1.30.2015

Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockliff, pictures by Vincent x. Kirsch


Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch is a fantastic new non-fiction picture book that is sure to appeal to kids.

As always with the best narrative non-fiction, I am impressed by the author's ability to take an aspect of history or science and make it palatable and comprehensible for young listeners. As someone who has never enjoyed reading non-fiction, I feel comfortable assuming that I am as difficult to engage as your average eight-year-old. And I am not ashamed to admit that the word "gingerbread" in the title of Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution is exactly what made me pick it up. Happily, Rockliff does  a fine job telling the story of Christopher Ludwick and his heroic acts of patriotism. And, as often happens when I read a book of this nature, I find myself even more deeply affected by the Author's Note than the book itself, I guess because I'm an adult.


Known only as "the baker" throughout Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution, the story of Christopher Ludwick begins in Philadelphia where he is a cheerful baker with an "honest face" and a "booming laugh." Kirsch's magnificent illustrations perfectly bring to life this wonderful, generous man and his story who can be heard bellowing, "No empty bellies here! Not in my America!" as he hands out broken pieces of gingerbread to hungry children.


When the baker learns that his new country is going to war, he heads off to join General Washington even though he is old and fat. He was once a soldier in Germany, where he was born. Soon the baker is feeding the soldiers and the enemy, converting the armies hired by the King of England with his cry of, "No empty bellies here. Not in my America!"  












The Author's Notes for Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution reveals so much more about the baker, German emigrant Christopher Ludwick. Returning home after the war, Ludwick was blind in one eye (a barrel of flour had fallen on his head during the war) and almost penniless, his house having been ransacked by the British armies. However, he rebuilt his bakery and continued to feed the city and the poor and hungry. Ludwick even stayed in Philadelphia in 1798 during the yellow fever outbreak, feeding the sick. Most moving of all, Ludwick paid for the education of at least fifty children and left his money to pay for the free schooling of poor children. Today, some 200 years later, the Christopher Ludwick Foundation gives about $200,000 a year to programs that help educate needy children in Philadelphia. 

Not only is Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution a superb addition to the non-fiction shelves, but it is a magnificent example of character and bravery.

Source: Review Copy

1.28.2015

Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups by Stephanie Clarkson & Brigette Barrager


Rare is the princess picture book that I find worth reviewing here. In fact, I even find the "anti-princess" picture books not worth mentioning. However, I LOVE fairy tales and I couldn't resist  reading Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups by Stephanie Clarkson, with illustrations by Brigette Barrager. Clarkson takes four well known fairy tale princesses and imagines them fed up with their lot and ready to move on and out into the world. She tells their stories in verse, a form I am (probably overly) critical of. I would rather read solid prose than clunky verse that has me pausing and pondering, slowing me down as I am reading out loud. However, Barrager has a winning illustration style (which is a bit toned down in Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups) that deserves, along with her other works, attention.


A "Once upon a time" intro tells us that there were four "fairy tale misses" who were so tired of "dwarves, witches, princes and kisses" that they "upped and left home for a fairy tale swap." While I may be overly critical of the rhyming, Clarkson does do a fantastic job linking up the fairy tales, the heroines and their discontents in Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups. Of course Snow White (adorably perky in her red cardigan) would be thrilled to swap with Rapunzel - who wouldn't choose a room of one's own over a  a tiny cottage filled with sloppy, smelly dwarves?

 Rapunzel, desperate to see the world gladly takes the glass slippers and pumpkin coach from a weary Cinderella. And, tired of balls, boys and dancing, Cinderella (who trips and accidentally kisses Sleeping Beauty on the cheek in doing so) gladly slips into Beauty's cozy, warm bed. Without much explanation, the story reverses itself, with Sleeping Beauty heading back to her castle and so on. Each character finds her way back to her proper home and a way to solver her problems. Cinderella even goes to college where she meets a "regular guy - less well off but well read."

Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-Ups is not really a girl power retelling of the fairy tales, but it is fun for anyone (young or old) who loves these familiar fairy tales. Don't over think it, just go with it!

Other books & games by Brigette Barrager:









The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the Princess Matching Game and the Princess ABC are all published by Chronicle Books


And, in August of 2014 Uni the Unicorn, written by the fantastic Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Brigette Barrager was published. Interestingly enough, Uni the Unicorn was published right around the same time as Dan Santat's utterly charming The Adventures of Beekle the Unimaginary Friend. Both books take the perspective of the imaginary creature/friend, both of which are desperate for a kid-sized-soulmate. The illustration styles are markedly different, but equally lush and colorful. For some reason, even though I adored it, I never got around to reviewing The Adventures of Beekle the Unimaginary Friend. However you can read a great review (that also features a really great, easy craft that kids WILL love) at This Picture Book Life by clicking HERE.









Source: Review Copy

1.26.2015

The Messy Monster Book by Rachel Ortas


The Messy Monster Book by Rachel Ortas had me with the title alone. Even better, I discovered that Ortas is the co-creator and Creative Director of OKIDO, a very cool art and science magazine for kids. Follow the link above and you can see a sample of the bi-monthly, which is packed with activities (experiments, songs, recipes and crafts using cutouts from the magazine and found items) and stories for creative kids and parents and, of course, Ortas's fantastic illustration style and mascot Messy Monster, who you can see in super cute animated form in a video at the end of this review.

The Messy Monster Book is interactive, with pages to color and even cut out, but it is also a story with a narrative. Messy Monster and (human) friends Zoe and Felix invite readers to use their imagination and jump right into the book by adding a self-portriat to the page, as seen below.


Platoo, Doodle Cat and Cutty Cat guide readers through the book with Platoo, who says, "Together we are going to think about things ... lots of things," poses thoughtful questions, wondering if it is lying to tell imaginary stories and noting that sometimes something that looks ugly to one person looks beautiful to someone else.

Messy Monster, Zoe and Felix take a swim to Kiri Kiri Island where they learn that the inhabitants can't dream anymore - they only have nightmares. And now they are exhausted. To this, Platoo says, "We are all scared of something. Sometimes being scared is a good thing because it protect us from danger. But sometimes we are scared of things that can't even hurt us. We are just scared of being scared!" Like the illustrations in The Messy Monster Book, the story is a curious mix of playful oddness, retro-cute,  surprising thoughtfulness.

Messy and his mates travel to the planet of the Dreaming Mountains where readers have the opportunity to draw their nightmares and their dreams and shadows chase away the muse and the musical cat falls asleep and the children run wild. There is a baobab tree as well. 
But everything is right in the end and it's a lot of fun getting there. The Messy Monster Book is the kind of book that makes a perfect gift, it's so out of the ordinary. Now I just need to get my hands on a copy of OKIDO!




Source: Review Copy

1.23.2015

Animalium curated by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, 112 pp, RL: 2


Animalium, curated by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, is the newest, biggest book from the fantastic Big Picture Press and is the first in their "Welcome to the Museum" series of books. It has also made many "best of 2014" book lists. There are hundreds of books about animals out there for kids, but Animalium is set apart - and far above  -from the rest because of the museum concept employed in this book. Honestly, regardless of the concept and text, Animalium is a book that you/kids will find yourselves poring over again and again. Eventually you will get around to reading the words . . .


Animalium begins with a preface from Dr. Sandra Knapp of the Natural History Museum in London, and moves on to the "Entrance." Here we learn that each chapter of Animalium "represents a different gallery of the museum, focusing on one class of animal" with the classes arranged in "evolutionary order to show how the animal kingdom has developed over time. See for yourself how the tree of life evolved from the simple sea sponge into the diverse array of animals found on Earth today."




