11.28.2011

The Unforgotten Coat, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, 93 pp, RL 4

After watching the movie Millions (based on the book by Frank Cottrell Boyce) with my family four or five years ago, I knew that I wanted to read his books for kids. Americans may not know this, but Boyce is a well respected screenwriter in the UK and has written four other kid's books (see below) including the soon to be published Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang Flies Again. Millions is thoughtful, suspenseful and sweet, in a good way. The kids in the movie face some tough situations that they have to think and feel their way out of. After reading his newest book, The Unforgotten Coat, I wonder if this is a hallmark of Frank Cottrell Boyce's style? Although a relatively short book, I did not intend to read The Unforgotten Coat from cover to cover when I picked it up. But, an hour or so later as I sat on the couch with tears running down my face, that is exactly what I had done. I often find myself crying at the end of a really good kid's book and I never know if I should mention that in a review or not. Kids don't cry when they read these books and that's fine. Their senses of empathy aren't quite fully operational in the tween and teen years. But, I have decided to reveal my little secret now because when a book touches me deeply enough to make me shed a tear, that tends to be a good indicator of other gratifying qualities that might make the book a valuable read to others, young or old.

The The Unforgotten Coat is meant to look as much as possible like the blue notebook that the narrator, Julie, finds in the pocket of a long forgotten coat.  The first thing we see after the title page is the cover of the notebook with a hand drawn coat on a hanger. The inside of the notebook reveals a polaroid photo of two girls and two boys in their school uniforms, mugging for the camera. Although it is clear in the first paragraph of the book that the Julie reading this notebook and telling the story is now an adult, she quickly slips into the voice of the eleven year old child she was when the picture was taken. That is the beauty and the genius of Boyce's writing. Although this is a short book, he immerses you in the mind and life of his characters so completely that it seems like you have known them for much longer. In the first four pages Julie goes from trying to get a boy to pay attention to her and finessing repeated invitations to spend the afternoon at the house of a girl with a mother who lets her play with make up (she even says, when defending her ability to recall specific things from so long ago, "How do I remember my thoughts so clearly? Because those were the only thoughts I had in the first two terms of Year Six: 1: Mimi, can I come back to your house? 2: Shocky, please notice me.") to becoming a girl with a serious mission. Julie and Mimi spot two kids, "one big and one little, the big one holding the little one's hand - staring through the railings of the playground. The little one was wearing a furry hat, and they had identical coats. Crazy coats - long with fur inside. But any coat would have looked crazy. The sun was beating down. The asphalt in the car park was melting." The girls have a brief exchange with the bigger of the boys and, when they return to the classroom, they learn that he is a new student in their class.

Chingis, the new boy, has brought his brother to class with him. Upon being introduced to the class Chingis commences a very funny, tense exchange with the teacher. Chingis insists that his brother be called Nergui, instead of his real name, which he will not permit the teacher to be say out loud, and be allowed to stay in this class because Chingis is bound to "take care of him. Protect him." Mrs Spendlove agrees to let Nergui spend the day in their class but insists he remove his huge hat. Chingis insists he leave it on, saying that "maybe he will go insane and kill everyone" if it is removed, then asks the class, "When you want your eagle to be calm, what do you do?" Of course no one knows, and Chingis tells them that you cover its eyes with a hood, saying, "When you want the eagle to fly and kill, you take off the hood. My brother is my eagle. With his hood on, he is calm enough. Without his hood, I don't know what he will be like." Upon hearing this Julie thinks,

Year Six. We had been at school for six years, and until that moment, I thought I had probably learned all I would ever need to learn. I knew how to figure out the volume of a cube. I knew who had painted the Sunflowers. I could tell you  the history of Saint Lucia. I knew about lines of the Tudors and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day. But in all that time, I had never had a lesson in eagle-calming. I had never even heard the subject mentioned. I'd no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills.


And in that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings. I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne.

That is such an amazing piece of writing, a spectacular passage, a profound insight. Of course an eleven year old isn't going to think that exact thought at that age, at that time, but that is the beauty of literature and of all art - it can sometimes function as hindsight, helping us to see something in a new way. Without a doubt, at the moment when Julie heard Chingis describing eagle-calming, a powerful feeling swept through her. As an adult, reflecting on this moment, she has the emotional vocabulary to beautifully describe the experience. For her assistance in clearing out the boys who are swarming Chingis and Nergui at recess and trying to learn more about eagle-calming, Julie finds herself appointed their Good Guide. As Chingis explains, "in Mongolia we are nomads. When we come to a new country, we need to find a Good Guide. You will be our Good Guide in this place. Agree?" Of course she agrees, thinking, "No one had ever asked me to be anything before, definitely not anything involving a title. And that is when I stopped thinking about makeup, lips, and Shocky. That was when I started walking around the place thinking, Hi, I'm the Good Guide. And I really did want to be a Good Guide."

