The Wizard of Dark Street: An Oona Crate Mystery, written by Shawn Thomas Odyssey, 346 pp, RL 4

With The Wizard of Dark Street, Shawn Thomas Odyssey sets himself a mighty task. Not only is this book, which is set in 1877, a fantasy novel with witches, fairies and arcane laws and practices, but is it also a mystery with a determined girl sleuth at its center. Every fantasy has a mystery threaded somewhere through the plot, but none that I know of (which certainly doesn't mean there aren't any) have a main character who is determined to be a detective. The setting of the magical world of Dark Street, a thoroughfare that exists between the Iron Gates that lead to New York City and the Glass Gates that lead to the realm of Faerie, is ripe for both magic and intrigue. This street, and the book, are packed to the gills with magical details, historical incidents of importance and a huge cast of characters. Main character Oona Crate is, like Dark Street itself, stuck between two worlds. Oona is next in line to become the Wizard of Dark Street, who has the task of handling the unruly magical objects that turn up from time to time and protect the World of Man from what lies behind the Glass Gates, should they ever open again. But she yearns instead for logic and facts and scientific studies, especially when it comes to unravelling a mystery.

The duality of Oona's existence is made clear early in the novel. Her Uncle Alexander is the current Wizard of Dark Street and ready to take on an apprentice, preferably Oona, who is about to turn thirteen. Her father was the Inspector of Dark Street who was killed by the resident evil, Red Martin. Martin is a man who just may have been alive for five hundred years, which is also when the Glass Gates closed forever and the magic and lore of the Faeries was lost to the people of Dark Street, except, of course, those who might be Natural Magicians - humans with a drop of faerie blood in them. Oona has declared her love for facts and science, despite the fact that she has been schooled (by Deacon, her enchanted, talking raven who has the entire Encyclopedia Arcana, The Complete oxford English Dictionary and The Dark Street Who's Who: 36 B.C. to Present committed to memory) to take over for her Uncle for the last two years because of a tragic accident that occurred years earlier. Excited by the magic she is learning, Oona performed a spell to show her mother and infant sister her talents which sadly resulted in their being crushed beneath a flaming fig tree. Following this, Oona vows never to use magic again but instead take up where her father left off. Although she has helped to catch a jewel thief, she is not taken seriously by Inspector White, a man who makes Inspector Clouseau look like Hercule Poirot. But, her Uncle is a kind and generous man and allows her to forfeit her right to become his apprentice and sets out to find a new one. However, on the very night when he is about to choose an apprentice, he is stabbed with a magical dagger and vanishes into thin air.

Odyssey does a wonderful job with his magical Victorian setting and never misses an opportunity to describe the magical history or capabilities of any person, place or thing on Dark Street and beyond. Pendulum House, the rightful domicile of the presiding Wizard, is especially interesting with an actual seven-foot pendulum swinging through the middle of the grand parlor in the mansion, keeping Dark Street connected to both worlds. Witch Hill, with its hidden entrance, is inhabited by a secretive coven of women who only send child witches into Dark Street to do their bidding. Samuligan, the Wizard's butler/servant/right-hand-man is the only fay living on Dark Street and is over five hundred years old, having been captured during the great war between wizards and faeries by one of the twin daggers (Fay Mors Mortis and Fay Expungo) that also captured (or killed?) the Wizard. Loyal, yet imposing, Samuligan chooses to wear the garb of a cowboy from a Spaghetti Western. Then there is Adler Iree, twin brother of the obnoxious snob Isadora. Adler is in training to be a magical lawyer and, with every magical law that he masters a new set of tattoos appears on his face. A young student, his markings are few when compared to Mr Ravensmith, legal counsel to the Wizard. There is also the completely blind, iris-deprived buffoon of an actor, Hector Grimsbee who, despite his advanced age and all other apparent lack of reason or desire to do so, has applied for the position of apprentice to the Wizard along with Isadora and Adler, Sanora, a timid young witch, and Lamont John-Michael Arlington Fitch III, a young boy from New York who unknowingly answered an ad the Wizard placed in the New York Times in search of an apprentice.

