3.30.2011

Rocket Town by Bob Logan


I LOVE THIS BOOK!!!  Rocket Town by Bob Logan, who's day job is working as a story artist on feature animations for Dreamworks like Madagascar, Open Season and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Logan joins the good company of another animator/illustrator TonyFucile, author and illustrator of the picture book, Let's Do Nothing and illustrator (co-creator, really) of the beginning reader book by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, Bink and Gollie. I have often found that illustrators who also write have a tendency to produce really great books, perhaps because they can think visually and texturally (think Chris Van Allsburg, David Wiesner, David Selznick, Emily Gravett). An artist who comes from the world of animation has even more to bring to the world of picture books when it comes to visual story telling. Logan definitely exhibits this quality in his second book, Rocket Town, which is a BOARD BOOK! Yes, a board book! While I have seen plenty of gorgeous artwork in the board book format when traditional picture books are reissued as such, I have never seen such amazing illustrations created especially for this form. In Rocket Town it all fits together perfectly. Then there is the perfectly pertinent subject matter of the book to consider. As a parent of two, I can attest to the inherent love of rocket ships that boys, on the whole, seem to have. My youngest son learned to count backwards from ten to one before he learned to count from one to ten. And, as a bookseller, I can tell you that there are almost NO BOOKS ABOUT ROCKET SHIPS on the shelves, making Rocket Town all the more special.
Although the large "lap book" format is a new entry into the world of board books, they have mostly remained a standard small rectangular size over the years. Recently, though, some publishers have been using a sort of mid-sized format that really highlights the illustrator's artwork and is sometimes a bit more manageable for pudgy little hands.  Rocket Town falls into this category, but without the usual price bump. And am I glad! The illustrations are spectacular and, while I would love to see them even larger, the pace and the story are perfectly suited to this size of the board book format. 
On first read, the retro feel of Rocket Town reminded me a bit of Bob Staake's stylized, playfully kooky illustrations. However, as a Southern California native and frequent visitor to Disneyland, I also felt a bit like I was taking a ride on the old People Mover, which was a treat. Rocket Town begins with an astronaut and his faithful beagle jumping into their truck for a trip to Rocket Town.
Rockets are everywhere and Rocket Town is almost as much a seek-and-find (Look! There's baby-stroller-rocket! Look! There's a bicycle wheel made out of rockets!) as it is a story. As the astronaut and his pup drive through Rocket Town we are introduced to the various rockets that roam there. 
As we reach the end of the book we see the astronaut buy a rocket of his own (which looks very much like his old yellow truck - nice tie-in there!) and, after a count down, of course, watch him BLAST OFF! Short and sweet, but so much more!  I can't wait to see what Bob Logan does next!
But first, I am going to sit down with Bob Logan's first picture book, The Sea of Bath!






Follow this link to see how Logan creates an amazing shadowbox that he contributed to the opening of what looks like a super-cool gallery, QPop, located in Little Tokyo in the heart of Los Angeles.

Bob Logan " The Quest"

3.25.2011

The Orange Trees of Versailles, written by Annie Pietri, translated by Catherine Temerson, 138 pp, RL 5


The Orange Trees of Versailles by Annie Petri is a treat to read - a historical fiction amuse-bouche just right for young readers. Besides the fascinating trait of the main character - fourteen-year old Marion Dutilleul is a "nose," a creator of perfumes with a photographic olfactory memory -she is also the daughter of the gardener in charge of the orange trees at Versailles. Marion is quickly caught up in palace intrigue when she becomes the servant of the Marquise de Montespan, the favorite of Louis XIV. While this is a short book and not too difficult to read, once you get over all the French names, there are a few mature themes, such as "favorites" of the king and use of witchcraft by superstitious members of the court that make it more suitable for older readers. As with any historical fiction for young readers, there are hardships, cruelties and sometimes brutalities that make up essential parts of the plot because that is how society functioned at the time. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, The Orange Trees of Versailles is a superb slice of life at Versailles during the reign of the Sun King.


