1.25.2013

On the Day I Died:Stories from the Grave by Candace Fleming, 199 pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE





On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave is the newest book from the multitalented (and multi-awardwinning) Candace Fleming with cool over art by Jeremy Holmes.  I am so excited by this book and hope that it heralds more to come. I loved a good ghost story when I was a kid, which was also a time when things of a scary and gruesome nature were not commonplace in the media unlike today. The stories I remember weren't gory and nothing my parents (who would not let me see The Amityville Horror when I was ten but did allow me to see Poltergeist three years later, much to my delight) would object to. These days, with so many violently graphic movies and video games on the market I think it's a true challenge to write a ghost story for young readers that is not explicit yet satisfying, which is exactly what Fleming does with On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave. I also think that most kids have a healthy interest in the supernatural, whether it exists or not, and like to be a little bit scared by it from time to time, the same way it's fun to be scared by a really crazy roller coaster. With that in mind, as well as the fact that good ghost stories are hard to come by, I created the label Ghost Story, although this is more of a catchall for any story with ghosts in it, from something very literary like Roddy Doyle's A Greyhound of a Girl to the fantastic YA graphic novel Anya's Ghost to the wonderful and very tame Olivia Kidney series by Ellen Potter. These are stories with ghosts in them. The only truly traditional ghost story in that bunch would be Rebecca Wade's The Whispering House. Not only is this a suspenseful, intricate story with a ghost who seems to be menacing, but it is rich with history and well crafted characters who are able to uncover the truth of the haunting in the end. On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave fits perfectly in this category and is also rich with history and spinetingling. And, while all the characters in the book - from the ghosts to the living - are teenagers, I think the stories are appropriate for middle grade readers. Consider On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave a step up from the still hugely popular books from my childhood, the Alvin Schwartz and his Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy of books, which honestly, were never half as scary as Stephen Gammell's creepy illustrations. New covers (and less spooky interior art) are provided by Brett Helquist.


Fleming starts her book, which is more a collection of short stories than a novel, with Mike Kowalski,  a teenager pushing his midnight curfew, trying to out-drive the ringing cell phone (no doubt his mother) on the seat next to him. He startles when he sees a young girl looking for a ride appear out of nowhere. Despite his impending punishment, he stops and picks her up, driving her the short distance home. As he turns to leave, he notices she has left her shoes in his car. Against his better judgement, he turns back and rings the bell of the house she disappeared into. Instead of Carol Anne, her mother answers the door and takes the shoes, wearily explaining that Carol Anne died fifty-six years ago on this very night. Every year on the anniversary of her death she walks the County Line Road and she always leaves her shoes in the car of the driver who picks her up. Her mother tells Mike that if he really wants to return her shoes, he can head over to the cemetery where she is buried in a special plot "reserved just for young folks." When Mike finally finds Carol Anne's tombstone, there is a pile of saddle shoes, in vary states of decay, in front of it. As Mike stares at her grave, a flurry of whispers surrounds him, each voice asking to be heard. The ghosts materialize, telingl Mike that they are desperate to tell someone their "death stories," the account of what happened to then on the day they died. 

One of the really cool things Fleming does with On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave is imbue her stories with local (Cook County, Illinois) history. In her author's note titled, "Where the Bones Lie," Fleming shares that her mother loved to tell spooky tales of strange events that occurred in their town. Fleming shares that she realized her mother's stories were inspired by "memory and myth - by local legend and folk-lore. But above all, they were inspired by truth - nearby places, real-life people, actual events. This connection with facts and history made her stories real . . . and real creepy!" Fleming sets her stories in Chicago's neighborhoods and suburbs, which are "shot through with the city's tragic, sometimes violent, but always intriguing history." Each chapter begins with the name and birth and death dates of the characters, with the oldest being born in 1853 and dying in 1870 and the youngest being born in 1995 and dying in 2012. They all meet their end in spooky, creepy ways. Gina, 1949 - 1964 and the first to tell her story, is a pathological liar who meets her match in a new student at her parochial school. Anthony Delvecchio, a liar and arsonist, uses Gina's weakness against her in an act that echoes a real arson fire that occurred in Chicago at Our Lady of Angels grammar school in December of 1958. Depression era Chicago, a decrepit old teacher with a cursed broach and a wiseacre street kid tell the story of Johnnie, 1920 - 1936. Al Capone, sea monkeys gone very awry, a new telling of WW Jacobs' 1902 story, "The Monkey's Paw," the Chicago World's Fair and a version of the Chicago State Hospital for the insane all make appearances in the stories in On the Day I Died: Stories from the Grave. Fleming uses these elements to weave spooky, creepy stories that probably won't keep you up all night but just might make you want to leave the lights on...



Source: Review Copy

1.23.2013

Hurt Go Happy, by Ginny Rorby, 256 pp, RL 5


** January 23, 2013: A report from a National Institute of Health council unanimously recommended that almost ALL of the 451 chimpanzees currently housed at their facilities for the purposes of research and testing be retired, as reported by James Gorman in the New York Times yesterday. Sadly, the N.I.H does not have the funds to retire some 400 of the chimps OR enact the changes to the environment of the chimps kept for testing purposes as recommended by the report. In light of this, it seemed like a good time to re-post my review of Ginny Rorby's phenomenal book, first published in 2006. **

I have owned Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby for almost four years now and have pulled it off the shelf to read many time but, knowing it would be (for me) a very tough read, I never started it. Then I read Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan, the slightly fictionalized story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who was raised like a human child until he became too big. He was then placed in the B&I Public Marketplace in Tacoma, WA, also known as the Circus Mall. For almost thirty years Ivan lived in a small, dank enclosure without the society of other gorillas, people passing by day after day, making faces and pounding on the glass of his cage. In 1994 PAWS, an organization that works toward the goal of "a world where all people recognize the intrinsic value of animals and consistently make choices that demonstrate compassion and respect" intervened on Ivan's behalf and found him a home at the Atlanta Zoo where he lives with other gorillas. I was so moved by Applegate's book and Ivan's story that I knew I had to read Hurt Go Happy next, even though I knew it was also based on a true story and would be even more heartbreaking than Ivan's story.

