Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy June Bates is scrumptious! Susanna Reich clearly knows and loves her subject matter (both Julia Child and cats) and her author's note reveals a wonderful personal connection while the afterword, notes, glossary and pronunciation guide offer substance for readers who want to know more about this story. Her writing about Julia Child and her evolution as a chef (although, as the afterword tells us, Child never referred to herself as a chef because she never cooked professionally in a restaurant) is poetic and mouthwatering and is generously peppered with Child's own words, as the notes reveal. Reich frames Child's story with that of Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child, the Child's real cat (Reich includes a photo of Julia and Minette from 1950, taken by Paul Child) and her own culinary pursuits, specifically "crunch of a fresh-caught mouse, devoured on the living room rug!"
The magnificent Amy June Bates evokes the time and the place perfectly with her palette of earthy colors like ochre, cornflower blue and dark sea green that pop when she adds a burst of red here and there. She captures the architecture and culture of Paris in the 1950s and one of my favorite illustrations from the book is a cut-away dollhouse view of the Child's apartment with them doing something in every room, including Julia in her kitchen. For those of you who wonder if young listeners who do not give a hoot about gastronomy, Julia Child or Paris, Bates introduces the story with the character of an inquisitive little girl as well as an ever-present cat. By page twelve of Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, the Childs have adopted a cat and the regal Minette takes over as the star of the show and the book becomes the story of a cat owner trying to fix the perfect dish for her picky pet.
As Julia learns to cook and Minette continues to turn up her nose at the treats set in front of her. Despite the "delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese soufflés, and duck pâtés" Minnette takes only a nibble, then return to her pursuit of birds and mice. The months go by and Julia becomes quite the gourmet cook. In one herculean rush, Reich melodically describes Child's efforts as she "baked and blanched, blended and boiled, drained and dried, dusted and fried. She floured and flipped, pitted and plucked, rinsed and roasted, sizzled and skimmed. And when she wasn't trimming, toasting, or topping, she was washing, whipping, and whisking! At Julia's feet, Minette purred with contentment. The smells were heavenly, the tastes delightful. Still, there was mouse."
When Julia tries a new recipe, one that takes days to prepare, she not only pleases the friends and family that warm their drafty apartment, but she also finds the one thing that Minnette will take her nose away from the mouse hole for and Bates's illustrations of Minette's exuberant, joyful devouring of her feast is delectable indeed. Bates is as detailed with her illustrations as Reich is with her story and notes. The illustrations of Julia in her kitchen are fantastic, with her tools, utensils and cookware lining the walls and, as Reich quotes Child's own words in the book, "enough knives to fill a pirate ship." I especially like the inclusion of Minette playing with "a Brussels sprout tied to a string." Bates's illustrations of the cat and the "toy" (and Julia showing off her newly acquired ability to stir two pots at once) and the knowledge that event is taken from a passage in Child's book My Life in France make it all the more delightful. While Reich provides fascinating information about her writing process in the back of Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, you can learn about Bates's process in an interview she gave at the blog Books Together and at BookPage, where she illustrated her own interview!
I sometimes find myself wondering about the value of the nonfiction, biographical picture book - sometimes the enormity of lives of the figures or the moments in history presented seem more than a young reader can or would want to grasp. Yet, when I do read a fabulous, marvelously illustrated nonfiction picture book like Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, or The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont by Victoria Griffith or Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss, I begin to see the value in exposing readers to these amazing people and their accomplishments through the medium of the picture book. These little bites of life are just enough to plant the seeds of imagination and inspiration and encourage readers to want to learn more.
