Explorer: The Lost Islands, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, 128 pp, RL 3

In 2012 we were treated to Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, author of the amazing Amulet graphic novel series (waiting anxiously for Book 6...) and illustrator of the cover art for the 15th anniversary editions of the Harry Potter books (scroll to the bottom for images and a link to even MORE images). Once again, an amazing group of graphic novelists convenes to create Explorer: The Lost Islands. Greats like Jake Parker (Missile Mouse), Raina Telgemeier (Smile, Drama) and her husband Dave Roman (Astronaut Academy), Michel Gagné (ZED: A Cosmic Tale), Katie Shanahan and her brother, Steven, (Shrub Monkeys) Jason Caffoe, a contributor to Flight 7 and Chrystin Garland, freelance animator and digital artist, lend their talents to this volume. Each of the seven stories in Explorer: The Lost Islands takes place on or ends up on an island and is as individual as the artists who created it.

Explorer: The Lost Islands kicks off with Jake Parker's story, Rabbit Island, is a Little Red Hen sort of story with a retro comic strip style of illustration and a color palette markedly different from Missile Mouse. I especially love this story because there's a robot in it.

Chrystin Garland's story, The Mask Dance, is an exciting adventure and a bit haunting. A diligent young girl is tricked by a mask-wearing reveler into heading off to a festival on a nearby island...

Radio Adrift by Katie and Steven Shanahan is a fantastic story that reminds me a bit of Kiki's Delivery Service. Wiya, a mage in training, has one big project to complete for school this year - hatch her pixie egg. Pixie eggs, it seems, only hatch when they hear a certain sound, a sound individual to each egg.  Wiya is sure she is going to fail as she watches the eggs of all her classmates hatch until she discovered something very special coming from the radio and a DJ with a magic voice.

The final story in Explorer: The Lost Islands is a real big fish story that ends in a very surprising way. Actually, I feel like all seven of these stories have superb surprise endings that I can't say too much about. Which is exactly why you need to run out and buy Explorer: The Lost Islands and Explorer: The Mystery Boxes if you don't already own it!

Source: Review Copy

To see ALL of Kazu's cover art (and back cover art) as well as the super cool boxed set with images of Hogsmeade, the Hogwarts Express, professors and students from the books, click HERE. Happily, I had a good reason to buy this new edition. My nine year old has just started listening to the audio books and he had a birthday, so I felt completely justified purchasing a fourth set of Rowling's books for him to read. I just hope he realizes those books are really mine...


Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff, 167 pp, RL: Middle Grade

My apologies to Tony Cliff for my reductionist comparison but his creation is the closest we may come to a credible female Indiana Jones. Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant  begins in Constantinople in 1807 with a delicious cup of tea. After this initial quiet moment, the action takes off pretty quickly. We next see the thoughtful tea drinker in line to receive his pay, which comes not as a bag of coins or a stack of bills handed over, but as a pile of gold in the center of a great hall where the officers of the Janissary Corps are about to show their skill and ability by fighting each other for the biggest take. As you might expect, our gentle tea connoisseur, Lieutenant Erdemoglu Selim, walks away empty handed. Things go from bad to worse for him when he is charged with taking tea (and biscuits) to a prisoner - Delilah Dirk. A prison break, a double fisted sword fight and the getaway on a flying sail boat and, of course, Delilah Dirk, change Selim's life forever.

How did Delilah come by her awesomeness? She was born to an English father who as a foreign ambassador and a Greek mother widely recognized for her artistic talents. Delilah grew up travelling the world and training with masters from all disciplines - a French marksman, monks at a Japanese monastery and a Native American. She was even a high ranking member of three different royal courts and it's a hoot to see her in Edwardian gowns in these panels, especially because her personal style is so cool - she's got some kickin' boots, a top that shows off her great arms (and decolletage...) and she has a fantastic pleated skirt that lets her stand her ground and fight or haul when she needs to. And her skirt reminds us of the time period and her gender while hinting at her Greek heritage.

While Deliliah gives Selim the option to leave at any time, he stays on with her as she attempts to steal back the gold from thirteen ships belonging to a family member that have been plundered by one pirate. While Delilah does make plans, a lot of the action seems to be last minute, by-the-skin-of-her-teeth hit-and-run action. Explosions and sword fights ensue and a chase follows that leads the pair to a quiet coastal town where they lay low for a while. Selim is enchanted with the family that welcomes them into their home and he finally decides to part ways with Delilah. She gives him a compass just in case he wants to find her again and says she's headed to Greece. The novel ends with a possible second adventure, which I hope is in the works as I type. Cliff's artwork conveys the wonder of this story much better than my words and I definitely recommend this graphic novel for any 'tween girl looking for a very cool heroine and a splash of history. There is quite a bit of blood and death scattered across the pages of this novel, which is why I gave it a middle grade rating, but no more than you see in your average Indiana Jones movie...

