Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron by Mary Losure, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, 169 pp, RL 4

Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron, written by Mary Losure and illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering can be described as narrative non-fiction because it reads like a novel. Losure, who has worked as a longtime staff reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and a contributor to National Public Radio is also the author of another work of narrative non-fiction for young readers. The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, which was published in 2012, is the story of fifteen-year-old Frances and her nine-year-old cousin, Elsie. In 1917, the two girls take paintings of fairies that Frances has done out into the wilderness and photograph them in such a way that makes them look real. When their photos are randomly discovered by a popular group that believes in spiritualism, they are validated as "real" by photo experts and enthusiastically embraced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Believers find it impossible to think that two working class girls could be responsible for a hoax of this nature, their classism further fueling the growing hysteria. I remember first learning of this when the movie Fairy Tale: A True Story came out in 1997. I had no idea that there had been a book written about this incident, especially a children's book. I can't wait to get my hands on The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, especially after reading the haunting Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron.

A child reading Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron probably will not notice aspects of this biography, which contains copious source notes as well as an index, that an adult might, and that's fine. Losure, in a bid to stay true to the facts, is speculative at times in her writing, using words like "maybe," and "might have" to describe undocumented feelings and actions. While this might stand out to adult readers, I think that it will serve to draw in younger readers to this already compelling story. The other aspect of this story that might strike adult readers is the minimum of facts and documentation about the Wild Boy, his story beginning around 1800 (or, given the time and circumstances, this could be seen as a veritable wealth of information). However, I have no doubt that, between the information that Losure does draw out, the moments when she imagines what the Wild Boy might have been thinking and feeling and the moving illustrations by Ering, certain readers will be completely engrossed by this book and the story of the Wild Boy from Aveyron. Losure begins her book in 1797 in the mountains of southern of France where the Wild Boy, thought to be about nine years old, was first spotted by hunters. Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron follows him through his many captures and escapes until he comes to the attention of a town official with a scientific interest who observes the boy and takes notes on his behavior while attempting to socialize him, eventually sending on his findings to government officials in Paris. The boy is moved again and again until he finally ends up in Paris at the Institute for Deaf-Mutes where it is hoped that the Abbé Sicard, who was thought to have been able to teach deaf-mute children to speak, would work a miracle with the Wild Boy, despite the fact that he is not deaf.

What Sicard was skilled at was teaching his deaf-mute pupils to communicate through reading and writing. However, he seemed to have no interest in working with the Wild Boy and soon turned him over to Dr. Itard, who, while not the first person to show kindness to the boy, ensured that he was protected and nurtured, as much as the social norms of the time allowed. Itard's attempts to teach the Wild Boy, to whom he gives the name Victor, are both heartbreaking and exhilarating. What was especially fascinating to me was reading the author's note where I learned of the impact that Dr. Itard's teaching methods and  had on how children, especially those with what we now refer to as special needs, were taught. Children once "dismissed as 'imbeciles' or 'idiots'" were now educated using Itard's methods. The WIld Boy and Itard's time together gave meaning and purpose and a productive life to many children who would have otherwise languished in a institution or similar prison of the time. Later still, Itard's works helped Maria Montessori develop new teaching methods that went on to influence educators all over the world. This makes perfect sense as there were moments in the book where Losure was describing Itard's lessons with Victor when I was deeply impressed by his ideas and attempts. Wild Boy : The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron was a very moving book for me to read. As an adult, the idea of a child growing up alone in the woods then being forced to socialize is compelling. I know that these same aspects, but possibly for different reasons, will appeal to young readers and hopefully send them off on journey that will lead them to read more non-fiction stories as well written as Losure's.

Source: Review Copy


A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, illustrations by Jim Kay, 205 pp, RL 5

A Monster Calls is now in paperback!

I don't know how or where to begin writing about this breathtaking, heartbreaking, perfect new book. The start would be the best place, I suppose. As Patrick Ness says in his Author's Note from the beginning of A Monster Calls

I never got to meet Siobhan Dowd. I only know her the way that most of you will - through her superb books. Four electric young adult novels, two published in her lifetime, two after her too-early death. If you haven't read them, remedy that oversight immediately. This would have been her fifth book. She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time. 

Ness goes on to say that he felt trying to write a book mimicking Dowd's voice would have been a "disservice to her, to the reader, and most importantly to the story... But the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas... I felt- and feel - as if I've been handed a baton, like a particularly fine writer has given me her story and said, 'Go. Run with it. Make trouble. So that's what I tried to do." Ness has grown Dowd's ideas and followed his only guideline, to write a book he thinks she would have liked. He ends his note by saying, "And now it's tie to hand the baton on to you. Stories don't end with the writers, however many started the race. Here's what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it. Make trouble."