The illustration style looks like old engravings and lithographs but are actually pen and ink drawings that have been digitally colored. Animals are presented as above, with a paragraph of general information then keys to the plates and labels that add to the details, providing the Latin names and size. Animals are shown in their habitats museum style, under bell jars, which often makes you look at them and think about them in a new way. 



Endpapers and chapter dividers add to the museum feel as well as the idea of passing from gallery to gallery with the animals drawn in white on dark backgrounds. Of course, there is an index, followed by a short but solid list of resources for where readers can learn more about the animals seen in the museum and information on the "curators," both London based artists. Animalium wowed me from the start, but repeated readings, especially while writing this review, reminded me of just how unique and completely absorbing this amazing book truly is. Animalium is the kind of book that is perfect for almost any gift giving occasion - it will engage kids the minute they open the cover and impress parents, who will most likely end up poring over it as well.

The illustrations are so amazing, I just had to include a few more here along with photos of window displays Katie Scott created for the book at Waterstone's and the Natural History Museum in London!







Source: Review Copy



1.21.2015

Blown Away by Rob Biddulph


I fell in love with Blown Away, the debut picture book by Rob Biddulph after only a few page turns. First of all, Biddulph, the award-winning art director for the Observer magazine, has written a rhyming picture book that I actually like! His text is haiku like at times, short bursts of well chosen words. It never feels forced, as so many rhyming stories do, and its simplicity suits the somewhat stoic faces of Biddulph's utterly charming characters. The comparisons with Oliver Jeffers's illustration style are unavoidable, especially with the presence of solemn penguins. However, Biddulph makes the style his own, incorporating a bit of collage along with the texture of a canvas into his marvelously detailed illustrations. Sadly, I could find only two interior images, along with a few adapted illustrations, to share with you here.

Blown Away begins in the Antarctic with Penguin Blue and his new kite. It's a very windy day and soon Penguin Blue is being pulled high into the air with all his friends trying to rescue him. Penguin friends Jeff and Flo find themselves hanging on for the ride, while Wilbur the seal and his clothesline get swept away as well. Finally, Clive, the polar bear who is out fishing on his inflatable raft, is caught up in the adventure when his fishing pole catches on Wilbur's clothesline.


The crew is carried far out to sea. A lovely bit of Biddulph's rhymes read, "They swoop, they soar . . . in rain and shine . . . They zoom straight through . . . clouds one to nine." Seeing a tiny island below that is "lush and green (a color they've never seen)," the animals let go. Once on the island, they find the inhabitants friendly, but the climate, despite the ice cream truck, is too hot.


With some clever crafting and the help of an elephant with big lungs, the friends are headed back to the Antarctic, with a stowaway on board who makes for one of those wordless, final page turn surprises that I LOVE in a good picture book. As many reviews have noted before me, Blown Away is a gem of a picture book, perfectly crafted and a joy to read.

A few extra images related to Blown Away:






Source: Review Copy

1.19.2015

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford, illustrated by Kelly Murphy, 203 pp, RL 4


**This book really got my wheels spinning and I found that I had a lot to say about it before even getting to the plot. Skip to the third paragraph if that is what you came for...**

Despite my love of girl detectives and historical England, I have to admit that I felt a bit more skeptical than excited when The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone arrived at my door, even if it is perfectly illustrated by a favorite of mine, Kelly Murphy. For the most part, my skepticism came from a college infatuation with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley and George Gordon Byron that peaked with the viewing of a Ken Russell movie titled Gothic. In the movie, which takes place at Byron's villa in Switzerland, Mary, Shelley, Byron, Mary's half-sister Claire Clairemont and Dr. Polidori spend a stormy evening indoors telling ghost stories. From these stories, Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein, the first work science fiction, and Polidori The Vampyre. Based on true events, Russell's movie is no Masterpiece Theater period piece, leaning more toward horror. I realize that the movie is fictionalized, but Shelley and Byron and even Mary Shelley seem a bit too notorious, scandalous and all-around adult to be turned into characters in a middle grade novel, thus my skepticism. However, author Jordan Stratford takes even more liberties with history than Russell, changing the ages and even dates of death for characters (as well as throwing in a young Charles Dickens for good measure, who was actually fourteen in 1826 when the story begins) in The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone so that he can get certain people in the room together. While this makes me want to grind my teeth a little, I decided to loosen my rigid ideas about historical fiction and alternative historical fiction and approach Stratford's (very, very creative, I have to admit) liberty taking as I would an episode of Dr. Who: time will bend, facts are flexible and, most of all, don't over think it. 