At its heart, Hurt Go Happy tells two stories of the abuse of powerless beings. The book begins in 1991 in Fort Bragg, California, with fourteen year old Joey, who lost 70% of her hearing when she was six. She is left with the ability to hear extremely loud sounds, to remember other sounds, like her mother's voice, and to speak, although her voice is now nasal and high pitched. Her mother cannot afford hearing aids for her and refuses to allow her to learn ASL (American Sign Language) because she fears that it will segregate Joey from the rest of the world and that people will feel sorry for her when they see, through signing, that she is deaf. She insists that Joey learn to read lips and appear "normal." As the story follows Joey through her school day, which is mostly isolated, lonely, and a struggle to learn lessons she can only partially comprehend, with occasional teasing and promises of friendship from Roxy, a girl who knows ASL because her mother is deaf, her mother's decision seems increasingly cruel. At home, Joey is also isolated. Her step-father, Ray, has a long, bushy mustache that makes his lips impossible to read. Her baby brother Luke is adored, but also impossible to communicate with. Joey's mother, Ruth, is her only link to the hearing world and she depends on her for everything. When Joey meets Charlie, her world begins to slowly change. Charlie is the son of deaf parents and communicates in ASL. He is also the owner of Sukari, an infant chimpanzee that he rescued in Cameroon after her mother was killed for meat. Sukari has learned how to sign many words and she and Joey form an instant bond. Charlie writes out most of his communications to Joey and, over the course of a few visits learns enough about her and her family life to become a passionate advocate for her. 

Ruth resents Charlie and is repulsed by Sukari from the start, despite the efforts of Charlie and Joey to convince her of the benefits of their friendship. Ruth is convinced that Charlie is pulling Joey away from her. In an intense confrontation, Charlie points out some hard truths to Ruth, who eventually breaks down and reveals her true reasons for keeping Joey isolated and without the ability to communicate. In Ruth, Rorby has created a complex, flawed mother figure, which is extremely rare in children's literature. Her mistake in life, marrying a abusive man, has scarred her and her daughter emotionally and physically and this affects every decision she has made since then. In a scene near the end of the book Joey, now sixteen, has been allowed to live her life as she chooses, and returned to her mother for help. Frustrated with her mother's willingness to give up easily, Joey looks at the scar on her mother's eyebrow and wonders, "Was there a moment like this when her mother was a girl, a moment when she chose to give in rather than to fight? It would be easier to give up, and the next time it would be easier still. How many times had her mother conceded before it became her habit?" A profound insight for anyone, a teenager especially, it is a defining moment for Joey. Even when Ruth relents and lets Joey lead her life as a deaf person, she still makes decisions about her life and withholds information that creates pain in the end.

The most moving and at times heartbreaking scenes in the book come when Sukari is interacting with Joey. Rorby does a fantastic job presenting the various forms of communication in the book, from broken lip reading to signing to written communication. The sign language that Sukari, Charlie and Joey communicate is truncated but powerful. Sukari, who is based on Lucy Temerlin, a chimpanzee who was raised as a human until she was twelve and then sent to a preserve in Gambia where integration into chimpanzee society was difficult, is affectionate, enthusiastic and playful. She has a cat that she named "Hidey" because he hid from her at first. She calls Charlie "Turtle," because he is slow and stooped like her pet tortoise. She bonds with a gosling that Ray rescues and the bird imprints on her, following her around. Her favorite games are chase and tickle and she gets along very well with Joey's little brother, Luke. Upon their first meeting, the two are chasing and Luke runs into a telephone pole, hurting his head. Convinced it is Sukari who has hurt him, Ruth runs to him, Joey right behind. They find Sukari hugging and comforting the little boy and signing something to him. Years later, remembering this and now fluent in ASL, Joey realizes that Sukari was signing, "HURT GO. HAPPY." She was physically and verbally comforting Luke.  

In Charlie, Rorby creates a fierce and determined character who, while his presence in the book is brief,  acts in ways that are long lasting. When Charlie dies of a heart attack in the middle of the book, Joey and Sukari are devastated. Charlie has included Joey in his will, leaving a trust fund that would allow her to go to the California School for the Deaf, then on to college, with all expenses, from clothing to books to travel, covered. Ruth keeps this information from Joey at first, but Charlie's niece Lynn tells her as she is taking Sukari to live with her in Fresno. When Charlie's lawyer arrives a few days later to go over the will with Ruth and Joey, Ruth keeps him from revealing one last provision - the fact that Charlie left Sukari to Joey - in what seems like another cruel misstep on her part. Joey spends the next year and a half at her new school, visiting Sukari a handful of times until her mother calls her home. Ruth and Lynn are there to tell Joey that Lynn, who has just had a baby, can no longer care for Sukari. Because she has lived like a human and can communicate, she is not able to integrate into a zoo community of chimpanzees. All the rescue centers that could take her are full with retired circus chimps, former actor chimps and lab rescues. Sukari has been sent to notorious facility where she will be used to test the effects of pesticides. Set on Holloman Air Force Base, it is clearly what is currently known as the Alamogordo Primate Facility, at which chimpanzees and monkeys are bred for testing purposes. The scenes that take place at this lab are truly horrifying and written in stark detail that lays out the bleak living conditions of these animals. The two adults who accompany Joey to the lab, a lawyer and an interpreter, both flee after a few minutes, unable to stand the distress and suffering that the animals are experiencing, while Joey continues on to rescue Sukari. Rorby is clearly opposed to animal testing and, in her afterword and acknowledgements she provides information for groups fighting to protect our closest genetic relatives.

