Theseus and the Minotaur by Yvan Pommaux, 49 pp, RL: 3

Theseus and the Minotaur is a new book by beloved French author Yvan Pommaux, known for his detailed research and illustration style, who has won many prestigious awards and had three schools named after him! Theseus and the Minotaur is also a new title from TOON Graphics, a new line of graphic novels for kids reading at 3rd grade level and above created by the amazing François Mouly and the fantastic people at TOON Books who are dedicated to giving emergent, and now developing, readers quality, high interest books.

Pommaux's story is packed with characters and plot, action and oddities, as Greek myths are. And, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur has roots in history. The story begins with a modern ship at sea in the dark of night where a grandfatherly type says he is going to give his audience, a boy and a girl, the story they asked for. After births, bulls, battles and betrayals, Theseus defeats the Minotaur and returns home to more sadness. The story returns to the ship at sea, now clearly in the Aegean Sea, and the storyteller, who tells listeners that Theseus's first act as king was to name the sea where his father, Aegeus, died, after him. Next, Theseus decided to value wisdom and humility over bravery and courage and he stepped down from the royal throne, instead establishing a form of government of the people now known as democracy.

Pommaux's story is dense and complex at times, but he includes pronunciation guides for names and places and breaks the text up with the illustrations in ways that make it easier to follow and keep track of the various characters and places. And, as with all books in the TOON Graphics series, there is a the superb "Visual Glossary" and an index along with the tips for parents, teachers and librarians at the end of the book give context for the story and interesting, valuable information and insights that enrich the reader's experience. 

Source: Review Copy


Cast Away on the Letter A : A Philemon Adventure by Fred, translated by Richard Kutner, RL: 3

Cast Away on the Letter A by Fred, the pseudonym of Frédéric Aristidès, creator of one of the most famous graphic novel series in France (did you know that the French have long been huge graphic novel fans?) was originally published in 1972. This is the first time it has been translated in English, thanks to the amazing François Mouly and the fantastic people at TOON Books who are dedicated to giving emergent readers quality, high interest books. Last year,  TOON Graphics, a line of graphic novels for kids reading at 3rd grade level and above, was launched and Cast Away on the Letter A is one of the featured titles!

 When we meet Philemon on the first pages of Cast Away on the Letter A, we learn that he is an imaginative teenager who lived on a farm in France back in the 1960s along with Anatole, Phil's trusty friend who is also a donkey, and his grouchy father, Hector. One thing that I LOVE about TOON Books is the love and appreciation that Mouly and her staff have for the graphic novel and how much they want readers to share in this passion. Because Cast Away on the Letter A was written in 1972 it looks different from the graphic novels and illustrations in children's books today and the story moves at a slightly different pace. The "Meet Philemon" introduction and the SUPERB "Visual Glossary and Index," along with the tips for parents, teachers and librarians at the end of the book give context for the story and interesting, valuable information and insights that enrich the reader's experience. 

When the pump on the farm breaks, Hector sends Philemon to the well for water, where he discovers a message in a bottle that reads, "Help! Don't abandon me." Despite Anatole's protests, the goodhearted Philemon decides he has to go down in the well to investigate further. This is when he ends up in another world altogether, a cast away on an island where he meets Bartholomew, the sender of the message in the bottle. Phil discovers that Bartholomew is the well digger of legend from his village who disappeared forty years ago while digging a well. As Philemon tries to acclimate to the strange ways of the island, and Bartholomew, he soon discovers what he is on and where, exactly he is. Phil is a cast away on the letter "A" that spells out the word "Atlantic" on the map! Happily, Philemon finds a way home. Even more happily, his next adventure, The Wild Piano, will be published next year!



Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Hansel & Gretel, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Lorenzo Mattiotti is the newest release from TOON Graphics, a line of graphic novels for kids reading at 3rd grade level and above, launched by the superb François Mouly and the fantastic people at TOON Books. What Gaiman and Mattotti do with a very familiar fairy tale in their rendition is amazing, both for the spare starkness of the text and illustrations and the powerful darkness that enfolds the story. Mattiotti's illustrations are all two page spreads and were inspired by the Metropolitan Opera's production of Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel. The thick, darkly dense images, which are actually done with an ink that contains five different colors, are full of movement and foreboding and perfectly suited to Gaiman's text. and  Gaiman begins this story with the words that show why he is a master story teller, gifted at establishing suspense and anticipation with a matter of sentences, "This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother's time, or in her grandfather's. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest."

Gaiman brings a larger sense of humanity to his retelling, beginning the story with descriptions of the woodcutter and his family in times of prosperity. And, while times are good, Gaiman makes note of that which is easy to overlook. He writes, "And if their mother was sometimes bitter and sharp-tongued, and if their father was sometimes sullen and eager to be away from their little home, why, Gretel and Hansel thought nothing of it, as long as they could play in the forest and climb trees and ford rivers; as long as there was freshly baked bread and eggs and cooked cabbage on their table." 

These contented times come to an end when war, with its soldiers who are "hungry, angry, bored, scared men," and ensuing famine arrive. The fairy tale plays out in the familiar way, with the children's mother trying to convince the father that they should abandon the children in the woods, ("Lose them, not kill them," she clarifies) and with somewhat sound reason. After all, if the woodcutter is too weak from hunger to cut wood, all their chances are doomed. Why not better the odds by going from four mouths to feed to two?

And, while I am sure that children for centuries have loved the witch getting pushed into the oven by Gretel, the witch's gingerbread house is without a doubt the true draw for this story. I know that every time I encounter a new (to me) version of Hansel and Gretel I flip to the center of the book to see just how glorious (or disappointing) the gingerbread house is. However, hunger and starvation and triumph and salvation are the clear, true themes of Gaiman's retelling and he does a fine job of moving quickly past the pancake shingles and spun sugar windowpanes to the heart of this fairy tale and, eventually, the joyous ending. In this version of Hansel & Gretel, not only do the children return home with bags of treasure to find their grateful father waiting to embrace them, Gaiman provides readers a glimpse into the futures of the siblings in which they marry, and marry well. Their is so much good food at their weddings that "belts burst and the fat from the meat ran down" chins while the "pale moon looked down kindly on them all."

As with all TOON Graphics, their is historical and contextual content at the end. For Hansel & Gretel, the origins of the tale - I had no idea that the decision of the Grimm brothers to collect local fairy tales was a way to defy the cultural domination of Napoleon and his army after they invaded their small German kingdom. The changing face of the mother in the fairy tale is also addressed and a brief but excellent bibliography will hopefully inspire more readings of these tales in their truest forms.

Source: Review Copy


Explorer: The Hidden Doors, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, 128 pp, RL: 3

The Explorer series, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, just keeps getting better. Mystery boxes then lost islands provided the themes of the graphic shorts in he first two books. Now, with hidden doors setting the theme for the third book in the series, imaginations soar even higher, if possible. As always, Kibuishi kicks off the book with a short of his own. "Asteria Crane" will remind you of his superb Amulet series of graphic novels - the long awaited sixth book came out this summer - but it is so much more. 

Jason Caffoe, contributor to Explorer: The Mystery Boxes and Explorer: The Lost Islands, delivers an excellent story reminiscent of a Miyazaki movie with "The Giant's Kitchen" in which Briar, a young magician unsure of her abilities stumbles through a hidden door and into a hectic kitchen where she comes into her own.

Another favorite of mine, Jen Wang, tells a very sweet story with "Luis 2.0." Feeling like an outsider, Luis discovers a mysterious door in the woods that changes him into the guy he thinks he wants to be. When he finally talks to the girl he likes, he discovers something about the door that changes his mind.