Despite intentions otherwise, the Reading Level 1.5 label at books4yourkids.com represent a wide range of books. My intention with this distinction is to recommend books that can serve as a bridge between the large format, leveled beginning to read books and the smaller chapter books like Magic Tree House, Junie B Jones, Ivy + Bean and the like, which are a solid second grade reading level, if not a bit higher in many cases. While the books that end up with this label don't always fit the mold I thought they would (graphic novels like the fantastic TOON Books and the super Squish series as well as books that probably truly belong in the Reading Level 1 category like Penny and Her Song, Ling and Ting and the sublime Dodsworth) they are all standouts for their wonderful stories, great illustrations and, above all, ability to serve as bridge books for emerging readers. Chapter books like the Lighthouse Family series and The Cobble Street Cousins, both by Cynthia Rylant, as well as the Andy Shane series by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, books that have less than 70 pages and lots of illustrations but look like the higher reading level chapter books are examples of what I had in mind when I created this label. I am thrilled to add to this list Mrs Noodlekugel, the delicious new book from the venerable Daniel Pinkwater with illustrations by wonderful Adam Stower, who reminds me a bit of one of my favorites, Chris Riddell.
At 72 pages long with a large font and lots of pictures, Mrs Noodlekugel could almost work as a picture book, but I am very glad it is a chapter book. There are so few books written at this level and so many readers anxious to make the jump to chapter books and not quite ready, that I would be happy to see a whole new section created at the bookstore where I work just for these "bridge" type books. Happily, Mrs Noodlekugel is going to be a series (yet another thing emerging readers crave when choosing a book)! At the start of Mrs Noodlekugel, we find main characters, siblings Nick and Maxine, have just moved into a high rise building. Standing on his dresser, Nick calls Maxine to his room to look out the window at the curious sight he has discovered - a little house tucked in a garden and surrounded by more high rises - a bit like Virginia Lee Burton's Caldecott winning The Little House. The two are curious and unsure of how to get to the house, ruling out using a rope to rappel down the side of the building. Instead, they decide to ask Mike the janitor. If you don't know the work of Daniel Pinkwater, for kids or adults, then you might not realize that he is usually a bit of a subversive with a pretty kooky way of seeing the world that somehow makes sense in the end (see The Hoboken Chicken Emergency or his fantastic picture book that he illustrated, The Big Orange Splot). You might not even learn this about him by reading Mrs Noodlekugel until you come to the character of Mike the Janitor, anyway. Nick and Maxine found Mike the janitor sitting in "a little room in the basement, eating stewed tomatoes out of a can, talking to himself, and listening to the radio." Stower's brilliant illustration shows a fella with thick droopy eyebrows, a five o'clock shadow and a thick droopy mustache. And canned tomatoes! Mike tells the kids a bit about the lady who lives in the house and that they can reach it by going through the boiler room, but not to tell their parents about this. Nick and Maxine make their way through the dark, kind of spooky room and emerge into a a lush green oasis with a charming little house in the middle.
The two approach the house and are met by Mr Fuzzface, the talking (among other things) cat who appears to be a lawn ornament at first. Mrs Noodlekugel invites the siblings in to tea and introduces them to her curious world. She tells them how she met Mr Fuzzface when she was working on the railroad. He was a "railroad cat and could not speak a word of English." Mr Fuzzface assures the children that Mrs Noodlekugel was "very patient. Cats have trouble with consonants, you see." Mrs Noodlekugel gave him exercises, like saying "jingle, jungle, jungle joker" one hundred times. The children also meet the mice, four farsighted, prize winning rodents who, when they ate crumbs at the table, "went to put them in their noses and eyes as often as their mouths."
The children confess to their parents, who expressly told them not to bother their neighbor, and their parents reveal that they expected them to all along and have in fact hired Mrs Noodlekugel to be their occasional babysitter. The next day the siblings visit and help make gingerbread mice. Part of the process involves the real mice flattening themselves on top of the cookie dough so that their mouse-shapes can be traced. Then, the mice make their own cookies, which, due to their farsightedness, look like blobs. Wary about eating cookies that mice have rolled all over, Mrs Noodlekugel assures the children that they will be eating the gingerbread blobs, the gingerbread mice are just for fun. And what fun they are! After the mice decorate their cookie doubles, the gingerbread scampers out the door and down the lane.