A Monster Calls is a story of what happens when you push the truth away. And the truth of this story is a very hard one to accept and to ignore. Conor O'Malley is a thirteen year old boy living alone with his mother who is dying of cancer. She won't admit this to him, though, always insisting that the latest treatment she is undergoing will work best. His father remarried years ago and has a new family in America. Conor's grandmother, a brusque, brisk woman who is not big on words, swoops into the take over the care of his mother, something Conor had been doing just fine on his own, thank you. Lily, once Conor's close, longtime friend, has made his life miserable by telling the whole school his mother is dying of cancer and he can't bear to be around her anymore. Harry, the school bully, is diabolically, mercilessly brutalizing Conor who seems to take it willingly, refusing to tell on him even in the safest of situations. Then things get worse. A monster calls. At 12:07 am the yew tree from the churchyard behind Conor's house roars to life in the form of a giant tree-man and punches his way into Conor's room, bellowing "I have come to get you, Conor O'Malley." Conor is nonplussed. Assuring him that, by the end of their time together he will be scared, the monster says, "Here is what will happen Conor O'Malley. I will come to you again on further nights. And I will tell you stories. The tales from when I walked before." This leaves Conor even less scared than before, but the monster assures him that, "Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt... And when I have finished my three stories you will tell me a fourth."

The yew tree-man of A Monster Calls is right. Stories can chase and bite and hunt. As a numb Conor continues to alienate himself by refusing the reality that is in front of him, despite efforts of his grandmother, father, teacher and school bullies, the monster's stories chase and bite and hunt him down, as does a nightmare that has followed Conor ever since his mother "had first been hospitalized, from before that when she'd started the treatments that made her lose her hair, from before that when she'd had the flu that didn't go away until she went to a doctor and it wasn't the flu at all, from before even that when she'd started to complain about how tired she was feeling." By the climax of A Monster Calls when Conor is forced to tell his story, his own truth, he confronts his nightmare and the meaning behind it. However, he could not have reached that point, the ability to tell his own story, to confront his own truth, without the stories and the power of the monster behind him. As he sadly, slowly realized near the end of the book, the yew-tree-man monster has come to heal him, not his mother.

The monster is a truly wonderful creation and perfectly imagined by artist Jim Kay. When I first held A Monster Calls in my hands, knowing a bit about the plot, I was disappointed to see that it had internal illustrations. I thought that a story of this nature, this gravity, could not possibly benefit from anyone's visual interpretation of it. However, Jim Kay's artwork not only added to but enhanced the power of the monster, the bleak and baroness of the story and Conor's experience. In Ness's skillful hands (he wrote the award winning Chaos Walking Trilogy for teens) the monster himself is a fully formed character and it is sometimes harder to know if you want him to stop tormenting Conor with his visits and stories or help him more than he already has as the grip of grief tightens around Conor. In his review of the book for Frank Cottrell Boyce, another well respected British children's author of books like Millions, Framed, Cosmic and The Unforgotten Coat, writes, 

The monster is a brilliant creation - part giant, part yew tree, destructive, didactic, elemental. It tells Conor three stories, which work, like New Testament parables, by wrongfooting you. The good guys turn out to be bad and the bad guys good. Elegantly, the same goes for the overarching story, in which the nightmare monster is less frightening than daylight family. The prospect of Conor's mother's death brings not only grief and the primal fear of death itself but also a list of no less terrifying pragmatic anxieties: who is going to look after me? Who can I count on? Where will I live?

The stories that the monster tells, although brief, are also gripping in and of themselves, another wonder of this book. Set in the distant past, they have a fairy-tale feel and a breathless pace. At the end of the first story, as Conor is trying to figure out who was good, who was bad and who deserved to be punished, he complains loudly to the monster about the cheating nature of the story. The monster responds, "It's a true story. Many things that are true feel like a cheat." Again and again Ness finds ways to simply state the truth of existence, the pain of uncertainty and the grief and guilt come when another's suffering is both unavoidable and unbearable, all the while making it bearable, digestible, by wrapping these truths in metaphors that make the story.