With such an overwhelming cast of characters and a rich geography to describe, Deacon and Samuligan are given over to explanatory speeches almost every other page in The Wizard of Dark Street in order to move along the mystery aspects of the plot. This is too bad. I felt that I could have happily read a story that unfolded at a slower pace and was centered solely around Oona and her divided interests and emotions with the delightful aspects of her world being shown rather than told. A character who is naturally talented in something that is part of her heritage but also curious to try her hand at her father's profession, whether this is due to a tragic accident involving her gifts or not, is fascinating. The fact that she finds a way to resolve these two seemingly opposite desires through the disappearance of her Uncle and potential loss of Pendulum House to the wicked Red Martin is interesting and well deployed over the course of the book, but sometimes at the expense of following what might have been a more interesting path. To make the mystery work, Odyssey places many red herrings, especially in his characters - why was Lamont even part of the story? Perhaps Odyssey is setting him up for a role in the next book - while also obviously calling attention to seemingly random objects and occurrences that become important later in the story as Oona ploddingly puts the puzzle pieces of the mystery together. It is ridiculously hard to write a solid mystery for kids because, no matter how inept the adults in it are. It just never seems quite plausible that a child could actually solve a crime, stop a murderer or a thief and save the day. But, that is the adult in me talking. I loved Scooby-Doo when I was a kid and now, when I watch it with my own children, I can barely sit through a twenty-two minute episode, it is so stilted and obvious. I do not mean to compare Odyssey's book to a cartoon, however. As I said above, The Wizard of Dark Street is rich with character and setting and the idea of a "novel of magic and detection," as Odyssey himself describes it, is a brilliant one. Perhaps that is why it is hard not to point out the things I wish were different here. If I flat out didn't like the book, you wouldn't be seeing a review of it here. I did like this book - the adult reader in me just wanted to like it more. I have no doubt that young readers of fantasy will gobble it up, however. Odyssey sets a magnificent stage in The Wizard of Dark Street. Now, if he can get his actors and sets to move in a more flowing, less expositional way, I know that he will fulfill the promise of his first book with a very rewarding sequel, which I am sure he is already working on!

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy Nancy Springer's fantastic series about Sherlock Holmes' much younger sister, Enola Holmes. What these books lack in the way of fantasy, they more than make up for in the world of mystery.

For readers who want more fantasy with their mystery, Michael Buckley's soon-to-be completed series The Sisters Grimm will not disappoint!


Roar by Emma Clayton, 496 pp, Reading Level 5

THE WHISPER (BOOK II) is due out FEBRUARY 2, 2012!!

The Roar by British author Emma Clayton is so many amazing things at once and has stirred up such visceral feelings in me that I hope I can do it justice here. For a very concise review by that hits all the right spots, check out Pink Me, which is a book review site written by a children's librarian with great taste and insight when it comes to YA books. For my longer, slightly more rambling and emotional review, read on!

I think one of the reasons I am a good bookseller is because it's all about similarities and connections when I am helping a customer find a book. As a reviewer, I am occasionally reluctant to compare or link books. I sometimes view books in the same way I think of my three (very different) children - miraculously unique individuals who just happen to share DNA and thus are similar (and, I realize, therefore not exactly unique...) The Roar is an inimitable, miraculous book that deserves every minute of attention it receives, but it does share some noble DNA that bears mentioning. When it comes to dystopian children's literature, the Newbery Award winning book The Giver by Lois Lowry, first in a trilogy, is both jarring and uplifting, ending with a somewhat ambiguous future for the main character. The Roar shares similar plot threads and the dystopian societies created by Lowry and Clayton are equally disturbing, but in very different ways. The Roar also shares similarities with Philip Pullman's superb trilogy, His Dark Materials, that begins with The Golden Compass. Clayton's Ellie and Mika are definitely cut from the same cloth as Pullman's main characters (and equally manipulated and abused by power hungry adults), Lyra and Will, two of the strongest, most endearing and fully realized child characters I have read in a children's book. For those of you who have never read either of these trilogies, you will run to them when you finish The Roar. For those of you who have read them, you will marvel that this incredible book is by a fist time author.

The difference between me and a professional book reviewer is that I still read for fun and for the joy of sharing a good book with another reader. I am always looking for the thrill that comes when a book hooks you and you can't put if down, then the connection that is made when you can discuss it with another reader. I also crave the thrill that comes when you fall in love a little with the characters in a book, whether it is maternal, paternal, romantic or platonic. I love the connections all around. But, reading for the thrill also means that, when hooked, I read mostly for plot and sometimes miss the poetry of the writing, the beauty of the words, phrases and images. However, when a book is extremely well written, the poetry of the text can grab you and compel you slow down and drink in the imagery. Emma Clayton's writing does just this. There were so many moments in The Roar, which I read and listened to (the audio is narrated by Jane Collingwood and is SUPERB! She is heir to the throne of Jim Dale, without a doubt) that caused me to slow down and really listen, the images lingering long after. One character "held her breath and her heart began to beat in sore punches." Another could "smell danger as if it were rotting around the back of the hut." And, a passage that had me re-reading it comes almost at the end of the book.

He paced and watched the sea and for a while he felt like a firecracker with its fuse lit,a bit dangerous - as if when she walked through the door he would erupt and fly around the room breaking the lights, setting fire to things, and taking lumps out of the ceiling. Then he felt all soft and gooey, as if when she walked in he would melt and she would find nothing more than a puddle of love in the middle of the floor. Then he felt both of these things, that he was a firecracker about to explode, but instead of sparks, he was full of love and going to be a bit messy. (pp 471)

As you race through this chilling, suspenseful story, Clayton's ability to describe emotions will make you stop to catch your breath. So, let's get to the plot already!