I can't believe I haven't reviewed The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater before now! This is one of those books that I owned before I ever had kids. My husband grew up with Pinkwater and introduced me to him as well as NPR, where Pinkwater and host Scott Simon have been reading and reviewing picture books for years. The two men clearly delight in the books that they share and their readings are always worth listening to.
I just love this book to bits, especially as someone who has lived in four tract housing developments over the course of her life. Pinkwater's book a straightforward tale with a subtle message, wrapped in a story that somehow manages to be realistic and ridiculous at the same time. The Big Orange Splot is illustrated by Pinkwater in his unique fashion - not quite as nuanced or painterly as some other illustrators, but distinctive and capable of telling the story just as well as the words. The Big Orange Splot begins, "Mr Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same. He liked it that way. So did everybody else on Mr Plumbean's street. 'This is a neat street,' they would say. Then one day . . . " A seagull carrying a can of "bright orange paint. (No one knows why.) And he dropped it (no one knows why)" right over Mr Plumbean's house."
At first the neighbors sympathize with Mr Plumbean's mess, saying, "Mr Plumbean will have to paint his house again." Mr Plumbean supposes he will, but as time goes by and he makes no move to remove the splot the neighbors change their exclamations to, "Mr Plumbean, we wish you'd get around to painting your house."
Mr Plumbean buys some paint and fixes up his roof (and whole house) in the middle of the night because that is when it is cooler. The neighbors awake to quite a surprise. Mr Plumbean's paint job only inspires him to get more creative in the cool of the night, adding a clocktower, baobab and palm trees, a hammock and an alligator. Then Mr Plumbean settles into his new oasis to enjoy a pitcher of lemonade.
The neighborhood is in an orderly uproar and they ask Mr Plumbean's next door neighbor to go and talk to him. The two share a pitcher of lemonade under the palm trees in the cool of the evening. The next morning the man has transformed his house saying, "My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams." The uproar continues, as does the change in perspective as various neighbors try to reason with Mr Plumbean.
By the end of the book the whole street is transformed and ends with these words:
Whenever a stranger came to the street of Mr Plumbean and his neighbors, the stranger would say, "This is not a neat street." Then all the people would say, "our street is us and we are it. Our street is where we like to be, and it looks like all our dreams.
So many books today, picture and chapter, try to encourage kids to "be yourself" and "follow your dreams." In my opinion, they end up coming off as saccharine, heavy-handed and dull. But, when a true genius puts his pen (and brush) to this subject as Pinkwater did way back in 1977, you get something worth buying and reading over and over. No wonder this book is still in print, and thank you to Scholastic for keeping it so! This is a pretty cool website I found while researching The Big Orange Splot. Visit Teaching Philosophy to Children for some great discussion questions linked to The Big Orange Splot, appropriate for all ages.
And here is a house that could happily fit on Mr Plumbean's street!
More, written by IC Springman and illustrated by Brian Lies AND Little Bird, written by Germano Zullo and illustrated by Albertine
Before I write anything about these two wonderful books, I have to mention Sophie Blackall (The Crows of Pearlblossom by Aldous Huxley, Mr and Mrs Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath) a favorite illustrator of mine an now book reviewer! While I had More in my pile of books to review, it was Blackall's review of Springman's book in the NY Times on May 11, 2012 that introduced me to the book Little Bird and inspired me to get busy on my own review of More. I am so thrilled to that Blackall is bringing her talent, knowledge and experience to the world of book reviews and look forward to her sharing more worthwhile books with us in the future!
More, written by IC Springman is, as Blackall says, "a cautionary tale sparingly written." While Springman's text, made up of a string of words (nothing, something, a few, several, more, way too much, enough!) is austere, her message is effusive. The very talented Brian Lies (creator of the fantastic Bat books - Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, Bats at the Ballgame - which are a treat to read and also do much to support bat conservation) helps tell the story with his vivid, playful illustrations.