The real orange trees at Versailles


Under two hundred pages, The Orange Trees of Versailles moves at a swift pace. No sooner is Marion placed in the servitude of Athénaïs, Madame la Marquise, than she is called upon to be a "busy girl," a servant who spends the night in the Marquise's room doing busy work and keeping the candles burning so that the Marquise can sleep. It seems that astrologers have convinced her that she should never be alone, especially at night, and that she will die during a storm. Marion experiences this first hand when she begins work on a stormy day and the Marquise's ill behaved dog Pyrrhos bites her on the calf as she attempts to comfort her new mistress. On her first night as a busy girl, the Marquise seems to know of Marion's gift and presents her with an ornate box filled with "thirty-two flasks lined up in four rows [that] filled three quarters of the box. The remaining space contained perfume-making accessories." When Marion can read the labels of the flasks, Athénaïs is shocked. Marion tells her that her mother, who died when she was ten, taught her how to read and write. Since her mother's death, Marion has not been able to sleep more than a couple of hours at a time and cannot stand the smell of blood. The Marquise is pleased with the perfume that Marion makes her and Marion begins to think that she is working for an angel. Marion retreats to the greenhouse of her childhood to perform her personal ritual. At important times in her life, good and bad, Marion writes her thoughts onto a scroll, slips it into a small bottle with an orange blossom and buries it on the grounds of the garden, feeling,

relieved, as though she had just been delivered from a burden that was too heavy for her frail shoulders . . . Soothed by the scent of the grass, the moss, and the heather, her head resting on her bundle of belongings, Marion fell asleep. She knew that the sap would carry her words from the roots of the oak all the way up to the top of the tree. The tall trees, their leaves rustling in the breeze, would whisper her secrets from branch to breeze, leaf to leaf . . . Her torments, her joys, and dreams, confided to the earth of Versailles, would be swept up into the sky by the trees, just as a lost sailor puts all his suffering and hopes into a bottle he casts into the sea.

This lovely imagery and peaceful moment is short lived. Marion overhears the Marquise tell the King that a very expensive perfumer in Florence created her scent, the one that she had Marion make for her. From there, Marion is witness to the Marquise's strange sleep-talk and a meeting with La Voisin. A real person, Catherine Monvoisin, or La Voisin, was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1679 for her role in the Affaire des Poisons that rocked the court from 1677 through 1682 and provides plot elements to The Orange Trees of Versailles. In reality, the Marquise was implicated but never investigated and her place as the favorite remained firm for a few more years, allowing her to give birth to seven illegitimate children fathered by King Louis XIV. Château de Clagny and the unbelievable pleasure pavilion Trianon de Porcelaine, made entirely from porcelain tiles, really were built for her by the king.

Despite the devious and wicked ways of the Marquise, Marion is able to use her intelligence and skills with fragrances to prevent the murder of Queen Marie-Thérèse. After suffering the vile smells of life in the palace - as Petrie informs us in her Author's Note (which also includes great information about being a "nose" and the techniques of perfume manufacturing) this was a time when people were afraid of water, "believing that it carried the miasmas of the plague" - Marion creates an elixir that, when dabbed under her nose, prevents her sensitive nose from smelling these odors. When she uses it to revive the Marquise after a fainting spell in the gardens of Trianon de Porcelain, the Marquise sets her plan in action and Marion knows she has only days to thwart it. The suspense it thick and the riches of the court sumptuously described throughout the book as Marion struggles to do what is right while remaining true to her gift. A very satisfying ending with some revelations about Marion's past makes The Orange Trees of Versailles all the better.

Trianon de Porcelaine

Chateau de Clagny


  
Marquise de Montespan
King Louis XIV
La Voisin


3.23.2011

Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French, 350 pp, Reading Level 4