Faith Erin Hicks, creator of the fantastic YA graphic novels Friends with Boys and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong shares the story "Two-Person Door," with color by Noreen Rana. Wishing you were something you aren't, or somewhere you aren't, are themes of several of the stories in The Hidden Doors, and Hicks's story is stayed with me the longest.

Actually, all the stories in Explorer: The Hidden Doors will have you turning them over long after you finish reading. I am so grateful to Kazu Kibuishi, the talented graphic novelists he invites to contribute to this series and especially Abrams for publishing these great works! I hope this series continues long into the future.


Benny and Penny in Lost and Found! by Geoffrey Hayes, RL: 1.5

Benny and Penny in LOST and FOUND! is the fifth book in this wonderful series of leveled reader graphic novels from Geoffrey Hayes and the amazing people at TOON Books. Hayes's soft, colored pencil illustrations and his big-eyed bickering siblings charmed me from the start. There is something richly old-fashioned and even, if I may say, Beatrix-Potter-esque about the flora and fauna Hayes brings to life. And, while Hayes's illustrations are enough to keep me coming back again and again, the accurate and gentle portrayals of pre-schooler aged characters and their quickly changing, powerful emotions is precise enough to make this series one that should be in every child's home for decades to come.

In Benny and Penny in LOST and FOUND!, the day is off to an early - and bad - start for Benny, who is fuming over the loss of his favorite thing - his pirate hat. Mommy has sent him outside until his good mood returns and, when Penny finds him there, she offers to help Benny find his hat. The two traipse around the garden in the slightly spooky fog, their moods rising and falling as they are distracted by jump ropes, annoyed by cheerfulness, scared by a lizard and reduced to tears. Finally, though, Benny decides to be the master of his own fate, assuring Penny that he will lead them home to Mommy because, "If I'm in a good mood, then I'll be a good leader."

What I especially love is Hayes's knowledge of mothers, on display in Benny and Penny in LOST and FOUND! at the ending of the book as Benny and Penny triumphantly - and happily - return home to see his hat waiting for him on the stoop. Mommy found the lost hat in the closet. . .

The Benny and Penny books:

Source: Review Copy


Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! by Artie Bennett, illustrated by Pranas T. Naujokaitis

Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! by Artie Bennett and illustrated by Pranas T. Naujokaitis is a fantastic way to get kids interested in science and biology and nonfiction in general. Both the subject matter and the illustrations in Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! are funny and fun, with Bennett's rhyming couplets adding to this seriously silly look at something we all do everyday.

The first section of the book covering belches and burps moves by pretty quickly, although I was fascinated to learn that you cannot burp while on your back and that farts decrease when burps increase. But I do wonder if that works in reverse. . .

Farts, interestingly, are something that all living creatures, save those pictured above, produce. Another fascinating fact I learned in Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! - one of the smallest creatures (I won't say which) out farts cows! Also, snakes fart to ward of prey and fish communicate with their bubble producing farts!

The fun fart facts continue throughout Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! In fact, Belches, Burps, and Farts - Oh My! strikes me as the perfect book for the cool (single) uncle or auntie to give as a gift. It's sure to keep kids reading and laughing (and making fart noises) and adults groaning!

Source: Review Copy


Through the Woods: Stories by Emily Carroll, 208pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE

Sadly, I am reviewing Through the Woods, stories by Emily Carroll a month too late. I bought this book back in July and Adam Gidwitz's  review in the New York Times (in which he reminds us that children like to be scared) should have been another nudge to me. But, creepy ghost stories, especially the graphic novel kind, are good all year round and not just in October, right? With my students clamoring for scary stories, I spent most of October trying to find something good to read to them and failed. The kids and I agreed (despite repeated check outs of these books) that Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy - the first of which I read as a kid - just isn't that scary, although Stephen Gammell's illustrations are timelessly chilling. I ended up playing some audio short stories (Neil Gaiman's Click-Clack the Rattlebag and R.L. Stine's Can You Keep a Secret) that were mostly satisfying. However, I have no doubt that Carroll's Through the Woods would have fit the bill perfectly - for the older kids.