A well meaning friend, Mouse seemingly sets this ball rolling when she gives the magpie a shiny marble. The magpie tucks it into her nest, starting a quest to collect that eventually require the magpie to make one new nest after another to hold all the treasures. Lies' magnificent illustrations keep listeners glued to the page, and he includes just enough familiar items among the junk (a lego brick, a binky, a Tinker Toy, a toothbrush) that More almost reads like a seek-and-find book at times.
The mouse tries to warn the magpie about the dangers of her passion, but it takes the breaking of the branch that holds her nest, leaving the magpie buried under her treasures, to open her eyes.
The final image of the book shows the magpie with a reasonable amount of treasures tied onto a ribbon, flying off with the mouse. Less is more. Lesson learned? For a glimpse into Brian Lies' artistic process, check out 7 Impossible Things. Julie Danielson also reviewed More for Kirkus and reveals a very interesting backstory to the book. Danielson writes,
I chatted briefly with Lies about this book, and it turns out that it’s had an interesting, rather mind-meldy path to publication. “I first came up with the idea of a book about a bird with a hoarding problem back in 1995,” he told me, “but I couldn't make the text I'd written to accompany the suite of sketches I'd drawn NOT be preachy. Then in 2010, I.C. Springman's spare text, through several sheer coincidences, was plucked from the slush pile by the assistant to my editor, the intrepid Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who had never seen my earlier attempts at More. She thought I might be able to do something interesting with the spare text. Those quantitative words made all the difference—though it definitely has a message, it no longer wags a finger at you.”
Amazing to know that Lies and Springman were, in different ways, working toward the same end. It took Springman's spare vision to frame Lies' visual tale and, as Lies says, express the message without being preachy. Creating a worthwhile book with a message or "life lesson" that is not overly didactic or moralizing is much, much harder than you could imagine, but Springman and Lies do just that and in a very memorable way.
|Lies still life study for the illustrations in More|
Little Bird by Germano Zullo, illustrations by Albertine,
translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick
As Sophie Blackall says in her review of these books, "If More is a warning against hoarding treasure, Little Bird is an engaging invitation to embrace small, often over looked treasures." It is easy to see why, beyond the birds, and the spare text, Blackall paired these books for review. Opposite the title page for Little Bird is this line from e.e. cummings' "poem 53,"
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
|Some days are different.|
Where it might be said that More is a parable, Little Bird is could be described as a meditation. A poet and writer for adults and children, Germano Zullo's text for Little Bird is eloquently poetic and I am tempted to print it here in its entirety. While it stands well on its own, the words go so well with Albertine's colorful illustrations (Zullo and Albertine are frequent collaborators) that it would be a shame to separate the two.
As Blackall points out, the story of "Little Bird unfolds leisurely, almost like an animation." There are several pages without text interspersed between those with words and when the words and pictures meet up, the meaning of the story deepens. A man with a truck drives across a gleaming landscape to the edge of a cliff where he opens the doors and releases a colorful flock of birds. As the man watches them fly away, the text reads, "One could almost believe that one day is just like another." But, "some have something a little more." And this day, the man finds a little more - a tiny black bird, hanging back in the truck.
"Most of the time we don't notice these things," the text reads as the man sits on the bed of his truck after unsuccessfully trying to teach the bird to fly away. But, the "little things are not made to be noticed. They are made to be discovered." With these words, the man and the bird companionably share his sandwich.
Finally, the bird takes flight and the man smiles, watching as he flies through the sky. As the man backs up his truck and turns to head down the road he drove in on, he experiences the true treasures, the little things, because, "One is enough to enrich the moment. Just one is enough to change the world." Like Blackall, I won't reveal the lovely end (and images) that finish this charming book, but I will tell you that it is perfect and would make a lovely gift. Consider doing something a little different and give the graduate in your life Little Bird instead of Dr Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go this year!
