The Blackhope Enigma, written by Teresa Flavin, 288 pp RL 4

"An old castle, a strange painting and a mysterious labyrinth" is the tagline for Teresa Flavin's debut novel The Blackhope Enigma, and this unique combination does not disappoint. A swift moving tale, the story beings with a prologue set in Venice, 1582, that introduces us to the sought after painter, poet, swordsman and designer, Fausto Corvo. It seems that Corvo, through much study and hard work has learned how to harness the planetary powers to Earth and "infuse his paintings with life." However, through the bragging of one of his apprentices, Corvo's secret skills have become public knowledge and rich and powerful men are after him. Along with his three apprentices, Corvo and his three magical paintings scatter to the four winds, leaving four centuries worth of scoundrels in his wake all searching for the paintings and their hidden powers. 

In present day Scotland, fourteen year old Sunniva (Sunni) Forrest is in the Mariner's Chamber of Blackhope Tower, ancestral home of Sir Innes Blackhope, nautical explorer and art collector. Sunni is seated in front of Fausto Corvo's The Mariner's Return to Arcadia, 1582, sketching details from the painting into her sketchbook for a school assignment. Her stepmother has insisted she bring along her twelve year old step-brother Dean, in an attempt to pry him away from his video games.  On top of Dean's annoying presence, Sunni's new classmate, the American and talented artist, Blaise Doran, shows up and starts talking about the occasional skeleton that has mysteriously appeared in the Mariner's Chamber. Before Sunni and Blaise can sort out their differences, Dean has begun walking the four-quartered labyrinth that is laid into the floor of the room in black tile, muttering the word chiaroscuro, which he read off the information card below the painting. By the time Dean reaches the last quadrant of the labyrinth, Sunni looks up from her sketchbook to see a glow emanating from the painting and her step-brother gone. Blaise and Sunni search for Dean, but both know there is no way he could have left the small room without their noticing. Instinctively, Sunni begins to search the landscape of the painting, a port in which Sir Innes' ship, the Speranza Nera, has docked. Amidst the crowds on the quayside, Sunni spots Dean's red cap and puffy snow jacket. Thinking she has no other choice, Sunni prepares to enter the painting as well, insisting that Blaise stay behind and the adventure begins.

As Dean, Sunni and eventually Blaise make their way into the painting the mysteries within are revealed. Hot on their trail is Angus Bell, cousin of the kids' art teacher Lorimer Bell. It turns out that the two have been fascinated with Blackhope Tower and Corvo's paintings since they were kids and have spent much of their lives trying to unravel the secrets that Corvo imbued his work with as well as find any of the three missing paintings. Angus blackmails Lorimer to keep his mouth shut then uses brute force to make his way into the Mariner's Chamber and the painting. While the surface of the painting, that which is seen by viewers of the work, seems to be a dead world to those who enter it, a journey towards the back of the landscape reveals a thin, white portal that leads to another painting below. It seems Corvo covered his magical painting in jesso then painted another on top of it. The white portal is a passageway across the jesso to an opening to the magical painting below. The kids soon learn that Sir Innes commissioned the painting with its magical underworld as a sort of adventure playground that he could visit and entertain himself with swashbuckling exploits when life on land proved dull. 

What the kids find in Arcadia and what they have to evade and overcome as they try to find their way out is exciting and intriguing. Flavin works in magical elements that add to the chase.  Her descriptions of Corvo are well written and make the painter feel like a three dimensional character, as do her passages that describe the painting and the world beneath the painting. The combination of a Renaissance painting, a magical world and a centuries old mystery make for a great book. While Flavin could have written another hundred pages into this story, which takes off running on page one, I appreciated the quick pace and relative brevity of the book. At 288 pages it was a complete meal without being the seven course dinner that so many fantasy books for kids seem to be these days. The adventures of Sunni and Blaise continue in The Crimson Shard, of which there is a chapter at the end of The Blackhope Enigma. Can't wait for it to reach our shores!

As I read The Blackhope Enigma, I imagined the Venetian Renaissance painter Fausto Corvo's work might have resembled that of the real painter, Canaletto, who was born in Venice in 1697 and died in 1768.
Canaletto 8


A Murder of Crows...

This current phenomena has been noted by others, but since I happen to be posting reviews of two corvid-centric books this week, I thought I'd make official note of it.

In July of this year Betsey Bird was first to call the trend to my attention with her post, 2011 The Year of the Raven. In my opinion, Mortlock and The Blackhope Enigma have the most concentrated use of corvids as characters and even have central figures in the stories named after them (Lord Corvus and Il Corvo). Here are the covers of a few crow/raven books I have reviewed or will be reviewing soon...

And a few I would like to review!

I can't think of another single person, place or thing that has appeared in so many books in such a short space of time.