And I won't over think it, especially since Stratford begins The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone with an appropriately brief (kid's just might actually read this, and if they don't, make them) preface that explains precisely WHY he wanted to toy with time. Stratford writes, "This is a made-up story about two very real girls: Ada Byron, who has been called the world's first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world's first science-fiction author." While the real Ada Byron and Mary Shelley were eighteen years apart in age, Stratford makes them eleven and fourteen, respectively, for his story. Most happily, there are notes at the end of the novel (which I read BEFORE starting the book to better understand why Stratford made the choices he did) that "reveal more about what happened to each of them in real life" and are written in a way that is especially comprehensible for young readers. Stratford sets the stage by noting the amazing inventions that were changing the world at a fast pace, from the electric battery to the electric arc light to the steam engine. Next, he explains that, in 1826 when the story begins, the lives of women, especially girls, were "extremely limited and under constant watch." Yet, upper-class girls, who were not expected to have a career or compete with men, were "free to read or study as they wished, for few took them seriously. Because of this rare freedom, the nineteenth century saw a sharp surge in the intellectual contributions of female scientists and mathematicians." In this crucible of scientific exploration and creative expansion and strict social codes, it is no wonder that  upper class girls and women found the unexpected room to apply their overlooked intellects.

With this in mind, The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone does an admirable job of capturing and presenting these aspects in a way that will appeal to young readers and possibly even inspire them to look further into these historical figures and this period of history. Stratford gets everyone into the same room, and adults largely out of the picture, which is essential in a story of this nature, in this way: Now eleven, Ada Byron, daughter of Anne Isabella Byron (the 11th Baroness Wentworth and Baroness Byron) and Lord Byron, has reached the age at which a tutor rather than a governess is called for. The baroness refers to Lord Byron as, "mad, bad and dangerous to know," and finds Ada to be too much like him, thus choosing to spend as much time away from her as possible while also keeping any friends and relations of Byron away form her as well. Because of this, a young Percy Bysshe Shelley, who promised the dying Lord Byron he would look after Ada, arrives at Byron House as Ada's tutor, but going by the name Percy B. Snagsby and renamed Peebs (P.B.S.) by Ada. Mary Godwin arrives at Byron House to be tutored alongside Ada as the preferable option over going to school, which her cousins have assured her is horrid. That's the most explanation I could find in the book for getting Mary and Ada together, although it is a historical fact that Shelley, who came from wealth, was a benefactor of the often penniless William Godwin. 