JUST IN TIME FOR EARTH DAY!
OPERATION REDWOOD 
is now in PAPERBACK! 
Set in San Francisco and Willits, CA, Operation Redwood, the debut novel by S Terrell French, is impossible to write about without the giving significant page time to the serious environmental issues raised in the book, indicated by the title and excellent cover illustration by the superb, hard working Greg Swearingen. But, before I launch into that I want to tell you about the wonderfully drawn main character, Julian Carter-Li and the engrossing plot he stumbles into. At the start of the story Julian a conflicted, ambivalent, compliant twelve year old who's best interests are often secondary to those of the adults around him. His father has died before resolving a family feud that has kept Julian from knowing his paternal relatives for almost all of his life. Julian's mother has a strained relationship with her own mother, a hard working journalist who lives in Sacramento, and they see her only once or twice a year. Julian's best friend, Danny Lopez, comes from a more traditional, two parent home and is a source of stability and laughter. The catalyst for the events of the story, Robin Elder and her family, make up an excellent contrast to the urban life that Julian and Danny lead, as well as providing the informed, moral voice in the story. The plot is so well thought out and paced that it feels like it is based on a true story. How the kids navigate around authority to achieve their goals feels realistic and never usefully coincidental and the emotional and personal growth that Julian experiences by the end of the book is utterly genuine. As Besty Bird says in her review at FUSE#8, "Over and over I noticed Ms French refusing to leave loose ends dangling or logical plot points flailing." Everything has an explanation and everything makes sense, the good parts and the bad. Best of all, there is a surprise character who pops up at the end of the book to set things right, giving the story a very From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler feel, which I loved.

S Terrell French is a graduate of Harvard College and Berkeley Law, has been a forest service volunteer and is currently a practicing environmental lawyer in San Francisco. I can't think of anyone better to write a book like this or anyone who could see all sides of the story the way a person with Ms French's background can. The author's note at the end of the book, which tells you what aspects of the story are true and what is happening today (as well as more extensive information on the redwood forest at the website) is as informative as it is even handed in the presentation of the facts. At the heart of Operation Redwood is a stand of old growth red wood trees that is referred to as Big Tree Grove. The stand has been sold to an investment firm who has decided to profit from the sale of the timber and has the THP (timber harvest plan) cleared by the government making it perfectly legal. Of course scientists and environmentalists have tried to stop the clear cutting of the grove, but the government has decided against them, something Ms French points out but doesn't make a pointed issue of in the book. The bad guys here are IPX, the investment firm who now owns the stand, and their CEO who happens to be Julian's paternat uncle, Sibley Carter.* Through the characters of the Elder family, twelve-year old Robin, specifically, the history of the redwoods and practice of clear cutting that has decimated 95 percent of the original redwood forest is detailed. Huckleberry Farm, the home of the Elders, is on 250 acres that includes second growth redwoods. As a native (Southern) Californian I have been to the redwoods and have a basic understanding of the decimation that has occurred. I know who Julia Butterfly Hill is and what she did to protest clear cutting of the Headwaters stands near Humboldt, California. But, I'd imagine that to someone who has never actually seen the redwoods this reads like a story where people are fighting to save an endangered animal that is on the verge of extinction. I think that it is an important lesson for kids (and adults) to learn that trees and plants, as well as animals, can become extinct. Ms French also does a great job linking the global to the local when Julian says, "In school we're always studying the rain forests in Brazil and Africa. And people are always trying to get you to sign petitions to save the rain forest and buy special rain-forest nuts. And we never learned anything about the people cutting down redwoods in California."



For readers who know nothing about the redwoods, French unfolds their history in bits and pieces through the words and actions of various characters in the book in a way that does not feel didactic at all. Young readers should have no problem following the story and fitting the pieces of family and environmental drama together. And the family drama is great. Sibley Carter has moved with his wife Daphne and their son Preston from Boston to San Francisco so that he can take over the position of CEO at IPX, the investment firm that has bought Big Tree Grove. When Julian's mother, who is a photographer, gets a grant to spend five months photographing Buddhist statues and temples in China, leaving him with his new-found, well off relatives seems like a good idea. However, Sibley harbors old grudges against his brother and takes every opportunity to see the same unlikable qualities in his nephew. His wife just takes every opportunity to make Julian's life miserable in very creative but cruel ways. Daphne Carter is such a great villain and so exacting and seemingly logical in her grinding punishments of Julian that I really enjoyed every scene she was in, even while I was cringing and gasping for poor Julian. Ms French does a great job getting into Julian's head and you can see how he reasons out the treatment he is receiving, the absence of his mother and how he grows and changes when he spends time in the completely new environment of Huckleberry Ranch. One of the scenes that really struck me as impressive was when Julian, who has been caught lying to an adult who's trust was hard won, has the opportunity to apologize, verbally or in writing, and does not. As an adult, it seemed like such an obvious thing to apologize, but French lets Julian follow his own, twelve-year old way of thinking to find reasons not to. Time and again in Operation Redwood, Ms French presents plot elements that seem to have obvious resolutions and takes them down a different, but believable path. And, the pay off for these twists and turns is always worth it. Julian's non-apology makes a very rewarding, beleiveable reappearance in the story towards the end of the book.