From there on The Unforgotten Coat doesn't go in quite the direction you think it might. While Julie guides the brothers in assimilating into their new school and culture, she also immerses herself in the country and culture they left behind. She suggests their class assembly be "All About Mongolia" and looks "stuff up on Wikipedia for the first time." She also puts her past skills to work trying to get an invite into Chingis and Nergui's home but ends up with the brothers at her house. As they become closer, Chingis shows Julie Polaroids he has taken of things from Mongolia like the giant flowers that grow at the desert oases and ovoos, rock mounds that can help you put things right when they are wrong. Chingis also  tells Julie that Nergui is being chased by a demon who make things vanish. This is why he is always hiding in his coat and hat and why the boys walk home from school a different way every day. Julie continues to think that she is learning about Mongolia and Chingis and Nergui's past life until the day that they do not show up for school. Slipping out of the school gate at lunchtime, Julie finds Chingis' notebook filled with Polaroids he has taken and the details of his life story slowly unravel as the pictures, when seen from a new perspective, tell a different tale.

What had me in tears at the end of the book was thinking about how, as children, we see people, places and events one way, but, as adult, we can look back on the scene and see all that we were too naive and  inexperienced to see then. We see the bigger picture, I suppose. What Julie thinks are unique habits that arise from Chingis and Nergui's nomadic culture are really their childish ways of coping with being in the country illegally and the constant threat of exposure and expulsion. The ending of The Unforgotten Coat involves the adult Julie finding Chingis' abandoned coat in the lost and found bin at their old school and using Facebook to track him and his brother down, bringing the story full circle. The Unforgotten Coat really packs an emotional punch when you read Boyce's afterword. He writes of a school visit he made a few years back during which he met a Mongolian girl named Misheel. Her classmates were very proud of her and her customs and treasured her presence at their school - until the day she and her family were taken in the middle of the night by the Immigration Authorities. Misheel was able to get one call through to her teacher and tell her what was happening but they have not heard form her since. She left behind her coat. When Boyce was asked by the reader organisation, a non-profit in the UK that gets kids and adults reading, to write a book for them, he thoughts turned to Misheel.  However, Boyce says that The Unforgotten Coat is not Misheel's story, "it's a made-up story. I didn't want to tell Misheel's story because I didn't want that story to be over." I'll end with the last sentences of Betsy Bird's review of the The Unforgotten Coat, "Few authors have a way of turning you over on your head in the course of reading a children's title. Boyce can. Can and does. This is, without a doubt, one of the best little books I've ever read. A brilliant melding of text and image, it's a wonderful example of what can happen when an author goes for something entirely new. Highly recommended for any kid wanting to read 'a short book' as well as those looking for something a little sophisticated for the 9 - 12 age set.  A true original." Well said, Betsy Bird, and very, very well written Mr Boyce!


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies AgainCosmicMillionsFramed by Frank Cottrell Boyce: Book Cover

11.25.2011

Around the World, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, 235 pp, RL 3

Around the World

With Around the World Matt Phelan brings us yet another remarkable graphic novel that peers into less known corners of history, American history to be exact. The Storm in the Barn  is the magical, sometimes painful story of a family's survival during the Dust Bowl. With Around the World Phelan peers into the lives of three amazing adventurers, Thomas Stevens, Wheelman (1884), Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter (1889) and Joshua Slocum, Mariner (1895). All three circumnavigated the world in the era before airplaines, and in three different ways. 

The first story belongs to Thomas Stevens, a Colorado miner who decides he is going to ride his bicycle across the United States. He keeps a diary of his journey with the intent of turning it into a book. What fascinated me most about these adventurers, among many interesting things, was the fact that all three of them financed their trips around the world with the sale of their writing. I thought that we Americans, in the last ten years or so, invented the concept of the commissioned autobiographical journey ( see: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and My Life as an Experiment by AJ Jacobs and Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk with the Queen of Talk by Robyn Okrant) but Phelan has proven me wrong. However, this fact of their travel is a small part of Phelan's book, although it must have consumed much of their time when these adventurers were planning their voyages. As Phelan writes in his author's note, the words "the public journey & he private journey" were his original early guidelines for mapping his story, thinking he would "simply dramatize the events of each of my subject's first-person narratives. The journeys were all extraordinary and fascinating on their own. My job would be primarily one of editing and pacing. Or so I thought." What Phelan finds are places where the "biography and narrative did not quite match up," inspiring him to delve into the "why they did it" of the stories instead of the "what they did." This thoughtfulness and insight is evident in the stories that Phelan chooses to share with his readers. 