Little Bird is published by the wonderful, independent, family-owned Enchanted Lion Books. Besides keeping the invaluable Arthur Geisert (Ice and The Giant Seed) in print and featuring a line devoted to wordless picture books, they publish picture books in translation by authors and illustrators from all over the world, upholding this philosophy:
Having been a children's bookseller for almost seventeen years now and a parent for a couple of years longer, I have seen many children, including my own, express a fascination with the story of the Titanic. Like other seemingly frightening and/or dangerous things that small children are fascinated with (sharks, dinosaurs, bugs) they grasp the literal enormity of the thing but don't yet grasp the emotional enormity of that which they are drawn to. Kids can't really fathom what it must be like to be hunted by a T-rex or a shark, nor do they grasp the tragedy and needless loss of life that resulted from the hubris of the builders of the "ship that couldn't sink." Kaspar the Titanic Cat was difficult for me to read and I had to put it down more than once, but I know that how I read this book and how a child reads it are different. In fact, I had the good fortune to speak with a second grader who had just finished reading this book and I asked her if it made her sad at all. A head shake "no" was the answer, and rightly so, I suppose. However, in his newest book, Michael Morpugo, author of War Horse, finds a way to portray the suffering and loss of life that was part of this disaster, weaving an uplifting story around it. Michael Foreman's illustrations are realistic but softened with and even sometimes playful and add a valuable dimension to the story of Kaspar the Titanic Cat.
While Morpugo's story impacted me, reading his author's note that comes at the end of the book gave the story a historical anchor beyond the event that was the sinking of the Titanic as well as a nice twist to the tale. While Kaspar the cat is the center of this book, young Johnny Trott, fourteen-year-old orphan and bellboy at the Savoy Hotel in London is the main character and narrator of Kaspar the Titanic Cat. The first half of the book tells the story of how Kaspar ended up at the Savoy and how Kaspar and Johnny find themselves on board the Titanic as it sails from Southampton. The book begins, "Prince Kaspar Kandinsky first came to the Savoy Hotel in a basket. I know because I was the one who carried him in." Prince Kaspar is the pet of Countesss Kandinsky, a Russian opera singer who will be performing Mozart's Magic Flute at Covent Garden. Being a prince, Kaspar has particular demands and, being one of the few people in the world he does not dislike, it is Johnny Trott who takes on the task of attending to him. And in turn, the Countess grows fond of Johnny, buying him a suit and a seat at her performance. Johnny has often fantasized about the real mother he never knew and begins to look to the Countess with the same fondness. This makes the death of the Countess even harder to bear when she is struck down by an omnibus. Johnny watches as Kaspar refuses to eat and wastes away while awaiting the Countess's family to arrive in London and collect her belongings. At great risk to his job and home, all the servants live in the Savoy and work long hours, Johnny sneaks Kaspar into his small attic room.
It seems that Kaspar might actually die of his broken heart when an American family with a very rambunctious little girl arrives. Johhny comments that, unlike most American visitors, the Stantons seem reserved and aloof, although their seven-year old daughter Lizziebeth makes up for this. Constantly running off and exploring the hotel on her own, the staff if often asked to locate her. One day Johnny finds her in his room, petting and feeding Kaspar, who seems to be perking up. From there on out, Johnny, Lizziebeth and Kaspar are fast friends. When Lizziebeth climbs out onto the ledge of the window in Johnny's room to rescue a wounded pigeon, he is there to coax her back inside safely and rewarded generously by her parents. Johnny begins to feel like he might have a chance at a bright future. However, Skullface, the cruel head housekeeper, takes it from him with threats of losing his job if he complains. Johnny keeps it to himself, but in the end, with the departure of the Stantons not far off, he shares this sad turn of events with Lizziebeth. As a final gesture of thanks, the Stantons employ Johnny to accompany them to to Southampton and load their baggage onto the Titanic. Lizziebeth convinces them to bring Kaspar along for the ride and one last goodbye.