I realize that I have used the word "believable" over and over again in this review. This is a testament to the skill of Ms French as a writer. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, involves attempts to save an endangered species from corporate bad guys and has many plot elements that are similar to those in Operation Redwood. However, while it's very well written and entertaining, Hiaasen's book is much more finessed, the characters are more caricatures and the plot is a bit more pat. Ms French's story, in which the main child characters are a two or so years younger than those in Hoot (and this does make a difference) feels a bit more organic, if you will forgive me for using that word, in it's evolution and presentation, which meshes perfectly with the plot and characters.

This book is definitely a perfect fit for readers who enjoy real life stories and authors like Andrew ClementsWendy Mass, and EL Konigsburg. Readers might especially enjoy her book The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place in which a young girl rallies her friends and campmates to save a work of art. 

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:


Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle























*The name Sibley immediately reminded me of David Sibley, the ornithologist and illustrator of the very popular, comprehensive field guides for birds. Interesting name to give to the character who is not in tune with nature...



































3.20.2011

April is National Poetry Month

April is just around the corner and I need YOU 
to share your favorite poems for me to post!


Last year, I posted a poem a day and it was a lot of work but also a pleasure. I have decided to celebrate National Poetry Month again and while a few things will change, some will stay the same. Some of the poems and books of poetry I featured last year will return and some will be new. I also hope to read and review some of the many children's books (and maybe even a teen book or two) that are being written in verse. And, of course, we will celebrate POEM IN YOUR POCKET DAY which falls on APRIL 14 this year! Be sure to visit poets.org for tons of great poetry and super ideas on how to make your own poetry month or poem-in-your-pocket day a huge success!

Last year I featured this amazing, incredible, magnificent book from ABRAMS


This year, I am SO THRILLED that they have published a kid's version!!! 



Poem in Your Pocket for Young Poets


Review to follow...


Also, be sure to get in on the poetic action over at 100 Scope Notes where Travis Jonker is hosting a spine-cento contest. A cento is a poem comprised entirely of verses or passages taken from other authors, in this case, the titles on spines of books. Below is an example of one of Travis' spine-centos. Click here for Travis' tips on how to compose a cento as well as another really funny one.




And, in some final exciting poetry news - yet ANOTHER posthumous collection from Shel Silverstein, due this fall! 



3.18.2011

The Last Series, written and illustrated by Harry Horse, 104 pp, RL 2

In this epistolary quartet of books by Harry Horse, Grandfather and his intrepid dog Roo are always off on one adventure or another, sending letters home to his grandchild, all accompanied by Horse's wonderful pen and ink illustrations that are reminiscent of Ernest H Shepherd's work. Every book includes a map of the region that Grandfather and Roo are scouring, always on a new quest. Below are the endpapers from The Last of the Polar Bears, giving readers a little taste of what is to come.
In The Last of the Gold Diggers: Being as it were, an Account of a Small Dog's Adventures Down Under, Grandfather and Roo head to the Outback to find Great Uncle Vincent, who went there years ago to seek his fortune. Grandfather and Roo are always traveling by some sort of rundown, rickety form of transportation and this time it is Quality Airlines. Like his picture book illustrations, Horse's stories are filled with all sorts of interesting little details. Quality Airlines has no baggage compartments and old arm chairs nailed to the floor for seating and, by some happy coincidence, a dog loo which Roo visits repeatedly. Once the duo hit the ground the search is on, with golf cart chock full of necessities in tow. Prospects look increasingly bleak until they find Gold Town, which was mentioned often in Uncle Vincent's letters. Gold Town, it turns out, is run entirely by animals. There is even a Home for Retired Pack Animals. When the search seems at it's lowest point and dehydration certain, things take a turn for Grandfather and Roo and there is a happy ending for all that involves rabbits!
Cover Photo
The rest of the series is equally full of charming details, suspenseful adventure and hijinks from Roo. In The Last of the Cowboys the duo find themselves and their golf cart in America in search of Roo's grandfather, said to be living among the cowboys and having a successful movie career. In The Last of the Castaways Roo has purchased the ship Unsinkable, and now she and Grandfather must capture the King Cod as a means to paying for it. Finally, in the Last of the Polar Bears Grandfather and Roo are indeed looking for the last of the polar bears, by way of a cruise on the  Unsinkable.Storms, seasickness and trying to train Roo to pull a dog sled make for some funny moments on the way to Great Bear Ridge.