Stevens' story is first and it is exhilarating and eye-opening to see this man struggle to maneuver this behemoth of a contraption across America, where bicycling is just gaining popularity. His journey is a mostly joyous one, especially in Europe where the bicycle has already caught on. Phelan ends Stevens' chapter with a quote from his book, Around the World on a Bicycle.
Around the World

Nellie Bly's story was the most exciting to me, knowing a bit about her beforehand. As a woman, of course I was interested in her fight to be taken seriously as a journalist and her undercover work as a mental patient in an asylum. What I knew less about was her attempt to travel around the world in a shorter time than Jules Vernes' Phileas Fogg from Around the World in 80 Days. In 1888 Bly proposed to her editor at the New York World newspaper that she travel the world in seventy-four days. Dismissed as an unrealistic task, Bly is called into the editor's office a year later and the idea turns into a reality, with Bly leaving two days later. She has two very specific, special dresses made for her and packed a small satchel and set off. Soon, another paper had sent a woman reporter on the same journey as competition for Bly. Newspapers had never had a better selling period. Bly was even invited to spend the afternoon with Jules Verne and his wife while passing through Paris, something she did grudgingly as the visit cost her precious time. Phelan includes many interesting tidbits from Bly's visits to exotic locales.


Phelan's final chapter covers a more solemn story, that of Joshua Slocum. Slocum, at veteran sailor, starts his first journey around the world alone in April of 1895 at the age of fifty. Slocum's journey is the most solitary of the three, perhaps necessarily by the nature of his chosen form of transportation, but also because of the nature of the man himself. As his story unfolds, we learn that Slocum has lost the love of his life, his wife and mother of his seven children, Virginia Albertina Walker. Slocum suffers from doldrums and memories as he makes his way from port to port, visited only by memories of his beloved, departed wife. After his journey had ended and his book, Sailing Alone Around the World, was published, Slocum led a quite, if not eccentric, life in Martha's Vineyard until, in 1909 at the age of sixty-five, he set sail once again on the Spray, the ship that had taken him around the world. He was never seen again.

I can't say enough about how amazing  Around the World is. I have read it many times and can easily imagine any boy or girl doing the same thing, then, hopefully seeking to learn more about the three characters who took these adventures. This is also the perfect book for any student given the assignment to write a book report on a biography! 


AROUND THE WORLD. Copyright © 2011 by Matt Phelan. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, SomervilleMA.

11.23.2011

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer Turns 50!


Every once in a while, usually while I am at work, I like to reflect upon how the number of books published for kids has increased exponentially in the thirty or so years since I was a young reader. The books I remember reading and being deeply affected by as a child are so few I can list them on one hand: The Westing Game, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. This year, the fiftieth birthday of The Phantom Tollbooth is being celebrated with an annotated edition by children's literature historian Leonard S Marcus. 

Norton Juster (right) wrote the book. His neighbor Jules Feiffer did the illustrations.But first, for those of you who have never read The Phantom Tollbooth, I am going to be lazy and suggest you read Adam Gopnik's article in The New Yorker, October 17, 2011 (thanks to Anne Boyd for calling this article to my attention.) Gopnik provides a great overview of The Phantom Tollbooth and what makes it unique as well as able to stand the test of time, saying that it is "the closest thing American literature has to an 'Alice in Wonderland; of its own." Gopnik goes on to note that, as with any classic of children's literature, "its real subject is education. The distinctive quality of modern civilization, after all, is that children are subjected to year after year of schooling. In the best-loved kids' books, the choice is often between the true education presented in the book. . . and the false education of the world and school. The child being read to (and the adult reading) is persuaded that self-reliance is a better model for learning than slavish obedience." Gopnik points out that what happens to Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth is in fact the reverse. In The Phantom Tollbooth Milo "doesn't educate himself; he gets educated. his epiphany is that math and reading and even spelling are themselves subjects of adventure, if seen from the right angle. The point of The Phantom Tollbooth is not that there's more to life than school; it's that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don't have to experience them as normal schooling." If you haven't read  The Phantom Tollbooth this might sound incredibly dull and you just might be wondering right now why this book is so beloved. While it is not an easy read and not for every reader, kids (and adults) who do read  The Phantom Tollbooth and get it will tell you it is anything but boring. The world that Juster creates is so vivid and ridiculous yet logical that it is impossible to forget. To this day, I can tell you my favorite line in the book: when, in Dictionopolis, Milo  gets into a horseless carriage and is instructed to sit quietly because the conveyance "goes without saying." Still cracks me up!