I have to admit, as much as I read A Monster Calls with a sense of both dread and parental tenderness for Conor, I wondered to myself often, "Who would give this book to a kid? What kind of kid would grab it off the shelf and choose to read it?"  Of course, one of the most wonderful things about having an emerging reading life is the pleasure of wandering the aisles of a library or bookstore and choosing a book on your own. I have no doubt that the cover and title of A Monster Calls would surely grab the attention of many readers who, as they delved deeper into the book, might be surprised by the true nature of the terror that Conor is facing. And that, too, is one of the pleasures of having a reading life - finding a book that appears to be one thing and turns out to be another. And I am sure that readers who experience this book in this fashion will recall it for a lifetime, the images and characters are so intensely vivid. As an adult, I have lost my father to cancer and held the hand of my grandmother as she died. While I would never wish a child to have to experience such loss and grief, the reality is that children do, often. And, as I said about Liz Kessler's A Year Without Autumn, this is a book for children who are reaching the age when their senses of empathy kick in and they become interested in the difficulties and suffering of others (as a bookseller, I have also noticed that this is the same time - middle school age - when kids begin to develop an interest in the Holocaust). Empathy is both innate and learned and I would not hesitate to give A Monster Calls to a young reader for that very reason. Without giving too much of the climax away,  A Monster Calls teaches empathy both for others, but mostly for oneself.

Siobhan Dowd's other book for middle-grade readers is the phenomenal mystery that I reviewed in June of 2009, The London Eye Mystery. Please consider reading even just the first few paragraphs of this review to learn more about Siobhan Dowd and what an amazing person she was.


The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick, 307 pp, RL 4

The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick, besides being a fantastic book, also happens to be one of the first books to be published by the brand new imprint Algonquin Young Readers. I want to take a paragraph here to tell you about Algonquin Young Readers, the recently created arm of Algonquin Books, publisher of acclaimed best selling books for adults such as Like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Last year I had the pleasure of hearing Elise Howard, former senior VP at HarperCollins Children's Books and editor of Neil Gaiman's Newbery Award winner, The Graveyard Book, and now the originating editor and publisher of Algonquin Young Readers, talk about the flavor and feel of the kind of books she wants to make up her list, which is debuting with two YA titles, two illustrated chapter books and one middle grade novel, The Time Fetch. Howard hopes to publish books that have "characters that I want to spend hours of my life with" and also "might entice a casual reader to become a true reader—that’s probably the biggest reward in creating books for young readers." These are two top-notch qualities that I always appreciate in kid's books. I can't think of anything more amazing than being given the chance to create and curate a collection of books, each and every one reflecting your own personal passion and taste. As a bookseller, I got to do that to a certain degree, recommending books that I loved to customers. Working for a literary agent, I have had the thrilling privilege of reading submissions and watching manuscripts go through drafts and take shape, and  is incredibly exciting as well. But to think of starting at square one and shaping, guiding and building a line of books that people will come to know for possessing certain qualities - that sounds second only to actually writing a great book, I'd say!

With The Time Fetch, Amy Herrick has written a book that asks to be read carefully and slowly, or, if you must tear through it to see how the story unfolds, which I did, then I beg you to read The Time Fetch twice so that you don't miss out on the rich imagery, the delectable writing and the intricate threads of the plot that unravel and weave themselves back together, much like Time itself does over the course of the novel. The Time Fetch is set squarely in reality, in this case the modern day Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, populated by four wildly different eighth-graders who are drawn together by one common denominator - the Time Fetch. But, like a dream, the familiar world that you think you know quickly begins to shift and slip, expand and contract, and morph into something else altogether when the Time Fetch is removed from its hiding place. The prologue explains the nature of a Time Fetch and how it comes to be in our world in such a poetic fashion that I hope you will indulge me as I quote it almost in its entirety:

First there was the doorway. It appeared high up in the black of a midsummer night. Round as a hoop, the rim glowing faintly, it stayed open only long enough to allow the Fetch to pass through. Then it was gone. 
     The Fetch itself, was not made of anything you could hold in your hand, but was tiny and bright as a single ash blown out of a bonfire. It irritated and offended the darkness and the darkness began to coat is in a smooth and pearly casing the way an oyster does when a grain of sand gets into its shell. This hardly solved the problem, for as the thing grew bigger it began to hum excitedly. 
     In annoyance, the night spat it out. 
It shot across the sky in a swift arc. Unless you knew what you were looking for, you would have mistaken it for a shooting star. Its pearly shell was translucent. Its insides shone out a bloody gold, the color of your hand when you hold a flashlight against it in a dark room. The humming grew louder. Inside the Fetch, the Queen and her foragers had begun to awaken. 
     As they fell down from the cold glory of the stars into the trembling air, the Queen sang out invitingly. 
     A hungry and half-cracked old owl heard the thing passing by. He plucked it out of the air. In his mouth, the warm Fetch took a nutlike shape. The owl perched on a branch and tried to open it with his beak, but to no avail. The thing was much too hard. The bird whacked the shimmering shell against the branch, but that didn't work either. At last, extremely frustrated, but too hungry to give it up, the owl swallowed the thing whole and flew off. The Fetch, of course, was indigestible and burned the owl's stomach. Restlessly, the bird flew over field and town and forest. For reasons he did not understand, he found himself heading toward the great city where he had been born. When he landed, at last, in the high branches of an oak in a small city garden, he tried to make himself comfortable. But he was miserable all night long. 
     At last, toward morning, he passed the wretched thing, covering it in an excellent camouflage of green excrement. Down it plummeted, humming with excitement, and landed in a tangled bed of ivy.      
     The owl, tremendously relieved, flew off to his destination feeling better than he had felt since he was a nestling. Morning came. Inside the Fetch, the foragers and their Queen were wide awake and hungry.

