The Humming Room, by Ellen Potter, 182 pp, RL 4

As she proved in Olivia Kidney, SLOB and The Kneebone Boy, Ellen Potter is as master of mystery and setting a scene that is not quite what it seems. From the apartment building full of quirky neighbors that turn out to be ghosts to a brother who is really a sister and a labyrinthine castle that is not what it seems, Potter creates worlds that are familiar and odd, magically mundane. Because of this, I can't think of an author better suited to bring us an updated version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. While retellings, prequels and sequels of classic fairy tales abound these days, aside from Neil Gaiman's fantastic 2010 Newbery Award winner, The Graveyard Book, which loosely follows Kipling's The Jungle Book, I can't think of another author who has done a straight update in this way. Burnett's timeless classic, with the hysterical Colin Craven locked up in the middle of a mysterious mansion, lends itself perfectly to Potter's talents as a writer in The Humming Room

Even though I had just finished rereading The Secret Garden when I started The Humming Room and was on the lookout for similarities, I fell right into Potter's story of Roo Fanshaw without another thought for the story that inspired hers. I was on the lookout for a sour-faced, jaundiced, thin-wristed newly minted orphan and instead found myself treated to a smart twelve year old girl who, while she is "too small for her age" with a "narrow, bony face and a tight, dissatisfied mouth," rusty brown hair and dull green eyes that were "the spent, dull green smoke at the end of a fireworks show," is in no way a Mary Lennox clone. When we first see Roo, she is hiding under the crawl space of the trailer she shared with her father and his girlfriend, who have just been found dead. As she crouches on the cold, bare earth, she surrounds herself with the collection of flowers she has stolen - some made of blown glass, enamel, and lucite. Roo has created a garden for herself with them, with a slim green glass snake resting at her feet. For Roo, hiding, curling herself into a small space and watching the world or pressing her ear to the ground and listening to the earth, is comforting and safe. One of my favorite passages in the book comes when, faced with the enormity of an unknown future, she chooses to focus her attention on Mrs Valentine's admonition not to ask her uncle any questions. Potter writes, "for Roo, who understood things in terms of space, feeling wistful about the past and nervous about the future was too much like standing alone and exposed in acres of open field. It was unsafe. Instead, she tucked her mind into a smaller thought: What was it that her uncle did not want her to ask about?" Like she hides herself away when her world feels unsafe, Roo has found a way to fold up the worrisome thoughts that plague us all and comfort herself by tucking her mind into a smaller thought. What a beautiful piece of writing.

While the mysterious Misselthwaite Mansion and the source of the nighttime wailing are a large part of The Secret Garden, the setting of a moor in Yorkshire is equally important and almost a character in and of itself. Potter sets her story in the 1000 Islands region of the St Lawrence River in New York, which is perfect stand in for a moor. The many islands with their empty but grand summer homes and year-round locals with their own stories and traditions lends itself to the important role of nature in The Secret Garden, which Potter weaves in and out of life on the island in The Humming Room. It seems that Roo's uncle has bought a former sanitarium where sick children were sent to regain their health many many years ago, a place long referred to as Cough Rock Island by the locals. Every great children's book in which the main character is adrift and alone includes a sympathetic character who serves as a guide and protector at times. In The Secret Garden this character comes in the form of Martha who, while trying not to do anything to jeopardize her job or reveal the existence of Colin to Mary, also helps the child come into herself by taking the time to care about her. Martha also introduces her brother Dickon and her very sensible, caring mother, Susan Sowerby, into the story and Mary's life. In The Humming Room the young and sturdy native Violet takes on the role of Martha and, while she doesn't teach Roo the local dialect the way Martha and Dickon inspire Mary to take up the Yorkshire twang, Potter includes enough local lore and funny sayings that Violet learned from her mother and the Donkey grannies of Donkey Island that I almost wished she had a bigger presence in the story. When Roo tells Violet about the boy she spied canoeing down the river, Violet exclaims, "you've caught a glimpse of the Faigne! People can live here for years and never spot him." The Faigne turns out to be Jack, a boy who seems to live on the river and has a heron who always flies on ahead of him, announcing his presence. Jack is as intrigued by Roo as she is by him and the two form a fast friendship which takes Roo away from the loneliness of life on Cough Rock.