The Roar begins with a quote from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, which all adults and even some young readers should be familiar with, if only partially. "All that glitters is not gold;/ Often you have heard that told./ Many a man his life hath sold/ But my outside to behold./ Gilded tombs do worms enfold." This quote is so perfectly suited to the plot of The Roar but you won't realize why until almost the end of the book. In fact, I found the plot The Roar impossible to predict or second guess from beginning to end. Chapter One is titled, "The Girl Who Knew the Secret," and starts with a wild ride in a highjacked Pod Fighter that is being piloted by Ellie and her companion, Puck, a capuchin monkey. However, the secret that Ellie knows is not revealed until almost the end of The Roar. The reader learns and discovers along with the main character, who turns out not to be Ellie, the girl who knew the secret, but her twin brother, Mika. Ellie has been gone for over a year and is presumed dead. Mika refuses to believe that Ellie is not alive, much to the distress of their parents. Mika wouldn't "let them wash her bedding because it smelled of her. She hung in the air like a ghost between them and they felt as if when Ellie died so had a part of Mika, and so they grieved for both of them." When the twins' mother, Asha, looks into Mika's face and feels the "heat of his anger and pain, she felt herself wither like a tree receiving the first kiss of a forest fire." This grief is such a palpable part of the life of this family that it is almost a relief when things change for Mika. Whether good or bad, that remains to be seen. The fact that Mika and Ellie are twins makes their intense connection believable. As the plot of The Roar unfolds, a deepening connection, and the reasons for it, are also explained.

The world that Mika lives in is one that we would not recognize. A plague has swept across continents and changes the face of the earth. The Animal Plague, which swept the earth forty-three years before The Roar begins, was caused by a viral ridden escapee from a laboratory and resulted in "insane animals on a murderous rampage." For the safety of humankind, all the animals were killed and all their habitats obliterated. The surviving humans moved to safety behind The Wall, the largest man-made structure on the planet. It was "fifty feet above sea level and lopped all around the top of the world, enclosing Northern Europe, Northern Russia and Canada." The devastation of nature lead to incessant flooding and life behind The Wall is one endless stream of cold, damp, moldy, grayness. At leas that's the way it is for the lower classes. The wealthy have managed to build themselves a new city on top of the old. Immense pillars erected in the slums hold up the platform upon which new, gleaming buildings are built, relegating those below to permanent darkness. The poor live in "fold-down" apartments that are fabricated entirely of plastic and fifty feet square. They have to ""fold the bed away to use the kitchen, then fold a bit of the kitchen away to use the shower." The only green they saw from their windows was the "mold on their neighbors' curtains." Clayton's descriptions are so vivid and rich with detail that it is easy to picture this dreary world.

In order to keep the population under control in this new post-Plague world, a ban on childbearing has been imposed, raised only 30 years after the devastation. At the age of twelve, Mika is one of the first generation of children, 270,000 in all, to be born behind The Wall. The rest of the population is at least forty-three years old, but many, many are much older, having survived past the age of one hundred due to the Everlife pills that keep them alive. The action in The Roar begins when Fit Mix is introduced to Mika's class and he refuses to partake of it. Suspicious of everyone since his sister disappeared and the police tried to cover it up, Mika is sure that there is something evil about the Fit Mix, a nutritional drink created by the Youth Development Foundation, a new arm of the Northern Government. The lower classes have been relegated to eating the inexspensive "Fab" food, which made from mold that is grown in factories and then reconfigured into anything from a "milkshake" to a "pizza." The new arcade game and the fitness program implemented by the YDF also make Mika suspicious, but a session with his counselor, the elderly, hippie-ish Helen Green, leads Mika to believe that he does have a reason to be suspicious. Helen, his dreams and the new invisible canine companion, Awen, who appears at his side, much like the dæmons in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, convince him that, if he plays along with the YDF he just might see Ellie again.

How/if Mika does this, the hoops, sometimes horrific, that he has to jump through, and the friends he makes along the way are too compelling and exciting to reveal here. The pleasure of surprise belongs to you, the reader. As I said at the start of this review, I had no idea how this story would unfold, what the YDF was really up to and what the secret that Ellie knew, the secret that is dangled before the reader in the first chapter of the book, really was, until the lat thirty or so pages of the book. What Clayton does with the story in the last thirty pages may seem rushed to some, ambiguous to others, but, ultimately, no matter how you read it, it is redeeming and hopeful.