The Queen and her foragers eat leftover Time, Time that will not be noticed when its gone. The Keeper gathers this Time, collecting the saturated Fetches, and uses it "where is needed, sometimes even to begin new worlds. Naturally, such a treasure is prized from one end of the Great Web to the other. Not least, of course, by the ones whose work is to undo it." When the Time Fetch is mistakenly retrieved from a garden patch and taken to school for a science assignment as an example of a glacial moraine rock, the story is set in motion, bringing together four unlikely classmates, Edward, Feenix (real name Edith), Danton and Bridget. In these four, Herrick has created one of the most unique gatherings of personalities in a fantasy novel since Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs.

We first meet the anti-protagonist, Edward. A phlegmatic realist, as a general rule, Edward does not believe in anything, that is, he had "come to believe that reality was largely a hoax . . . Everything might appear solid. But it wasn't. It was 99 percent empty space. . . The things that people believed in, the things they kept themselves busy with, were just ways of convincing themselves that their lives weren't completely random and unimportant." Unfortunately for the orphaned Edward, he lives with his Aunt Kit who believes in a lot of things, most of them outside of the norm, and takes them very seriously. Aunt Kit, a master baker who runs a test kitchen from home and teaches classes elsewhere, is preparing for December 21st, the longest night of the year, also known as the Winter Solstice. There is baking to be done, of course, and decorations to hang and precautions to take, most of which Edward scoffs at. Almost six feet tall, Feenix is a bit of an anomaly - her mother is half Jewish and half Italian and her father is from Ecuador - and one of her eyes is a bit higher than the other. Feenix embraces her oddness. Where Edward tends to retire from the world, hoping to sleep through life, or at least go through it with a tolerable amount of invisibility, Feenix challenges the world and gets in its face, or at least gets in Edward's face. Never calling him by his real name (mostly he's "Dweebo," but also Edsel, Eddie, etc) Feenix makes it her mission to wake Edward up and push him to the forefront however she can. When these two clash and Feenix finds herself lifting Edward's rock - the Time Fetch - the tall, gregarious, athletic and perpetually hungry Danton (of him, Feenix thinks, "His skin was obviously the product of some ethnic funny business like in her own family.") and the silent, grief-stricken, pale Bridget are drawn into the fray.

When Danton steps in to help Edward get his rock back from Feenix, a chase through Prospect Park ensues, observant Bridget close behind. As Feenix races over a bridge and loses them, she finds herself somewhere else altogether and the plot takes another twist as she and the Time Fetch fall into the hands of those who wish to undo the work of the Keeper and use the powers of the Fetch to their own advantage. With Feenix out of sight and almost completely out of mind to those who knew her, it is up to Edward and Danton, with the wordless urging of Bridget, to find Feenix and the Fetch before the foragers destroy the fabric of our world absolutely. For, as Aunt Kit tells a sneering Edward, without time, "everything would happen at once. . . If everything happened at once, there would be only darkness and chaos. . . Time is the One who gives birth to order, the One who makes the weaving of the Great Web possible."

Rescuing Feenix and the Time Fetch is only the start. With a cryptic grocery list from Aunt Kit as all they have to guide them, the four set out into the unraveling city as the Winter Solstice draws near, tempted by cozy coffee shops, threatened by stone panthers that come to life and forced to cross patches where time has been completely obliterated, causing them to age uncontrollably. I don't think I'd be giving too much away if I tell you that The Time Fetch ends beautifully at Aunt Kit's annual Winter Solstice party where tables groan with sumptuous dishes, a tree is decorated with glittering lights and curious ornaments and guests play their instruments and sing against the darkness outside. And, while the event of Winter Solstice is a central part of the plot that drives the action, I especially like that Herrick presents it as a winter holiday, describing Aunt Kit's preparations and reasons for this celebration. Although Edward initially thinks his aunt and her ideas are beyond crazy, as someone who celebrates this holiday, it is so exciting and refreshing for me to read a book in which celebrating Winter Solstice is part of the plot.

The Time Fetch is stands out among so many of the other middle grade fantasy books I read and images and ideas from it will stay with me long after I have read many more middle grade fantasy books. I can't wait to see what the coming season brings from Algonquin Young Readers!