While her fantastic illustrations have some truly hair-raising, almost-grisly moments, it is the themes of Carroll's stories that make them appropriate for older readers. I let my ten-year-old son (and fan of Gidwitz's A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy) read Through the Woods. While he read the graphic novel avidly, he wasn't phased by the disturbing and frightening nature of the stories and I know this is because he couldn't comprehend the gravity of the themes. As Gidwitz says in his review, "Carroll knows how to capture uncomfortable emotions - guilt, regret, possessiveness, envy - and transform them into hair-raising narativess." For me, it is this combination of the (more mature) emotional experiences and their accompanying psychic reverberations that gets my heart beating and goosebumps rising.

Carroll is a wonderful storyteller, leaving just the right amount of things unsaid and unseen. Her illustrations are haunting and beautiful and wonderfully creepy. The stories are set in various time periods and the clothing of the characters grounds each story perfectly, the one constant of the woods a thread running through every tale. As one character says in the story, "His Face All Red," most strange things come from the woods. To give you a taste of Through the Woods, I'll share a bit from the five stories, the introduction and the conclusion.

In "A Lady's Hands Are Cold,"  which Gidwitz notes is a retelling of Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard," a new bride is treated to a lavish but lonely life by her new husband and slowly driven mad by a sorrowful singing coming from the walls around her.

When the young bride finally takes matters into her own hands, she lives (or does she?) to regret it. . .

"My Friend Janna" calls to mind a ghost story Jane Austen might have written. Seemingly harmless fun is had by two girls who trick their neighbors into believing that Janna can talk to the dead.

The story takes a chilling turn when Yvonne reveals that she can, in fact see at least one ghost, and this ghost is haunting Janna. As Yvonne struggles with guilt over the lies told to neighbors and what to do for Janna, Janna loses her mind, the ghost consuming her.

The conclusion to Through the Woods is a retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood," or, more accurately the suggestion of "Little Red Riding Hood," that is far more frightening than the original for what it implies, rather than what actually happens. And, I especially love the visual reference to the childhood bedtime classic, Goodnight Moon, in the colors of the girl's bedroom. This concluding story is also the perfect ending to Through the Woods because it exemplifies what Carroll shows us over and over throughout the book - a really good ghost story is as much about what it implies as what it tells.

Source: Purchased


Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raúl the Third, RL: 3

Lowriders is Space is the first installment in what I hope will be a long graphic novel series written by Cathy Camper, author, artist and librarian and illustrated by Raúl the Third. Like no graphic novel I have seen before and arriving with a raft of celebrity blurbs from the likes of Jon Scieszcka, Megan McDonald and Amy Sedaris, Lowriders is Space is about three talented friends and their dream of owning their own garage. And, to make things even more interesting, these friends are an octopus named El Chavo Flapjack with a talent for car washing, a mosquito named Elirio Malaria, a gifted detail artist who, despite his name, does not carry the disease ("Don't be scared eses! Only lady mosquitos bite vatos for food!" he yells at potential - fleeing - friends) and Lupe Impala. Lupe is the leader of the pack, crack mechanic and I'm pretty sure she is also an actual impala.

When they decide to enter the Universal Car Competition where the "Most Mechanically Inventive, Exquisitely Detailed Cosmic Car" wins a "carload of cash and a solid gold steering wheel." Out of money and in search of parts to pep up their car, Lupe, Elirio and Flappy head out to the old airplane factory where they find some very special parts - rocket parts.

I think you can guess what happens when, after hours and hours of work the crew takes their car for a test drive. Once in outer space, amazing things happen and the car becomes one with the galaxy, so to speak. The final page of the graphic novel, which comes after author and illustrator's notes and a glossary defining all the Spanish words used in the story,  which are also defined on the pages where they appear, sets up an adventure for the next book!

Source: Review Copy