I was utterly refreshed by the lack of advertisements for the sequel to The Roar at the back of the book. As I read, I flipped to the end papers more than once fully expecting a "coming in 2010" to be printed there - especially since this book came out in the UK in 2008. It is so rare that an author has the courage to write a stand alone book anymore that the seeming lack of a sequel made me love The Roar all the more. However, I did a little bit of poking here and there and learned that Emma Clayton is indeed working on a sequel to be titled, The Whisper. She notes that The Roar took her four years to write, so the sequel will be a while coming. At first I felt a bit let down when I read this. Then I reminded myself that The Giver, which seemed so perfect on it's own, is part of a trilogy. Gathering Blue, published seven years after The Giver, is every bit as good as its predecessor. In fact, Gathering Blue itself could be a stand alone title if you had no idea what the link between the two books was. And, really, I love all of Clayton's characters so much that there is no way I could not want to visit their world again, whatever state of devastation it may be in.


The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman, 325 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman caught my eye the minute it hit the shelves in 2010. I am drawn to any story that proposes to reshape a fairy tale, especially one connected to the Brothers Grimm. The spectacular cover art by Zdenko Basic, creator of the cover art for one of my favorites, The Seven Sorcerers by Caro King, drew me in as well. On top of that, Shulman's idea of a circulating materials library that houses actual magical artifacts from the stories the Grimms recorded was just too good to pass up. 

I had a hard time pinning down the ages of the main characters in The Grimm Legacy. At first I assumed that they were all middle school students, but as I read on and romantic feelings deepened between them, I decided that they must be in high school. Although it's not the main part of the story, by the end of the book there is some serious longing going on as well as a bit of actual kissing. I don't mean to be a prude, but based on this I really don't think that this book should be shelved in the 7 - 12 age range at the bookstore where I work, which is where I found it. I just don't think children (who am I kidding, girls) should be reading about that kind of thing before they are actual teenagers which I why I assigned this the reading level that I did. That said, Shulman does a lovely job with the romantic tension between main character Elizabeth and her sparring partner, Aaron. 

Elizabeth Rew is a bit of a Cinderella. Her mother has died and her father has remarried a shrewish woman who alternately ignores, blames and treats Elizabeth like a maid. Elizabeth has two older step-sisters in college and their tuition fees have meant that Elizabeth has to leave the private school she has attended for years and quit the ballet lessons she loves. Elizabeth takes solace in the memories she has of reading fairy tales with her mother and admiring her collection of dolls. When Elizabeth chooses the topic of the Brothers Grimm for her winter break history assignment, this along with the generous act of giving her gym shoes and socks to a homeless woman who was without shoes and trudging through the snow, makes her a perfect candidate for a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository. Her history teacher, Mr Mauskopf, takes notice of these qualities and sends her over to meet with his old friend and head of the library, Dr Rust. Once there, Elizabeth is immediately thrust into a mystery that proves increasingly dangerous. She's not sure who she can trust and misses almost every opportunity to ask an adult for help. Anjali, the eye catching East Asian page, and Marc Merritt, the tall, regally handsome basketball star from Elizabeth's school befriend her and show her the ropes at the library. They also catch her up in their illegal use of items from the Grimm Collection. Add to that mix Aaron, the page with Prince Charming good looks but a streak of jealousy and suspicion when it comes to Marc Merritt that is a mile wide. Elizabeth is almost as in awe of her new friendships with Anjali and Marc as she is the magical items that she soon has access to in the Grimm collection and happily tags along behind them as they decide to hunt down the thief who has been stealing magical items and replacing them with duplicates that quickly lose their powers. 

Shulman does a masterful job conjuring up the Circulating Materials Repository, both the real and magical aspects of it. Besides the Grimm Collection there is the Wells Bequest (as in HG Wells, a collection of science-fiction creations that actually do what their authors imagined them to, including a shrink ray) and the Gibson Chrestomathy (after William Gibson, I am guessing, author who coined the phrase "cyberspace"). The trips through the stacks and the methods for organizing the objects are fascinating as well and Shulman has Elizabeth (and all the pages) pass an aptitude test that includes sorting various objects, most of which are some very strange buttons, into categories. I loved the scene where Marc, Anjali and Elizabeth compare notes about the various items included in their different sorting exams and what  kind of extra object Dr Rust threw in at the end for each. The repository itself is also a fascinating place, obviously enchanted as it appears smaller on the outside that it is on the inside. There is a Main Exam Room where clients can check out and examine items from the various collections and there is a room that is lined with Tiffany windows that depict a garden throughout the seasons, not to be confused with the Garden of Seasons, an actual room hidden somewhere in the repository and plays a part in the climax of the book. There are pipes for pneumatics running all through the building so that pages can communicate with each other from the various stacks as well as hand carts and tags and other library type paraphernalia that sounded so exotic and fascinating to me as I read. However, my favorite creation of Shulman's for  The Grimm Legacy is the way that different pages can sense the magic (or lack thereof) in an item, Elizabeth's ability specifically. Elizabeth can smell the magic in an object and Shulman uses some wonderfully olfactory, almost poetic, descriptions of combinations of smells when Elizabeth is sensing the presence of magic in an item. 