All the characters in this book, from Joey to Ruth to Sukari and Charlie, are vividly drawn. Rorby has a remarkable gift for condensing several intense stories into one without making it seem overwrought, sentimental or overly dramatic. At times it may seem like Joey's story is being told in service of Sukari's, but Hurt Go Happy is equally human and chimpanzee. The points that Rorby makes about the similarities between the two and the ways in which humans can be indifferent and cruel to each other and animals are bitter pills to swallow, but one that you eagerly take thanks to her ability to tell a fantastic story and the spoonful of sugar that comes in the form of Sukari, which means sugar in Swahili.

One final thing. I was talking with a librarian today and she told me about a book that consumed her. Endangered, by Eliot Sherfer. You can read the New York Times' excellent review here. This sounds like the perfect, but equally heartbreaking, next book for readers who loved Hurt Go Happy. Hopefully I'll get to review it soon, but, as I said above, these kind of animal stories are hard for me - even when I know there will be a happy ending.

 Endangered

1.22.2013

Thank you SO MUCH to my anonymous gift giving family!!

A small thank you from my family for taking the time to help.

Reading your Bio and your reviews has led me to realize something about you. Everyone, at one time or another either envies or admires the limelight sports figure, dancer, actor, musician or artist for making a living doing something they absolutely love. You are a Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep in your own right. Youve seemingly immersed every facet of your life from education and employment to your children and hobbies with your obvious passion for literature. Confucius said if you love what you do you will never have to work a day in your life. Im truly awed by your bliss. Thank you.



Monday I opened my email to find this wonderful, wonderful letter in my inbox (above). Along with it was a gift card for a tea shop! I absolutely love tea and am so excited to use my gift card for something really special to drink (and share with my older son, who is a tea connoisseur) but I am especially touched by your words. What you said makes me feel like I won a big award - the Newbery of book reviews!! And reading it again makes me a little teary, actually. You are right, this is my passion and I do what I do because it brings me bliss. When I sit down to write about a book I am in a "let's get the word out about this amazing book" zone and am not thinking about what happens after I push the "publish" button. I do check my stats and I always love when readers comment, and I do know from emails from so many of you that you value what I do. But, to have it put into words so thoughtfully and eloquently, means so much. Besides feeling appreciated, which is always lovely, your words gave me the perspective that we all need from time to time and a reason to step outside myself and feel pleased with what I have accomplished, something I don't do as much as I should.

So, THANK YOU!! And if you feel like it, please send me an email and tell me who you are!

1.18.2013

The Wrap-Up List by Steve Arnston, 236 pp, RL MIDDLE SCHOOL




the wrap-up list by Steven Arnston could be added to the list of other "afterlife" or "do-over" books that are so popular in the YA genre these days (Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, If I Stay by Gayle Foreman and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin come to mind immediately) but it has so many other things going for it and going on in it that I hate to categorize it. And, despite the titular concept, this is not a "bucket list" book either. A bucket list is something that you plan and accomplish over time. A wrap-up list consists of things you want to make happen in the week before you die. In the world that sixteen-year old Gabriela Rivera lives in, one percent of the population are slated for "departure." Instead of dying from a heart attack, cancer or an accident, some people are slated to "depart" and given a week to prepare and compose a "wrap-up list" that their Death will help them accomplish to the best of his or her abilities. Arnston takes this story to the next level by making Gabriela's Death a character in the book with distinct physical attributes, personality traits and a unique Noble Weakness. A Death's Noble Weakness is a quality that, if it can be uncovered and employed, is something that assures the granting of a pardon for the person slated for departure. the wrap-up list is part social-emotional story and part mystery-fantasy as Gabriela and her friends and family come to terms with her imminent departure and what she has chosen to put on her own wrap-up list while also helping her unravel the cryptic clues her Death has left her.

Another interesting layer to Gabriela and her story is her faith and her family's practice of Catholicism as well as an impending war that has resulted in a new draft and the conscription of one of her friends who has just turned eighteen. In fact, her departure date falls on Ash Wednesday and it is her parish priest, Father Ernesto, the man who married her parents, who reminds her of the church motto, "Spirit of Service," as Gabriela contemplates her wrap-up list. With that in mind, she asks for a first kiss for each of her best friends, Iris, Raahi and Sarena and for herself, and a pardon. The next week is taken up with announcing her departure, trying to figure out the clues Hercule has left her and making sure her friends get their first kisses. Gabriela's friend Iris has long been fascinated by the Deaths, can identify many of them by name and knows where they like to go for coffee. She researches them in academic journals and visits the hall of records where information pertaining to each departure and pardon is noted. This is how Gabriela discovers a link between her Death and the death of her grandfather Gonzalo Rivera who fought and died in Africa during WWII.

Arnston is also the author of the middle-grade novel The Wikkeling, a cross between a dystiopian tale along the lines of The Giver and a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The Wikkeling is a mysterious, extremely tall creature dressed all in yellow with pudding-yellow skin, long, long fingers like tapering, waxy candles who seems to be a link between the shiny, safe new city referred to as the Addition and the crumbling, dangerous Old City that is home to all the good things society has left behind, like libraries and house cats. The figure of the Wikkeling returned to me as I read the wrap-up list, with the eight foot tall deaths, stooping to enter buildings, dressed all in silvery grey clothes. The Deaths, although not human, have human traits and personalities and Hercule reminded me a bit of Oscar Wilde or a character from one of his books for some reason. In both books, Arntson's creativity, imagination and grounding in every day life are rich and innovative in a quiet way. With both books, you find yourself thinking about the characters and their stories when you aren't reading and long after you have finished. After The Wikkeling, I was very surprised to find that Arnston's next book was a work of YA, but he crosses the bridge between the age groups wonderfully, bringing the out of the ordinary fantasy qualities of his first book and combining them with a emotionally moving story filled with fascinating, well crafted characters, from Gabriela and her friends, to her constantly bickering parents to her crush, football player Sylvester Hale and his father, the bitter soldier who lost his arm in battle. I read the last few chapters of the wrap-up list perched on the edge of my chair, tears plopping on the pages of the book now and then, amazed at how Arnston threaded all of the strands of the story together at the end of the book into a satisfying, not entirely expected ending. Despite the blurb on the cover of the book, "Number of days left to live: 7. Number of times kissed: 0. What would you do?" the wrap-up list is, above all else, about bringing people together, celebrating connections and relishing and cherishing these people in meaningful ways. Without a doubt, his is a thinking girl's high school romance story.