Mortlock, by Jon Mayhew, 376 pp, RL 5

I first discovered Jon Mayhew and his debut novel, Mortlock, while perusing the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize 2011 Shortlist, the British version of the Newbery. Mayhew found himself in very good company, including Newbery winner Rebecca Stead and her novel, When You Reach Me and Janice Hardy and book one in her marvelous Healing Wars series, The Shifter. When I read the synopsis of Mayhew's novel I knew right away that I wanted to read it but was unable to because, despite the many awards it has won in England, it does not have an American publisher - yet. I emailed Mr Mayhew to ask if he had found an home for his book in America. The very friendly and generous Mr Mayhew informed me that he has not yet found an American publisher for his book but gladly sent me a copy of his first book as well as his second, The Demon Collector. Mayhew is planning a total of three books in all with the same geographical setting but different main characters.

While reading reviews from British papers in preparation for writing my own review, I learned two fascinating things that put Mortlock into context for me. First, I discovered that Mr Mayhew is also a folk musician. Each chapter in Mortlock begins with a quote from a traditional folk ballad or song, all of which are morbid and sometimes macabre. They all fit in with the story Mayhew tells in Mortlock, but knowing that he has a background in this kind of music makes me want to go back a reread the book to get the most out of the snippets of song. Secondly, I learned that crows belong to the genus Corvus. This is important as crows have a huge and creepy role in Mortlock and the villain of the story himself is named Lord Corvis who, by the end of the book is sprouting feathers. These are just two examples of the vivid and layered story that Mayhew tells in Mortlock, and what a story it is. 

Mayhew has a way with creating characters you want to know more about, so much so that I was a bit disappointed to find that Josie and Alfie, the heroes of Mortlock, do not appear in book two, The Demon Collector. However, Mr Mayhew has kindly shared four bonus stories, two of which feature Josie, on his website. Ah, Josie Chrimes. I have not met a gothic heroine as intriguing as Josie since reading Derek Landy's superb Skulduggery Pleasant series and meeting the awesomely butt-kicking Valkyrie Cain. Set in 1854, Josie Chrimes doesn't rumble as much as Valkyrie, but she can throw a mean knife. In fact, she is the knife-throwing assistant to the Great Cardamom (Mayhew has quite a way with names, much like Derek Landy) a second-rate magician who has found success at the Erato Theater in London. Where he was once a bumbler, Cardamom, who's real name is Edwin Chrimes, was once part of a traveling gypsy circus where he met Josie's mother and took the child under his wing when her mother died. Josie is infinitely fond of Cardamom, or Uncle as she calls him, and trusting, despite the fact that she knows he is hiding something from her. A glimpse into her Uncle's papers reveals a connection to a man named Sebastian Mortlock, accusations of theft and something called the Amarant. Before Josie can learn anymore, the three Aunts arrive at the door to visit with Cardamom. Aunt Jay, Aunt Veronica and Aunt Mag are disturbingly crow-like in their appearance and very suspicious in their actions. Soon, the Great Cardamom is too ill to leave what will be his deathbed and Josie knows she must flee their home or be next into the grave.

A prologue to this tale, set in Abyssinia in 1820, sheds some light on to the mystery that Josie slowly uncovers. We learn that Sebastian Mortlock, Edwin Chrimes and Thurlough Corvis were once good friends who traveled far in search of a long-hidden, powerful flower called the Amarant, which can reanimate the dead. After finding the flower and discovering the depths of its power, the three take an oath never to return to the jungle to take possession of it. However, some thirty-four years later it is clear that oath has been broken. Each of the men involved with the flower seems to have derived some sort of power from it and, while Mortlock's remains the most mysterious, it is clear that Cardamom's magical talents are derived from it somehow as are Corvis', um, avian qualities. The horror aspect of  Mortlock comes from Lord Corvis and his ghuls, shape-shifting evil spirits that can change from animal to human form in seconds. Under the power of Lord Corvis, these ghuls (the three Aunts) take the form of crows and are absolutely delighted to rip the entrails from their human prey. In the absence of prey, they settle for a sackful of offal that is delivered by barge to Lord Corvis' manor every other day. The parts where the ghuls are attacking and eating are a bit gruesome, but in line with the tone of the story. 

After the death of her Uncle, Josie learns that she has a twin brother, Alfie, who has been raised by Mr Higgins, a close friend of Chrimes who is also an undertaker. The specter of death is never far in this book, as are the undead, and Alfie, it seems, has the ability to animate the dead. At first, Josie finds her twin brother coarse and uneducated, and he is none to pleased with her, but over time they learn to trust each other and this is one of the truly great aspects of  Mortlock that made me wish to know more of the story of these siblings. They are captured by Lord Corvis and taken to his mansion where a servant girl named Arabella (yes, she is a nod to Joan Aiken's Arabel's Raven) tries her best to help them escape. However, Lord Corvis does his best to torture the whereabouts of the Amarant out of them, but the tow escape across the marshes to Lorenzo's Incredible Circus. It is here that Josie and Alfie learn about their past, their parentage and their incredible talents. Mayhew is at his best when writing about the circus and the curse that has befallen it. It is here that Deliciously eerie, the chapters build to an inevitable truth. How Josie resists the call of the circus and performing under the same tent as her mother and how Alfie survives to help her escape are breathtaking scenes that are seared into my imagination. 