Annotating classic children's literature and publishing it in a big, gorgeous hardcover edition with all sorts of extra artwork has become popular in the last few years. Huckleberry Finn, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Classic Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales have all received the special treatment from WW Norton, as well as a few other classic titles. I have thumbed through a few of these annotated editions and thought I had a pretty good grasp of what it meant to annotate a book until I read Monica Edinger's brief interview with Leonard S Marcus. First off, it is very rare for a book to be annotated while the author and illustrator are still alive. This meant, as Marcus notes, he could go right to Juster and Feiffer for claims of "direct influence" when citing sources for the annotated edition. And what an amazing array of sources of inspiration Marcus accumulates! From Groucho Marx and WC Fields to PT Barnum, Charlotte's Web, Candide,  and synesthesia to Gustave Dore, George Grosz, James Thurber and Will Eisner, the citations are endless. And, being that The Phantom Tollbooth is, in part, a book about words and word play, Marcus was inspired to find out "the derivation of expression like 'short shrift' and 'to make ends meet.' Almost as a bonus, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster were both living in the neighborhood where I now live - Brooklyn Heights, New York - at the time they collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth. So I got to do some historical time travel to learn quite a lot about what life in the Heights was like half a century ago."

So, if you (or your kids) have a love of words and wordplay, a fascination for numbers or both,  The Phantom Tollbooth is indeed the book for you. It makes a fabulous read out loud but, as with all the great books out there, it is savored best when read on one's own. The thrill of discovery and the dawn of understanding are incomparable.

11.21.2011

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, Chris Van Allsburg with an introduction by Lemony Snicket, 195 pp, RL 4

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Chris Van Allsburg by Chris Van Allsburg: Book CoverFor those of you who already know and love (because, to know this book IS to love it) The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chirs Van Allsburg, first published in 1984 and beloved by teachers of all grades as an indispensable collection of creativity-inducing writing prompts, please skip this first paragraph for my review of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. If you have never heard of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, then you and your little ones are in for a real treat! The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a collection fourteen drawings, captions and short story titles and unlike any other picture book you have ever read. This collection of amuse-bouche will get your brain going, your wheels spinning and your creative juices flowing so that you will feel like you've had a full meal, or at least read a traditional thirty-two page picture book that has a beginning, middle and end as well as a plot. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has none of these and is the better for it. While it is obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with the artwork of Van Allsburg, he nevertheless begins The Mysteries of Harris Burdick with an introduction that only adds to the mysteries within. Van Allsburg tells the reader that he first encountered the drawings of Harris Burdick while visiting Peter Wenders, an old friend who was also retired from the children's book publishing business. Wenders came by the drawings when, some thirty years earlier (we're talking mid-1950s now) a man named Harris Burdick brought samples of his work - fourteen short stories with illustrations - for Mr Wenders to consider for publication. Leaving behind a story title, an illustration and a caption from each of his fourteen stories, Burdick agreed to return with his complete portfolio the next day when Wenders expressed interest in his work. However,  Burdick never returned and Peter Wenders was never able to find out what became of him and his stories. In what I can only think of as a stroke of genius as well as tremendous a gift to the creative lives of generations of children to come, Van Allsburg writes at the end of his introduction,

When I told Peter Wenders how difficult it was to look at the drawings and their captions without imagining a story, he smiled and left the room. He returned with a dust-covered cardboard box. Inside were dozens of stories, all inspired by the Burdick drawings. They'd been written years ago by Wenders' children and their friends. 

I spent the rest of the visit reading these stories. They were remarkable, some bizarre, some funny, some downright scary. In the hope that children will be inspired by them, the Burdick drawings are reproduced here for the first time.

And indeed, the Burdick drawings have inspired hundreds of thousands of children and adults (there is even a website, Who is Harris Burdick? where you can read stories submitted by readers and submit your own, view animated shorts based on the illustrations, listen to songs inspired by the titles of the stories and participate in contests based on the book) to imagine the stories behind the book. In 1993 Stephen King's story inspired by the last illustration in the book, "The House on Maple Street," was included in his book Nightmares & Dreamscapes and can be found as the last story in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales. If you haven't ever seen The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I'm not going to be the one to show you any of the interior art and diminish even an iota of the magic of it. All I have to say, and this goes for parents and adults without children, buy this book. Now. If you have even the tiniest creative bone in your body, you will thank me and Mr Van Allsburg for this gem. Think of the party games you can play with this book and long car rides that can be lightened by making up stories to go with the pictures. The possibilities are endless, well, as endless as your creativity.

Review of
The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 
14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales

Lemony Snicket's introduction put to rest any worries I had about how the publication of stories by various well known authors would affect the way readers new to the book might approach the original story starts in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. The editors of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales could not have picked a better author to keep the air of mystery and the spark of excitement alive with this new version of an old book. With his flair for enigmas, passion for secrecy and ability to see conspiracies in everything, Lemony Snicket perpetuates the mysteries of Harris Burdick, the man, while also weaving an interesting story around the involvement of the fourteen authors in this book. And, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) has a true gift for humor which means that the introduction both posits a possible explanation for the disappearance of Burdick and the appearance of these stories while also placing a tongue pretty firmly in cheek and eliciting a few good laughs. Also, I have to pause here to say that the publisher of this book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, clearly recognizes the importance of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. With The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales they have created a book with gorgeous production values that both honors and enhances the original. A warm sepia tone is used throughout the book, giving it an antique feel and each illustration is printed on extra-thick paper, doing justice (and then some) to the originals. Van Allsburg's original introduction to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is included at the end of the book, right before the wonderful "About the Authors" section, which reproduces smaller versions of the illustrations to go with the brief biographies.

