant readers. And, even better, they are now making early reader versions of this series. Meanwhile brilliantly combines the "pick a path" concept with some innovative comic book technology to make up a story that has 3,856 possible endings, secret codes and hidden pages!
It's best to let Meanwhile speak for it's self - you really have to rush out to the nearest bookstore or library and experience it first hand - but I can tell you a little bit about it. The story begins simply enough. Jimmy is at the ice cream shop trying to choose between chocolate or vanilla.....
The hooks on the tabs at the edge of the pages tell you where your story leads to, depending on how you choose. Their are no page numbers in the book. Being a graphic novel, Jason Shiga figured out a way to get from plot to plot with only visual cues. And, being a book that will be read OVER and OVER again, the publisher Amulet Books had the wisdom to print the book on thick, glossy pages.
Without giving too much away, I can tell you that the central plot revolves a run in with a professor who has invented three machines - the Killitron 2000, the SQUID, which can transfer memories between people, and a time travel machine. The professor offers Jimmy the chance to try out one of his inventions and the stories unfold from there. As Jason Shiga says in his introduction to the book, "Instead of one story, Meanwhile splits off into thousands of different adventures. Most will end in DOOM and DISASTER. Only one path will lead you to happiness and success." So, besides just being a great story, Meanwhile also has a challenge hidden in it's pages - the challenge to find the happy ending!
Besides myself, I have seen my adult coworkers and my five year old son (who cannot read yet) pore over this book again and again. My coworker even took to putting stickies on certain pages so he could keep track of the story lines. I have no doubt this book will be a hit. It is IDEAL for long car/plane/train rides and should appeal to boys and girls alike. And, finally, I just had to include this picture of Jason in front of his intricately mapped out story!