Source: ReviewCopy


Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action! by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost, 61pp, RL 1.5

In 2009 Adventures in Cartooning hit the shelves. Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action is the third book in this hugely popular series, all of which are presented by the The Center for Cartoon Studies. At first I thought that The Center for Cartoon Studies was something like the ACME company in Warner Brothers cartoons, but, as I began researching this series to write my review, I discovered that it is REAL! The CSS offers a two year program exploring the art of creating visual stories with over 100 students enrolled. And, author James Strum, besides being the author of award winning comics and graphic novels, is on the faculty of The Center for Cartoon Studies and Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost are alumni of the school! Now the title really makes sense, right?

Before I say anything else, I need to alert you to the wonderful fact that this graphic-novel/how-to-draw series is also PERFECT for emerging readers! Like the TOON series of graphic novels (which are specifically written to be beginning to read primers) the Adventures in Cartooning series is an enticing step up from leveled readers that will give kids a true sense of accomplishment. In Adventures in Cartooning we are introduced to the Magic Cartooning Elf who helps a young princess with writer's block create her very first comic, which leads to a story-within-a-story. As the plot unfolds, the Magic Cartooning Elf, while helping the princess, is also teaching readers about story structure and the basic elements of cartooning and techniques. There are even more straightforward instructions on how to draw a comic at the end of the book. The beauty of this series is that the authors present a seemingly simplistic story that is really layered storytelling that folds actual instruction into the plot like Nutella in a cronut.

Photo from First Second

Based on my fantastic description, you might guess what's going on in Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action. But really, the story was so entertaining that I read for plot and forgot to look for tips on drawing characters in action and didn't even realize what was going on with the Basic Shapes characters (Jonesy and his son, able to portray hundreds of different characters) until I reached the page that shows how to make characters look old (or young) and how to draw expressions. And, while Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action is a mere 60 pages, two of which are "About the Authors" pages that contain no real information about the authors, and one page dedicated to the thoughts of a fly stuck in the intestines of Edward, the horse who gets turned into a galloping stalk of broccoli, there is so much going on in this book that I'm not sure where to being to describe it! However, the back cover, above, comes close, informing the reader that there are so many great characters in this great story that they all didn't fit inside the book and had to be relegated to the back cover...

However, if you really feel the need to know the plot of Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action, here goes: the Brave Knight and his horse, Edward, come upon a group of intruders in the forest and quickly realize that they need to get to the castle to protect the King. Once there, they find renowned director Otto Airs, the man behind "GrowBots," "Outlaws - Inlaws," and "Loudmouth." He is making a movie, using the castle as a set, and in the middle of a casting call for a seven-year-old witch. A miscast spell and the appearance of a brilliant, mad scientist and inventor of the Mash-O-Matic leads to some pretty awesome mash-ups, including a Boat-O-Saurus and (almost) a Broc-A-Lina (broccoli crossed with a ballerina). Amazingly, all is set right in the end - the King is returned to his throne, the Special Effects Gun is destroyed and the Magic Cartooning Elf discusses body language, among other things, gently shifting from story to drawing lesson then back to story again. Really, you have to read Adventures in Cartooning : Characters in Action to truly believe all the amazing stuff rolled into this book! Now, I am going to get my pencils and paper and draw some peanut-shaped characters, which I'm sure is exactly what your kids will want to do as well when they finish this book!

Other books in the Adventures in Cartooning series!

Source: Review Copy


Babymouse: Queen of the World by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

Jennifer L. Holm, is the winner of three Newbery Honor Medals for Our Only May Amelia in 2000, Penny from Heaven in 2007 and Turtle in Paradise in 2011. She and her brother, Matthew Holm, are also the creators of the HUGELY popular graphic novel series, Babymouse! and the spin off series, Squish (reviews of books #1 and #5 here). The series debuted in 2005 with Babymouse: Queen of the World. The 18th book in the series, Happy Birthday, Babymouse, is due out in April of 2014. As a bookseller, I watched this series fly off the shelves. As a volunteer reading tutor in a second grade class, I watched struggling students, mostly girls but also boys, embrace Babymouse! and feel excited to read, often for the first time. As a mother, I was ecstatic when my youngest stepped up from beginning to read books to the Squish series. I even caught him reading as he was walking home from school one day!