Source: Review Copy


North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler, 272pp, RL 4

I am embarrassed to say that the only books by Liz Kessler that I have read are her stand alones, like A Year without Autumn and here newest book, North of Nowhere. This is despite the fact that, when I was a bookseller, I watched hugely successful series, Emily Windsnap, about a girl who accidentally learns she is a mermaid during a swimming lesson, and her Philippa Fisher Trilogy about an ordinary girl who discovers that the new girl at school, Daisy, is actually her fairy godmother - or godsister, since they are the same age, fly off the shelves. Believe me, these books are on my to-be-read pile. But, until I get to them, I am thoroughly enjoying everything else that Liz Kessler writes! Based on A Year without Autumn and North of Nowhere, I'd say that Kessler has a distinct gift for writing fantasy that is squarely grounded in the real world. By that I mean that she creates rounded characters with a depth of details, like the quiet, order-loving, responsible Jenni Green, who face hurdles that are the result of wrinkles, glitches or warps (as in Eoin Colfer's superb new W.A.R.P series) in time. As the main character in A Year without Autumn, Jenni may not seem like typical protagonist, but in the challenges she faces when she takes a rickety old elevator that puts her a year and a day in the future, the brains she uses to figure out what's going on and the efforts she has to make to get her life and the lives of her family and her best friend Autumn's family from derailing are gripping and, despite the fantasy aspect, feel real - like how a real twelve year old would realistically be able to handle this kind of unrealistic situation.

Kessler weaves the same kind of magic into North of Nowhere, playing with time and putting a normal kid in the center of a desperate situation that she has to first figure out, then figure out how to fix. Eighth grader Amelia, who secretly still nurtures her childhood love of animals, is excited for the start of Spring Break, looking forward to going to movies, hanging out at the mall and reading about celebrities in trashy magazines with her friends. Plans change drastically when her beloved Grandfather disappears. Amelia's Gran and Grandad are both from the tiny town of Porthaven where they run the only pub, a pub that was owned by Gran's father. Porthaven exists in a pocket from the past, with no "cell-phone signal. No public transportation. No satellite TV" and barely any regular TV due to poor reception. Amelia's Gran thinks that "broadband" is a wide piece of elastic, but her Grandad is different. He takes an interest in Amelia's world, asking her if she's seen anything good on YouTube, even though she's sure he has no idea what it is. Despite her frustration and disappointment, Amelia keeps it to herself and goes with her mother to Porthaven to comfort Gran, look for Grandad and help run the pub. While walking the dog (named Flake, which is a scrumptious British chocolate bar and great name for a dog) Amelia, who goes by Mia, discovers a boat docked at an old jetty, reached by passing under three arches, that hasn't been used in decades. Flake jumps onto the boat, interested in crab pots, and Mia chases after him. On the boat, she uncovers a beautiful diary that "felt like something from an ancient magician's study." Knowing she shouldn't, she opens it and begins to read. There, she finds the thoughts of a girl just like her - frustrated by having to do what her mother tells her, lonely because she lives on an island off the coast and can only go to school and be with her friends when the weather allows her fisherman father to ferry her there. As she reads on, Mia begins to think that this girl, who signs off as "D," might be someone she can be friends with during her exile in Porthaven. Mia takes a bold chance and writes a note to D in her diary then tucks it back in the locker on the boat. Over the course of a few days, the girls exchange messages in the diary, whenever the Mia finds the boat at the jetty. They plan to meet in town after the fish auction, but D never shows up and Mia finds out that the auction isn't even happening. Confused and a bit mystified, Mia hatches a plan with Peter, a boy a bit older than her who is vacationing in Porthaven where is is thrilled to be learning how to fish and captain a boat. At the last minute Mia decides she can't go through with the plan, unaware that Peter ha gone through with it on his own. When Peter goes missing, Mia confides in his younger sister Sal and the two try to unravel the mystery on together. 

What they do and what they find will have you reading feverishly and breathlessly through to the ending. As with A Year without Autumn, Kessler figures out how to write time travel that doesn't have loopholes that give you pause while reading. You never find yourself saying, "Well, why doesn't she just..." or, "If she can do that, then why doesn't she..." In part, this is because Mia (along with the reader) is unraveling the mystery as it happens. Kessler also skillfully explains the mystery, in the voice of her characters, so that the reader can fully grasp what as happened, complex as it may be. My favorite book in the JK Rowling's series is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and my favorite moment in the book comes when, traveling back in time, Harry realizes he is the wizard who cast the spell that sends the stag patronus charging at the dementors, saving his life, among others. Without giving too much away, there is a similar situation in North of Nowhere that leads to a truly amazing moment that I guarantee will give you goosebumps. In many ways, North of Nowhere is really a quiet book about families and generations. Even without the twist of time travel, I'd want to read about Amelia and her Gran and Grandad and their pub in Porthaven. But, that extra, magical layer to the story adds a "wow factor" that will make you turn back to page one and begin reading all over again. North of Nowhere is definitely a stand-out book, one that you will remember for a long time.