I'm not sure what Steven Arnston's involvement is with the design of his books, from the dust jacket to the cover to the font, but he has a great track record. The eye catching red envelop of the dust jacket for the wrap-up list, when removed, reveals a very cool image of rows and rows of mailboxes, one of which clearly has a red Death Letter in it. As a middle-grade fantasy with interior art, The Wikkeling has even more beautiful production values, starting with the very cool square shape of the book. Scroll past these the wrap-up list pictures of for images of and from The Wikkeling and a book trailer for the wrap-up list.






 the wrap-up list book trailer



Source: Review Copy

1.14.2013

A Street Through Time, written by Dr Anne Millard and illustrated by Steve Noon



In 2004 my in-laws took our family to London for Spring break. It was an amazing trip despite my chagrin at finding books in the UK cost twice as much as books here, preventing me from bringing home suitcases full of the fantastic kid's books that are published there and not in the US. While I practiced great restraint, one of the best books that made it across the pond with us was A Street Through Time : A 12,000-Year Walk Through History by Dr Anne Millard, illustrated by Steve Noon. My history loving older son pored over this book many times over the years. I don't know why I never thought of reviewing it here before but, when I noticed my younger son, now eight - the age his big brother was when we bought this book - poring over it (in it's falling apart, much loved state) in the same way and I realized I had overlooked a real gem worth owning. 

One of the things that makes this book brilliant is the publisher - DK, the maker of the books that are responsible (along with the internet) for making encyclopedias obsolete. DK's books are meticulously illustrated and overflowing with detail, usually presented in small chunks of text paired with multiple photographs and illustrations per page that make the books digestible even for pre-readers. A Street Through Time : A 12,000-Year Walk Through History is a bit different in that one illustration is featured on each of the fourteen two-page spreads with content information spaced around the borders. Actually, while writing this review I learned that A Street Through Time : A 12,000-Year Walk Through History was updated and reissued this year, and the images below reflect the new, slightly different layout of the book, which actually adds even more information than the original, which was published in 1998.

The cross sections in the book are amazing and remind me of the great Stephen Biesty and his newest book, which would compliment  A Street Through Time : A 12,000-Year Walk Through History very nicely, Into the Unknown : How Great Explorers Found Their Way By Land, Sea and Air, written by Stuart Ross.
Another genius aspect to A Street Through Time : A 12,000-Year Walk Through History is the character of Henry Hyde, the intrepid time traveler who appears in every picture. Even if your child seems to have absolutely no interest in the pace of history, s/he will enjoy this clever Where's Waldo aspect of the book and, no doubt, eventually, begin to take interest in the information on the pages. There is also a "Time-Traveling Quiz" and a glossary at the end of the book. In the end, though, what always amazes me about this book, and I think it's because I live in a relatively young country, is the idea that there are places in this world where a street has existed, in one form or another, for 12,000 years! 

Source: Purchased

1.11.2013

No Such Thing as Dragons, written and illustrated by Philip Reeve, 186 pp, RL 4

NO SUCH THING AS DRAGONS is now in paper back!!



Author (and illustrator!) Philip Reeve wrote No Such Thing as Dragons as an enforced break from writing the spectacular Fever Crumb, which was giving him trouble. On his blog in a post titled, The Old, Old, Story he shares that his main character, Ansel, was intentionally mute "since Fever Crumb getting clogged by long speeches." He tried to draw on "an echo of the first story ever told . . . the story of a small community being threatened, stalked and picked off one by one by a malevolent outside force; and the hero who eventually arises to save them." From this idea arose the story of a medieval dragon hunter who is not your typical St George and a quest that does not follow a traditional path, making it all the more suspenseful and breathtaking.
Young Ansel, the hero of our story (or is he?), suffered two losses at the age of seven. His mother died and shortly thereafter his voice left him. A few years later his unforgiving father hires him out (or sells him off?) to Johannes Von Brock, a traveler with a journey to make into the north. Brock is all too happy to have a mute because Ansel quickly learns that he isn't who he seems to be. Brock, who has been halfway across the world and seen "eagles and tigers and whale-fish and Saracens, but I've never seen a dragon yet, nor heard of one that was anything more than a story." Content to capitalize on the fears of less worldly villagers who are won over by the armor, scars, sword and the tiger teeth and "corkindrille" skulls that Brock displays as proof of his success, he travels the country "ridding" villages of their demons. Brock is destined for the village of Knochen, set in the hollow of the Drachenberg mountains,where he hopes to earn a tidy sum for his services. Ansel accepts this aspect of his master's endeavors as well as his belief that there is no such thing as dragons. However, like Brock who is not what he seems, the desperate villagers of Knochen are not quite what they seem either. After conferring with the landgrave, Brock and Ansel head to the village to prepare for their quest and hear stories from witnessed and victims of the dragon's terrible existence. In Knochen they encounter Father Flegel, a character who is also content to capitalize on the fears of those less worldly than himself. It seems that Flegel was a monk until "they expelled him for his heretical views and filthy habits. Now he shambles from place to place as he pleases, selling indulgences and fraudulent relics." Brock knows Flegel's secrets just as Flegel knows Brock's. Sure that he will betray him intentionally or otherwise, Brock enlists the fat friar to accompany him on their journey. The group sets off with Ansel in possession of a disturbing piece of information too difficult to share through his personal sign language.