Readers who enjoyed Michael Buckley's fabulous (and almost finished) Sisters Grimm series, Robin McKinley's superb retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty, Gail Carson Levine's retelling of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted, and The Frog Princess by ED Baker, will gobble up The Grimm Legacy. However, as an adult who has read piles of middle-grade and young adult fantasy novels, especially those featuring anything having to do with fairy tales, I was a bit disappointed by what Shulman ultimately does with the wonderful stage she sets. Her main characters were a bit two-dimensional and her peripheral characters even more so. I could have happily overlooked that in service of the plot - if the action of the plot had risen to the level of the romantic fervor and matched Shulman's skill at writing these scenes. The villain of the story, who's motivations and personality could be very interesting, has barely any time on the page which makes all that's at stake seem less valuable and irreplaceable. In fact, the response of Dr Rust at the end of the story when they begin to figure out what has been stolen and sold is pretty low key and something along the lines of, "Oh, we have some pretty powerful lawyers. We'll get these things back eventually..." Also, Mrs Badwin, the stand-in for the witch from Hansel & Gretel with a collection of dolls who are actual royals from history who have been enchanted (she tells the kids a great story about spending $3,000 on a matryoshka doll that supposedly held the miniaturized Anastasia Romanov at its center but turned out to be a fake) could have had a bit more page time to up the suspense and danger in the story as well. She seemed like an interesting person and her hobby also might have had some connection to Elizabeth's mother and her pastime as well, but Shulman does not elaborate on that. The action scenes were not especially dramatic either, perhaps because the villains were so milquetoast.

For younger readers who like their Brothers Grimm served straight up, I strongly suggest Adam Gidwitz's spectacular A Tale Dark and Grimm, which takes two invented characters through the actual fairy tales, some of them lesser known, the Brothers Grimm recorded. For readers who know their fantasy and fairy tales, Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a feast. Finally, for older readers who enjoyed the romantic aspects of  The Grimm Legacy but like a story with more action, more suspense and bad guys who are truly bad, Cornelia Funke's Reckless is the first in a series of books about Jacob and Will Grimm and the land that they enter through their father's magic mirror. Truly creepy stuff with some Grimm-type romance thrown in...


The Flint Heart: A Fairy Story - Freely Abridged from Eden Phillpotts's 1910 Fantasy by Katherine and John Paterson, illustrated by John Rocco, 288 pp, RL 4

The Flint Heart

Eden Phillipotts's quote, "The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper," opens Katherine and John Paterson's "freely abridged" version of her children's book, The Flint Heart, first published in 1910. Katherine Paterson, Newbery Award winner for Bridge to Terebithia and Jacob, I Have Loved and Honor Winner for The Great Gilly Hopkins, as well as being the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, while not the first person I think of when I think fantasy, has, along with her husband John, done a masterful, completely entertaining remastering of this Victorian faerie-tale, warmly and gorgeously illustrated in a fitting fashion by John Rocco.

To a degree, The Flint Heart is similar to Alice in Wonderland, with a talking, thinking hot water bottle from Germany who comes to be named Bismarck, a grand and just a tiny bit absurd court of pixies and talking animals. There is also a healthy dollop of British history and culture thrown in, including one of my favorite passages when our hero, Charles, meets the court poet for the pixies, a fellow who goes by the chosen name of De Quincey, after the great British writer Thomas De Quincy, naturally. When Charles reveals his name to the poet he asks, 

"Any relation to the great Charles?"
"D'you mean King Charles?"
"No," said the pixie, "I do not. I mean Charles Dickens. For practical purposes, in the history of England there is only one Charles."

There is another funny exchange when Shakespeare is brought up, and a few others down the road that will probably be lost on listeners but also make for a great "teaching moment" for the grown-up reading this book out loud, and I do strongly recommend it as a read-aloud. The tone flows easily back and forth between absurd, silly, suspenseful and magical. 
The flint heart of the title is described from inception, which occurred in some five thousand years ago in the South of England, now known as Dartmoor. A tribesman with ideas of grandeur commissions the tribe's mystery man to make a flint totem that will make him all powerful. Knowing that this is impossible without the presence of the Thunder Spirit, which is very rare, and wanting to deter Phuttphutt (for that is the name of the tribesman) from trying to depose Chief Brokotokotick (for that is the name of the Chief) from his post, Fum (for that is the name of the mystery man) agrees. See? This book is so playfully infectious I can't help but write my review in the same tone... Of course, by some fluke of nature, all things come together and the Flint Heart is created, making the owner all-powerful and profoundly hard-hearted. Phuttphutt succeeds and takes over the throne, subjecting the tribe to increasing hardships under his cruel and brutal rule until the day he dies and the Flint Heart is buried with him. Some five thousand years later, that totem is uncovered by Charles' once jovial and loving father and life for this large, warm family changes drastically. 