So what is so great about Babymouse! and Squish? In Babymouse, the Holms have created a character who is a bit of an underdog, a character who wants to be accepted by the "popular" kids and a mouse who has a fantastic imagination and a great best friend in her buddy and fellow monster movie enthusiast, Wilson Weasel. Also, Babymouse LOVES cupcakes and the little pink heart that is near the hem of all her dresses. Babymouse is funny, silly and sometimes fierce, but above all else, she is thoughtful.

In Babymouse: Queen of the World, Babymouse discovers the Felicia Furrypaws is having a sleepover party and she is not invited. Desperate to get in on what she is sure will be a fantastic party, Babymouse faces some tough choices and I think this is another reason that readers love Babymouse and Squish. Kids love seeing characters in a tight spot and the Holms have a brilliant, subtle way of putting their characters in realistic situations that make them think and act, and not always in the best way possible. Equally, the Holms also have a wonderful way of showing their characters working through these tough situations and making the right choice in the end. The Holms also do a superb job of capturing the school setting, making it feel real and just a little bit more-than-real at just the right times. Babymouse gives her book report to Felicia in exchange for an invitation to her party and breaks her plans to watch "Attack of the Giant Squid" at Wilson's. Once she gets to the party, things aren't quite as fun as she had imagined. The girls just want to talk and do their whiskers and paint their nails. Bored and bumbling, Babymouse scorches the rug when she drops the curling iron and covers Felicia in nail polish while trying to open the bottle. When she overhears Felicia calling Wilson a doofus, she realizes what she has done and rushes out the door to make things right!

Both Babymouse and Squish are characters I am happy for my kids to spend time with. I don't have to worry about them picking up sass or snark and I know that, while being completely entertained, they are also learning little lessons...  One book that especially hit home in my house was Squish: Game On!. When Squish's dad gives him money for his birthday, he plans to spend it on a new comic book and a trip to a comic convention where he and his dad plan to dress up like their favorite characters and spend the rest of his money. But, Squish changes his mind and spends his money on the hot new video game that his friends are playing. Besides getting sucked into the game and spending all his free time (and not so free time) playing it, Squish doesn't get his book report turned in on time and he gets a D. How mom, dad, Squish and his teacher handle all this is brilliant!

Holm is also the author of the very cool Year-Told-Thru Stuff series, featuring Ginny Davis, which is sort of like a graphic novel but with photographs of the stuff of life instead of illustrations. Holm collaborates with Elicia Castaldi to tell the story of Ginny's life through collage art and comic strips by Matthew Holm.

 and coming in April of 2014, 

Babymouse #1 - #16


The Super Book for Superheroes by Jason Ford

The Super Book for Superheroes by Jason Ford is SUPER AWESOME!! Ford begins his book (after the "This Book Belongs To" page that lets kids enter their secret identity and their superhero name) with this fantastic message, "OK! SO you want to draw superheroes doing things like flying and fighting supervillains. All you need are some pencils and pens and your very own superpower . . . YOUR IMAGINATION!" In the pages that follow, Ford gives kids everything they need to inspire imagination and explore creatively. The Super Book for Superheroes has the perfect balance of structure and freedom, encouraging and suggesting with instruction and ideas then letting kids run wild with blank pages. There are pages that show, step by step, how to draw a superhero, how to draw a costume and how to draw a superhero running followed by prompt pages that give kids the space to practice what they have learned. 

More prompt pages really get imaginations going. X-ray vision lets artists show what their superhero sees inside a building and a van. Other prompt pages let kids draw the superheroes behind secret identities like little old lady and family dog.

There are hideouts and secret islands to be filled in, houses and sub-aquatic headquarters to be designed for heroes and villains, scenes from the past and future to be detailed when superheroes time travel. There are flying machines, super-cars and super-cars for villains  to be designed, and a utility belt to be stocked.

There is a Super Hero Secret Code Wheel that lets readers write their own secret messages. There is a grid where kids can draw a map of their neighborhood and panels with prompts that let kids create their own comic strip with their super hero.

As if that wasn't enough, there are pages with some super cool stickers and pop-out super hero masks to be designed and decorated, then worn and even a pop-out super hero to color and create.

There is just one tiny thing that I almost hate to mention here: the superheroes in The Super Book for Superheroes are never referred to specifically by gender (therefore giving kids the ability to make them into whatever they want, boy, girl, space alien, or narwhal superheroes) which I think is fantastic, but the illustrations of superheroes are pretty clearly masculine. The lack of gender specificity definitely makes the book more girl friendly, but I do kind of wish that there had been a few pages of female super heroes for girls to create. Or, maybe Jason Ford is already hard at work on the next Super Book for Superheroes that, while remaining gender neutral when it comes to the use of pronouns, clearly has some super hero girls doing some super superhero things.