Except for Stephen King, the other authors...

Oh, ok, I'll list them and all their impressive credentials:  Tabitha King, Jon Scieszka, Sherman Alexie, Gregory Maguire, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Linda Sue Park, Walter Dean Myers, Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, MT Anderson, Louis Sachar, Chris Van Allsburg and Stephen King. This list includes (prepare for your jaw to drop now) four Newbery winners, two National Book Award winners, one Michael L Printz award winner, one Academy Award winner (yes!), one former National Children's Laureate, one Caldecott winner (two gold, one silver) and one Caldecott honor winner. Seriously!

...all incorporate the caption somewhere into the story and it is a treat to read along wondering where (and how) it will pop up. My favorite had to be in MT Anderson's story, Just Deserts. The picture of a a woman about to cut into a glowing pumpkin, the caption reading, "She lowered the knife and it grew even brighter" became a grammar lesson for me based on a red herring thrown my way. I know that the word "dessert" is spelled with a double "s" and the other word for a vast, sandy expanse has only one "s," however, that didn't stop me from thinking of dessert and pumpkin pie every time I looked at the picture for "Just Deserts." A customer and I were poring over  The Mysteries of Harris Burdick one day and she insisted the title must be a typo, that Van Allsburg must have meant it to be "desserts." Sure that neither a huge publisher like HMH nor a man like Chris Van Allburg would make a mistake like that, I looked up the phrase on line. There I learned that "deserts" is a plural of "desert," which means "that which one deserves," although the word is rarely used in this way outside of this phrase. To make a long story short (too late...) Anderson works the phrase/word into his story both ways and you just might squeak with delight when you see how. Also, Anderson's story is really darn creepy in a Twilight Zone sort of way, as is Stephen King's.

Most of the story starts in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick have a suspenseful, creepy feel to them and the authors run with this, making this collection of stories good for older kids and not necessarily great bedtime reading for littler ones, unless they like this kind of stuff. The author who best, in my opinion, maintains a true younger reader sensibility with her story is Newbery winner Linda Sue Park. Her story, The Harp, is superb. By the end of the seventeen pages I felt like I had read a whole book. Park's characters, parallel story lines and descriptions are fabulous. Walter Dean Myers' story, Mr Linden's Library, is another of my favorites, although a bit higher on the spooky-scale. There a lot of stories you could tell about a book with vines growing out of it, and in his creation of the character of Mr Linden he takes the story in an enchanting direction. Sherman Alexie's rendition of A Strange Day in July takes the prize for creepy characters and an even creepier interpretation of the caption and still has my mind whirling. While I loved Lois Lowry's story behind a nun floating through a cathedral in a wooden chair immensely, as a bookseller and kid's book lover, and as an adult, Jules Feiffer's story behind Uninvited Guests was the really treat in this bursting literary goodie bag for me. Feiffer's creation of Henry, the aging picture book author and artist who, over time, has begun to live entirely in a world populated by his creations, all of whom are talking and singing animals, is both hilarious and haunting.

The more I read  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, the more I love it. I have no doubt that, over time, I will come to cherish  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales as much as I do the source of inspiration, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

The trailer for The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales stars Lemony Snicket (well, his voice and his hands) as well as really great cameos by some of the authors included in the book. Definitely worth a watch. For other great reviews of  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, check out children's book historian Leonard S Marcus' thoughts in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and Travis over at 100 Scope Notes have some great things to say.



11.18.2011

NINA in That Makes Me Mad! by Hilary Knight, based in a text by Steve Kroll, 31pp, RL 1.5

Nina in That Makes Me Mad

I was so excited when I saw that Nina in That Makes Me Mad, the newest book from TOON BOOKS, is by Hilary Knight's. One of the books that left a lasting impression on me as a small child was Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight's Eloise. When I was a kid, long before Kay Thompson died and the rights to her books reverted to her heirs, that one book about that endearing deviant was the ONLY Eloise book out there. I pored over that book, insisted my parents make a special trip to The Plaza during a family vacation when I was eleven, and made a 3D book report that featured Eloise's very messy bedroom when I was in fifth grade. A couple of years after Thompson died in 1998 the suppressed Eloise books (Eloise in Paris, Eloise in Moscow and the slap-dash Eloise Takes a Bawth) began to hit the shelves, as did movies and lesser-type picture books along with a handful of dolls created by Madame Alexander. My love of Eloise naturally lead to an interest in all things Hilary Knight. At the age of eighty-five, I am thrilled that his is still creating picture books in his wonderfully elegant, crisp style.