These books are so full of imagination, geography, history and humor that they make the Magic Tree House books look like ax code manuals. The Last Quartet would make perfect bedtime reading for those who are not reading chapter books on their own!

Little Rabbit Series written and illustrated by Harry Horse




Even though he can be willful and petulant and not always kind, I love Little Rabbit (be sure to check out the website where there are some great games & puzzles) probably because, at one time or another, he is exactly like almost every toddler I have ever known. And, while my son and I get a kick out of Little Rabbit (we started checking these out of the library over and over years ago and I am so happy to finally own a couple) what I really love is the attention to detail and the fantastic color palette Horse uses for each book. Working with vibrant blues, oranges and purples, the forest world of Little Rabbit and his family is equally evocative of the illustrations of Erenest H Shepherd and the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. While the stories in all the books are wonderful - Harry Horse is magnificent at capturing the mindset of a young child - the real treat is rambling through this colorful world, from the giant hollow tree where the rabbit family lives, to Grandma's vegetable garden and on to the junk yard, all the way to the gates of Rabbit World amusement park.

In Little Rabbit Lost, it is our hero's birthday. He wakes up to a small pile of presents at the foot of his bed, including his little blue suit and red balloon, only to find that the real present if a trip to Rabbit World! Frustrated that he can't go on the rides that his older brothers and sisters are enjoying and anxious to get in on the fun, Little Rabbit gets separated from his family. His red balloon leads his family back to him for a happy reunion and a birthday cake - carrot, of course.

In Little Rabbit Goes to School, Little Rabbit insists on bringing he favorite pull toy, a wooden horse named Charlie Horse and trouble ensues. Turns out Charlie has a penchant for mischief. He disrupts story time and refuses to play with the other children at recess. Harry Horse lets the readers decide if it is Charlie Horse or really Little Rabbit who is the naughty one, but, in case they aren't sure, parents will applaud Little Rabbit's decision to leave Charlie Horse at home next time.

I think my favorite Little Rabbit book has to be Little Rabbit Runaway, in which a scolding sends Little Rabbit into the wilds to fend for himself. Meeting up with another runaway, Molly Mouse, the two build a rambling house from junkyard findings. But, when Molly turns out to be a little bit too much like Mama Rabbit (I learned one of my all-time favorite names from this book - bossyboots) Little Rabbit calls Molly a name and takes off again. An impending thunderstorm sends him back to the house where Molly scares him even further by telling a story about a scary cat. But, all is well in the end when, thankfully, Mama Rabbit and Mama Mouse find their babies, scoop them up and take them home.

In a twist on the typical feelings of jealousy that make up the plots of most new sibling books, when Little Rabbit becomes the big brother to triplets he is delighted. He wants to play with the babies, hold the babies and feed the babies. 















But, Little Rabbit soon learns that he can't do all the things the babies need, only Mama Rabbit can and doing these things takes up a lot of her time. When the babies do start exploring on their own, the first thing they want to do is to get into Little Rabbit's toys, which does not go well at all. Soon the exciting, new babies are the sticky, smelly annoying babies. In a rare turn of empathy, Little Rabbit notices how tired Mama and Papa are as they try to quiet the crying babies well into the night and he steps in to help, bringing Charlie Horse and his red balloon and patience.



















Little Rabbit's Christmas is the last book in the series and has all the charm - and persnicketiness of the first four. Little Rabbit's singleminded focus on his new toy - a red sled. Once again, Harry Horse conveys his deep understanding of the nature of preschoolers while employing his magical, colorful rich illustrations.

Harry Horse is also the author and illustrator of The Last of the... series


The Last Castaways by Harry Horse: Book CoverThe Last Cowboys by Harry Horse: Book Cover
The Last Gold Diggers by Harry Horse: Book CoverThe Last Polar Bears by Harry Horse: Book Cover