Source: Review Copy


The Whatnot: The Sequel to THE PECULIAR by Stefan Bachmann, 421pp, RL 4

Stefan Bachmann's debut novel, The Peculiar, came out in the fall of 2012 when he was nineteen and could be considered accomplished for a writer with twice his age and experience. Although reading past the first in a series is rare for me, I just had to know what became of Bartholomew Kettle, Arthur Jelliby and, most of all, Barty's branch-haired little sister, Hettie in the sequel, The Whatnot. When we last saw Hettie, she was covered in spells written on her skin and, through magic employed by Mr. John Wednesday Lickerish, Lord Chancellor and first ever faery to serve in Parliament, Hettie herself had become a door between the human and faery worlds - a door that will also destroy London in the same way that Bath was destroyed decades earlier. However, as The Whatnot begins with a prologue, we quickly learn that London was spared and Arthur Jelliby has risen in rank and esteem. Then, we hear nothing from Mr. Jelliby or the determined Bartholomew until half way through the novel!

But, while I missed these characters and was desperate to know what had become of their lives, Bachmann's skill at developing characters and immersing his readers into a densely Dickensian world that you can almost smell, is superb. While Barty and Mr. Jelliby were never far from my thoughts, I was happy to meet Pikey, an urchin who lives in a hole under the stairs of a chemist's shop. Doubly cursed, Pikey is a dark skinned orphan who has gleaming silver eye that sometimes lets him see other people and places. He is faery touched, his own eye stolen and replaced with one that looks in at the Old World which is a dismal place, worse than Bachmann's London, if you can believe it possible. As Pikey finds himself strangely drawn into Barty and Mr. Jellibys hunt for a doorway into the Old World so that they can rescue Hettie, Hettie and the faery butler belonging to Mr. Lickerish make their way into the strange, desolate Old World, her only thought to find her way back to her brother.

Hettie's time, which adds up to years, in the Old World is haunting and brutal at times. When the faery butler kills the strange creature poised to steal Hettie's eye, Hettie finds herself in possession of a pendant that seems to have a warm, dark brown human eye at its center. From the strange, storied house of the eye-stealing creature to the even stranger, continually under construction house of Piscaltine, the demented, cruel faery who decides to make Hettie her Whatnot and call her Maude, Bachmann's Old World is probably the most magically disturbing stretch of literary geography I have visited in a long while. How England prepares for yet another war with the faeries, including the stuning 300 ft tall iron prison globes that roll across the country like a slave ship crossing the ocean, thousands of faeries working to create the movement, and how the Sly King goes about opening the doorway between worlds that will finally allow his people to take their place in a world where they will rule the humans is stunning and magnificently concluded in two books!

Source: Purchased Audio Book and Review Copy

Next up for Bachmann, due May 27, 2014, 
The Cabinet of Curiosities : 40 Tales Brief & Sinister 

Other contributors to this book are Katherine Catmull, author of the haunting Summer and Bird, which I really need to finish reading and review here, Claire Legrand, author of The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls and Emma Trevayne, author of Coda.


The Peculiar by Stefan Bachman, 376 pp, RL 4

The Peculiar is now in paperback!! 
And the sequel, The Whatnot has just been released! 

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann is a rich and sumptuous book with some of the best world building I have read in a long, long time. This is special in and of itself, but there is something else worth noting about Bachmann and his accomplished novel that I will share at the end of my review.

The prologue to The Peculiar tells the story of the night of September 23rd when there was a "tremendous noise like wings and voices, creaking branches and howling winds, and then, in the blink of an eye, Bath was gone, and all that remained were ruins, quiet and desolate under the stars." That's right, in the first page of The Peculiar the whole city of Bath, circa Victorian era England, is obliterated and the "Small Folk, the Hidden People, the Sidhe had passed from their place into ours. The faeries had come to England." Intentionally? That's to be determined. However, one cold, hard fact of the event remains - there is no way for the faeries to return to their world. A war between the faeries and the British ensues, a war that comes to be known as the "Smiling War because it left so many skulls, white and grinning, in the fields." When the dust settles, after a time, the faeries become part of England, "an inseparable part, like the heather on the bleak gray moors, like the gallows on the hilltops." They settle in, living side by side with the humans, and "soon were no worse off than the thousands of human poor that toiled at their side." However, the high faeries, the Sidhe (pronounced "Shee") who had been lords and ladies in their own land, could not forget all they had lost. In addition to a simmering resentment, the arrival of the faeries in England results in the creation of a changelings, or, more specifically, the peculiar, the offspring of the union of a human and a faery. The Peculiar, who are peculiar looking, human features mingling with faery oddities like deep, black eyes or twigs for hair, are hated by humans and faeries alike and live by the simple rule, "don't get yourself noticed and you won't get yourself hanged." Over the course of the story, which I believe is going to be told in two volumes, a Peculiar and a junior member of Parliament find themselves an unlikely duo, racing to uncover the the evil force behind the gruesome murders of child Peculiars.