Charles and his little sister Unity become the elected siblings to tackle the terrible problem of their brutish father one night during a meeting in the wood house. The children decide that they must give their father a present that will change his heart and Unity suggests that Charles ask the pixies what the best present would be in this situation. Along with their sheepdog, Ship, the two begin and adventure in the woods that leads them to a Fairy Banquet and an audience with the great Zagabog, as well as his Agent-in-Advance, the Snick, during which the Zagabog tells a fascinating story about point of view and turns the tables on the old classic, "The Tortoise and the Hare" in a most enjoyable way.. There are many words and terms that have an old English feel to them and may see a bit beyond grasp of comprehending, but, as you read on the music of the story blends these oddities into the tale and all is either explained outright or makes sense in the end. This is the case with the Marsh Galloper, Jacky Toad, who, while in possession of the Flint Heart half way into the story, decides that he wants to abolish the veto and mount a rebellion against Fairyland. It is admitted by all that no one truly knows what "abolish the veto" actually means.
The Flint Heart, successfully nicked from Charles and Unity's father, is foolishly flung into the bog by Charles. It first is found by the Marsh Galloper and the aid of the Zagabog is enlisted again. The children follow his written instructions which include a human boy, a human girl and a hot water bottle made in Germany. He goes on to say, "When found, leave the rest to them." Confounded by the mysterious instructions and almost without hope, the stumble across a talking water bottle who has been cast aside after being damaged. When the Marsh Galloper is rehabilitated, he dearly wishes to return to his position of Together, and in yet another great story, they capture the Flint Heart a second time, only to discard it foolishly again. This time, the Badger comes across it and Charles must be called upon again. Finally, in the last pages of the story, the Flint Heart is retrieved and, in a grand predawn ceremony that involves humans, animals and pixies alike, the Flint Heart is destroyed once and for all, and, the reason why Dartmoor is so, "stinging and bracing and puts such life into you - why it makes you feel so hungry and jolly" is explained for all. 

It is so nice to know that books of this nature - this fairy tale, absurdist, purely for children nature - are still being written or re-written today. Sometimes the weight of what we try to layer into contemporary books for children is just too much and silliness and playfulness (for silliness and playfulness' sake) needs to be imbued into these novels. There don't need to be any grand messages, any nods to the trying times that we live in, the new kinds of configurations our families are taking, the different paths our lives are going down. Sometimes a book just needs to be fun, and that is exactly what Katherine and John Paterson's freely abridged version of  The Flint Heart is.

For more books of this nature, I suggest you read Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer's masterpiece, which is just now celebrating a 50th birthday, The Phantom Tollbooth, a childhood favorite of mine. And, of course, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I also recommend:

THE FLINT HEART. Text copyright © 2011 by Katherine and John Paterson. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by John Rocco. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, SomervilleMA.


Fashion Kitty, written and illustrated by Charise Mericle Harper, 89 pp, RL 2

Graphic novels are hot, hot, hot these days. And, while the publication of Charise Mericle Harper's first book the Fashion Kitty series in 2005 was some two years ahead of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I think that it is fair to say that the widespread popularity of Kinney's graphics-laden tome has lead to parents being more open to buying their "chapter book" reading kids books with pictures. And I LOVE books with pictures, which must be why I love all the fabulous graphic novels for kids that are hitting the shelves these days, especially Fashion Kitty.  Actually, I have one other reason for loving graphic novels. Graphic novels, specifically the fantastic beginning to read books put out by TOON Books are responsible for sparking an interest in reading independently for my seven year old son. While I think he is ready to give chapter books a try, he recently informed me that he is "only reading comic books right now," and, with the quality of what there is out there for him to read, I am perfectly happy to have him continue on. 

In fact, my son actually picked up Fashion Kitty the other day and began reading it, a bit to my surprise. I'll admit it, I assume that, as a boy, he has some innate gender-specific prejudices that lead me to believe he would not want to read a book that had the word "fashion" or "kitty" in the title, let alone both. But, as I secretly suspected and had confirmed when I read the dedication to Fashion Kitty and the B.O.Y.S. (Ball of Yellow String), boys will read what some of us may think of as a "girl book." Harper writes, "This book is dedicated to all the boys who read it. Are you a boy? Are you reading this? Then that means you! . . . And to the girls: XO to you!!!" So, to all of you parents out there who think/thought the way I did, don't assume you know what your son will and won't read.

In book one, Fashion Kitty, we learn how the unassuming Kiki Kittie came by her superpowers. But first, we learn that the Kittie family is unusual for three reasons - they have a pet mouse, Kiki and her little sister Lana get to pick out all their own clothes, and they know the secret identity of Fashion Kitty. The unusualness of the fact that the Kittie family has a pet mouse is explained in great and humorous detail, as seen below.

