Showing posts from August, 2009

The Cay by Theodore Taylor, 137 pp, RL 4

On the back of the jacket for the edition of Theodore Taylor'sThe Cay there is a quote from the review in Booklist that reads, " - eloquently underscores the intrinsic brotherhood of man." Racism and race relations, examined through the prism of children's literature are often very personal and immediate rather than expansive and historical. The Cay is a story in which racism and race relations are about as immediate and personal as you can imagine. Taylor subtly weaves this theme into a story that, on the surface, about survival.
In February 1942, eleven year old American Phillip Enright is living in the city of Willemstad on the island of Curaçao in the Caribbean. His father works for Royal Dutch Shell, on loan from the American company he worked for due to his expertise in refineries and gasoline. His mother longs to return to the home they left behind in Virginia. When the Germans bomb a refinery on the island she sees this as a sign that it is time to flee.…

The Clever Stick written and illustrated by John Lechner

The Clever Stick is the second picture book from the multitalented author, illustrator and animator, John Lechner, creator of the brilliant comic book for younger kids, Sticky Burr, a review of which can be read here. John Lechner is also Art Director for FableVision, the children's media company founded by the amazing illustrator and author Peter H Reynolds. In addition to writing and illustrating his own books, Lechner, who was a puppeteer for many years, directs films and designs children's software and educational websites for FableVision. Lechner's website for his own books is a treat, full of book related short movies, comic strips and songs (John's brother is a musician and writes the scores for his films). The website for FableVision is equally capitvating, keeping my son and me pretty busy for a while reading books, watching short animated movies and playing games. Definitely worth a visit.

I already knew I loved John Lechner's work after reading Stick…

The Year of the Rat by Grace Lin, 182 pp, RL 3

With The Year of the Rat, we find Pacy Lin, narrator of Grace Lin's wonderful book The Year of the Dog at almost the same place we left her - a celebration of Chinese New Year with her family and friends. The Year of the Pig has ended and two years have passed since we first met Pacy. As the Year of the Rat, a time of new beginnings and change, kicks off Pacy finds herself wishing that nothing would change. She has found her best friend, Melody, and she has discovered her true talents.
As with The Year of the Dog, Lin seamlessly weaves traditional Chinese tales like "The Story of the Twelve Animals of the Chinese New Year or How the Rat Was First," and family stories about parents and grandparents growing up in Taiwan into her the story of Pacy and her family. As Pacy experiences typical American kid situations - she goes on field trips, worries about the talent show and copes with her loneliness and feelings of alienation after her best friend Melody moves to Cal…

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis, 496 pp, RL 5

The Mysterious Benedict Societyby Trenton Lee Stewart, illustrations by Carson Ellis (best known for her cover art for her husband's band The Decemberists and illustrator of Lemony Snicket's picture book, The Composer is Dead) is the wildly popular first book in what is soon to be a trilogy with books two and three being illustrated by Diane Sudyka, another wonderful artist with a style very similar to Ellis'. There is a fabulous website for the book called the The Curiosity Chronicle.

This book begins with Reynard, or Reynie, Muldoon, an orphan who has decided to answer a newspaper add that reads, "ARE YOU A GIFTED CHILD LOOKING FOR SPECIAL OPPORTUNITIES?" At this point, any reader who finds this add intriguing, especially any reader who feels that he or she would also answer this add, will plunge into this hefty book, headlong and happily, I suspect. I know that the eleven-year-old me, a bookworm on the social fringe with notions of specialness, would have g…

Hachiko: A Dog's Story - Two Reviews

I love coincidences that happen in the world of books. A few months ago I noticed a book on the shelves that was based on a true story about a dog. Being a big sap when it comes to animal stories, I filed it under "Books I Should Read and Review Because Kids will Like It Even If They Make Me Cry," and went on with my work. Then, I was delighted to hear from author Pamela S. Turner, who, among her other fabulous non-fiction books for children, has written a picture book based on the same dog. To top it all off, Pamela informed me that the award winning director Lasse Hallstrom has made this story into the movie Hachiko: A Dog Story. Prompted by this confluence, I read Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dogby Pamela S. Turner, pictures by the brilliant illustrator Yan Nascimbene and Hachiko Waits, by Leslea Newman, pictures by Machiyo Kodaira.