Bachmann describes every aspect of The Peculiar lovingly and he knows this pseudo-Victorian world and it's inhabitants well. We first meet Bartholomew Kettle, a peculiar who, along with his sister Hettie, makes the best of their self-enforced home arrest in the faery slums of the rebuilt Bath. Bachmann details this setting down to the grime in a character's fingernails and the flecks of mud on the hem of another character's plum-colored, velvet skirts. The shabby garret that they live in with their dotingly cautious mother is depicted in sharp contrast to the London home of the other main character in this novel, Arthur Jelliby. Jelliby, a very nice young man, is a member of Parliament "not because he was particularly clever or good at anything, but because his mother was a Hessian princess very well connected and had gotten him the position while playing croquet with the Duke of Norfolk." Jelliby is not ambitious in the least and would rather be "spending long afternoons at his club in Mayfair, buying chocolates for his pretty wife or simply sleeping until noon." However, an urgent summons to a Privy Council in the Houses of Parliament and a collision with another member who was also "running behind the swiftly ticking hands of his timepiece" foreshadows a more ominous connection the two will share as the plot of The Peculiar unfolds. Without giving too much away, I can tell you that Mr John Wednesday Lickerish, "Lord Chancellor and first Sidhe ever appointed to the British government" knows more about the missing peculiars than anyone suspects. Through a series of bad timing and bad luck, Jelliby comes to know more about this than he cares to and finds himself in the position of going to the police, who he is sure will not believe a thing he says, and trying to help the poor unfortunates caught up in this web on his own.

Honestly, though, to best appreciate Bachmann's skill, I need to quote him. Although it's hard to single out any few superlative passages as all the writing in The Peculiar is of the same rich tenor, skill and authentic nature, here are a few that jumped out at me. Of the Sidhe John Lickerish's house, Bachmann writes:

Nonsuch House looked like a ship - a great, stone nightmarish ship, run aground in the mire of London at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge. It's jagged roofs were the sails, its lichened chimneys the masts, and the smoke that curled up from their mouths looked like so many tattered flags, sliding in the wind. Hundreds of small gray windows speckled its walls. A pitted door faced the street. Below, the river swirled, feeding clumps of moss that climbed its foundations and turning the stone black with slime.

Of the clockwork creatures that are in vogue in London, he writes:

But he had seen them often while promenading: automatons shaped like dogs, like crows and spiders and even people, staring with beady eyes from the windows of fine mechanical-alchemist's shops on Jermyn Street. Clockwork horses were the newest craze. They were hideous and loud, shot steam from every joint , and looked rather more like rhinoceroses than horses, but the king of France owned a stableful, and the Queen of England, not to be outdone, had purchased a fieldful, and soon ever duke and minor noble owned at least one mechanically drawn coach.

Of Mr Zerubbabel, the mechanalchemist, he describes his shop as such:

The room beyond was dark, low-ceilinged, and cramped, its actual shape difficult to make out for all the shelves and stacks of machinery towering throughout it. The metal skeltons of half-built automata sat slouched on crates, staring at nothing with dead eyes. Wires crisscrossed the ceiling, and on them, wheeling to and fro with soft creaking noises, were dozens of little tin men on monocycles, carrying in their hands screwdrivers and hammers and spouted cans of glistening oil.

These are but a few examples of the splendor and wonder that exists between the covers of The Peculiar.

Oh yeah, and the most amazing thing about this book and it's author? Stephan Bachmann was only sixteen when he started writing it! He's eighteen now and, while he was born in Colorado, he lives in Zurich with his family. As he says of himself, 

I have four siblings, and play five instruments. I live in a hundred-year-old house in Switzerland. I was homeschooled, which I assume explains everything. I was also stung by a jellyfish once, which might explain a few things, too. I won't be twenty for a while yet. I would really like to be a film composer and write wildly exciting music. I like movies, books, traveling, and chocolate. If I met you, I would probably like you, too.

Source: Purchased audio book, review copy of hardcover book.

Readers who enjoyed The Peculiar should definitely check out Marie Rutkowski's KRONOS CHRONICLES that being with The Cabinet of Wonders
Rutkowski's world building is as entrancing, if not as densely Dickensian, as Bachmann's and her story is a bit less dark.