 Mortlock is not the kind of book I usually gravitate to. It reminds me of the part in one of my favorite books, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book when the hero, Bod, mistakenly passes through a ghoul-gate and finds himself in the company of three corpse eating creatures. But, like all books that are disturbing, from The Hunger Games to The Graveyard Book to Mortlock, it is the magnificence of the writing, the strength of the characters, that allows a reader to carry on through the dark and uncomfortable parts. From Josie and Alfie to more minor characters such as Gimlet, Evenyule Scrabsnitch and Arabella, the maid of Lord Corvis, Mayhew creates characters I want to know more about, be they bad, good or somewhere in between. I look forward to reading  The Demon Collector and hopefully, by the time book three is finished Mr Mayhew will have an American publisher!

You can learn more about Jon Mayhew and the writing of his trilogy in this great interview at The Enchanted Ink Pot.

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like:
Scepter of the Ancients book one in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.


Daphne's Diary of Daily Disasters, written and illustrated by Marissa Moss, RL 3

Marissa Moss is creator of the original illustrated diar,y Amelia's Notebook. This series first hit the shelves in 1995. Moss's Max Disaster series debuted in 2009 is now she is back with Daphne's Diary of Daily Disasters. The first two books in the series (which have cool fuzzy covers and different colored pages in each book) look just like composition books with the name/schedule page at the start of each book, always filed in by Daphne in a funny way. Daphne also tapes a "favorites" list to the front of the diary that tells the reader her favorite color is pink, she lives in Oakland, is nine years old and has a best friend named Kaylee. She also likes pizza, but not pepperoni, origami and collecting cute Japanese erasers. At the end of each diary, Daphne tapes a different weekly cafeteria menu with her personal comments. The books in the Daphne's Diary of Daily Disasters series are shorter than Amelia's Notebooks and, with the main character being younger than Amelia, are geared toward a younger reader. However, Moss's eye for detail and ability to tap into the mind of a creative kid continues to abound and each book is overflowing with personality, in print and in illustrations, including very funny disaster doodles at the end of each diary.

In the first book, The Name Game, Daphne tells us that this pink paged journal could easily have been called Daphne's Diary of Daily Delights or Daphne's Diary of Days Worth Remembering but an unfortunate encounter with dog poop on the first day of school tips the scales. Unfortunately, Daphne's day doesn't improve when her new teacher accidentally calls her "Daffy" instead of Daphne during role call. Of course the name sticks and her classmates call her Daffy for the rest of the day. Daphne has a moment of relief when she and her best friend Kaylee come up with nicknames (and, of course drawings) of their classmates. However, after school is not much better. Daphne has an orthodontist's appointment with assistant who has "thick sausage fingers" that can barely fit into her mouth and hair that "smells like the kind of air freshener you hang in a car." Then, Daphne is forced to attend the soccer practice of her five year old identical twin brothers, Donald and David. David is only distinguishable from Donald by  his omnipresent "booger bubble" that is a result of allergies. Daphne entertains herself by drawing pictures of the soccer moms as animals and making rebuses out for her name. The one bright spot is the appearance of the ice cream man who sells interesting flavors like Pistachio-Bacon, Salt and Pepper and Beet Chocolate Chip. Daphne has curious taste buds and she is never disappointed by her choice. 

In her review of the first two Daphne books for New York Times Book Review, noted kid's book blogger and teacher Monica Edinger reminds us that emerging readers who are hitting their stride turn their attention from "the stops and starts of reading . . . to the text itself. For many children at this stage, the familiar rules: they take particular pleasure in reading about someone in a school with routines and structures not unlike their own and enjoy meeting, in a series, their beloved characters again and again and again. Unconventionally designed books appeal as well - say an ersatz journal filled with just the sort of notes and sketches the young reader could imagine making herself." As a longtime bookseller, I can attest to the longtime popularity of the two major book series that dominate the shelves for emerging - roughly second grade level - readers (Junie B Jones, Magic Treehouse) as well as the enduring popularity of the unconventional which, until recently, was a spot held solely by Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants but now shares the shelf with Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty Series. Add to that the number of new readers who pick up the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and it makes me wonder why it has taken someone so long to step into this space tailor made for a diary series with a girl at the center? Whatever the reason, I am SO pleased that Marissa Moss has created another diary series with a funny, creative, smart girl as the main character and made it just right for kids who want something besides the standards. On top of that, Moss, as always, is talented and creative enough to write characters who face the challenges of school and home admirably. And, while Moss's characters may make mistakes and missteps, they always find a way (with the help of friends, family and parents) to make it over the bumps and end with a smile, or, in the case of Daphne, a laugh.