Nina in That Makes Me Mad is based on a 1976 picture book by Steven Kroll, who died in March of this year, and is dedicated to him. Knight does a wonderful job capturing the spirit of Kroll's Nina and giving her a new format to express herself in - a comic book! While she may share some gestures and mannerisms with Eloise, Nina is definitely a more realistic representation of a three or four year old child than Eloise is of a six year old. The book consists of Nina telling us twelve things that make her mad and one thing that makes her feel better ("When I can tell you that I'm mad!") One page is dedicated to that which makes Nina mad, while the following page illustrates it.

Each of the things that makes Nina mad is so spot on. As the parent of two children with fiery temperaments (which they have since grown out of, thankfully) I feel very qualified to say this.  What makes Nina mad?  I will share a few items on the list here, but Knight's illustrations really perfect the sentiment. Things that make Nina mad: when I try and it doesn't work, when you don't let me help, when you let me pick and I pick the wrong thing, when you don't know what I like (hallelujah!)

One of the things that I love about every TOON BOOK I have read thus far (and, in fact, this is true for all genuinely great beginning to read books) is that, while these books are meant for emerging readers to tackle on their own, they are fabulous read-out-louds. When I first read Nina in That Makes Me Mad my initial thought was, "This would be such a great book to read with a toddler!" They are at that age when they are feeling their feelings and just beginning to be able to recognize and understand them in the smallest ways. I am sure that Nina in That Makes Me Mad will help little ones articulate these fierce feelings as well as nudge new readers a little further down the road to fluency.

All images copyright (c) 2011 RAW Junior,LLC/TOON Books®All rights reserved.

11.17.2011

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!, written and illustrated by Grace Lin, 43 pp, RL 1.5

Grace Lin, the multitalented artist and author of books like the beautiful Newbery Honor winning Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the excellent The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, both about Pacy Lin, a creative girl whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, and how she balances her family's traditions with her life at school. Lin is also the illustrator for, and often the author and illustrator for, seventeen picture books, including a few of my favorites below.


The Ugly Vegetables

Now, Grace Lin has written a beginning reader book that has already won the estimable Theodore Seuss Geisel Award honor this year, Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! I love Lin's illustrations, which are so colorful and playful that it is a snap for her to bring her characters to life. The book has six chapters that follow the twins through their daily tasks while also, subtly, showing how they are not the same. The final story in the book, Mixed Up, has a wonderful circularity to it that finds Ling and Ting having a picnic and Ling asking Ting to tell her a story. Ting proceeds to tell her a story that incorporates the events of the previous five stories, mixing them up just enough and adding a little something new so that the twins and the reader will end the book quite delighted.



My favorite story in the book is the first one, The Haircuts, in which we learn one of the obvious ways in which Ling and Ting are not exactly the same.
In chapters like The Magic Trick, Making Dumplings, Chopsticks and The Library Book we also see the other ways that the twins take a different approach to life. When Ling has a hard time using chopsticks to eat the dumplings she and Ting have made, Ting has all sorts of suggestions. Glue the food to the chopsticks! Tie the food to the chopsticks with string! Ting even offers to feed Ling with her chopsticks. When she refuses the offer, Ting says, "Then how will you eat?" Ling answers, "I will eat with a fork." The simplicity and the charming nature of the answer are exemplary of the tone throughout the book. 
While Lin is capable of creating complex situations and emotional hurdles for her characters to overcome in her novels, she is also perfectly suited to writing the best kind of beginning reader book there is  - the kind where two friends, be they frogs, toads, mice, moles, hippos, ducks or girls, get along in their daily lives, usually helping each other and enjoying each other's company, but sometimes shaking things up with their differences. But always working it out in the end. While Ling and Ting are not so much the cut-up and straight man the way Dodsworth and duck are, nor are they the worrier and the soother the way Frog and Toad can be, they are two realistic children with realistic interests and concerns who bring a little something extra to their stories by being twins and presumably similar in all ways. It is fun to see how Ling and Ting navigate the same situations as well as different ones and I hope that Lin will grace us with more of their adventures in the future! As always, the shelves need more solidly readable, thoroughly entertaining, thoughtfully written and illustrated beginning to read books.


Book 2: Ling and Ting Share a Birthday 
came out in 2013!




Ling & Ting paper dolls!!