When the trio make it to their first stop up the mountain they find Else, a young girl who has been forcibly left as a sacrifice by the villagers. Sheltering with her, they also find that there is such thing as dragons, or dragon. There is one disturbing scene where the dragon captures and eats, with a bit of description, Brock's horse.  From there, the action escalates and is very visual and exciting, and less gory, ending with a magnificent chase scene through a cathedral under construction in the town of Knochen. Reeve's writing is rich and beautiful when he is describing the landscape of his tale, as when Ansel wakes before dawn and looks down on the whence he came from. The "valley lay far below him. It was still night down there. Day began a few feet below his perch, above the shadow of that eastern spur, which stretched along the crags like a tidemark." Reeve makes this story interesting by making the motives of his characters questionable. Brock may be a charlatan who will risk the lives of children to capitalize on the fruits of his mission, but Ansel seems ultimately deficient in the instincts needed to survive his job. More observant than the others, perhaps because of his choice not to speak, he notices that the dragon is not the work of Satan, as Flegel spouts and the villagers believe, but an animal, a creature. Upon witnessing the dragon return to its nest with treasure and do a mating dance like a he-bird, he realizes, "It is waiting for a mate. It is waiting for another dragon to come. It wants to build a nest, and raise a brood of little dragonlets. And, for a moment, he was not scared of the creature anymore. He felt sorry for it. He understood something of its dreadful loneliness." It is this aspect of Ansel's nature that brings the story to its exciting, almost cinematic conclusion.

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, written by Jonathan Auxier, 381 pp, RL 4


PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES is now in PAPERBACK!!


You don’t have to read far into Jonathan Auxier's debut novel Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes (for which he also provided the excellent chapter illustrations) to know that this is an author who has a happy and healthy relationship with classic children’s literature. In fact, the title alone reveals this. Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens and JM Barrie came to mind when I first glimpsed the title and cover art for this book on Chad W Beckerman’s blog several months ago and, upon reading I found that these impressions were not wrong. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes reads like a classic while at the same time standing out on the shelves as a book that feels new and uncommon. As I said about Cathrynne M Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, it is very hard to write a book that echoes the classics and sounds authentic, while at the same time creating a story that is filled with original characters, settings and plot twists. Both Valente and Auxier meet these challenges admirably, excitingly and in their own different ways. While Valente is clearly influenced by Lewis Carroll, Auxier’s book reflects a love of the authors mentioned above with a splash of Treasure Island thrown in to the mix. As Betsy Bird said of the book in her review at fuse#8, "It is incredibly difficult to write a book for the youth of today that is interesting to them and yet manages to feel 'timeless' without covering itself in must and dust. That Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes succeeds in this endeavor is a testament not only to its author but to a publishing world that's willing to put out something that doesn't slot into the usual five categories of books for youth." One of the ways in which Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes lives up to this high praise form Bird is to not shy away from are a handful of grim details and suspenseful moments that are occasionally gruesome. It is these very passages that give the book its authentic tone and make it all the more suspenseful and exciting. As Auxier said in an interview with Kate Milford at The Enchanted Inkpot, "Books can only feel like adventures if actual danger is being skirted." He goes on to say, "I think the key with dark or creepy material in children’s literature lies in treating it like parenting at Disneyland - feel free to take your kid on 'Splash Mountain,' but when it becomes too intense, put your arm around them and cover their eyes." I couldn't agree more.






The story begins with the infant Peter set to sea in a basket, his eyes pecked out by the ravens perched on the rim of the basket. Peter is rescued by a group of “drunken but goodhearted” sailors, although that turns out to be the best thing that happens to him for the next ten years. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is told mostly from the viewpoint of Peter, which means that the reader experiences the world much as Peter does, by skillfully listening and feeling his way through life. Auxier has said that he is a very visual writer and "it was pretty difficult to find ways to create pictures in a reader’s mind without actually describing what things looked like." He spent much of the editing process going through the book "(again and again!) to find places where I had accidentally failed to use Peter’s other senses to describe a scene." To balance out the novel and make use of Auxier's wonderful descriptive skills, there is also the unobtrusive third person narrator to provide ample descriptions of the fabulous (and sometimes bleak) worlds that Peter stumbles into.Out of necessity, Peter teaches himself to steal and, at the age of five is noticed by the local beggarmonger.Peter is taken under the wing (for better or for worse, mostly worse) of Mr Seamus, a"wiry man with meaty hands and an enormous head" who has been "unable to live out his dream of becoming a cat burglar" because of his clumsy touch. In lieu of his dream, Mr Seamus has taken up the career of beggarmonger, adopting orphans, maiming them and sending them out into the streets to beg for him. Five years and much cruel treatment later, Mr Seamus has trained Peter to be the most skilled (and most miserable and mistreated) lock pick in town.

However, Peter’s fate takes a turn with the arrival of a mysterious haberdasher who spots him (out working as a pickpocket) in the crowd as he is giving his spiel for caps that magically remove the reek of living in a run down port town from the wearer. Peter is called up onto the stage to vouch for the efficacy of the cap and that is when he feels the amazing collection of intricate locks on the haberdasher’s carriage behind him. Intrigued, Peter returns that night to pick the locks and find out what they are protecting. Peter finds the treasure, a locked box, and returns to Mr Seamus’ bleak basement to open it. Disappointed, he finds that the box holds six eggs. When he cracks the eggs to quiet his grumbling stomach, he finds the viscous whites surrounding hard spheres that radiate warmth when he holds them. But, being blind, Peter has no idea what he is holding. He tries to find the haberdasher in the hope that he will reveal the purpose of these "yolks" but instead finds his poor horse, which is really a zebra, being teased and abused by a gang of hooligans. Peter uses his considerable skills to rescue the horse and punish the boys. In return, the zebra removes Peter's bandage and nudges him to place the "yolks" in his empty eye sockets. When he finally understands what the creature wants him to do, he follows directions and promptly vanishes into thin air.