The second book in the Daphne's Diary of Daily Disasters series is called The Vampire Dare. Vampire fever has swept the school and, when a costume day is announced ("even though Halloween is loooooong past,"as Daphne tells us) Daphne decides to be the coolest Vampire in the school. Kaylee, who is great at thinking up creative costumes, thinks this craze is ridiculous and refuses to dress as a vampire but won't tell Daphne what she is going to dress up as. When Daphne's costume doesn't feel quite cool enough she asks Kaylee for help. Instead of being cool, she is laughed at and says she has sunk to the bottom of the social scale in fourth grade, which is accompanied by a great illustration. Surprisingly, kindergarteners Donald and David not only understand Daphne's anguish but come up wit a great plan to divert attention from her latest disaster.


Americus, writte by MK Reed, art by Jonathan Hill, 216 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE/TEEN

Americus, written by MK Reed with art by Jonathan Hall is amazing on so many levels for me. I have a deep appreciation for the art of illustration, so I was bit disappointed when I turned to the first page of  Americus and saw that it is illustrated entirely in the traditional black and white comic style without any shades of gray. Still new to the genre, I had yet to read a graphic novel in this style. Most of my reading experience has come from brightly colored, highly imaginative fantasy graphic novels for younger kids. However, by page 5 of Americus I was so completely engrossed in the story that I forgot all about the beautiful colors and magical creatures I thought I longed for. Instead, I was carried along by the story of Neil Barton, a bookworm who usually likes to fly under the radar but who is challenged to speak up when he loses one best friends and is about to lose another as a group of parents threatens to censor his favorite book series and remove them from the public library.

Neil and his friend Danny have been eagerly awaiting Book 8 in the Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, Huntress Witch series, which is released the summer before they are about to start high school. The two head to the Americus Public library to pick up the copy that Danny has been on the waiting list for since Book 7 was released. Not on the list and lacking the funds to buy the book, Neil roams the shelves of the library with the occasional help of Charlotte, the librarian, who has her nose buried in her own copy of Book 8. Neil and his mom have been living a pretty spartan life since his father walked out on them, taking the computer and purchases like books and music are a luxury. However, while visiting his aunt and uncle in Tulsa, a trip to the store with his older cousin's boyfriend turns into a musical education. 

While Neil's world is expanding, Danny's is shrinking. A scene at the beginning of the book depicts the end-of-the-year dance in the gym that Neil grudgingly attends with Danny. When Danny goes off to dance with a girl Neil sneaks out into the hallway to read The Martian Chronicles and is confronted by three thugs who make some homophobic slurs about him and Danny and throw his book in the dumpster. While this event doesn't directly affect Danny, it foreshadows Mrs Burns' fury when she finds Danny reading the newest Apathea book and heads to the library to make a scene. At dinner that night, Danny tries to defend the book to him mom, telling her that reading those books is the only thing in Americus that makes him happy. As her tirade escalates, Mrs Burns tells Danny that she is trying to protect him from "the people who want to put your soul in jeopardy - the damn liberals, the atheists and the gays," to which Danny responds, "Damn it mom! I'm gay!" While Mr Burns ushers the other children out of the room, Mrs Burns slaps Danny, sends him to his room and ultimately decides to send Danny to summer camp to fix his problem then on to military school in the fall.

In Danny's absence Neil slinks his way through high school. My older kids and my husband, who has been a high school teacher for 17 years, read Americus and he got a good laugh out of the scenes in which Neil traipses through his first days in high school when the teachers are introducing themselves and their classes. He said he actually teaches with a few people like that, which gave me pause. 
Neil passes his days with his nose in a book, slowly noticing the world around him and even making tentative friends. He finds a job at the Americus public library where, faced with a parent group headed up by Mrs Burns, who ripped up Book 8 in her face, Charlotte is finding her job very stressful. Mrs Burns organizes her group, writes letters to the editor and searches the internet for instances of the inappropriateness and obscene nature of the Apathea books. However, she does not read the books. After Mrs Burns and her Keep the Faith in Christ Literary Awareness and Library Advocacy Group hijack a library board meeting, the members of the board agree to read the book and decide at the next meeting whether it should be censored and removed from the shelves. However, what the board really wants to talk about it the move to switch from paper towels to hand driers in the bathrooms at the library.

How Neil gets involved and the final decision is suspenseful enough to keep you reading this book straight through, which is exactly how my husband, daughter and I read it. And, despite being a graphic novel, Americus is not a fast read. One aspect of Americus that I especially loved was the inclusion of bits and pieces of Apathea's story intertwined with Neil's. Those scenes make me want to know more about Apathea and her story. Americus originally appeared seriealy at the website Save Apathea and there are all sorts of tidbits on the website, including a list of the titles of all eight of her books (to date...) One of the interesting things about Americus for me was the fact that my daughter, who has grown up reading the Harry Potter books as they were published, did not see the parallel between the censorship challenges to the Potter books and the challenges to Apathea until she was half way into this graphic novel. Of course, she has also grown up in her own bubble of childhood that did not include censorship or the potential censorship of any book.