Other books by Liz Kessler:

The Emily Windsnap Series

The Philippa Fisher Trilogy

Poppy the Pirate Dog for early readers 
review coming VERY soon!


Invisible Inkling: The Whoopie Pie War, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Harry Bliss, 151 pp, RL 3

Last year I reviewed Dangerous Pumpkins, the second book in Emily Jenkins' Invisible Inkling series, illustrated by the marvelous Harry Bliss. What first drew me to this book is Inkling himself. Inkling, invisible to everyone, is a bandapat, native to the Peruvian Woods of Mystery, or possibly the Ukranian Glaciers or perhaps the Redwood Forests of Cameroon. Inklinkg likes to mix things up. Inkling also needs lots of vitamin A and is therefore a lover of squash, especially pumpkin. In Dangerous Pumpkins, this proved almost disastrous as it was Halloween and pumpkins were everywhere and Inkling didn't quite understand that he couldn't eat every single one he saw. But the thing I really love about Jenkins and Bliss's books are the readability, page length and creativity. If you have a kid who has moved beyond chapter books like Magic Tree House but is not quite ready for the 300+ page fantasies that predominate, then these are the books for your reader!

Inkling lives in Brooklyn with Hank Wolowitz and his family. The Wolowitzs include teenage sister Nadia and mom and dad, who own and run the shop Big Round Pumpkin : Ice Cream for a Happy World. When Invisible Inkling : The Whoopie Pie War begins, Hank and his halfway friend Patne (Hank calls everyone by his last name) are at the shop helping Mr. Wolowitz make pumpkin ice cream, something he's never been able to perfect. While "helping," Hank also manages to secret some canned pumpkin into a baggie to take to Inkling to see what happens. But, being Hank, he ends up dropping the bag out the window of Nadia's room when he can't find Inkling. It makes a satisfying splat on the sidewalk a few floors below, but it causes no end of trouble for Hank. Besides the fact that he now has to find something else for Inkling to eat, Mr. Mnoonkin and his dog Rootbeer are sprayed in pumpkin and his mother makes him and Patne give Rootbeer a bath, reminding Hank that they are pacifists and do not drop things out of windows. But this turns out to be the least of Hank's problems. Betty-Ann has parked her food truck right in front of Big Round Pumpkin and she is selling whoopie pies filled with ice cream. And her business is booming. And business at Big Round Pumpkin is dropping off - drastically. Oh yeah, and Hank discovers a way to make the Invisible Inkling (temporarily) visible!

Jenkins has an amazing gift for winding a comfortable weirdness into her stories that make them more than memorable. And the oddities are  limited to Inkling, who is quite a curiosity, invisible or not. Hank's mom sings him up for swimming lessons and he is not happy, although Inkling is, as bandapats are great swimmers as they are related to the otters of the Canadian underbrush. Hank is a poor swimmer because, as he determines, his brain gets "overbusy" while he swims. His imagination runs wild and he either swims crooked or, without realizing it, stops and stands in the middle of the lane without even realizing it as his overbusy brain spins out a story. He might be imagining that the indoor pool is actually his bedroom and one wall is covered with a long row of heated towels. Or, as he does the backstroke, he might be thinking about a shipwrecked kitten on a soggy raft that he must rescue. The thing is, he has been injured by the shipwreck, his stomach cut open and his insides spilling out, so he can only swim on his back as he makes his way to the mewling kitten. Hank and the kitten, who he names Hercules, survive on the raft and by the time they are rescued they have invented the language Humankitty. I love stuff like this!
But, what I really love is the way that Jenkins brings everything back around in her stories. Just when it seems like things are at their worst, Jenkins (in a chapter titled, "Your Predictions Are Wrong") resolves the various plot threads - from Betty-Ann's bad business practices to Mr. Wolowitz's mad drive to bake the perfect whoopie pie to Nadia and her halfway-friend Jacquie and her pygmy hedgehogs to swimming to killing Patne with kindness to Hanukkah ice cream (no, not latke and applesauce flavor, not eve gelt flavor!) - in a super satisfying and surprising way!