The secret garden an the sick boy at the heart of The Humming Room are worth discovering on one's own. As I said at the start of this review, Potter is an author who is ideally suited to retelling The Secret Garden and stamping it with her own unique mark. After the creation of Roo, Potter's skill shines through most when telling the heartbreaking story of the boy and the garden hidden away in the old sanitarium. In fact, if a reader were to come to The Humming Room with no prior knowledge of The Secret Garden at all (impossible, I know) I have no doubt that she or he would read Potter's book and find it fresh and new which, but for a shared skeleton in the closet, it most definitely is.


The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 272 pp, RL 4

Sara Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess comes by her compassion, tolerance, friendliness and imagination no doubt through her own charming nature but also as a result of the nurturing of her father for the fist several years of her life. Mary Lennox and her cousin, Colin Craven, the main characters in The Secret Garden, undoubtedly Burnett's best known work, stand in stark opposition to Sara's almost too-perfect person. Both Mary and Colin are vile little creatures who, through death and indifference, have been left to be raised by servants. Growing up in India, Mary is unwanted by her mother and handed into the care of an Ayah as soon as possible. She begins life as a "sickly, fretful, ugly little baby" who grows into a "sickly, fretful toddling thing." By the age of ten when Cholera has taken her parents and sent her to Yorkshire to live with her only relative she has a "little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression" along with an imperious attitude to make her unattractiveness complete. Colin has suffered equally, abandoned by is father who continues to grieve the death of his mother ten years later but also because, sick from birth, Archibald Craven cannot bear the sight of his son and the thought that he, too, might grow to have a hunchback. In turn, Colin cannot bear to have anyone except a handful of servants see him and he remains hidden away in Misselthwaite Manor. Colin's genuine illnesses have spilled over into hysteria and his frequent fits only serve to feed his physical and mental deterioration.  

It's amazing, really, that Burnett is able to craft such a memorable, moving story with two entirely unlikable children at its center. Although I doubt that there is anyone reading this who does not know the plot of The Secret Garden, I'll give you the bare bones just in case. Left to her own devices, and with the occasional friendship and guidance of Martha, the sensible young maid who comes from a family of twelve, Mary discovers the secret garden, the one that was locked up and forgotten when Mrs Craven, who's garden it was, died there. With the help of Ben Weatherstaff, one of the gardeners at the Manor, and Dickon, Martha's moor-roaming, nature loving, animal-whispering younger brother, Mary discovers the beauty and joy in nature and a sense of purpose in growing the secret garden back to former glory. Mary also discovers Colin and, being equally unpleasant and imperious, the two become fast friends and find healing and health in the garden. The Secret Garden is such a simple, openly symbolic story in many ways, yet it is the triumph of the children, especially since Mary and Colin who, in the absence of loving attentive adults are withering like the garden itself, that makes it memorable and timeless. What strikes me about The Secret Garden, especially in comparison to A Little Princess, are the ways in which Mary and Colin remain childlike in their attitudes and outlooks throughout the story, despite adversity. As much as I admire Sara Crewe and her selfless qualities, she has always struck me as a very mature, stoic character in the way that she bears her suffering patiently. Mary and Colin share none of these qualities and, even when they do begin to find their personalities transformed, they remain childish in their outlooks and secretive in their ways. They talk of "magic" as a way of explaining the changes in the garden and themselves so often that you almost want to shake their frail little shoulders. Perhaps that explains the continual appeal of The Secret Garden to children over time in movies (by my count, ten different movie and television adaptations to date) and in book form. One other striking similarity between the two books is the use of animals as important parts of the story. In A Little Princess Melchisedec, the rat living within the walls of the seminary, who Sara befriends and finds solace in. He allows her to stay connected to another living creature in a way that is meaningful. The presence of the curious robin in The Secret Garden serves the same purpose. His willingness to be close to humans, both Mary and Ben Weatherstaff find they are brightened by the companionship of the robin and experience a connection in his presence. Most important of all, it is the robin who signals the existence of the key to the secret garden. 