On Kiki's eighth birthday, just as she is making her wish and blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, a shelf breaks and a pile of fashion magazines comes cascading down on her head, briefly knocking her out. Soon, the family realizes that Kiki has become Fashion Kitty and must answer calls of despair and desperation, fighting for free fashion, anytime, anywhere. Thinking fast, Kiki grabs the stockings that are an integral part of her four-year-old sister Lana's sartorial choices, pulls them on as a mask and wraps the legs around her neck like a scarf. And, she's off! Flying high in her efforts to help the fashion challenged make good choices. As with all great stories, it is the characters who make a book a great read, and Harper does a fabulous job with hers. From Kiki to her kooky little sister Lana (who has her own book now, see below!) to Mousie - her real name is Phoebe Frederique - to timid Mary Jane Tabby who gets a fashion make-over from Fashion Kitty, this book is packed with personality. And a super-cool, eight page fashion mix-and-match spread in the center of the book. Colorful, glossy pages are divided into thirds and the reader/owner of the book is invited to cut along the dotted line to make a flip book of sorts that allows the reader to pick fashion combinations for Mary Jane Tabby as well. Very, very clever, and way better than the flip book in Captain Underpants...

I really like Kiki's little sister Lana, and I am very happy that she has her own book - and it's a birthday story! There are very few picture books that are birthday stories, so I always get excited when one is published.
Charise recently was recently the subject of an interview over at Bookie Woogie , a very cool blog I have been meaning to mention here for a long time. Dad, Aaron Zenzis a children's book illustrator and author and he and his four oldest kids discuss books they are reading on this site. They have another site where the kids share their book inspired artwork that is super cool and full of great ideas. This site is called Chicken Nugget Lemon Tooty. Besides being a picture book creator, as the father of six children with a collection of over 1,900 books Zenz must have some favorites. He generously lists all thirty-two of his favorites,which is worth a look. Charise has a FK doll that her mom made her and, in honor of their interview, Gracie, age 11 made a FK doll as well. Photos below!
FK made by Charise's mom
FK made by Gracie 

Charise's other series of books, Just Grace.

Just GraceStill Just GraceJust Grace Walks the Dog

Just Grace Goes GreenJust Grace and the Snack AttackJust Grace and the Terrible Tutu
Just Grace and the Double Surprise

Charise's picture books!

The Power of CuteIf Waffles Were Like Boys

Squish: Super Amoeba, written and illustrated by Jennifer L Holm and Matthew Holm, 90 pp, RL 1.5

Before I tell you just how great her graphic novels are, I have to tell you that Jennifer L Holm is the author of eleven books, three of which are Newbery Honor titles - Our Only May Amelia, Penny from Heaven and Turtle in Paradise. Besides the hugely popular Babymouse series of graphic novels, which are to reluctant and emerging girl readers what Captain Underpants is for boys, and the spinoff, Squish, she is the author of the very cool novel with lots of graphics, Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf.

Babymouse: Queen of the World was published in 2005 and I remember getting a lot of mileage out of it back when I was a reading tutor for second graders. Girls were (and are) crazy about these books, which now total fifteen with number sixteen, Babymouse for President, due July, 2012. Babymouse is brave, creative and adventure prone. But, best of all, her books are ALL PINK! That is, except for Babymouse: Mad Scientist, #14, in which we meet Squish, the amoeba. While working on her science fair project, Babymouse scoops up some pond water to observe under a microscope and that's when Squish brings the green to the scene! This is great for boys, however, as an observant bookseller, I happen to know that there are plenty of boys who read Babymouse books regardless of the presence of a green single-celled organism. In fact, after devouring Squish: Super Amoeba, my seven year old son was very interested to learn that he burst forth from another series of graphic novels and was not put off by the title or color of the Babymouse series in the least.
A single celled organism, Squish is pretty simple. He likes to eat Twinkies and read his comic book, The Adventures of Super Amoeba. At school, his best friends are the lunch money mooching, future genius scientist, Pod and Peggy, a super cute ray of sunshine who also has a new pet slime mold named Fluffy. Squish also has a well meaning dad who threatens to offer advice but usually just offers lunch money. When Lynwood, the paramecia eating school bully, sets his sights on Peggy, Squish gives up his lunch and his test answers to save her. Knowing that what he is doing is wrong, Squish agonizes over his dilemma and looks to Super Amoeba for answers. When Mr Rotifer, their science teacher, notices some funny business going on, he gives Squish a warning that makes his life even more complicated. Fortunately, a very simple slime mold (also known as Fluffy) takes care of Lynwood just in the nick of time. At the end of the book, Pod shares a science experiment (how to make mold) and Peggy shares tips on how to draw Squish. Jennifer and Matthew Holm have combined all things that emerging readers love in this new series: interesting characters who just might be a little bit gross, a super hero, a bully, science (which they slip into the story line much like Jessica Seinfeld slips spinach into desserts) and a little bit of fun.