11.15.2011

A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Youg by Halfdan Rasmussen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

I think a lot of things and I am not always right about what I think. I tend to presume that people are not reading poetry, rhymes to little kids anymore beyond a handful of Mother Goose ditties. I could be wrong. I hope I am. If I am right about you, dear reader, and you need a place to start that is not Mother Goose, then please look no further. A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young by Halfdan Rasmussen, translated by Marilyn Nelson and Pamela Espeland is here, and with perfect illustrations by the always wonderful Kevin Hawkes.
The poems within, which are perfect for little ones but also very tempting for emerging readers with their  brevity of length, simplicity of vocabulary and silly nature - I know because I tricked my emerging reader son who does not like to read into reading a few poems from A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young. Later on, I noticed him reading it to himself. The titular poem, "A Little Bitty Man," is two stanzas long and begins like this:

A little bitty man
took a ride on a snail
down a little bitty road that was shady.
The little bitty man
came to Littlebittyland,
where he married a little bitty lady.

Rasmussen (and his translators) capture the Mother Goose vibe and the sing-song-y tone of her rhymes. You almost want to get out a jump rope or skip around the house while reading these poems. Rasmussen also tunes in to that other kid's poetry great, after Mother Goose, with the poem below, "You Can Pat My Pet." Shel Silverstein would have liked this one, I think.
A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young
My favorite, though, is the poem (and illustration) "The Elf," which involves some very clever dressing as he prepares for a wintry day...



Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen: Book Cover



For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, Kevin Hawkes also illustrated the superb picture book by Michelle Knudsen. Hawkes also illustrated one of my all-time, top five picture books, Weslandia, by Paul Felischman. Both these books are in PAPERBACK and you should run out and buy them RIGHT AWAY!!!
Weslandia



For another charming little book of poetry to pass on to (or read to!) young ones, don't miss Amy Krouse Rosenthal's The Wonder Book, with brilliant illustrations by Paul Schmid.






A LITTLE BITTY MAN AND OTHER POEMS FOR THE VERY YOUNG. Text copyright © 2011 by Halfdan Rasmussen. Translations copyright © 2011 by Marilyn Nelson and Pamela Espeland. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Kevin Hawkes.Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, SomervilleMA.

11.14.2011

Dodsworth in Rome written and illustrated by Tim Egan


Whilst visiting various kid's books websites (Educating Alice and Julie Danielson's column for Kirkus Reviews) in August of this year I discovered an early reader series that I had never heard of! Shocked and thrilled, I immediately ordered all four of the books in Tim Egan's Dodsworth series, including the most recent release in hard civer, Dodsworth in Rome. Up to 75% of the books I review here on my blog are not normally stocked in the Barnes & Noble where I work. Those of you who still shop in bookstores may have noticed that, while there seem to be thousands of early readers, chapter books and middle grade novels on the shelves, they are mostly made of of current releases or new and old classics. And of the new books, most are cleared out after three months on the shelf to make room for more new titles. Early reader series that are favorites of mine, like Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant (a multiple Newbery winner) and Mark Teague, Mouse and Mole by Wong Herbert Yee and Dav Pilkey's Dragon series and even James Marshall's fabulous George and Martha books ARE NOT currently in stock at the store where I work. To me, this is terribly sad. So, when, on the very day that all four of the Dodsworth books I had ordered to read, review and share with my son (who is approaching the point where he should be able to read these on his own) a customer I had helped in the past came into the store looking for my advice on picking a new book to read out loud with her third grade class this year. Last year I gave her Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin and this year she wanted the sequel to Emmy, Emmy and the Home for Troubled Girls. I also suggested she pick up Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes since she wanted a book with a boy protagonist. The she asked me to suggest something for her six year old who could handle Frog and Toad but wasn't quite ready for chapter books. I showed her Grace Lin's Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same, and then, because my bookseller instincts trump maternal instincts, I pulled out the Dodsworth books I had ordered for myself and my son, thinking she probably would go with the book with the twin girls. Wrong. One brief description and look at the great illustrations and she was sold. And I was happy. Especially since she only took Dodsworth in New York, leaving me three others to pore over while I waited for another copy of the book to arrive at the store. This scenario played out two more times before I was able to order in and buy the complete quartet of books!

Based on the titles I have compared Dodsworth to and the story I told about selling the book out from under myself, I shouldn't have to tell you anything else to get you to buy these books for your emerging readers to enjoy or buy as read-out-louds that your kids will eventually enjoy reading. But, I am going to tell you about them anyway!

The first book in the series, Dodsworth in New York, begins like this:

Dodsworth wanted adventure.
He wanted to fly in a plane.
He wanted to sail in a ship.
He wanted to see the world.
But first, he wanted breakfast.