What struck me most about The Secret Garden, which of course I have no memory of from my readings of this book as a child, is the last chapter in the book titled, "In the Garden," in which Burnett treats us to a long, detailed, timeless case for the power of the mind - both positive and negative. The chapter begins,

In each century since the beginning of the world wonderful things have been discovered. In the last century more amazing things were found out than any century before. In this new century hundreds of things still more astounding will be brought to light. At first, people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they being to hope it can't be done, then they see it can be done - then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago. One of the few things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts -  just mere thoughts - are as powerful as electric batteries - as good for one as sunlight is, or as pad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

Burnett's book (as well as A Little Princess) demonstrates the power of the mind to shape a life over and over again. As obvious as it may seem, I think this is a lesson (forgive me for using that word...) that bears repeating over and over again for children. Mary and Colin came by their poisonous thinking by way of parental neglect (and Archibald Craven by the loss of a loved one) and their sour characters and despondent outlooks seem understandable. But Burnett also gives us Mrs Sowerby, Martha and Dickon's mother who manages to feed, clothe, love and nurture her twelve children in a tiny cottage with almost no income. On top of this, she finds a way to buy a skipping rope for Mary at the start of the book and send extra food into the secret garden with Dickon when she learns that Mary and Colin are trying to hide their increasing health from the staff at Misselthwaite as they work and play in the garden. Susan Sowerby and her children have every reason to be downtrodden and despondent in their outlook and yet they are the happiest, healthiest people in the book and they share their wealth of positive outlook with those around them. In fact, it is Mrs Sowerby who gently intervenes twice, first on the behalf of Mary, then Colin, to ensure that Mr Craven not be so overcome by his sad thoughts that he looses sight of the children's needs all together. It is important to see the transformations in outlook that Colin, Mary and Archibald undergo over the course of the book, but it is equally important to learn from Susan Sowerby and her family. I also think it is important that, in the character of Archibald Craven, Burnett shows young readers that adults as well as children, can be overcome by negative thoughts and brought low.

I'm not sure how much of this young readers will take away from the book, though. Burnett's story, from the cheeky little robin who befriends Mary and leads her to the secret garden in the first place, to Dickon with his moor pony, crow, fox and pockets full of squirrels to the garden itself is rich with enchanting animal characters and natural settings that are described in the most visual way. These aspects are especially enticing if you are reading Inga Moore's gorgeously illustrated edition published by Candlewick for a mere $14.99. While I grew up with the Tasha Tudor illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, I bought Moore's for nostalgic reasons and would strongly recommend you purchase this edition for any young reader in your life. Then, if you have not had your fill of nature and turn-of-the-century British children's literature, snap up Inga Moore's fantastic edition of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Readers, both young and old, who are fans of The Secret Garden should be sure not to miss Ellen Potter's fantastic contemporary retelling The Humming Room!

A few more gorgeous illustrations from Inga Moore's magnificent edition of The Secret Garden...


The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Patricia Castelao, 300 pages, RL 3

Since I started writing book reviews I have become the kind of person who reads the quotes of praise on the back of the book, the dedications and always, always the author notes and acknowledgements. Katherine Applegate's newest book, The One and Only Ivan, comes with some very high praise from award winning authors Patricia MacLachlan ("Beautifully written, intelligent, and brave, this story is life changing") and Gary D Schmidt ("This book will break your heart - and then, against all odds, mend it again. Read this.") While I think that these author quotes could be applied to MacLachlan's latest book, Waiting for the Magic, and Schmidt's, Okay for Now, they are also very apt when speaking of The One and Only Ivan. I have to be honest, I don't normally like middle grade novels with animals as characters and, even after I read the description on the back of the book, it was the author quotes and my esteem for their own books that prompted me to read this book. It is everything that MacLachlan and Schmidt promised and so much more that is hard to distill into a book review.