In an interview from 2010 during Banned Book Week, MK Reed says that she was inspired to write   Americus after reading about the many challenges to Harry Potter in schools and libraries, which she found ridiculous. As she says, "I see a clear link between kids who are intellectually curious and kids who read and I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to encourage that in their kids." As a bookseller of sixteen years working at a store in a politically and religiously conservative city, the story of Americus resonates for me. Being a book, I think it was necessary for Reed to present the parent group in an extreme light and make the setting as bleak as possible so that the tension in the story is suspenseful, however I have experienced less intense expression of this fear of fantasy in my years as a bookseller. This depiction in Americus may seem insulting or over the top to some, but it is not a complete fiction. A search of the internet can find any number of writings by Christians discussing the reality of the practice of witchcraft and how any fictional presentation of such, no matter how totally unrealistic, poses a threat.

While I have never had the specific, ill informed, vituperative convictions of the parent group in Americus expressed to me while working as a bookseller, I have had plenty of parents, while having me help them find a book for their reader, tell me that they do not allow their children to read books with witches or magic. Silently fuming, I have kept my mouth shut despite the fact that I so want to ask them if their kids have read any of the books by that canonical Christian author, CS Lewis, a few of which include magic and witches? And, do they encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus, a fellow who clearly couldn't get his job done without a bit of magic? Have they actually read any of the Harry Potter books or other books in the fantasy genre to determine if they truly are a threat to their children? Do they realize how the experience and expression of imagination and creativity benefits children in their adult lives and how reading fantasy develops imagination? And, finally, have they taken the time to get to know their children and their interests and their capacity for sorting out reality and fiction? The thing that saddens me the most is the parental unwillingness or inability to have faith in the intelligence and imagination of their own children, to be able to trust that reading Harry Potter, while it might inspire some robe wearing and wand waving, will not lead (most) readers to want to actually practice magic.

I almost did not add this last paragraph. Parenting is a completely personal experience and, after eighteen years of being a parent to three children I have learned not to judge others in this area. Hopefully, we are all doing the best we can to raise our children to be kind, caring adults. However, my job at work and on this blog is to help people find books for their children and sometimes my personal beliefs and hopes for young readers conflict with those of others. I hope that we can learn from each other, be open to each other and not judge one another. And, I especially hope that we can try not judge a book by its cover.

One final thing, for those of you who enjoyed Americus, here is a cool thing from the website - a Casting Call with a dream cast for the movie version of Americus! I totally agree and would LOVE to see this graphic novel made into a movie!

MK Reed is currently working on a new graphic novel, About a Bull, with art by Caroline Kelsey.


Bake Sale, written and illustrated by Sara Varon, 158 pp, Reading Level 3

I fell in love with the works of Sara Varon when I came across her first graphic novel Robot Dreams a couple of years ago. I was  very new to graphic novels at the time and her wordless story of friendship was charming and just a little bit haunting as well, her illustrations simple, sometimes silly and always deeply descriptive. And I love robots. Now, with Bake Sale she covers another favorite of mine, food! As with Robot Dreams, the copy on the jacket flap of the book captures the essence of the story better than I could. "Cupcake's life is pretty good: He's got his bakery, his band and his best friend. Things aren't always so easy, though. Sometimes Cupcake could use a little help. But is he looking for it in the wrong place?"

Over dinner at Eisenstein's Sandwich, Eggplant shares a new cookbook written by his Aunt Aubergine, who is Turkish. While flipping through the pages, Cupcake is astonished and thrilled to learn that Eggplant's aunt is good friends with food guru and celebrity, Turkish Delight, Master of Confections. Cupcake gushes and Eggplant suggests he join him when he travels to Turkey to visit family and help his aunt launch her book in the spring. 
Cupcake decides to take a break from his beloved band so that he can devote more time to baking and making money to pay for his trip. Inspired by the thought of meeting Turkish Delight, he whips up some amazing treats of his own. Cupcake makes sugared rose petals - the recipe is included in Chapter 3, complete with lovely illustrations - and uses them on top of a batch of cupcakes he sells in the park. The bake sale goes on with zucchini bread and pumpkin squares at the Farmer's Market, marzipan cats and dogs (also with illustrated recipe) to sell in front of St John the Divine on St Francis of Assisi Day when people bring their pets to be blessed, dog biscuits in front of the Westminster Kennel Club Annual Dog Show and heart cookies on Valentine's Day.

Chapter 2 shows Cupcake and Eggplant going to the Turkish Baths in preparation for their trip, leaving when Cupcake's wrapper embarrassingly begins to peel. While dreaming of sparking a fruitful friendship with Turkish Delight when he finally meets her, Cupcake finally earns enough money to buy a plane ticket and join Eggplant in Turkey. At the same time, Eggplant loses his job and can no longer afford to go. Cupcake makes a difficult decision and is despondent for a while. But, when Eggplant returns from his trip with a special surprise for him, inspiration is sparked and their friendship is renewed.