How Johnny and Kaspar end up on the ship and how they spend the five days before she sinks are intersting. In the chapter titled, "Women and Children First," Morpugo tells the story of how Johnny first learns of the breach in the ship and how he alerts the Stantons, who had no idea he was on the ship. As he and Mr Stanton see Lizziebeth and her mother safely onto a lifeboat, Johnny knows he must return to their room and rescue Kaspar, whom Mr Stanton insisted be left behind. The next chapter, "Good Luck and God Bless You," tells the harrowing story of the sinking of the great ship and how Mr Stanton and Johnny fare as well and how others die. One of the most painful parts to read finds Mr Stanton and Johnny clinging to a canvas lifeboat in the freezing sea. Of reaching and being pulled onto the boat Johnny says,
Only then did I really begin to take in the horrors of the tragedy I had been living through. The shrieks and the cries of the drowning were all around me. I caught my last sight of the great Titanic, her stern almost vertical, slipping into the sea. When she was gone, we were left only with the debris of this dreadful disaster strewn all around the ocean and those terrible cries that went on and on. And there were swimmers in the sea all around us, every one of them, it seemed heading our way. Very soon we were swamped with them, and we were turning them away, yelling at any other who came near that there was no room. And that was true, horribly true.
When he has to turn away a swimmer, a man he knew, Johnny says, "I will carry to the grave the guilt of what I did to that man and to many others."
Although the sinking of the ship makes up only two of the ten chapters in the book - there is a final chapter where we learn the fates of the Stantons, Johnny and Kaspar that is very rewarding - they made an impact on me as a reader. What the target audience, presumably 8 - 12 year olds, make of it, I am curious to know. In this year that marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Kaspar the Titanic Cat is a story that focuses on the individuals, who, while fictional are representative of the various classes and cultures that were on the Titanic, and gives a human side to the story that might help younger readers begin to grasp the full weight of this maritime disaster. By adding a sleek black cat to draw you in to the story, Morpugo brilliantly finds a way to reach a larger audience and encouraging empathy from readers who might just be discovering this human quality.
The Real Savoy Hotel and the real (statue) of Kaspar.
Other Titanic fiction and non-fiction you might like:
My Letter to the Editor in the Sunday, May 27th edition of the New York Times Book Review went live online today. Just in case the link doesn't work for you, I have printed it (the edited version) below. Also, my review of The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy posted today as well. While I wrote my letter to the editor in the heat of the moment, outraged at the unfair, dismissive treatment the books received, never expecting it to make to print, I have been heartened by the comments of other authors and reviewers in the world of kid's books who shared my feelings about the review. While I greatly value the New York Times and link to their reviews and articles often, I think it is so unfortunate that the the infrequent and invaluable print space they devote to children's books, not to mention their reach and influence, was wasted in this manner.
To the Editor:
Thank you for one of the most comprehensive, relevant children’s book features I have seen in a long while.
That said, I was frustrated by Adam Gopnik’s review of “The False Prince,” by Jennifer A. Nielsen, and “The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom,” by Christopher Healy (May 13). Gopnik’s first mistake is to discuss these books alongside “Eragon,” “The Hunger Games” and the works of Tolkien, which he mentions several times. The books being reviewed are middle-grade novels, while the books Gopnik compares them with are for young adults and adults. He thus misses the chance to explore some of the more interesting things going on in the world of middle-grade fantasy. Specifically, the two books reviewed are standouts because they tell the story of princes in a time of literary princess worship that started in 1997 with Gail Carson Levine’s “Ella Enchanted.” Gopnik even quotes the lines from “The Hero’s Guide” that could have been the central and more interesting theme of his review: “What can I say, the people love princesses. Something about the fancy dresses, I think.”
Next, Gopnik reduces the whole genre of middle-grade fantasy novels to the categories of “spooky” and “jokey.” While I have my own criticisms of “The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom,” it is one of the few funny books published for kids each year, not to mention the distinction of being the rare humorous work within the fantasy genre.