Applegate's book begins with a quote from George Eliot, "It is never to late to be what you might have been," and is followed by a glossary of gorilla terms. This sentiment perfectly sums up the experiences of Ivan, the great silverback gorilla who has learned to adapt to his domain. It is Ivan who narrates his story and his voice is immediately enthralling and charming. He has a laid back yet philosophical view of the world, despite his less than ideal circumstances. Ivan is the main attraction at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Part zoo, part circus, part mall with a food court, Mack is the human who runs it and does his best to tend to the animals he keeps there, which include Stella, a retired circus elephant, and a few assorted animals like sun bears and birds and a dog named Snickers who jumps on Stella's back as part of the show. The problem is, Mack isn't so great at taking care of his animals, running the mall or bringing in the revenue he needs. George, the janitor at the mall, and his daughter Julia, know this about Mack and make up for it, somewhat, in their empathy for the animals. Ten year old Julia, a budding artist, brings treats and spends her time the animals while her father cleans up the mall every night. It is Julia who gives Ivan his first crayon and a piece of paper through a small hole in the glass of his cage. Of this gift Ivan says, 

I knew what to do with it. I'd watched Julia draw. When I dragged the crayon across the paper, it left a trail in its wake like a slithering blue snake.

Julia's drawings are wild with color and movement. She draws things that aren't real: clouds that smile and cats that swim.  She draws until her crayons break and her paper rips. Her pictures are like pieces of a dream.

I can't draw dreamy pictures. I never remember my dreams, although sometimes I awaken with my fists clenched and my heart hammering. 

My drawings seem pale and timid next to Julia's. She draws ideas in her head. I draw things in my cage, the simple items that fill my days: an apple core, a banana peel, a candy wrapper. (I often eat my subjects before I draw them.)

But even though I draw the same things over and over again, I never get bored with my art. When I'm drawing, that's all I think about. I don't think about where I am, about yesterday or tomorrow. I just move my crayon across the paper. 

I know that was a long passage to quote, but it gives you a good feel for the way Ivan thinks and talks. It is Ivan's art, art which Mack usually takes from him to sell in the gift shop, that Ivan turns to when he can think of no other way to keep a promise he made to Stella. Well, talent and patience. Ivan has deep reserves of patience and as a reflection of this, Applegate unravels her story slowly and in a sort of free-verse poetry. Of patience Ivan says,

I've learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when thye have nothing to say.

It took me some time to recognize all the human sounds, the weave words into things. But I was patient. 

Patient is a useful way to be when you're an ape.

Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.

About a third of the way into the book I flipped to the author's note where I learned that Ivan is a real animal. After being captured, along with his twin sister (in The One and Only Ivan she is named Tag, her gorilla name because she loved to play tag) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they were transported to the US. Ivan's sister died shortly after arriving here but Ivan was raised in a home until he became too large. At that point he became an attraction at the B&I Public Marketplace in Tacoma, WA, where he lived for twenty-seven years. Applegate writes, "as an understanding of primate needs and behavior grew, public discomfort with Ivan's lonely state grew as well, particularly after he was featured in a National Geographic special titled The Urban Gorilla." When the mall went bankrupt Ivan was placed on permanent loan to the Atlanta Zoo. Applegate incorporates the facts of Ivan's life in America into her story, imagining what his life might have been like before being captured. Applegate also has her characters discuss the selfish and cruel behavior of humans. In a passage titled, "something else to buy," Ivan notes that "There is a cluttered, musty store near my cage. They sell an ashtray there. It is made from the hand of a gorilla."