Besides the fact that the plot of Bake Sale is just plain fabulous, Varon's illustrations add an extra-special dimension to the story, like the cherry on the top of the (cup)cake! As the story unfolds you forget that you are reading about characters that are items of food because their interactions are so engrossing. However, from time to time Varon will slip in little touches that can be slightly jarring and thought provoking. Like a can of soda ordering baked goods or two limes waiting in line with their pet hamster in a plastic ball or a box of raisins walking two dachshunds. Your brain may start to wander leaving you with questions like, "Is it ok for a carrot to eat carrot cake?"and "Do potatoes really lack rhythm?" But, the fate of Cupcake is ultimately so absorbing that those thoughts are quickly pushed aside in favor of finishing this delight of a book. Best of all, Bake Sale ends with MORE RECIPES!! "Cupcake's Repertoire" includes recipes for everything that he baked throughout the book - including the dog biscuits!

Cupcakes are pretty popular these days, from cookbooks and television shows to dedicated bakeries, clothes and stationary. Despite this, you know that Varon must have made Cupcake a cupcake for more important reasons than popularity alone. Whatever they are, they make for a perfect character and a delightful treat.


The Wikkeling written by Steven Arntson, illustrated by Daniela J Terrazzini, 234 pp, RL 4

The Wikkeling, by Steve Arntson, a Seattle based writer and musician, is an eye-catching book. With a square shape instead of the traditional rectangular, no dust jacket and beautiful, thick, cream colored pages, I was drawn to it right away. Upon opening it, I was thrilled to discover even more to love. Besides vivid silhouette illustrations, artist Daniela J Terrazzini provides twenty-two pages of of magic in the middle of the book. Reminiscent of Tony diTerlizzi's gorgeous Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, a fully illustrated companion to the Spiderwick series of chapter books, the colorful pages by Terrazini in The Wikkeling reproduce a long lost book called The Bestiary, compiled by Aristotle Alcott, Henrift, and Friends. Examples of Terrazini's work can be seen below.
picture by The Book Smugglers

Of course, magnificent illustrations are difficult to produce without a wonderful book to inspire them and Steven Arntson's The Wikkeling is just that. Arntson takes familiar but disparate elements and creates a book in which a dystopian, futuristic city that has paved over a rich and magical past. In a clever passage that has been quoted in other reviews, the narrator tells us that main character Henrietta Gad-Fly is a girl who looked a "little like a brick" with "ruddy skin prone to pimples" and "small, black beady eyes" set closely together then cautions that "she will not become beautiful when someone gives her a new hairstyle. She will not find a miracle cure for her pimples when an angel sees she's a good girl inside. She will not find out that she is actually a princess, and she won't become happy forever when a prince marries her." And, while this story is about Henrietta becoming curious and brave and taking chances, she is not a great hero who rescues people and saves lives, nor is she a hero who is complex, flawed and conflicted. She's just a girl who somehow has managed to maintain a shred of individuality in a world that is increasingly awash in sameness and conformity.

picture by Kirinjirafa's Blog

The Wikkeling takes place in a part of the city now known as The Addition with the dangerous and dilapidated Old City rubbing up against it like a grungy stray cat. Shimmering and new, the Addition seems attractive at first, with its organized streets, new plastic everything (from homes to cars to clothes to books) and focus on safety and efficiency thanks to the computers that direct every aspect of their lives. However, it soon becomes clear what the citizens have sacrificed for this way of life. Life moves from home to work (or school) to home again in a circumscribed crawl of traffic with lilac scented exhaust. Instead of screeching horns when a car honks, advertisements known as Honk Ads, geared specifically to the interests and needs of the driver based on electronically gathered data, blare out taglines like, "BE FAST AND ACCURATE with Tincan's new Skipping-Stone phone!" and "IT'S TIME FOR A LURMY'S EGG SANDWICH!" Video cameras in the home allow parents to passively keep track of their children. Computers at every desk allow the teacher to monitor her pupils as they do their work and instantly compare their rankings within the classroom, school and city in order to assure success on the Competency Exam. As an adult reader, the similarities between life in The Addition and life in our modern world are chilling, but none more so than the regimented classroom scenes. There is a red alert on the school network that informs parents that "textbooks will no longer be used in classrooms. All classroom material will be accessed through the school network. This change is facilitated through a private-public partnership with TINCAN TELECOMM: HELPING SCHOOLS HELP CHILDREN HELP THEMSELVES AND US". Textbooks have many drawbacks. They cannot be easily updated, they are heavy, and they collect mold. As of the implementation date, dispose of all textbooks in a secure waste container. There are also school bus rides in which the children are latched into a web of safety harnesses, lights going on above their seats when they are all buckled in. Then the children forced to listen to the inevitable barrage of Honk Ads as the bus merges into traffic. Ads like "EDIBLE CLEANTASTE SOAP - IT'S THE CANDY OF SOAP!" and "YOUR PARENTS CAN AFFORD A BIGGER, BETTER HOUSE FOR YOU AT NEWVIEW ESTATES" tempt them.