This is when the adventure, and Auxier’s imagination really takes off (as if it hadn't already!) The people and places that Peter encounters are increasingly odd, exciting and dangerous. The first (and best, in my opinion) creature Peter encounters is Sir Tode, a somewhat dubious knight who, due to an unfortunate curse, is part horse, part cat. Many reviewers have commented on the fact that very little is seen of Sir Tode in Auxier's pen and ink illustrations. I, for one, am happy to only have had glimpses of the knight, mostly from behind. I prefer to leave the appearance of a horse-cat to my imagination and Auxier's verbal descriptions. Under the guidance of Professor Cake, the two set off aboard the Scop (also the name of Mr Auxier's website as well as an Old English word meaning poet or minstrel) and head for the Vanished Kingdom where they hope to right a wrong, make a rescue and maybe even find the hag who can reverse Sir Tode's curse. At 381 pages, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes might seem long but once you start reading you fall into Peter Nimble's world and never want it to end. As always when I have read a great book, I have to stop myself from telling the whole plot in my review, and this was no exception. I revised this more than once, cutting out huge paragraphs of descriptions of the people and places that populate this wonderful book. And I didn't even begin to talk about King Incarnadine, the bad guy! That would take up a few more paragraphs and I really just want you all to get out there and read this book! If you have any young adventurers at home, I urge you to buy this book to read out loud to them, or give to them to curl up with in a corner and devour. And buy it now, in hardcover because I guarantee you that your kids will grow up and remember this book and want it to read to their children. It is indeed that kind of book.


This has to be one of the most enticing, well composed book trailers I have seen to date! If you have slightly more than a minute to spare and my review has not convinced you to read this book, the trailer will!



Some initial ideas for the completely enchanting cover (and first three pages) of Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes illustrated by Gibert Ford ofThe Secret Series fame. Interestingly enough, Gilbert Ford also did the cover art for Tom Angleberger's superb Horton Halfpott, while Mr Angleberger provided the interior illustrations, just like Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes!


A Year Without Autumn, written by Liz Kessler, 294 pp, MIDDLE GRADE

A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN is now in PAPERBACK!!



Liz Kessler is the author of the very popular Emily Windsnap series of books about a twelve year old girl who lives on a boat with her mother. When Emily takes swimming lessons she discovers she is half-mermaid and her legs turn into a tail when she is underwater. Kessler is also three books into her Philippa Fisher series in which an eleven year old girl who's life is pretty miserable and gets worse for a time when she is sent a god-mother in training who has an attitude problem. Based on this, you might think that Kessler's newest book, A Year Without Autumn, about a quiet, order loving girl who takes a rickety old elevator to her friend's house and finds herself a year to the day in the future might be a playful comedy of errors as Jenni tries to figure out what has happened. And it easily and enjoyably could have been that book, much like Wendy Mass's wonderful Eleven Birthdays. However, Kessler makes a bold choice and chooses to tell a different story, one that I think will really appeal to older readers who are reaching the age where, while they may not have totally developed a sense of empathy for the difficulties and suffering of others, are beginning to take an interest in it. Also, once the story takes off, about fifty pages into the book, A Year Without Autumn reads like a roller coaster ride with breathtaking ups and downs and a climax that jumps the tracks on the way to an ultimately happy ending.

Jenni Green is twelve, her little brother Craig is five and her mother is eight months pregnant. Her math teacher father is an aspiring writer in his spare time and he is affectionate and loving towards his wife and children. The  Green family thrives on order and familiarity, which is evident in the way that Jenni describes their annual end-of-the-summer vacation at their timeshare in River Village. While Jenni loves her family and is excited for the arrival of her new sibling, she is most excited to be spending the week with her best friend and polar opposite, Autumn Leonard. Autumn's mother runs a gallery and her father, a painter, is just gaining fame (and fortune) for his work. Autumn and her family are creative, loud, messy and full of energy, which is usually a good thing. When school stars in the fall the girls will be attending different middle schools, Jenni the local school and Autumn the magnet arts middle school in the next town over, so the two want to maximize their time together at River Village. Jenni knows that she and Autumn are very different and often wonders why their friendship works. But, she also knows that she often feels like Autumn's other half - together they make a whole. She admires Autumn's differences and even lets herself venture into new and sometimes frightening territory with Autumn as her guide. And, while she sometimes wonders what Autumn sees in her, she never doubts the solidity of their bond. This becomes especially meaningful as the story unfolds.

At the welcome meeting led by Mr Barraclough, the longtime manager of River Village, the Greens and the Leonards reconnect and the adults and kids plan their activities for the week, with horseback riding for Jenni and Autumn first on the list, despite Jenni's reservations about the activity. The next day, as Jenni heads over to the Leonard's condo in the oldest, fanciest building at River Village, she sees Mr Barraclough working on the long dormant, ancient elevator and decides to give it a try. When she reaches the second floor and knocks on 210, the Leonard's apartment, she is stunned to see an older woman at the door and no sign of the Leonards anywhere.  A confusing half-conversation ensues as Jenni tries to make sense of this change and the woman grows increasingly suspicious her story, thinking Jenni is playing a prank on her. Mystified, Jenni learns from a neighbor that the Leonards are in a different condo. The Autumn who answers the door is a shadow of the vibrant girl Jenni knew, and her mother is even more changed. Jenni learns that Mr Leonard is out at the bar, where he spends most of his time, according to Autumn. Autumn's younger brother Mikey is nowhere to be seen and Jenni's inquiries after him get her an astonished and hurt reply from Autumn. A visit to the bathroom reveals even more odd changes when Jenni looks in the mirror and sees her long, curly hair that her parents wouldn't let her cut, has been shorn and her clothes seem to be too tight on her. Jenni heads back to her own condo where she finds her mother out, her father frantically tidying the condo to avoid her wrath, which is very unlike Mrs Green, and a baby sister crying in the other room.