As with every Inkling book, Jenkins includes a "Note from the Author" in which she discusses various aspects of the story, from the setting (a blend of Brooklyn shops, parks and neighborhoods that Jenkins herself frequents) to subjects (Jenkins notes that Hank is an unreliable reporter and Inkling a big liar) to things like ice cream (Big Round Pumpkin is modeled after Blue Marble Ice Cream) and a brief breakdown of exactly what a whoopie pie is, for those who have not experienced their awesomeness, as Jenkins says. She modeled Betty-Ann's pumpkin ice cream whoopie pies after those she had at One Girl Cookies. Although on the opposite coast from One Girl Cookies, I was the luck recipient of a box of their pumpkin whoopie pies last year and they are truly, amazingly awesome!

Source: Review Copy


Bluffton: My Summers with Buster, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan, 240 pp, RL: 4

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster is the newest graphic novel from Matt Phelan. This is Phelan's third graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn and Around the World, being the first two. All three of these books are set in the past, featuring historical events and figures who left their mark on the world, if not changed it outright. With Bluffton, Phelan tells a more personal story as he did in The Storm in the Barn, with a fictional protagonist watching history unfold around him. It's the summer of 1908 in Muskegon, Michigan, the summer they arrived.

The text, and even the plot itself, in Bluffton is sparse, Phelan's illustrations doing the work of telling the story, setting the scene and evoking a feeling. Henry, the son of a hardware store owner, watches as the vaudevillians arrive to spend the summer in Bluffton, a nearby town on the edge of the lake. Henry wants to follow the laughing, colorful people, the elephant and the boy who does backflips, but the trolley is full. Eventually, Henry makes his way out to Bluffton where he makes fast friends with Buster. Henry soon learns who Buster is and what his family does for a living and he want to know more, maybe even learn a bit from Buster. But Buster is reluctant, telling Henry that it's very easy to get hurt.

Henry is angered by this and his jealousy almost alienates Buster, but Buster's joy at having a summer free from work and free to play is hard to ignore. The boys play baseball, pull pranks and skip rocks across the lake, scenes and stories from Buster's life are interspersed with these moments. The vaudevillians leave the Actor's Colony at the end of summer, but the impression Buster leaves on Henry is long lasting.

Henry decides to develop an act for the town talent show that leads to some subtle but profound realizations about  time, place and innate personalities. Phelan's touch is gentle, both with his story and his gorgeous watercolor illustrations. He gives the readers just enough information about Buster Keaton to pique their interests with an Author's Note that points readers toward resources to explore for further examples of Keaton's genius. As he did with Around the World, Phelan masterfully presents young readers with a lyrical vision of a talented person who accomplished something great, inspiring them to learn more about the subject. I know I'm going to queue up some Buster Keaton movies to watch after reading Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.

Source: Review Copy


The Last Dragonslayer, the Chronicles of Kazam, Book 1 by Jasper Fforde, 287pp, RL MIDDLE GRADE

The Last Dragonslayer is now in paperback, and with a cool new take on the original cover art!!

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde is the first in the Chronicles of Kazam, his new series for young readers. Many years ago I gleefully gobbled up his debut adult book The Eyre Affair, the first book in the Thursday Next series. Thursday Next, daughter of Wednesday and Colonel Next, is a literary detective living in a parallel universe where an alternate history is playing out. Next has a pet dodo named Pickwick (cloning is a common, although bringing back the wooly mammoth was probably a mistake) and lives in a world where literature is the most popular form of entertainment and capitalism and big business run rampant. Thursday's Uncle Mycroft has invented the Prose Portal, a device that lets everyday people enter works of fiction, and Hades, a criminal mastermind has used it to steal an original manuscript by Charles Dickens, ultimately threatening to kill off literary characters. Thursday has to hunt him down before he changes great works of literature forever and in doing so she irrevocably alters the ending of Jane Eyre. The brilliance, well one of them, of this novel is that, in Thursday's world, Jane Eyre ends with the titular character sailing off to India. In her efforts to stop Hades from killing Jane, Thursday brings about the ending of the novel that we know and, with a little intervention, brings Jane and Rochester together. I tell you all this because these are fantastic books that anyone with a minor literary background and sense of humor will enjoy (and probably even more than a few teenagers) but also as a way of letting you know what to expect from  The Last Dragonslayer.