Used to being singled out for her poor classroom work and picked on by her peers, Henrietta is comfortable with her outsider status and is more aware of others who are different. She notices a a passing kindergartener wearing "odd clothes. Instead of a polyester outift with a yellow safety stripe down the back, she wore a brown shirt made of . . . wool?" This acceptance of oddities, along with the suffering of debilitating headaches that their parents believe (somewhat rightly so) is connected to living in old houses, draws Henrietta to Gary and Rose, the kindergartener dressed in wool. Gary cements his outsider status, despite the fact that he is the teacher's son and the best performing student in class, by unbuckling is safety harness in frustration while riding the bus home, causing a even larger traffic jam and earning him the scorn of the bus driver. Rose's status comes from the secrecy her parents require of her since they are squatting in an abandoned library in the Old City. The three realize that they all see the same creature, a thing that resembles a person and is

the size of an adult, but its face was not a normal adult face. Its skin was pale yellow and even, like pudding smoothed over a tiny nose and an even tinier chin - its small mouth dangled precariously just above. It was dressed in yellow pants and a yellow button up shirt . . . Its fingers were bizarre, long translucent tapers, like candles.

Although they don't know it yet, this is the Wikkeling, and they watch as it moves about the children, tapping them on the head as he makes his way toward them. 

picture by The Book Smugglers

The story takes off when, in a creepy turn, of which there are a few in The Wikkeling, a drop of blood falls from the ceiling onto her textbook while Henrietta is studying in her room one evening. Looking up, she realizes that the ceiling panels must be concealing an attic that she had never realized was part of the old house inherited by her parents when her grandmother moved to a retirement community with her new husband. As a child who was raised "to pay such careful attention to safety and the making of sensible decisions" Henrietta decides to do something "decidedly unsafe and incautious" and place her desk chair on top of her desk so that she can climb up into this unknown world. She tries to convince herself to tell her parents about the blood, but Henrietta is "discovering something about herself that she'd not known before. She was discovering that she was an intensely curious person." And what an unknown world it is! First of all, she finds a space filled with all the non-plastic home comforts from the past that have been removed from the rest of the house, which is newly outfitted with plastic and electronic conveniences. Secondly, Henrietta discovers that the drop of blood has come from an enormous grey, wounded Wild House Cat which she proceeds to tend to using the safety practices she has learned from her overly protective education and name Mister Lady when she cannot determine its gender. Third, there are shelves and shelves of books made from real paper! Best of all, when Henrietta finds a way to share her discovery with Gary and then Rose, the children realize that time stops when they are in the attic and that the world they see outside the window is from decades past.

These elements - the outsider children, a secret attic full of books and an endangered cat, the headaches, school tests, Tincan Telecomm, The Addition and the Wikkeling all come together in the climax of the book that may not seem quite like the climax you were expecting. From the start, Arntson lets the reader know that this is not the kind of book you think it might be and, while there is a creepy, dramatic battle at the end of the book, there is no clear division of good and evil as in most fantasy novels and frankly, there is not really a clear ending. The Wikkeling, as a book, creates a world and a mystery within this world and the Wikkeling, the creature, feels like he is just one small, menacing, out of control part of this ordered world. While the origins of the Wikkeling are mysterious and not fully explained by the end of The Wikkeling, it almost doesn't matter. The characters of Henrietta, Gary, Rose and even Al, Henritetta's step-grandfather, as so compelling that, as a reader, I cared more about them than I did the creature. Happily, an interview with the author, which I strongly suggest you read if you read this book, if a wonderful supplement to the story and, in his last response, Arntson reveals that he is working on a sequel to The Wikkeling titled The Draggeling, which he intends to be the second of five books set in The Addition and The Old City. I finished the book before I read the interview and, aside from loving the characters and the world that Arntson created, was wholly pleased by the somewhat non-traditional ending. However, after reading the review I was also extremely pleased to learn that I would get to spend more time with these characters and this place (and more gorgeously bound and illustrated books) that I had so many questions about and, had come to love.

For more of Daniela J Terrazzini's beautiful artwork, click to read my review of The Seeing Stick, a picture book written by the amazing Jane Yolen and illustrated by Terrazzini.

Cover Image

The Seeing Stick, written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Daniela J Terrazini

The Seeing Stick is an original Chinese fairy tale written by the prolific (and prolifically award winning) Jane Yolen. First published in 1977 with illustrations by Remy Charlip (author and illustrator of the brilliantly fun picture book Fortunately and friend and muse to Brian Selznick, who asked him to pose as George Méliès while he was working on the Caldecott winning The Invention of Hugo CabretThe Seeing Stick was reissued with new illustrations by Daniela J. Terrazini in 2009. I have not seen Charlip's version, but Terrazini's is a beautiful work of art and the book itself is yet another magnificently packaged book published by Running Press, the house that brought us Steven Arntson's The Wikkeling, yet another superbly and uniquely packaged children's book with artwork by Terrazini. Interestingly, both The Wikkeling and The Seeing Stick were designed by Frances J Soo Ping Chow.

The Seeing Stick begins, "Once in the ancient walled citadel of Peking there lived an emperor who had only one daughter. Her name was Hwei Ming." In a brief note at the start of the book Yolen explains that the princess' name means "a darkened moon, with the hope of becoming bright and full in the future." The emperor was deeply saddened that his only daughter was blind and resolved that anyone who could help her to see would be rewarded with a fortune in jewels. Terrazini begins the story with black and white illustrations but, five pages into it when we first meet the person who will help the princess to see, color gradually beings to find its way into the illustrations until the pages are bursting with color and coated in a glossy sheen that makes the pictures look and feel like cloisonné, the ancient technique for decorating metal work objects.