Eventually and with great difficulty and pain to others, Jenni pieces together the events of the last year. When she didn't show up to go horseback riding with Autumn, she convinced Mikey to go with her.  A series of missteps, bad decisions and unfortunate delays left Mikey in the hospital and in a coma he was unlikely to recover from. The accident has taken a huge toll on the Leonards and the Greens as well. The accident has left Mrs Green fearful and overly protective of her children, which in turn takes a toll on her once happy marriage. As Jenni rides the elevator again and again, two years, then three years then four years into the future she sees both their families and her friendship with Autumn fall apart. As Jenni pieces together the events that led to the accident, she revisits the woman now inhabiting the Leonard's old condo. Mrs Smith, it turns out, rode in that same elevator many years ago when she was fourteen and lost a year of memories as well as the love of her life as a result. Reluctantly at first, she shares her story with Jenni and tries to help her to cope with the changes and the loss.  When Mrs Smith entered the story, I breathes a sigh of relief, thinking, "Ok, now and adult in the know is involved and Jenni won't have to solve this horrible, tragic mess on her own." Then, for a brief second I thought, "That's too bad, though. That's how it always happens in these books - an adult comes along and makes it all better." Thus, I was extremely please as I read on and found that Mrs Smith was not a person who was going to step in and fix things for Jenni. She herself was a flawed character who had made the best she could of a life with a lost year. To me, losing a year didn't seem like such a big deal initially, especially when you are a teenager - I would have gladly lost a handful of those years myself - but, that is part of the beauty of Kessler's story. Losing a year has huge repercussions and Kessler illustrates that in both Jenni and Mrs Smith's lives wonderfully.

Consider this a spoiler alert as I am about to talk a bit about that climax that jumps the tracks! Through her elevator rides into the future, Jenni figures out the chain of events that led to Mikey's accident and the severity of his injury. When she manages to go back in time to the day of the accident, she thinks that showing up for horseback riding is enough, but fate has other plans. Jenni intervenes at every possible point  but still she cannot keep the accident from happening, although she can make it happen in a slightly different way. Desperate to save her best friend, her friend's family and her own family from disintegration, Jenni says and does things that she never would have considered before and she is able to twist events just enough to ensure the happy ending that I adore in a kid's book. However, Kessler had my heart in my throat for quite a while, there. I have no doubt that readers who enjoy real life girl stories (even though there is a bit of magic and time travel in A Year Without Autumn) will dive into this book and not put it down until the last page. 


Daisy Dawson at the Beach, written by Steve Voake, illustrated by Jessica Messerve, 89 pp, RL 2

DAISY DAWSON AT THE BEACH is now in PAPERBACK!

Steve Voake and Jessica Messerve's intrepid friend and interpreter of animals, Daisy Dawson, is back and this time she's on vacation! Daisy Dawson at the Beach begins with Daisy saying goodbye to her friends and fellow adventurers, classroom gerbils, Burble and Furball. As she walks home she says her farewells to her other friends as well, trying hard to explain to squirrels Hazel and Conker exactly what the seashore is.

Before she can even pack her suitcase, Daisy wakes up to find a little sparrow on her windowsill, coughing, a larger sparrow patting him on the back with his wing. Turns out the little fellow has a piece of toast stuck in his throat. Daisy knows just how to take care of that! She runs downstairs and returns with a bit of orange soda. The fizz makes Harry a little bonkers at first, but as he happily flaps around he tells her that it's all clear - "Throat clear, eyes clear, head clear. And my beak's all bibbly-bubbly." Then the two fly off so that Flapperton can show Harry how to do loop-the-loops.

Once at the beach, Daisy and family begins a peaceful vacation. Of course, things don't stay quiet for long, not with Daisy and her ability to talk to the animals. While fetching water for tea, she meets Rabsy and Raberta, tow rabbits with very big imaginations and crazy ideas about how the world works.
Intrigued by Daisy and her plans to surf, they ask if she can take them along. Daisy agrees and on her way to the shore meets Pinchy, a dancing, pinching snappy little crab. After a bit of scolding from Daisy for pinching her toe, the two enjoy a little dance together that ends just in time for Pinchy to scuttle back into the water before the seagulls swoop down looking for lunch.
Surfing goes well until Rabsy falls off and Daisy has to rescue him. While searching the waves for her friend, she notices a dolphin trapped in a net on the bottom of the ocean. 
Unable to rescue the dolphin on her own, and worried about the rising tide and the precarious spot where  she left Rabsy and Raberta when she went to find the dolphin, Daisy decides to ask her parents for help. But, before she can she meets Pinchy and decides to ask him to help as well.  
A happy ending is not far off. Pinchy and his friends free the dolphin and takes Daisy, Rabsy, Raberta and, unbeknownst to all of them, Pinchy, for a ride around the bay. Once again, Voake crafts a magical, exciting story around this curious, brave little girl who is brought to life by Messerve's animated illustrations. This is the perfect series to start an emerging reader on!


The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West, illustrated by Poly Bernatene, 241 pp, RL 4

THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE : THE SHADOWS 
is now in PAPERBACK!

Congratulations to Jacqueline West, author of the 
2010 Winner of the  CYBILS award for 
Best Fantasy and Science Fiction for Middle Grades!


 

At first, The Books of Elsewhere : The Shadows, written by Jacqueline West and illustrated by Argentinian born Poly Bernatene seems like something like something you might have already read.  Olive Dunwoody is an eleven year old outsider, both in her home and at school. Her parents are "a pair of more than slightly dippy mathematicians" (West has her characters make some very funny math jokes  and they are so in love they are reminiscent of Gomez and Morticia Addams at times) and Olive clearly has not inherited their gifts in the world of numbers. While they are disappointed, they are loving and try their best to understand their child, seeing her as "some kind of genetic aberration - they talked to her patiently, as if she were a foreign exchange from a country no one had ever heard of." They are devoted to their jobs as professors and have moved Olive often for their careers. Naturally, this has made Olive a bit of a loner who is able to fit in and assimilate as needed, but not so great at making deeper connections. Fortunately for Olive, that is all about to change. Add a creepy old house with a mysterious previous owner and her three seemingly feral cats to to the loner kid scenario and you've got something -  just not what you think, really!