However, Applegate also has animal characters who tell stories of human kindness as well as animals exhibiting gentle behavior that is counter to what humans expect. Applegate handles a story that, to us now, seems like a decades long maltreatment of wild animals and crafts characters and plot that present the issues but resolve them as well. It helps that the real Ivan has had a very happy second act to his life in America. I have to say, knowing that there really was an Ivan who spent twenty-seven years isolated in a circus mall definitely upped the emotional impact of the book. However, Patricia Castelao's soft illustrations and Applegate's inclusion of Bob, a tiny stray dog who sleeps on Ivan's chest by night and scavenges at the mall by day, bring relief, sometimes comic, from what could be an almost relentlessly sad story. I'll end with a final quote from Ivan, one that perfectly illustrates the anthropomorphic character Applegate has created for him, a character who both comforts the reader with his fortitude and makes the reader cheer when he becomes the silverback, the leader, that he was born to be. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, especially any teachers or parents who read out loud. I think that the chance to talk to children about the serious issues that arise in the book is invaluable.

Gorillas are not complainers. We're dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.

For more information about the real Ivan, check out The Atlanta Zoo website. For information about Ivan and the B&I Mall in Tacoma where he spent much of his life, click here. Ivan died on August 20th, 2012. In an interview after winning the Newbery for this book, Applegate said:

I went to Ivan's memorial service. I'd never been to a gorilla funeral. There were people who came from all over the world, people from Tacoma, people from Atlanta who'd visited him every week, the primatologist who got him moved, Charles Horton. But it took a real group effort to get him moved. He was quite a quirky gorilla, apparently. To see people gather over a western lowland gorilla was very moving. There's stuff I learned at that service I wished I'd known when I was writing the book.

Ivan in his new domain.

A painting by Ivan:


Same Difference, by Derek Kirk Kim RL: TEEN

In 2004 Derek Kirk Kim won both major comics industry awards, the Eisner, the Ignatz and the Harvey for his graphic novel, Same Difference and Other Stories. In 2007 Kim won a second Eisner for his collaboration with Gene Luen Yang, The Eternal Smile. Yang, who's most recent graphic novel is the superb Level Up with art by Thien Pham, is the creator of American Born Chinese which, besides being the first graphic novel ever nominated for the National Book Award, is the winner of the Michael L Printz Award, the Newbery of young adult fiction. Now, the outstanding publisher of graphic novels First Second has issued a redesigned deluxe edition of Same Difference with new cover art that includes a very cool clear dust jacket that is swimming with fish and an afterword in which Kim shares some early character sketches and influences.

I'm still new enough to the world of graphic novels and come from a place of ignorance (if not prejudice) so I feel a bit like I need to defend/explain why any given graphic novel I am reviewing is so amazing at the start of each review. I guess I assume that most of my readers are like me, older and parents and not necessarily in the loop of cool, as opposed to the bulk of graphic novel readers and creators who are kids or adults in their 20s.  So, for those of you like me who need a reason (besides the long list of awards and accolades for Kim's work as listed above) to read this book or suggest a young person in your life read it, let me sum it up for you here: From the ordinary, Kim extracts an extraordinary moment and the mundane becomes magical for an instant.
It's 2000 and Simon Moore and his friends Nancy and Ian are hanging out at a pho restaurant in Oakland, CA when Simon sees a girl he went to high school with - and treated badly - over seven years ago. As he tells his friends about Irene, the images flashback to high school and the story unfolds. While Simon was a jerk to Irene, it was really one of those moments of youth and inexperience that are regrettable but forgivable and yet they are often the moments that we carry with us in shame for most of our lives until Facebook or a chance meeting allows us to unload and maybe even apologize. Since Same Difference is set before the dawn of Facebook, Simon needs a random act to bring about his catharsis and his friend Nancy seems to have entangled herself in just the situation to bring this about. After moving in to her new apartment, letters to the former renter begin piling up quickly. Ben Leland sends letter after letter to Sarah Richardson and Nancy means to do something with them so that at the very least she can let Ben know that Sarah has moved, but she never does. When Simon and Nancy head back to her place after pho she is surprised and upset to find a package from Ben to Sarah has arrived. To make things worse, Nancy has written a letter back to Ben, pretending to be Sarah, in the hopes of relieving some of his misery over their break up. When she finds out that the letters were sent from Pacifica, some forty miles away from Oakland, Nancy convinces Simon to return to his home town so that they can check out Ben Leland to find out just how pathetic he really is.