Monks, magician-priests and physicians came but no one could help the princess. At the same time, an old man who lived far away in the south country heard tales of the princess and begins the long journey to the palace. With him he takes his long walking stick made from a single piece of golden wood and his whittling knife, his only possessions. When he reaches the walls of the Outer City the guards refuse to let him enter. The old man sharpens his knife and begins to tell the guards the story of his journey. As he does so he carves their likenesses into his walking stick, much to their delight. Convinced that the guards of the Inner City will want to see this, they take the old man by the arm and lead him to the Inner City guards. Also impressed, the take the old man to the Imperial Palace.

Upon meeting Hwei Ming, the old man takes her face in his hands and then begins telling the story of his journey to the palace. As he does so, he guides the princess' fingers over the carvings on his walking stick, including the likeness he has made of her. He tells her to feel "the long flowing hair of the princess. Grown as she herself has grown, straight and true." Then he asks her to feel her own straight hair. Gradually, he teachers her to see with her fingers, as she makes her way through the palace feeling the faces of everyone she encounters. Each day, the old man tells the princess a new story and she makes her way through the walled city, feeling every aspect of his tale, then the wood of his carving stick where he has recorded his stories. The last page of the book reads, 

As the princess listened, she grew eyes on the tips of her fingers. At least that is what she told the other blind children whom she taught to see as she saw. Certainly it was as true as saying she  has a seeing stick. But the blind Princess Hwei Ming believed that both things were truue. And so did all the blind children in her city of Peking.

And so did the blind old man.

I love the twist at the end of this book! And, as I learned when I read Jane Yolen's blog, she did not originally know that the old man was blind when she wrote her first draft of the story. After sharing it with her writing group, one writer asked, "Is the old man blind, too?" Yolen says it was at this point that she "understood what my entire story was about!" Amazing! If you are a fan of beautiful illustrations and fairy tales, The Seeing Stick is a must have. For more of Terrazini's sublime artwork, check out the images below.  And, for those of you who really like picture books, scroll to the bottom for more artwork from illustrators who are similar to Terrazini.

In the late 1990s I discovered two artists I fell in love with - Lisbeth Zwerger and S Saelig Gallagher. Both remain somewhat mysterious. Gallagher only has handful of published works to her name. The picture books Blue Willow by Pam Conrad and Mama, I'll Give You the World by Roni Schotter as well as Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant and cover art for Frances Hodgeson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Philip Pullman's The Firework Maker's Daughter, a great chapter book for emerging readers, and Sir Terry Pratchett's fantastic trilogy for middle-grade readers that is sure to be enjoyed by fans of Mary Norton's Borrowers books, The Bromeliad Trilogy: Truckers, Diggers and Fliers, which I have reviewed on my blog. She seems to have all but disappeared from the world of illustration and kids books since then. I do know that her first name is Susan and, in 1999 when Blue Willow was published she was living in San Diego. If anyone knows anything about her PLEASE share!

Lisbeth Zwerger is a bit easier to track down. Born in Vienna in 1954, she is an illustrator mostly of fairy tales and has provided artwork for many familiar stories, including The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland, as well as many of Hans Christian Andersen's stories. A full list of the books she has illustrated can be found at Childscapes.com. Zwerger's work has a magical, dream like feel to it and her color palette is always warm and welcoming and perfectly suited to childhood imaginings. For a couple more artists like Terrazini, Zwerger and Gallagher who are actively creating today, scroll to the bottom and enjoy some of Zwerger's radiant artwork on the way down.

Jen Corace, whose website is currently under construction but her work can be seen at the gallery site Tiny Showcase, definitely creates images that have a magical, dreamlike feel that can be, at times,   more menacing than Zwerger and Gallagher's work. However, Corace's her picture book work is more tame. She works often with the amazing Amy Krouse Rosenthal as well as Randal de Sève on her wonderful book Mathilda and the Orange Balloon.

Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Book CoverLittle Oink by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Book Cover
Little Hoot by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Book CoverThis Plus That: Life's little Equations by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Book Cover

And, last but not least, the spectacular Sophie Blackall, and her artwork and name can be found all over my blog. Sophie has a new book coming out this year for adults called Missed Connections. For years now Blackall has been reading the "Missed Connections" column in the classified ad and illustratiing those that especially intrigued her for display on her blog. Scroll to the bottom for one of her pieces.


Buy this book!But this book!
BUY THIS BOOK!Buy Missed Connections on Amazon


Saturday, May 21, 2011
Ack! 'Round 7pm or so... I was browsing the shelves and saw you on the other side. I swear I glimpsed our entire future together in that brief moment. It was beautiful.  And then someone asked you for the time. I mean c'mon, who doesn't have a damn time-telling device of some sort these days!