Both stories use a fictional character to tell the story of Haciko, the akita dog who was loyal to his death. Hachiko's own …

Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken 192pp RL 4

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken is the first book in her brilliant twelve book series, The Wolves Chronicles. Begun in 1962, the last book in the series, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, was published in 2005, a year after Aiken's death at the age of eighty. With apologies to her readers for writing a rather short book, Aiken said, "better short than unfinished." Her words couldn't be more true. After fantasy, my favorite genre of writing is historical fiction. Amazingly, over the course of the twelve books, The Wolves Chronicles manages to be a delicious blend of the two. Although I read this entire series as an adult, and I am sure that has colored my enthusiasm for it a bit, it has stuck with me for the past 15+ years and remained, in my mind, one of the best written, most imaginatively elegant works for children I have ever read. Before I being my review, a brief history lesson for those of us not familiar with the lineage of the British Monarchy i…

Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken 304pp RL 4

Winner of the 1969 Guardian Award for Children's Fiction - the British equivalent of the Pulitzer - Whispering Mountain another fabulous book by Joan Aiken, and, to my surprise, part of the The Wolves Chronicles, which begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Place. I love it when an author take a minor character from one novel and makes him or her the center of another novel. EL Konigsburg weaves this sort of tapestry with her books Silent to the Bone, The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place and the mysterious edge of the known world. Aiken does the same with Whispering Mountain, Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road, creating side-stories that are as rich an intriguing as the books with Dido Twite, heroine of the Wolves Chronicles, in them. The main character in Whispering Mountain, Owen Hughes, is the son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush (which returns Dido to England in The Cuckoo Tree), who has been sent to live with his crotchety Grandfather in the tiny Welsh village of Pennygaf…

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken 146pp Rl 3

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken follows the adventures of Arabel Jones, who finds a raven in her refrigerator one morning - an indicator of his voracious appetite - and names him Mortimer. Set in almost 100 years ago in Rumbury Borough, a small village outside of London, these stories are rich with silly ideas and crazy adventures - like Mortimer's obsession with machines you can put coins into, which necessitates a trip to the newly renovated tube station that has tons of machines, even one that can blow your nose for you. Mortimer also enjoys answering the phone, shoving things under the doormat and/or the linoleum and "packing spaghetti into jam jars or sponge bags or old yogurt pots."

Aiken is capable of the same playful ridiculousness that is found in most Roald Dahl books (her writing here is enriched by the illustrations of Quentin Blake, illustrator of all Dahl's books) but without the self-centered, cruel adults that often populate Dahl's stories. The…

A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken, pictures by Kevin Hawkes 84 pp RL 2

Short story collections for kids are very rare these days, and, while I haven't read very many in my life, I suspect that Joan Aiken has to be one of the most prolific and excellent writers of short stories for children in the 20th century. A Necklace of Raindropscame about when, in 1968, Aiken was to write stories from a list of 200 words for younger readers in America - much the way Theodore Geisel (Dr Seuss) got started writing what are now known as "easy to read" books for beginning readers. A Necklace of Raindrops also marked the beginning of a fruitful picture book collaboration with the children's book artist Jan Pienkowski.
A Necklace of Raindrops was reissued in 2001 with illustrations byKevin Hawkes, who illustrated the remarkable picture book Weslandia by Paul Fleichsman, as well as all of Eva Ibbotsen's magical novels for children. The eight stories all involve magic of one kind or another, some very much like traditional fairy tales. The title sto…

Joan Aiken: One of the most prolific, amazing authors you may have never heard of

As the one year anniversary of approached, I decided to take a week or two to re-write and re-post some of the first reviews I wrote in August of 2008. I was surprised to find that I had reviewed no less than four of Joan Aiken'sbooks in those first few frenzied weeks. As I sat down to add a bit of polish to the reviews I was THRILLED to find a website devoted to the life and works of Joan Aiken run by her daughter, Lizza Aiken. With this amazing resource at hand, I realized that there was no way I could review any of Joan Aiken's books without first taking some time to talk about her work in general.
Before I delve into her remarkable writings, I have to share the story of my first meeting with Joan Aiken's books. I was always an avid reader and library visitor as a child but somehow never got around to reading Joan Aiken's most famous book, The Wolves of Wiloughby Chase, as a child. When I was in high school my parents moved from a bustling…