The trip home for Simon is not what he expected at all, nor is it for Nancy. Kim does a great job setting the scene and developing his characters but he really shows his skill at storytelling as he weaves their stories together. I don't want to give too much away, but Same Difference is the kind of book that, when you finish it you close the covers, pause, maybe even sigh a little, then think about life, the past, mistakes and forgiveness. As the quote on the back of the book from the San Francisco Chronicle states, "[Kim] illuminate[s] the emotional bear-traps and intricate dishonesties of our everyday interactions with a clarity that should be more painful than it is." I think that it must be Kim's artistic skill with the graphic part of this novel that takes some of the edge off the sting of the story. His characters, although in their mid-twenties, are very funny, especially Nancy who has a playfully wicked streak, or maybe a wickedly playful streak, that brings levity to the novel. And, while Kim's story is rich with text, he often portrays some of the most intensely emotional moments with images and not words, making the moment even more powerful. This is one of the main reasons that I have come to love the storytelling medium of graphic novels. And Derek Kim's Same Difference makes me love it even more.
For me, or I guess I should honestly say, for someone in her forties, reading Same Difference was also very interesting for the brief glimpse back to the late 90s and early 2000s that it provided. Although the first words on the first page of Same Difference are "Spring, 2000" I somehow missed them the first time I read the book and spent most of the novel trying to pinpoint the era. I thought I had it until Simon and Nancy purchase two pints of Ben & Jerry's near the end of the book and the bill comes to $8.21. As someone who has been buying B&J's since I was in college over 20 years ago, the ever-rising cost of a pint is fresh in my mind and that is definitely a 2010 price, not a 2000, which got me to thinking. And searching the internet, which is where I found this great explanation From the Desk of Derek Kim in which he addresses the dated act of mailing letters that is a vital element to his story and how overwhelming it would be to have to update Same Difference for this new edition. Maybe it is because of my age or more likely it is Kim's superior storytelling skills, but I was sucked into the story from the first panel and anything dated that cropped up never felt like an anomaly or anachronistic.

Readers who liked Same Difference might also enjoy:

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham

Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill
Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge


Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks, 224 pages, RL 5

As I started reading Faith Erin Hick's excellent graphic novel Friends with Boys, which started as an online comic, Vera Brosgol's wonderful Anya's Ghost came to mind right away. Both books have dark haired, outsider protagonists with big black eyes who are haunted by ghosts. However, Anya's ghost is kind of the evil twin to the ghost that has haunted Maggie McKay since she was a little girl, making Friends with Boys the perfect compliment to Anya's Ghost. And, despite the fact that the main character of Friends with Boys is a high school freshman who is haunted by a ghost, I think that older readers of Raina Telgemeier's superb graphic novel Smile would enjoy this book.
Home schooled her whole life, Maggie finds herself forced to attend public high school with her three older brothers, Daniel and the twins Lloyd and Zander, when her mother leaves home. Alone and a little bit lost most of the time, Maggie is befriended by Lucy, clearly a fellow outsider in this cookie-cutter, small town high school. Lucy's older brother is Alistair and there is clearly some very thick tension between him and Matt, the captain of the volleyball team. There also seems to be tension between Daniel and Alistair as he warily watches his sister spending more and more time with the brother and sister outcast pair.
Despite this, Lucy and Maggie become fast friends and swap interests. Maggie convinces Lucy and Alistair to see her favorite movie, Alien, on Halloween and Lucy drags Maggie to the Maritime Museum for the final days of an exhibit on ghost ships. Trips to the museum and the graveyard, as well as Lucy's historical knowledge, shed light on Maggie's ghost and how she might help free this spirit from whatever binds her to this earth.

However, the thing that seems like the key to freeing Maggie's ghost could also tear apart her friendships and her family.