Once met, Mary and Ada are, for the most part, Watson and Holmes (the Gatiss and Moffatt BBC version) with Mary providing wisdom, empathy and human connection and Ada, who is short on social skills, bringing the scientific brains. In fact, when they first meet, Ada, wearing her favorite, filthy cherry red velvet dress, is collecting horse droppings to gather the potassium nitrate from is and create a cannon that will launch socks after a sojourn in the hot air balloon she constructed and keeps aloft by funneling hot air from the houses many chimneys into it. Stratford does a fine job detailing the character of Ada, who is seen having a tearful fit after her beloved dress is washed and no longer smells the same. When Ada, a compulsive reader, discovers a newspaper that Peebs has brought along, a whole new world is opened up to her. She is amazed that there are criminals who aren't clever and are being caught and sent to prison, then written about in the paper. Ada reasons that, if "clever criminals can make choices to become criminal and remain clever enough not to go to prison" then she should be able to decide to be the constabulary and catch them? After all, Mary told her that her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote that girls should be able to do anything boys can do. From this, the girls work out a way to have a detective agency in which their identities remain as secret as possible. With the help of Charles Dickens, they advertise in the Times and soon have many letters with cases to choose from. The case they settle on is one of a stollen moonstone, and in his notes Stratford acknowledges this nod to Wilkie Collins and his mystery, written in 1868, The Moonstone. Mesmerism, a stolen national treasure, an interrogation in the guise of an anachronistic "school project," a trip to Newgate Prison and a chase that takes place on an omnibus, hot air balloon and boat make up the mystery and the action that follows. The novel ends with the surprise, simultaneous announcements that Ada and Mary will soon be joined by their step and half sisters, Allegra and Jane. And, while I think that the addition of these girls to the story will open up many exciting new plot aspects, I can't help put aside what I know about the real Allegra and Claire Clairemont (the name Jane, who herself gave birth to a child by Byron, was later known by.) 


Beyond the fictionalization of historical figures, there are places where the plot wears thin - it is extremely difficult to write a solid middle grade mystery, after all. However, I was able to overlook all of this - although I have to admit I could not stop over thinking and spent hours reading about the lives of Mary Shelley, Percy, Byron, Allegra, Claire Clairemont and Ada Lovelace - because Stratford is a wonderful writer. So many passages in my book are marked with moments of lovely writing, especially when the narrator is detailing an emotional experience being had by Ada or Mary, more than I can share, but here are a few:

Ada had loved number games and puzzles. She fixed things that were broken, and then began fixing things that weren't broken or broke things so they could be fixed in ways no one else understood or found particularly convenient. But the one puzzle she couldn't solve was people. To Ada, they all seemed to be broken in ways she couldn't make sense of, and couldn't fix.

Ada felt as though her entire body had been scooped out and filled with tigers, pacing in cages made of her hands and ribs and head. 

"But this is science," asserted Ada. "Wondering, guessing, trying, looking at things, sorting variables, guessing again. That's how we did it. Science."

Ada thought it must be a useful kind of cleverness to notice how people notice things. She could tell Mary was clever in this particular way, and made a note to herself to notice mary noticing other people notice things. 

For Stratford, inspiring girls and sparking their interest in science is the main goal for the historical mash-up he has created in The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone, and when you think about it, pairing the world's first computer programmer with the world's first science fiction author (Stratford claims that Ada and Mary gave us the iPad and Star Wars) solving the literary world's first mystery is pretty cool. The best part is that young readers will be able to read and enjoy this first in a new series - The Case of the Girl in Grey comes out in August of this year - without the burden and hang-ups that come with prior knowledge of the characters. For me, despite how much I enjoyed The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency: The Case of the Missing Moonstone, I can't help wonder if the story and characters might have been better served in a YA novel - especially considering the complex lives that these characters had as adults. It would be interesting to see the seeds of this sprouting in their young selves. See below for other authors doing similar things with historical and literary figures from this time period. . .

Interestingly, Stratford, who worked in advertising and as a screen writer, originally crowd sourced this book, hoping to self-publish. Hoping to raise $4,000, he raised $91,000 in a month and picked up an agent and a book deal. You can hear an interview with Stratford talking about his book, the Kickstarter campaign and more here.




More middle grade novels set in Edwardian, Regency and Victorian eras, including my favorite, 
ENOLA HOLMES:





Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer
By far, the best, most historically accurate writing of the group. Enola is a miraculous character and the mysteries Springer writes for her are truly that.




Kat, Incorrigible trilogy by Stephanie Burgis


The Clockwork Scarab and The Spiritglass Charade by Coleen Gleason. Click on the title for the New York Times Review.

Source: Review Copy