Simplicity in story telling can be elegant. It can also be dreadfully dull. Egan definitely knows how to tell a story in a manner that is both simple, straightforward and entertaining, which can also describe the way most kids who are old enough to read this book on their own communicate verbally. This skill with simplicity is the first quality that makes for the perfect beginning to read title.
Next, you need a wild card and a straight man. Dodsworth is definitely the straight man, although in the style of Arnold Lobel's Frog or James Marshall's George. Dodsworth is not quite as neurotic as Mo Willems' Elephant or as fearful as Herbert Wong Yee's Mole. Instead, he is practical but flappable, resourceful and loving. 

Interestingly enough, Dodsworth gets to see the world by having breakfast. He heads over to Hodges Café for some of his famous pancakes. When he gets there the place is empty except for Hodges' duck, who, as Dodsworth notes, "is crazy." The duck proves this by proceeding to throw pancakes at Dodsworth until Hodges emerges and serves Dodsworth a proper breakfast. Dodsworth tells Hodges that he is about to embark on an adventure to who knows where. The duck listens but says nothing. Silence, along with a dislike for hugging, are two of the duck's most endearing qualities. Dodsworth eats his pancakes then buys a train ticket to NewYork. From there he will board a ship and go anywhere. On the train, Dodsworth discovers that the duck as stowed away in his luggage and refuses to go home. Dodsworth doesn't want Hodges to worry about his duck and does his best to right the situation and ends up chasing the duck all over the city, seeing the sights at the same time. Just when he thinks he has captured the duck, Dodsworth calls Hodges to ease his worry only to see the duck jump aboard a boat steaming toward Paris. This lovely dynamic plays out in all of the books. Duck wanders into a situation and Dodsworth gets him out, all the while seeing the sights and entering a pizza-throwing contest ("Ya know, you might be great at that. You're good at throwing food," Dodsworth says to duck) in Rome and selling a painting that has been rained on and danced on by duck after sleeping on a park bench in Paris. I can't express enough how much I love these books! I know that Dodsworth and duck will be etched in my son's memory bank the way Frog and Toad are permanent fixtures and frequent points of reference in mine.



Dodsworth and Hodges have both been seen before in books by Tim Egan - The Pink Refrigerator and Friday Night at Hodges' Cafe. You can also get a little taste of Dodsworth by watching this great clip, below. For a great interview with Tim Egan from summer 2011, visit 7 Impossible Things.


11.13.2011

New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011


It's here! And it's big! And packed full of great reviews!!! The New York Times Book Review annual holiday feature on Children's Books is really worth perusing this year. Besides featuring many books I have reviewed or am in the process or reading for review right now, there is the Best Illustrated Books of 2011 feature which, though I already mentioned it last week, is worth following the link since the slideshow provided is much better than the glimpse of artwork I gave you. Also, I am really excited about the wealth of interesting picture books, quite a few I have not heard of, that are reviewed. Topics like Picture Books About Moving, Picture Books About Unusual Animals, Variations on Aesop's Fables and Picture Books About the Alphabet all feature new works from some spectacular artists and illustrators. There is even a feature on Books About Grandparents, which includes the new book from Caldecott Honor winner David Ezra Stein (Interrupting Chicken, Love Mouserella.

Also, some great reviews of books that I am reading or about to read. Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck and The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy are discussed in an article titled Mice Twice. A book I've been hearing buzz about amongst bloggers, Bigger Than a Bread Box by Laurel Snyder. And (drumroll, please) children's book historian Leonard S Marcus (who also just annotated the 50th Anniversary Edition of Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer's masterpiece, The Phantom Tollbooth) reviews the very exciting, long awaited book that I am one story away from finishing, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, the all-star collection of authors adding their interpretations to my favorite Chris Van Allsburg book from 1984, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. If you have never heard of or seen this remarkable book, then I suggest you run out and buy it RIGHT NOW. Or, maybe you could just read Choose Your Own Adventure, Marcus's review of the book. Or, better yet, visit Who Is Harris Burdick, the website dedicated to the book and readers' stories to go with the pictures. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is beautifully unique and endlessly inspiring of creative thinking. Because of this, it has been a classroom staple for years. Apparently, however, this book isn't as widely known as I had assumed. Several my literate and occasionally literary co-workers had NEVER HEARD OF IT! And, while I did have a customer (a teacher) express excitement over The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, I'm not sure how well the book is selling in my store, despite the fact that it is (and will be through Christmas) on a 20% off sale table at Barnes & Noble....

The New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011


Migrant by Maxine Trottier, pictures by Isabelle Arsenault





Grandpa Green by Lane Smith






A New Year's Reunion by Yu Li Qiong and Zhu Cheng Liang





Along a Long Road by Frank Viva






I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen






Brother Sun, Sister Moon: 
Saint Francis of Assisis Canticle of Creatures
reimagined by Katherin Paterson, illustrated by Pamela Dalton






A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka









ICE by Arthur Geisert






A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis 
by Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Kadir Nelson







Me . . . Jane by Patrick McDonnell