What I love most about Friends with Boys, and all the fantastic graphic novels I have reviewed here, are the underlying stories of connections and relationships and how important and sometimes fragile they are. Yes, Friends with Boys is a story about a girl adjusting to a new environment and life without her mom. Yes, Friends with Boys is also a ghost story. But at it's heart it really is a story about being friends with boys, Maggie with her brothers and how this has affected her life, and Lucy and her brother, who have a compelling backstory that makes their friendship, especially when contrasted with the one that Maggie has with her brothers, very interesting.  That's what is so continually amazing to me about graphic novels - they are these little illustrated books that you can read in 45 minutes or less and, when finished, feel like you've read a whole book or seen a movie. This smallish medium packs such a punch. 

And I haven't even talked about how great the art in this book is. Although it is done in black, white and shades of gray, Hicks is so skilled at the detail filled, intricate drawings that cover the pages that you don't even miss splashes of color. The choices she makes for how to pace the story, how to tell it over the course of the panels and when to zoom in and pull back from the action make for a story that flows seamlessly from start to finish. I can't wait to see what Hicks does next! Actually, after reading this interview I know what she is working on - a story called Voted Most Likely that she is adapting from an unpublished novel. It's about two very different "guys who get caught up in a cutthroat student body president election."

Check out BRAIN CAMP, written by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan with illustrations by Faith Erin Hicks!


Mega Mash-Ups, by Nikalas Catlow, Tim Wesson and . . . you! 75 pp, RL 2

Mega Mash-Up: Robots vs. Gorillas in the Desert
Brilliant! Just Brilliant! That's what Mega Mash-Ups are! The minute my seven year old got his hands on Aliens vs MAD Scientists Under the Ocean he grabbed a pencil and got busy. I have never seen him remain dedicated to a singular project (that does not involve electronic media) for so long! For that, I thank you, Misters Catlow and Wesson! 
The premise of this series of books (there are three now, more to come) is genius. Catlow, creator of a few of the really great doodle books that have hit the shelves lately (Do You Doodle? and Oodles of Doodles and Doodle Bugs) illustrates a story, which I'm guessing Wesson helps to write. The reading level is somewhere around second grade, though there is not as much text as in a Captain Underpants book, if that means anything to you. I'd say the amount of text in this book is more akin to Dav Pilkey's Ricky Ricotta books. The unique part of these stories is that every page leaves blank space for the reader to fill in the illustrations on the page. Most pages require that the story be read before the illustrations can be added, making it a bit like medicine that comes with a spoon full of sugar. Of course, adding illustrations to these books has infinitely more educational value than sugar does nutritional value. The page above is a perfect example of the way these books work.

And, as you can see by the spread above, the illustrations sometimes require the reader to add dialogue as well! But, to make this all work the stories have to be good, as do the illustrations. Catlow and Wesson score high marks in this area as well. Clearly, these books are aimed at boys, although I'm sure girls will gravitate to them as well (why is it always the girls who are expected to like everything but we only ask boys to take interest in stereotypically boy pursuits. In the 50s no one expected girls to like monsters and trucks, but now we do. When will we naturally expect the same diversity from boys? More on this later...) Besides the brilliant concept of a doodle-story, the authors throw mash-ups into the mix, along with a fantastic website (Mega Mash-up.com) where kids can share their drawings. Aliens are great, but aliens and mad scientists under the ocean are even better. Robots? How about robots and gorillas in the desert! Dinosaurs? Naturally they'd be fighting Romans on Mars. Best of all, Catlow the artist wants to encourage the young artists reading his book. The first two pages of every book introduce the characters while the next two pages introduce the drawing tools necessary (pen, pencil, crayon) AND give examples of nine different textures (crayon rubbing on the floor, crayon rubbing on wood floor, pencil rubbing from wooden door, pencil dashes, scribbly pencil) that the reading-artist can use to fill in the blanks. On top of all that, the books end with a Picture Glossary that gives the reader-artists ideas on how else they can fill in those blanks. Like I said at the start of this review, brilliant, just brilliant! Thank you, Mr Catlow and Mr Wesson, for adding these fantastic new books to the frequently dreary world of beginning chapter books!!