The writer, a children’s bookseller, blogs at books4yourkids.com.
The writer, a children’s bookseller, blogs at books4yourkids.com.
Ok - Here's my unedited letter. I have no idea why any of you would want to read it unless you are intrigued by the editing process itself, but it feels like a cool artifact to include in this scrapbook moment of my life...
Actually, I sound much more clever in this letter, so go ahead and read it.
I would like to thank you for today's Book Review which included one of the most comprehensive, relevant children's book features I have seen in a long while. As a children's bookseller (seventeen years) and children's book reviewer (four years) I am always thrilled to read reviews of books I have not heard of in your pages but am sometimes frustrated by the worthy new books that I see on the shelves at the bookstore and on my review desk that do not get your attention.
That said, I was very frustrated by Adam Gopnik's review of "The False Prince," by Jennifer Neilsen and "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," by Christopher Healy. I have only read one of the two books reviewed and value the few paragraphs in which Gopnik actually discusses the books directly. However, I take issue with Gopnick's irrelevant, overly long generalizations about children's books that make up the body of "Fractured Fairy Tales," which comes off as a lazy retooling of his article for the New Yorker from December of last year, "The Dragon's Egg."
Gopnik's first mistake is to discuss "The False Prince" and "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" alongside "Eragon," "The Hunger Games" and the works of Tolkein, which he mentions several times. The books being reviewed are squarely middle grade novels while the books Gopnik is comparing them to are Young Adult and adult books. By conflating the books, he misses the chance to discuss some of the more interesting things going on in the world of middle grade fantasy. Specifically, the two books reviewed are standouts because they tell the story of princes in a time of literary princess worship that started in 1997 with Gail Carson Levine's "Ella Enchanted." Gopnik even quotes a line from "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom" that could have been the central and more interesting theme of his review, "What can I say, the people love princesses? Something about the fancy dresses, I think."
Next, Gopnik reduces the whole genre of middle-grade fantasy novels to the categories of "spooky" and "jokey." While I have my own criticisms of "The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," it does stand out as being one of the few funny books published for kids every year, not to mention the distinction of being the rare humorous work within the fantasy genre. Gopnik's use of the word "spooky," as quoted by his twelve-year-old daughter and his use of the haunting dystopian setting of "The Hunger Games," a Young Adult science fiction novel, to exemplify this quality also miss the mark. "Dark" or "malevolent" might have been better descriptors for the tone of Neilsen's book, while "spooky" calls to mind ghosts and other paranormal beings. Gopnik then goes on to reference Mitt Romney, AA Milne and, for a second time in three paragraphs, Tolkein. Yes, Tolkien did much to establish the realms of fantasy that we are so familiar with today, but his place in this review is superficial and overused.
While I appreciate a reviewer telling me why a book is not worth reading, I at least expect him to put it in context and criticize it fairly by comparing it to actual competitors. I am sad that one of the rare pages of the Book Review dedicated to children's books, and my favorite genre of middle-grade fantasy specifically, was misused in this way.
Thank you for your time -
Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms (known as Small Change for Stuart in the UK, where it was first released) by Lissa Evans is fantastic! This mystery with a missing magician, a trail of clues and a hidden trove of amazing mechanisms reminded me very much of a childhood favorite of mine, John Bellairs, (The House with the Clock in Its Walls, The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn) a master of creating the haunting, creaky mysterious mansion with hidden clues and treasures and a little bit of magic at the center of it all. Many of Bellair's books were illustrated by the equally eerie Edward Gorey, and Evan's cover art and chapter headings echo this style as well. However, for those of you familiar with the work of Bellairs, Evan's book is a bit less intense and a lot less spooky, which makes Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms the perfect book, especially for young readers wary of stories with larger-than-life villains and ominous overtones. While the suspense and mystery of Evan's book is fast paced and chock full of vivid details and characters, her villain has only a small role in the events of the story and her most intimidating traits are being mean to her assistant and bossy.