In The Last Dragonslayer Fforde creates an alternate universe - the Ununited Kingdom - where magic was once a powerful and respected force and dragons roamed the land. Now, magic is waning. The Troll Wars (at least four of them) have created many orphans and these foundlings often find themselves left on the doorstep of the convent of the sacred order of the Blessed Ladies of the Lobster. At the age of twelve, foundlings are sent into servitude where they are expected to work off their debt to society until they are eighteen and can become full-fledged citizens. This is how main character Jennifer Strange (all foundlings are named by the Lobsterhood) finds herself on the verge of turning sixteen and driving her 1958 Volkswagon Beetle (drivers are awarded licenses based on maturity, not age) packed tight with Lady Mawgon, Wizard Moobin, Full Price and the Quarkbeast. In the absence of her boss, the Great Zambini (who was secretly working children's birthday parties, a shame upon all wizards, in an effort to keep business solvent) Jennifer is running Kazam Mystical Arts Management and ferrying clients to jobs. The offices of Kazam Mystical Arts Management are based out of Zambini Towers, once the luxurious Majestic Hotel, second tallest building in Hereford after King Snodd's Parliament and now a crumbling, oddly enchanted structure that houses the last forty-five "sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weather-mongers, carpeteers, and other assorted mystical artisans." Oddities like a magicked elevator shaft that requires riders to jump into it and shout out the floor they want, the self-tidying tenth floor, visual echoes and the Transient Moose, a practical joke from long ago that moves randomly around the building. Sadly, as magic wanes and practitioners of magic are looked down upon, the residents of Zambini Towers are forced to use their magical powers to clear drains, rewire houses and predict the color of unsorted flower bulbs, among other tedious tasks.

When The Last Dragonslayer begins Jennifer finds herself with a new foundling to train, the twelve year old Horton Prawns who prefers to go by the name Tiger. As she trains Tiger, who proves very competent, loyal and smart, she also tries to deal with the leak of a premonition and a surge in the levels of magical power in the land, both of which have something to do with Maltcassion, the last living dragon and possessor of a huge swath of the last undeveloped land in the Ununited Kingdoms. In both content and character, there is little if anything in The Last Dragonslayer that makes it inappropriate for young readers. While Jennifer is fifteen, almost sixteen, and I usually recommend that kids read books with characters not much older than themselves, what prompted me to give The Last Dragonslayer a MIDDLE GRADE rating rather than YA is the humor of the book, all of which is based around socio-political things like a government that keeps its population under control and mostly impoverished by owning all the major businesses as well as fostering a population that lives to consume the cheaply made, disposable items the government is churning out. On top of all this, there are armies massing and landships being loaded in anticipation of a war for the land that will be left behind when, as the prophecy indicates, the last dragonslayer will kill the last dragon at noon on Sunday, leaving his land free and first come, first serve. About halfway through the novel and in a scene that reads like a sketch from an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, Jennifer learns that SHE is the last dragonslayer and she inherits Exhorbitus (called so "probably because it was very expensive) the dragon slaying sword and the Slayermobile, a hopped up Rolls Royce with a lance attached to the side, among other things a dragonslayer requires. As the second half of the novel unfolds, Jennifer finds herself negotiating with the fatuous King Snodd and the wiser but woefully underprepared Duke of Brecon with every company in the land wanting her as a spokesperson and to buy the rights to make toy version of Exhorbitus and the Slayermobile as well as television personalities like Yogi Baird asking her to speak on their shows.

Fforde brings this first book in the Chronicles of Kazam to a poignant, thoughtful end that ties up some of the earlier mysteries in the book like the surge in magic. Interestingly enough, the final magic that brings about a satisfying ending is, in part, powered by the millions of people who, in an act of avarice, are crowding around the barriers of the dragonland, waiting to claim a piece of property for themselves upon his death, just like the government. As Gordon von Gordon, the dragonslayer's apprentice says near the end of the book, summing up one of the major themes in Fforde's writing, 

King Snodd and the Duke of Brecon are powerful, Miss Strange. They have the power, as you have seen, to change the law at a whim and outlaw their citizens at their command. But even they are powerless when it comes to the might of commerce. Governments may come and go; wars will reshape the Ununited Kingdoms many times. But companies will stay and flourish. Show me any major event on this planet, and I will show you the economic reason behind it. Commerce is all powerful, Miss Strange. Commerce rules our lives.

 It's ideas like these that will require a more mature reader to really grasp the humorous themes of The Last Dragonslayer. Because this is a novel of an intellectual nature, there isn't much action until the last few chapters of The Last Dragonslayer and there is not a lot of description of or development of Jennifer Strange and Tiger Prawns, characters who will return in the next books, The Song of the Quarkbeast and The Return of Shandar, hopefully with more depth to their already interesting personalities.

Speaking of Quarkbeasts, Jennifer's Quarkbeast has to be one of the coolest characters in the book. Described as "one tenth Labrador, six tenths velociraptor and three tenths kitchen food blender," Strange's beast has razor sharp fangs and is hideously frightening but gentle at heart, although it is often hard to convince others of this. And he loves to eat metal, magnesium especially.

The Song of the Quarkbeast
Book 2 in the Chronicles of Kazam 
due out September 3, 2013

For teens and adults, don't miss

The Thursday Next Novels . . .


The Nursery Crimes Division novels . . . 

Fforde's newest novel, set in a world without color...