The Dunwoody's purchase the house of the recently deceased Mrs McMartin and everything in it, including the enigmatic paintings that hang on the walls throughout the house. With the summer ahead of her and no new friends, Olive finds herself alone in the house and exploring. Sometimes she thinks she can see things moving in the paintings and "they seem to be keeping secrets." Right outside her bedroom is a painting that Olive describes as "a rolling field with a row of little houses in the distance. It was evening in the painting, and all the windows in the houses were dark. But the houses didn't look like they were sleeping comfortably, just waiting for sunrise to come and start another day. The houses looked like they were holding their breath.  They crouched among the trees and blew out their lights, trying not to be seen.  Seen by what?"  Jacqueline West is a published poet and her writing is so descriptive, beautiful and magical that it was hard to keep from quoting large passages elsewhere in this review. And, it is this gifted writing style that takes what could have been a familiar, tired story and makes it something energetic, new and entrancing.  One of my favorite passages comes when Olive is spying on and summing up two neighbors who are taking tea in the backyard:

Mrs Nivens and Mrs Dewey both smiled sweetly. Mrs Dewey looked as if she had been made of round parts stacked on top of each other, like a snowman. Mrs Nivens was thin and blond and looked like she had been carved out of a stick of butter. Both of them looked like they would melt on a hot day.



When a fat orange cat named Horatio squeezes his way through Olive's open window and speaks vaguely (but wittily) of the dangers that the house possesses, he cautions her to be on her guard because, "There is something that doesn't want you here, and it will do it's best to get rid of you." Not sure if Horatio is trying to protect or threaten, Olive continues to investigate the many rooms of the house.  Another painting attracts Olive's closer inspection, that of a dark forest scene that seems to have a tiny white shape "darting and flickering" among the trees. When poking through the many rooms of the house leads to a bit of playful dress-up and the discovery of an old pair of spectacles, part of the mystery of the house is uncovered. The spectacles allow Olive to view the paintings as movies of a sort - she can see the subjects moving. A closer inspection reveals that Olive, when wearing the spectacles, can actually enter the paintings herself and interact with the subjects. This is how she meets Morton, the flickering white shadow in the forest.  Morton, a nine year old who is sure boys are superior to girls, tells Olive about a bad man who left him stranded in this forest and a talking cat after he heard him talking outside his window one night.  Wanting to help Morton get home and fearing she may be trapped in the painting, Olive calls on Horatio for help, even though Morton insists he is a bad cat.

The two make it out of the painting and, unhappily, Morton is placed in the painting of the houses, leaving Olive to wonder who is telling her the truth, who she can trust and how will she uncover the true story of this house?  Readers are left wondering almost up to the climax as well. Some powerful dark magic, three cat familiars and gravestones that have been moved from Scotland to America by a powerful warlock account for the pervasive menace that fills the house.  But, the cats aren't all bad and they do their best to help Olive battle the forces of darkness in a playful way. In fact, they often reminded me of the penguins from the animated movie Madagascar.  The scene in which Olive searches within herself to find the courage an creativity to fight off the old owner of the house, exiled with Aldous McMartin, rings true to her character. The explanations of how and why Aldous McMartin used his dark power to created the magical paintings are interesting, but almost eclipsed by the adventures that come before it. Olive, Morton and the three cats are wonderful characters and their movements in and out of the different paintings make for some great storytelling. In fact,  The Shadows sometimes feels like two books in one. I am definitely interested to know the backstory of Aldous McMartin and his descendants, but I also feel like I would be happy to read only about Olive and crew ambling around the house, especially if it meant the mystery of Morton was unraveled. Maybe that is coming in book two, Spellbound!



If you are interested, there is an enlightening interview with Jacqueline West to be read and little more art from Poly Bernatene...


And, for those of you who always scroll to the bottom, what follows is my thought process as I tried to determine the merits of the book as a potential CYBILS winner in the Science Fiction/Fantasy Elementary & Middle Grade Category.


First Impressions as a Reader

Elements of the plot feel very familiar and, while Olive is quirky and unique, she also feels a little familiar when it comes to fantasy heroes.  But, the more I read the more I was sucked in by West's lyrical writing style.  While the world she creates might not be filled with as many magical incarnations and creatures as those of Cornelia Funke's, her words are every bit as elegant and descriptive and her world building feels complete and cozy.  Funke's (I use her as a comparison since one of her books made it to the short list) worlds are often epic in scale, dark, sad and brutal with brief glimpses of glimmering, magical beauty.  West's world, contained within the walls of an old house, feels smaller, less threatening and more manageable for the average ten year old reader.

First Impressions of a CYBILS Judge Who Has Agreed to Read and Consider a Short List of Books for the Honor of Best Fantasy & Science Fiction (Middle Grade) 2010 

Personally, I feel that this is one of the best books I read in this category.  Compared with the the other titles, I feel like West's writing has high literary merit and her kid appeal is strong as well.  However, I do worry about alienating boys from this book because of the female protagonist.


Final Impressions:  Literary Merit vs. Kid Appeal







Overall Impression: I think that literary merit outranks kid appeal on this book, ONLY because a girl, not a girl and boy as is so common these days, is the main character. Of course, Morton is a strong and compelling character in the book, but so little is known about him that I feel like he is very secondary and may not be enough to attract boy readers.  However, don't girls read more than boys?  Is gender appeal really that big a part of kid appeal?









Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Roar and When You Reach Me being a 9 in terms of literary merit) : 9







Rating on a scale of 1 to 10 (The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and 39 Clues being a 9 in terms of kid appeal) : 7

OVERALL SCORE:  8