In book two, Squish: Brave New Pond, Squish has a new set of bullies to deal with - the Algae Brothers, who are super cool and produce oxygen. Compared to the Algae Brothers, Pod and Peggy start to seem a little last year so Squish sets himself some goals, including sitting with the cool kids and lunch. At the same time Squish's comic book hero, Super Amoeba, is facing a similar quandary when the Protozoans, the world's greatest crime fighting team, ask him to join their ranks. When the Algae Brothers try to get Squish to humiliate Pod, he begins to have second thoughts about his goals. And, in an exciting twist, Squish decides who his real friends are just in time to avoid the arrival of a deadly asteroid that Pod has been predicting (using his mad science skills) all along. Like the drummers for the band Spinal Tap, the bad guys in Squish don't seem to last more than one book...

Squish: Brave New Pond ends with instructions on how to make slime out of cornstarch from Pod and tips from Peggy on how to draw the Algae Brothers. After working his way through our pile of TOON Books, my son gobbled these books up. I even saw him walking home from school and reading at the same time, a trick I thought only I had mastered!

Coming May 2012!!! Squish: The Power of the Parasite


A Great List of Christmas Picture Books at Wildly Read

I am always looking for interesting images that incorporate books and one day while trolling the web I came across a site chocked full of them. Most happily, Wildly Read (Wildly, if not widely, read) by Broche E.B. Fabian is a wonderful blog written by a voracious book lover. Ms. Fabian has worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and currently works for Beacon Press. Ms Fabian is great for compiling superb lists and lists of books, both adult and kids, and she recently posted a list of Christmas books for kids, many of which I had never seen, that I wanted to share with you. So, if you still need a good holiday book or two, please check out her round-up of new books just released.

For my old, slightly updated list of holiday stories from last year, click here.


Clever Jack Takes the Cake written by Candace Fleming with illustrations by G Brian Karas

Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming and G Brian Karas came out in the summer of 2010 and got a lot of well deserved attention in the blogosphere. However, it was one of those (many) books that I intend to order in for story time when I go to work and then completely forget. Somehow, during that 12 minute drive everything I had been thinking about at home evaporates. Fortunately, Clever Jack Takes the Cake popped up on my radar again and I was able to follow through and read it at story time. It is as fabulous as all the reviews claim! And it has the feel of an instant classic, a phrase I do not use lightly.

The story begins with an invitation to the Princess's tenth birthday party. Sadly, Jack's mother tells him that he cannot go to the party because they have nothing to give for a present. But, as he will prove again and again over the course of the book, he's not called Clever Jack for nothing! First, Jack sells or barters the few things that he and his mother do have for ingredients to make a cake. And what a cake it is! Jack dips his own candles, spells out "Happy Birthday Princess" with walnuts he has traded for and he finds the ripest, reddest strawberry to decorate the top of the cake. Please with his gift, he heads out for the castle and party.

Things do not go well for Jack on his way to the party, though. A flock of crows steal the walnuts, an Ogre is appeased with the bottom layer of the cake, Jack has to burn the candles to make his way through the dark, dark woods. A dancing bear eats the top layer but spits out the strawberry. He doesn't like fruit.

When Jack arrives at the castle a guard lands the final blow, telling him that the Princess is deathly allergic to strawberries and eats it himself. Sadly, Jack makes his way to the receiving line. When it's his turn to present his gift to the Princess who, thus far, has been looking extremely bored by the gifts she has been given, he tells her his tale of woe. 

Happily, the Princess is delighted by Jack's story and proclaims it the best gift of all.

Fleming's story is perfection itself and when I read it at story time my audience was rapt. It has all the right elements to make it interesting to a diverse crowd - a clever boy, a princess, a delicious looking cake, and lots of suspense and excitement from a flock of crows, an ogre and a gypsy woman with a dancing bear. As an adult, parent and picture book lover, the ending of Clever Jack Takes the Cake is my favorite part, especially as we head in to this consumerist season. Indeed, the story is the best gift of all! If you want to know more about Fleming and how she came to write this book, there is a great interview over at the always excellent 7 Impossible Things.

G Brian Karas (who has teamed up with Candace Fleming before on Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! Mr McGreeley is a farmer with a rabbit problem that is not exactly a Peter Rabbit kind of Mr McGregor kind of situation. I have had great fun reading both of these books at story time as well) provides superb illustrations for this story.  Clever Jack Takes the Cake, as with most fairy tale-type stories, could have gone in a much darker and scarier direction than the one Karas chose. However, Karas' painterly illustrations remain playful, especially in his presentation of the people in the story. The scarier moments (the crows, the dark woods) are a bit suspenseful but that sweet cake and Jack's face let you know that everything will be ok.
Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! by Candace Fleming: Book Cover

You may recognize Candace Flemings name. She is a very diverse author who, besides excellent picture books, has written the very fun The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School who go on to become fabled fifth graders in a second book. Fleming is also a respected author of non-fiction books. I was completely absorbed by Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, which came out in 2009 in time for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. This year Fleming published Amelia Lost: the Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, which has received several awards and great reviews. Like Harry Houdini, Amelia Earhart seems to be endlessly, continually fascinating to young (and old) readers alike. Can't wait to get my hands on this book!