The first thing we learn about Stuart Horten is that his parents are very tall and he is not. His parents are also very intelligent however, as the narrator tells us, "clever people aren't always sensible. A sensible person would never give a child a name that could be written down as S. Horten. A sensible person would realize that anyone called S. Horten would instantly be nicknamed 'Shorten,' even by his friends." However, it seems that Stuart has many friends, a bike with eight gears, a tree house and a "large and muddy pond" in his back yard and life is good - for now. And while it may seem like Stuart's stature will play a large part in Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms based on that set up, it does - but not in the way you might imagine.
When Stuart's mother, a doctor, "not the sort who stitches up bleeding wounds, but the sort who peers down a microscope," accepts a job in a new town, the family packs up and moves to Beeton, Mr Horten's hometown. at the start of the summer vacation. Mr Horten has a flexible job. He writes crossword puzzles and speaks like a human thesaurus, frequently leaving Stuart to decipher what he has just said. The move to Beeton begins a slow unravelling of family history that Stuart never knew. It turns out that shortness skips generations in his family and Stuart learns that he has an Uncle Tony who was a magician with the stage name, "Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, Mini Master of Magic." He also learns that Tony, brother of his father's father, Ray, lost his fiance and magician's assistant in an air raid during World War II. Distraught over his loss, Tony retired to his workshop where he built his magical props and, after a few years, disappeared himself. Interested sorts spent years looking for his secret workshop in Beeton, but it was never found. Now, some fifty years later, his derelict house is about to be torn down. Stuart learns all this piece by piece, bit by bit. As he and his father take walks around town Stuart sees the old sign for "Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms," the pre-WWII factory where the family made locks and safes, later diversifying into all sorts of coin-operated machines. A trick money box that Uncle Tony gave to Stuart's father as a birthday gift right before he disappeared proves to hold the first clue that starts Stuart on his adventure and odyssey to find his Great-Uncle's workshop, which turns out to be a race for time when he learns that his old house will be torn down in a matter of days.
In Stuart, Evans has created a wonderful, believable main character with a genuine sense of frustration and loneliness, both in his family and his new town. Of course, the distractions of his parents also allow him the freedom to pursue the mystery at hand. Nevertheless, Stuart is still conscientious about his excursions and regretful when he finds he must tell lies. What makes Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms truly great are the other characters that Evans populates her book with. Stuart's new neighbors are triplets, his own age, named April, May and June, who crank out their own newspaper with the occasional bits of yellow journalism. Seemingly adversaries at first, April (the triplet with glasses) proves to be a willing and very helpful partner as Stuart races to figure out the mystery. Uncle Tony, his trail of clues and the miraculous mechanisms are also fascinating characters themselves. Rounding out the cast are Leonora, younger sister to Lily, Tony's fiance and assistant who disappeared in the air raid, and Jeannie, the domineering magician and business woman and owner/instructor of a magician's school, who bought the land where the Horten factory once stood and built and empire of sorts selling magic tricks. Leonora would dearly love to see her sister and Tony again and Jeannie would desperately love to find the workshop and raid it for the miraculous magical mechanisms inside. Finally, there is Clifford, Jeannie's pupil who is continually hoping to pass his grade-two requirements and become a full-fledged magician. I think my favorite part of Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms has to be the white dove, a prop from Clifford's failed magic act, that flutters into almost every vital scene in this book, a bit like Waldo popping up all over the place. A bit iconic, the dove is a gentle reminder of the wonderful world that Evans has created as well as the masterful story she tells.
The final chapter of the book is a treat with a twist and Evans pulls it off perfectly and in a most satisfying manner. And, while she offers closure to the story, the last page of the book reveals that there will be a sequel to Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms coming this fall! I, for one, am happy. I would like to get to know April, Stuart and maybe even Clifford, as well as the town of Beeton and the miraculous mechanisms both in and out of Uncle Tony's workshop, a bit better.